The Champions Return: Designing a Tournament

Producing a web game should be easy, shouldn’t it? This is the internet. We can measure everything.

We don’t have to guess how our game will be received after launch – it has already been launched, and so on the internet we can try something, measure the results, and then build on that, using the data as our guide. Iteration is the key, and data will unlock the secrets of the players’ deepest desires! Apparently.

That’s a lovely theory, but in practice it just doesn’t work like that.

For one thing, what data do we look at? Do we look at the quantity of forum posts and chat relating to a tournament to see how much interest it sparked? Or do we look at this qualitatively, reading everything the players say to see what they like and don’t like? Or do we measure increases in log-ins to see if people are playing more often as a result of the tournament? Or do we measure the number of military units committed to a tournament, using troops sent as a proxy for interest in the tournament? Or do we look at Prestige spent, seeing if people spend more during a tournament?

The reality is that we measure all of those things. And once we have the data… it is all completely contradictory.

For example, based on what players have said, qualitatively, the most popular tournament we ever ran was the Undead Horde tournament in spring 2012. We arranged the players in leagues based on size and had them compete to seek out and fight off waves of undead – and anecdotally, it seems that everyone loved it. But in reality the data contradicts that. It didn’t get people to log in more, people weren’t interested enough to spend Prestige – all of the statistics say that it was our least engaging tournament.

Nor can we just pick one data point and run with that. We can’t say “Prestige spend is the one true measure”, because we want everyone to love the game, whether they use Prestige or not. We can’t say “what matters is how often people log in”, because then grinding tournaments look like a success, but might just irritate people (such as with the Bloodthirst for Knowledge tournament back in 2011).

And when we’ve taken all of that insight on board we cannot, as the theory would suggest, just repeat and tweak a winning formula – because our players will get bored with the same old thing.

In reality we can learn from what we’ve tried in the past, but the focus has to be on building something new, based on a set of principles as much as on the data.

So, with the current Champions Return tournament we have taken on board what the players have said and done in past tournaments, but our starting point had to be more theoretical.

In this case we started with a question – a question which actually crops up in every tournament, whether it is spoken or unspoken. “How do we give players on all levels something to do in this tournament?”

Illyriad is an open world, where fledgling rulers and mighty veterans rub shoulders on the same map. We need tournaments where the big players can feel challenged – where their huge, carefully optimised cities can really show their worth. But we also need new players, with just a couple of settlements and few hundred basic troops, to be able to get involved.

In the case of The Champions Return, we’ve done this by providing three types of overlapping objectives.

For the huge Alliances, where dozens of big players are chafing to show their superiority, there is a global leaderboard. There can be, as the movie said, only one. And the glorious victor gets a permanent statue on the game map memorialising their achievement.

For the medium sized Alliances, there are also regional victories. So, if an Alliance has no hope of defeating all comers, globally, it can still prove itself king of its own local hill.

Thirdly, for individual players, there are medals to be won – and although these are for individual achievements they can be won with the help of larger players. Even a tiny player could, in cooperation with larger alliance mates, win a medal.

This allows people to pick their own difficulty level. For example, a medium sized Alliance might say “we want to win our local region, and make sure that all of our members get a medal”. A small alliance might decide that they’ll be delighted if just one of them can pick up a medal. A really big alliance might disdain the medals, and focus only on the big prize – only three Alliances have ever won an Illyriad tournament, so this is a worthy challenge for ambitious players.

And of course all of these goals over-lap. A big Alliance seeking global victory will be competing locally with guys who are just fighting for their regions. A small player who just wants a medal can usefully join and aid even a veteran Alliance – they help him get his medal and his win counts towards their score.

So, the current tournament should allow people to pick their own goals, and win glory appropriate to their ability and strength.

We will look at the data in the end, of course. But we can’t start from the numbers and somehow hope that a tournament can be created from a mathematical model. We have to start, as we always do, with thinking about building structures that players can have fun exploring.

Broken Lands Faction: Llwcharion

From the History of Loss and Hope, by Llanawi Puresoul of the Halls of Care, Chief Physician of the Office For Cleansing.

Far from the centre of the Sundering, it was not the fall of the mountains or a rain of fire from the skies that slew the ancestors of the Llwcharion. Their fall was more pathetic.

