How Azure helped a five-person indie to rewrite the rules of MMOs

Microsoft Spotlight: MMOs in the cloud

When Illyriad Games set out to build a new MMO technology for its upcoming game, it got used to the sound of laughter.

Age of Ascent demanded that the five-person studio build a platform that allowed vast numbers of users to play together in-browser, across the globe, without downloads, installs or plug-ins. They weren’t looking to invest in a global network of servers, and they wanted to build the game in the JavaScript API WebGL.

Convinced it was possible, the quintet started making contact with cloud computing experts at a number of tech giants.

“We started to look at setting up a very scalable cloud architecture,” confirms Illyriad founder and CEO James Niesewand. “We realised that existing MMO architecture runs on quite dated technology – they’re based on single nodes. The solution to that is to throw more servers at it to support more players. And that’s scalable, but only ever up to a finite point.”

Prompted by research into the banking world’s abilities with data, Niesewand and his colleagues realised there was another way. They were convinced the studio could instead distribute the CPU and bandwidth over multiple servers.

“These things aren’t impossible, just difficult,” reflects Niesewand. “However, everyone we talked to about it laughed at us. They saw a tiny indie of five people that wanted to build an architecture that nobody has ever done before. And then we visited Microsoft, and they immediately took us seriously. It was so different it was quite shocking. They loved the idea, and offered us an architectural design session to look at it properly.”

Age of Ascent itself is what Illyriad plans to build into what it calls an ‘ultra-MMO’; something so vast, it trumps anything seen before, supporting thousands of players simultaneously in-browser.


To start with, as the team fine tunes their architecture and supports a Kickstarter just launched at the time of writing, they have fleshed out a massively multiplayer space dog-fighting component of the game; one that has already seen a peak use of 997 gamers in a single battle – and all playing in-browser.

It’s an impressive hands-on, and Niesewand admits it’s been remarkably hard work. Getting everything running in synchronisation and at the same speed, from physics engines to rendering technology, presented Illyriad with its toughest challenge. Which is where partnering with Microsoft came in useful.

“We look after the front and middle-end, so the visuals, assets, gameplay and so on,” says Niesewand. “We’re also looking after the physics engines and interest management engines, which are critical to the speed of the game. Microsoft stepped in when it came to jointly developing a back-end; a networking backplane for the communications with Azure, which is their brilliant cloud platform.”


Microsoft also provided the former BizSpark members with office space and advice, which Niesewand says has been invaluable. Age of Ascent sends and receives up to 280m messages around the likes of ship movement and bullets fired every second – reportedly the same volume in a minute as Twitter handles in a month – so it’s little surprise that Illyriad has opted to partner with the tech giant.

But Niesewand is quick to point out that they are very much still independent.

“We feel very free,” he asserts. “I like to think we’re doing something like what David Braben did when he made Elite. I might be really flattering myself there, but that is how we feel.”

Niesewand is being modest, but the fact remains that it is the support of Microsoft and the provision of its prolific Azure cloud back-end that has allowed the small team to embrace such a daunting task.

If successful and well-adopted, it could change not just how MMOs are supported, but consumer access to the genre.

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