How Age of Ascent aims to become the biggest MMO ever

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

Illyriad Games CEO James Niesewand wants to shatter the world record for the largest multiplayer battle in an online game, and he wants to do it in your browser. That means no downloads, installation, or setup. Simply head to a URL and go.

The game he wants to do it with is Age of Ascent, a sci-fi space MMO not unlike EVE Online, but with more real-time control, and, more importantly, no limitation on the amount of players that can inhabit any area of space at any time.  

“Generally I don’t think most people think it’s possible because it’s hard, it really, really is,” he said. “Once we started talking about what we were trying to do most people laughed at us.”

As Niesewand explains it, the nerve it takes to even try comes mostly from not knowing any better. Niesewand, like other members of Illyriad Games, doesn’t come from a game design background. He made his money when Travelocity acquired his company and came to the games industry by way of a “midlife crisis of biblical proportions.”

“I made quite a bit of money and I thought, well, what do I really want to do? It was either buy a red Porsche or start a games company.”

EVE Online currently holds the Guinness World Record for the largest PvP battle, with a total of 4,070 pilots participating in the battle of 6VDT-H. Niesewand thinks Age of Ascent has the technology to break that record and go much further.

Most developers don’t even try to reach those numbers. “Chris Roberts said he hopes that Star Citizen will be able to have as many players in the multiplayer mode as Freelancer. Freelancer is a 15-year-old game. And he hopes to get the same number of players? I mean, what’s wrong with these people, where’s your ambition?”

In one of its tests, Age of Ascent simulated 50,000 players on its system by multiplying a recording of 2000 real players.

Niesewand admits that Age of Ascent’s 3D models don’t look as detailed as EVE Online’s or Star Citizen’s (the entire client is just 3 megabytes), but that is a daunting amount of players to handle in any game.

Traditionally, MMOs use single-node architecture, meaning specific servers are responsible for different parts of the world. When you cross boundaries within the world you’re basically moving to another box.

“What’s wrong with these people, where’s your ambition?” 

“The problem with that is that it’s massively limiting,” Niesewand said. “The only thing you can do to get more people into it is to make the hardware bigger and better, throw more resources at a single node. But it still has a limit for how many people it can look after in a single battle or a single area of space.”

In EVE Online’s case, developer CCP does something called “time dilation,” which slows down the server and protects the node from crashing. When a server reaches capacity, it also shuts the gates, not allowing anyone else in.

Age of Ascent can bypass these limitation because it doesn’t do things like an MMO is supposed to.

“I’m saying this with love, but EVE is an old game. It’s in its eleventh year, its architecture, it’s the old way of doing things,“ Niesewand said.

Rather than use a single-node architecture, Age of Ascent was designed for the cloud from the ground up. Instead of having a single box looking after a single node, it seamlessly expands to other servers and contracts as needed. If more players arrive at an area of space, it spools up another box and partitions the space into two, with each server looking after its own half and communicating with the other to keep the space at large in sync. If more people arrive it partitions it again, and it can partition to look after smaller and smaller areas of space as they become busier and busier.

At this point, it’s too soon to say if Age of Ascent will live up to everything it promises to be—or if what it wants to be is even something we want to play. But Niesewand’s approach raises an interesting question, regardless. As we lay down the foundations for videogames’ future, how much are they hampered by relying on old, perhaps outdated ideas accepted as truth?

Niesewand thinks the prevalence of readymade tools in the industry proves that it does already.

“I’m not down on tools, I think they can be really fantastic, very strong, but they tend to push people into thinking in a certain way.”

He says that the Unreal Engine, for example, might be really good at rendering a slinky going down the stairs—which is great, as long as you want to make a game about a slinky going down the stairs. If you need to do something entirely different, you’re either limited by the tools available, or you create your own. These days, most companies use engines like Unreal, CryEngine, or Unity, while big publishers create their own engines to be used across multiple games.

He thinks the same is true with MMO networking structure: that no one has really sat down and thought about what can be done with an MMO in a distributed computing environment. “Everyone’s still in the old mindset: ‘Oh yeah, we’ll have a west coast server and an east coast server.’ It’s just, you don’t have to do that anymore. You CAN connect the whole world together on the cloud and have everyone talk to their local box. and those local boxes all talk to each other and share all the information. It’s difficult, but it’s doable.”