Of course, their great palaces toppled in earthquakes. Of course their forests and fields were set aflame. Many were crushed and burned as elsewhere. But far from the centre of the maelstrom, many survived that great cataclysm.

The pain continued for a generation. With the great palaces fallen, who could keep order? With the Orc armies killed or scattered or preying upon the other survivors, who would protect the people? With the fields burned, where would food be found? It is always remembered that the Sundering destroyed forests and mountains. What hurt these Elves the most, was that it destroyed the web of farming, production, trade and administration on which they depended.

Millions starved, some were slain by rampaging brigands, many fell to illnesses which ravaged the weakened population. Many survivors huddled in ruined cities, hoping absurdly that civilisation would somehow rebuild itself, and perished as diseases spread amongst them. Others headed towards the traditional sources of their food, the farms and orchards, but these were burned and ruined, and such people starved even as the first shoots of growth appeared. Some stockpiled what they could find and barricaded themselves into fortified places, but these simply became targets for Orc marauders and human bandits.

What saved the Llwcharion, was intelligent cowardice. They fled.

The Llwcharion made for the northern deserts. Here, with resourcefulness and geomantic magics they coaxed a little food from the desert. Nobody troubled them in this desolate land: no Orc warbands would brave the barren heat and drought of the place. They soon learned to live, and then learned to thrive.

Yet their history has twisted them. No longer do they hope to make a better world. They hope only to survive. No longer do they seek the soft beauty of woodland glades, but revel in the barren desert. It is said that when they cry they weep tears of dust, but it is more likely that they simply do not cry.

Their achievements in surviving are worthy of admiration. And they have developed an impressive range of skills. The secret magics that coax food from the desert are remarkable. Their torturers are highly skilled, and we of the Argiri have made good use of these craftsmen. But they have forgotten, in their hearts, what it is to be an Elf, to be the highest of mortal creatures, uniquely able to rebuild civilization.

In short, for all their cleverness, they are little better than mere humans.


Player Spotlight: Sa’Belle

By popular demand, this month’s Player Spotlight focuses on Sa’Belle. We would like to extend a thank you to one of our positive and influential community members. Learn more about the Player Spotlight program at our website and nominate players by sending an email to 

GM Luna

Sa'Belle's RL Avatar

What brought you to Illyriad and how long have you been playing?

It’s a pretty boring story, really. Work sent me to the middle of nowhere during a rotten and rainy winter to open a new office and I needed something to occupy me during the quiet times and while it bucketed down in the evenings, and Illy was being advertised in the chrome store. I’m a big fan of the “Why not?” method, so I gave it a shot. That was 2 years ago in August.

Have you played many other online games or been active in other online communities?

Ah, not really. I have previously moderated a forum focused on political, religious and current events discussions, and way back in the day, I wandered in and out of a few roleplay communities, but this is the first game and community that I’ve committed to properly, and now I don’t want to try anything else!

Any hidden talents or interesting hobbies outside of gaming?

I can’t go giving away my hidden talents! That would make them much less hidden!

As for hobbies, when I can drag myself away from Illy, I spend a fair bit of time crafting (usually crocheting) and baking, and I am a big reader. Not particularly exciting perhaps, but it keeps me occupied. Oh, I suppose I could call working an interesting hobby 😉

What keeps you playing Illyriad?

Everyone says the people and the community, and that is definitely part of it. But I also love the challenge of trying to build up my towns to their best potential (with an awful lot of emphasis on trying!), and exploring all the things I can do with them. I also enjoy participating in the tournaments, and I’d love to see a return of the animal hunting one. I wasn’t around for it, and it sounds like fun.

What’s your favorite aspect of the game?

I spend a lot of time on trading and crafting, and I quite enjoy fiddling with all of that, but I don’t think it will surprise many people that my favourite thing to do is help and explain things to new players. I enjoy being able to share my knowledge with them (as many shared theirs with me when I started) and being around them as they have those moments where it all falls into place and starts to make sense.

That said, after the tourney I’m going to dive into the military side a lot more, and I’m very excited about that. I have no doubts that my 20 trueshots will be the terror of all Illyriad!

What’s your proudest achievement in game so far?

