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It is always sad when one of the sites you put a lot of time and effort in shuts down. This is the case today as I am preparing to shut down the Raidbooking System (RBS for short). So I thought it might be appropriate to write a little about the biggest web-project I have been involved in outside of my regular job.

Before I started playing World of Warcraft four years ago I had read a lot about it. I had always been a fan of the Warcraft RTS games so jumping in on a Blizzard MMORPG, and one available on a Mac as well, sounded like fun. The info that was leaked and released before the game hit the shelves was tantalizing. We learned about a badass dragon queen called Onyxia who it would take 40 people to defeat, we learned about an old elemental god down in a massive lava-filled cavesystem called Ragnaros. To be able to reach Ragnaros you'd have to kill his 9 luitenants first.

When I started playing the game seeing Ragnaros and especially Onyxia dead was my long term goal. I started up the game for the first time and had to choose a server, as I already knew I wanted to play a Tauren, a humanoid creature with decidedly bovine ancestry, I chose to play on a server called Thunderhorn. This seemed appropriate. My character was a warrior called Riktor after one of the more obscure Archchancellors of Unseen University in Pratchett's Discworld series. I played Horde, one of the 2 opposing factions in the game. The factions cannot talk to each other, are in a virtual state of war and cannot cooperate except by staying out of each other's way.

When I reached level 60, the maximum at the time, I did a lot of regular dungeon crawls to get better gear and hone my skills, soon I would be ready for Onyxia! Or so I thought because it turned out that while Thunderhorn had a lot of players, the raiding scene (a raid is where you take 40 people into a dungeon to defeat the truly hard stuff), especially on the Horde side was lackluster. It took quite a while for the Thunderhorn community to get into raiding and even then there wasn't much to choose from. Most raids are organised by guilds (a social group with their own chatchannel not available to anyone else, some other games call this clans) and I didn't want to leave my old guild and join a new one just to see some stuff, even if that was an old god or a fierce dragon guarding her eggs.
Luckily a guy with the character name of Doktahantha (Dok for short) from England had the same feeling, he wanted to raid but didn't want to leave his small guild that was a group of mostly friends from real life. So he started a coalition, a loose-knit group of people with the same idea, do the hard stuff but in a more relaxed environment, without too much strain put on being the absolute best and more on having fun. Much ridicule was levered at The Coalition and it was said that a group like that could never get far and certainly not defeat one of the old gods. We proved them wrong by putting on the heat and forcing the top Horde guild to farm insane amounts of consumables to actually defeat the endboss 2 hours before we did, without using all those expansive materials.
To facilitate this coalition Dok created a webbased system called the RBS, a system where people could register their character and then sign up for raids. The system also incorporated loot tracking and a DKP system. DKP, for the non MMO players, is a system that allows you to track how much effort and time people have spend with a raid, the more you are involved the more points you have. In that way you earn points for bosskills, learning bosses even if you don't kill them, being on time, staying the whole raid etc.. In a way it's a loyalty scheme similar to airmiles, if you spend a lot (of time) you get points that can then be spend on loot: getting better weapons, rings, necklaces or armor which would then help your performance and, given enough loot spread evenly around, help progress to the next boss or even an even harder dungeon.
Many raids use separate tools for tracking attendance and DKP, most have forums beside that and sometimes separate blogs. The RBS combined all of these in one system, written from scratch in PHP.

So I joined the coalition (it didn't have a fancy name, it was always just "The Coalition", at first because we couldn't think of one and later because the name became so well known). Pretty soon it became clear that the raidgroup as a whole needed some more involved people to take up some duties, such as leading raids, explaining tactics, administering DKP and handing out loot when we killed a boss or got an item from a trash mob. (A trash mob or mob is a non-boss monster you have to kill, designers put in Trash to vary the pace of the dungeon and prevent people from running in and getting 15 great items for very little effort. Trash is often on a respawn timer as a sort of penalty for not being well enough geared or skilled for the actual dungeon. It can also reward you with a rare drop to help you get a bit further.) So I offered to help out a bit with the admin side of things and handing out loot. I later switched characters to play a Druid called Stonebreaker, as we were always short on healers and had enough warriors.

Pretty soon it became apparent that though the RBS system was a great thing, there were also some omissions or plain bugs. So I offered to help out and code some stuff, even though my PHP skills weren't that great to start with. Dok e-mailed me some files and I would implement some changes or bugfixes I'd thought of and then send them back whereupon Dok would upload the files and we'd improved the system a little bit. After a while Dok knew that I was up to the task and I got FTP access so I could work on the files directly without all the necessary back and forth. From that day on the system improved greatly as we were both coding and feeding off each other's ideas. Blizzard also introduced smaller raids that were designed for a maximum of 20 people and we incorporated those into the design of the site.

