Internet Trailblazer: James Niesewand – www.illyriad.com
James Niesewand previously had success as Operations Director with an online travel site taken over by Lastminute.com. After a period of consultancy with his old company he decided his next project would combine his internet expertise and love of online gaming. The result: www.illyriad.com which within a week of launch boasted 1,400 players.
In a new ad-hoc series of interviews with internet trail-blazers, James spoke to the Webfusion blog to offer an insight into the planning and approach that have helped the site become such an instant success.
Q. Illyriad.com – What is it?
A. Fundamentally, it’s a free-to-play, massive multiplayer online strategy game. The setting is high-fantasy, Tolkien-esque: Elves, Orcs, Dwarves and all, but it is a strategy game rather than a first-person shooter. It is browser-based so it can be played on almost any platform.
Q. It’s effectively free to play, are you just very generous?
A. Players have the option to spend money if they like to buy in-game currency that they can then exchange for temporary but useful in-game benefits, but it is entirely optional. There is no pressure to buy and unlike some of our competitors we don’t believe in crippling the game if you don’t spend money – when you sign up we even give you a free gift of it. We think everybody should be able to play the game.
Q. How did the idea come about?
A. A bunch of us have played quite a lot of these games in the past, games like Travian, KingsAge, Tribal Wars. There are a lot of them out there but the number of options you tend to have in-game is often very limited – so we thought “What did we enjoy playing when we were teenagers?” And it was games like Civilisation, The Settlers, Age of Empires etc. So we sat down with a blank sheet of paper and thought about the best concepts from of all of favourite games, and tried to work out how we could put them together in one-package.
Q. Why do you think you have had such tremendous success from the outset?
A. We really, really engage the community. I think a lot of game developers launch a game and that’s it. We are putting in updates to the game almost daily – new content, new functionality. We are responding to players who are saying ‘It would be great if we could do this’ and two days later it’s there. If it’s a good idea we’ve got no qualms about putting it in. We actually have a very loyal customer-base despite the short-time we have been going. Within the first month we already have one guy writing a Wiki, another developing an in-game tool for tracking troop movements, another creating a kill-board for people to post their combat statistics on.
Q. Has the success surprised you?
A. Completely. Everybody talks about Web 2.0 but I don’t really know what that actually means, apart from a lot more community engagement. Our gamers are our best marketing tool by a long way. They will tell their mates. One of them has already started up a Facebook group for the game and there’s a petition to get us as designers to write a Facebook version of the game.
Q. Has it taken over your life?
A. Totally, totally, totally! We actually have developer’s shifts at the moment; 7 in the morning until 7 at night and then 7 at night to 7 in the morning. So there is always a games master there to respond to people.
Q. So how big is your team behind it?
A. There’s three programmers, including me. Currently, three graphic designers and hopefully more coming on board. Most of them also have other real jobs to be getting on with. I am full-time along with another developer but we have quite a flexible working regime and with a small team it means we are agile and responsive. I’m sure we might have to have a more corporate structure in the future if it continues at this pace but for the moment it is working very well.
Q. You’ve surpassed your own expectations less than a month since launch but what are the longer term plans?
A. On the website forum, people are surprised that we’ve published our future development list. It means that every player and potential player can have a look and see what we are planning on doing, plus comment and add new items. There are lots of ideas we want to add in from expansion packs to hand-crafted sections of the map. Then in terms of platform, we want a Facebook version, an iPhone app, Android app, Blackberry app – as many ways of distributing it and getting people to play it as possible. We’re already beginning to think about what the next game will look like, but we’ve got to spend the next three or four months expanding on this one and reacting to customers to make this game the best it can be.
Q. How long was the site in planning before launch?
A. From that blank sheet of paper I guess, the best part of the year. It’s amazing what can be done f you set your mind to it. I’m Managing Director, we do have some external investors who took a minority share to raise some funds early on but I retain the majority of the company and initial take-up of in-game currency purchases has been much better than we envisaged. We very much have the philosophy of “Build the right game, make it good, concentrate on your players and the money will follow”.
Q. Any advice to those not yet gripped by the online gaming bug?
A. There’s nothing to lose. It’s free to play, it works on a browser, so you don’t need to download anything. There’s no risk, your browser will look after all the security issues. If you like it, we love you. Just having people participate is what it is all about.
Q. Are you in your dream job now?
A. Well I don’t think it gets better than running a games company. I could be a Formula One driver or a rock-star so maybe not quite my dream job, but nearly. It is a passion of mine and all of the team are passionate gamers.
Q. How many people rolled their eyes at you when you said this was your next project?
A. Almost everybody, except my wife. She is very business orientated and said to me; “sit down and write a proper business plan”. You can’t assume that what you build is what other players want. My advice to anybody is to talk to as many people as you know as well as those you don’t yet know: set up a forum where people can give you ideas and help steer the direction of the development – the internet is wonderful for that sort of thing. Listening before you set anything in stone is essential. Even if you don’t agree there is usually a nugget in somebody’s rant for you to use. It’s also on-going as you can test with a closed-user group as much as you like but when you release something the public at large will discover bugs, loop-holes and exploits that you had never dreamed of.
Q. Any final piece of advice?
A. Find a very, very good hosting company. I know that sounds like blowing somebody’s trumpet but Webfusion have been absolutely brilliant. I’ve come across a couple of game developers who try to run a server at home, but they spend more hours grappling with the hardware and technology than they spend on the content of their game. There is no substitute for getting yourself a solution that is well serviced, well hosted and reasonably priced so you can concentrate on developing. At the end of the day your customer won’t really care who you host with, just as long as it is up to the job and reliable. Our Webfusion custom server is a beast and has actually caused us to change our business plan. Originally, we were looking at a much lower-spec server but when we were stress-testing things we realised the potential of the Webfusion server meant we could increase the gaming world size to 100,000 players per server – four times what we were originally considering – making our players happier as well as being much more cost-efficient for us.