Oh, this is going to be soppy, but really, it’s eCrow. There are fantastic people all around Illy, of course, but I remain convinced that the highest concentration is found in my alliance. Watching it grow over the past year from 10 players that barely knew each other to the 50-odd permanent members today has been a constant delight and I truly can’t imagine being anywhere else (even if some of them spend half their time yelling at me to go to bed!).

Assisting the crowfed to pull together into a more cohesive group over the past 18 months or so has also been a fun and challenging experience. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve compared (and seen others compare) herding crows to herding cats!

What are you most looking forward to for the future of Illyriad?

I am far too excited about the upcoming quest arcs and faction implementation, both there and in Broken Lands. Factions have been talked about since before I joined, and whacking their NPC camps on the map was a favourite pasttime of mine as a newb. The chance to do that, and have them fight back, has me wriggling with excitement.

I also look forward to the day GM Stormcrow doesn’t laugh at me, and creates an alt for eCrow. No one has ever accused me of not dreaming big. (It’s okay, SC, we won’t tell anyone it’s you!).

What area of the game do you think needs the most improvement?

One thing I was told when I was young(er) and stupid(er) was that Illy should be played as it is now, not how you hope it will be in the future, so I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the things that need improving or I want to change, to be honest.

That said – and I say this only because I was stupid enough to try and claim sovereignty for 5 towns at the same time earlier today – I wish there was an easier way to bulk claim sov, perhaps in the same vein as the update to sending harvesters (a special unit just for claiming sov perhaps).

And I guess it would also be nice to not have to go to an external site to chat with my confeds easier, but I have no idea how I’d fit a 3rd chat window on the screen!

What advice would you give a new player in Illyriad?

Relax, have fun, and don’t give your alliance leader a heart attack by attacking saurians with your first army.

I’d also suggest keeping in mind that Illy will take as much time as you give it and not everything has to be completed right now. There is always tomorrow.

Broken Lands Faction: The Overoad Traders

From the journal of Barnard of Shelton, master trader in the employ of the Illyria Trade Council, recording his journeys to the Broken Lands.

I was invited to join two scruffy Dwarves, as they played dice with a gang of goblins. It was not the reception that I had expected.

The Overoad Traders, from the reports I had heard, control the foremost commercial network in these lands, with a range of well established trade centres stretching from the peaceful lands of Virten out into the wild and dangerous lands to the east. When I asked to be permitted to discuss possible trade deals with some of their leaders, I did not expect to be invited to play dice with ruffians.

I had expected, as in my own homelands, to be invited to a well established guild house or palace, where negotiations would proceed in measured tones in luxurious surroundings. Instead I found myself gambling with goblins.

The two dour Dwarves who led the game had planted a staff in the ground, adorned with tattered parchments listing the wares that they had for sale, and topped with an astrolabe, as a wizard’s staff might have some mighty crystal. And wherever such a staff is planted, that becomes a headquarters, for a while, for these rough traders. It is a far cry from a grand guild hall.

The two greeted me without enthusiasm. They explained the rules of the game, which were surprisingly complex, and told me to drag across a box to sit on.

As the dice were passed around, they quaffed ale from huge wooden mugs and wiped their mouths on their sleeves, and they started to quiz me about what I wanted to trade and at what prices. I outlined a possible proposal to gauge their interest, and was told, curtly, “It won’t work. I’d have to sell the cargo on at Cloghord’s Haven, and my costs mean I’ll only make six point seven percent.”

“Point six,” the other Dwarf corrected him.

The first Dwarf fiddled with four bulky rings on the fat fingers of his left hand. “No, point seven.”

“We promised Scritgut a raise,” the second nodded towards one of the goblins. “Include that in.”

More ring fiddling. “Six point five eight. You’re right. Anyway, the journey’s too dangerous. We have to factor in likely losses, so your price is too high. Now, whose throw?”

And so the conversation, and the game, continued. The Dwarves, it transpired, were two of the leaders of the Traders. At least, they had their own trade caravans, which in the chaotic world of the Traders made them leaders of sorts. And they were very happy to discuss major transactions while half distracted, it seemed, with a petty game of chance.

“Not game of chance!” one of the goblins objected when I commented on this. “Probability! Math-e-menatics!”

“He’s right,” the Dwarf concurred. It’s all about calculations and probabilities, just like trade is.”