After a while Dok applied for a job at Google and got it. When he did his Warcraft play time decreased dramatically as working for the biggest dot com in the world is bound to do. By that time I took over all the daily running of the site as well as working on new stuff. Dok still paid for the server but it might be days between him being able to find the time to actually check out what was happening. So it shouldn't come as a big surprise that one day the entire system collapsed because he forgot to pay the bills. Because he was traveling out of the country at the time he didn't notice for a week. By the first day I had 30 anxious people chatting to me, by the third day I couldn't log in to the game without getting 60 people wondering when the system would be back up. So I made the decision to register a domain and host the files myself. Dok might be back the next day or it might take a few weeks more. Meanwhile raids were still going but the logistics of keeping track of who got what loot, who was really entitled to loot and who actually signed up and could be expected had become a nightmare.
So I bit the bullet and starting hosting the RBS instead.

This lead to another wave of innovations as I had a little bit more control on the new server and by that time me and Woorg, an online friend from Sweden, started working on a new guild to tackle the newest dungeon, the coalition would still remain but there would come a new section on the site especially for the new guild, using the same basic tools and framework. By now 2 separate raidgroups were using the site and I improved a lot of things on the backend to make administration easier.

All was well but in 2007 Blizzard released the first expansion for World of Warcraft, this expansion brought massive changes to the game. There would be no more 20 man or 40 man dungeons. Instead raids would be for either 10 people or 25. The idea was that you'd start out with a few groups of 10 and then later move on to the harder stuff that required 25 men.

Unfortunately as any child can see getting from 40 to 10 and then to 25 does not make a lot of sense and a lot of groups were harmed by this design choice. Blizzard decided to scale down the number of people allowed in a raid so organising would become easier. To field a 40 man raid you would need about 50 people that were willing to commit one or more nights a week.
To field a 25 man raid you would only need between 30 and 35. So on the face of this this seems like a good idea, it is easier to get together 30 people than 50. But then there's the curious fact that 30 people do not fit into 2 10 man groups, and they'd all need to do those. Running 3 groups was not an option due to real life commitments, you never get everyone to show up! This created massive logistical nightmares and hours spent trying to design a schedule where we could gear up everyone without leaving people behind. You'd then have to transition from 20 people being able to play on a night to having 25 being able to play. Of course real life interferes and you'd never get all your members to show up at the same time so the problem isn't that great but you still need a healthy reserve of people on the night itself as inevitably someone will get stuck in traffic, have to work late or deal with homework or will be ill.

As I said the new design messed up a lot of things for many groups. Ours was no different and due to the fact that raid encounters were extremely hard for a group such as ours meant that the Coalition faded away and stopped raiding. Shortly after the new guild folded as well and people transferred server, stopped playing altogether or joined other raid groups that managed to weather the changes. I did the same and moved on to another raid group.

This was by the end of 2007 and since then the RBS has been maintained but not in much actual use. I did put in a chat as a last measure to allow people to keep in contact with former friends but over the year the use of the site has steadily declined. We went from 100 unique visitors a day to about 5 visits a week. Even I don't visit the site much anymore as there simply is no community left, everyone has moved on. As such I felt the time was right to shut down the site and not renew the domain.

Over the years the RBS has served a good purpose, finding and offering raids for people that are not able to commit 5 nights a week, people that have a job or a family and can therefore not raid till 3 am, people that may not be the best payers in the world but that are a lot of fun to be around. And it's sad to see it gone, but in a way it has been surpassed, raiding became a lot harder and it isn't quite so easy now to raid if you do not have the organisation and critical mass of a big guild or several closely allied guilds. Blizzard promises raiding in the upcoming expansion will be a lot easier and should allow almost anyone to compete, even if their skills are a bit less than a no lifer who neglects school or work and just sits at the computer 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. We'll see.

In closing I thought it might be fun to post some statistics I calculated:

Number of characters registered: 972 (some people have multiple characters though)
Number of raids organised: 609
Number of items dropped: 4,272
Bosses killed: about 1,000 (most of them many many times of course)
Number of raid signups: 11,910
Number of people blacklisted: 14 (a measly 1.4 %, due to misbehaviour)
Frontpage newsitems: 463
Number of comments on news: 3,624
Number of Private Messages sent: 4,898
Number of e-mails sent between the raidleaders: 2000+
Lines of code to keep the site working: 13,250 (estimated)
Number of tables in the database: 45
Size of the MySQL database: a modest 16.3 MB

The statistics may be modest if looked at in relation to a social site such as MySpace but for a community of only a few thousand people on one particular game server they're actually quite impressive.

So today I'm a bit sad but I am also grateful for all the support I've had over the years and being able to participate and help out in the community that once was. I also learned a hell of a lot about PHP. And that has helped me a lot in real life as well.

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