“But still, is this a suitable place to discuss a trade deal?” I asked.

“Of course. My mind’s on numbers. And any deal we do, my friends share the risk, so they should hear what you have to say.” He saw that I looked surprised at his use of the word. “Friends? What, when you trade, who do you travel with?”

“Well, employees, servants….”

“We rely on each other. Rank doesn’t matter. Out there, we live or die based on each other, and we have enough enemies already. It has been like this for generations. When the Sundering broke the mountains, the Dwarven race was swallowed up. Some say that only three thousand of us survived. It must have been more, but the point is, almost everyone died. Our ancestors were trapped above ground while their families were crushed to death under the fallen mountains….”

And so he started to explain. He explained that the scattered Dwarves had become wandering craftsmen and traders, at last finding trade to be the more profitable path. He also told me what happened to the goblins.

“After the Sundering the Orc armies weren’t used to getting their own food. So when the survivors had nobody to send them supplies, they ate the weakest amongst their ranks. That meant that they ate the goblins. The goblins who got away also had no idea how to fend for themselves. The mages had only wanted them as scouts and killers – they hadn’t taught them to farm or forage or cook. So, those that our ancestors met they took in, and fed. These goblins, my friends, are descended from those my ancestor rescued five centuries since.”

The Overoad Traders, he explained, needed others to help them. There just weren’t enough Dwarves to perform all the tasks required in all their trade missions. And the goblins were outstanding servants – or as he put it, partners. They were excellent scouts, cunning and swift, they could look after pack animals, they could learn any simple skill, and if needs be they could be merciless. And they ate only half what a Dwarf or Human would eat, “which means we carry and buy fewer provisions. So we’d rather work with them than with humans. Not that we don’t have human partners. Anyone can join up. But the goblins have always been our best friends.”

Travelling light was important to the Traders, I realised. They carried no ledgers, but held all of their accounts in their heads. “This month is set to be my best in 2 years, by three point four percent,” he mentioned, apparently without thinking about it. They had no offices, no clerks. Everything was calculated through their well practised mental arithmetic, which, if needed, could be verified by the use of the four heavy rings which each wore: these four, made of several bands of metal which could be adjusted individually, were like a more complex abacus. One of the two also wore a pendant which was, I realised, a kind of portable sun-dial.

These, then, were not the degenerate gamblers that I had feared that they were when I sat down with them. They were clever, pragmatic survivors, and their approach to trade, though alien to me, is perfectly suited to survival, and perhaps profit, in a hostile land.

Broken Lands Faction: The New Light

From the History of Loss and Hope, by Llanawi Puresoul of the Halls of Care, Chief Physician of the Office For Cleansing.

A tragedy for the present Age is that so many learn the wrong lessons from history. The New Light are foremost in this error.

In the Second Age, the Order of Silver Light brought peace, prosperity, stability and order to these lands, but failed to keep control over their subjects. After the Sundering, surviving mages, hedge-witches and sundry practitioners of secret arts came together to rebuild the Order.

These optimists called themselves The New Light, and they embraced all manner of occult practitioner. Where the Order of the Silver Light had included only the most powerful and most intelligent mages, the New Light included every manner of magical practitioner from shamen to alchemists. Where the Order of Silver Light understood the supremacy of Elves, here Humans and Orcs are accepted alongside their natural betters.

Still, many of the goals of the Order of Silver Light live on in this more diverse gathering. These mages understand that the wise should rule the foolish, and believe that an educated class of rulers should be schooled to provide leadership for the ignorant masses. They also believe that magical power is supreme above all others, and magical study the greatest intellectual endeavour. And so they continue the work of the Order to impose upon the lesser peoples the wise rule of potent mages.

These mages are obsessed with their magical power, and determined to rebuild a civilisation akin to that of the last Age through the rule of wizards. But this is muddled thinking. They have failed to learn the correct lessons from history.

The fall of the Order of Silver Light did not come from a lack of diversity. It came from a lack of commitment to maintaining order. Faced with a choice between keeping order and gaining magical knowledge the New Light will choose knowledge. This is a fine way to build a college of magicians, but an inadequate way to build an eternal empire.

This is why the New Light will never build a civilisation to rival the heights of the Second Age. And this is why we Argiri, not they, are the best hope for a land too free, to fractured and too foolish to prosper.

Releasing code in a live environment

Running a massively multiplayer game is difficult. You need good up-time, but also need to continuously update the game and add new content. The server is busy. We’ve had over 900 million page views in our three years since launch and we currently average 800 page views a minute with over 1.2 million a day – and that’s only active pages being viewed; not including game notifications, passive chat, or any ingame popups. We’ve just done our 815th releaseto live; I imagine even our players don’t know we release something on average every 1.4 days. Some are minor bug fixes, others full UI refreshes, of which we have done 3:

We are available on many platforms, with an HTML5 website game, a Chrome Webstore App, Firefox App, a Facebook game, and Windows 8 App; all of which run on the same single sharded world, and all of which need to be kept up to date and in sync. We have to ensure with each change everything keeps working on all the different platforms, different browsers and different devices – Illyriad even works on a Kindle Touch! We run a full Microsoft stack, have changed CDN 4 times, and during these three years we’ve had 1 day of cumulative downtime, mostly for security patches, although our longest period was for completely moving hosting providers to Hivelocity for our dedicated servers and Windows Azure for our cloud based needs and CDN – lots of live data to move. All through this the players keep playing. Blissfully unaware of all the changes going on. Sending their troops on 58 million combat missions, their traders on 41 million missions and building their 33 million buildings, all the while chatting 213 million words together. Each update is transparent and doesn’t interrupt the players’ play time for patching. People live busy lives, and they have chosen to give their precious time to play the game and that must be respected. They don’t want to spend that time waiting for downloads, patching and updates. They just want to play. Maintaining a uninterrupted service, with huge concurrency and transparent updates is hard, but its worth it!

Broken Lands Faction: Argiri

From the History of Loss and Hope, by Llanawi Puresoul of the Halls of Care, Chief Physician of the Office For Cleansing.

Nobody can walk upon two paths. To complete a journey, to reach a goal, one must choose a single path, and set out upon it with clarity of purpose and certain determination.

In the Second Age, the Order of Silver Light understood that sheep must have a shepherd, that the wise should rule the foolish, that the powerful should protect the weak. And they established a glorious age of peace and hope and prosperity. But they walked this path with uncertainty, one day keeping the ignorant in place and the next day bowing to their fancies, one day cleansing the land of those who threatened peace and the next making accommodation with them.

The vacillations of the Order led to uncertainty and confusion. The confused became fearful, the fearful angry, and soon the ignorant and the angry rose up against those who had given them peace and plenty, and the land was plunged into chaos. From this chaos, the Order of Silver Light rescued the land, but at a terrible price, unleashing the magical fury which we now call the Sundering.

Weaklings and fools in lands such as Virten hold the Sundering as evidence against the Order. But in truth the Sundering occurred only because in the years before this the Order was uncertain, because it lacked commitment to its purpose, because it did not do until the very end what needed to be done. If the Order of Silver Light had enforced the peace and order that it had created with true determination, then its subjects would not have risen up, war would not have racked the land, and the Sundering would not have been unleashed.

The Sundering was a tragedy. But the greatest tragedy was that it could have been avoided, and peace and prosperity maintained, if only the Order had not wavered in its commitment to maintaining strong order.

Of all the people who have risen over the centuries since, only the Argiri have learned the true lessons, the hard lessons, required to restore and rebuild the glories of the height of the Second Age: he who is ruled by compassion cannot save what he loves; he who cannot cut out the rot cannot cure the whole; for the foolish masses the only true freedom is servitude to those who can best guide them.

There is hope. There is hope that the order and prosperity of the Second Age might be rebuilt. But this can only be accomplished by those who have the will and wisdom to pursue this vision with unwavering commitment. The sentimentalists of Virten do not have the determination. The blood-mad Drek-Hhakrall have no vision for the salvation of the people. The mages of the New Light seek only self-aggrandizement.

Only the Argiri carry a message of salvation to the peoples of these lands. Only we have the wisdom to build a glorious civilisation as we knew in the Second Age. Only we have the will to eradicate whatever might threaten this grand vision. For us, it is a hard path to walk, fraught with difficult decisions and painful necessities. For the lesser peoples, it is easy, for they need do more than submit.