December 11, 2008

GameLayers gets on track with Ruby on Rails

Author: Ian Palmer

GameLayers'Passively Multiplayer Online Game (PMOG), which allows users to immerse themselves in a virtual world of adventures, challenges, and intrigue, has been picking up traction thanks in part to its robust open source framework. Underpinning the popular online game is Ruby on Rails, a full-stack framework for developing database-backed Web applications that works with a variety of Web servers and databases.

Duncan Gough, chief technology officer of GameLayers, which was founded in July 2007, was able to turn a day-and-a-half experiment using Ruby on Rails into a company whose initial product, PMOG, is a Firefox extension that connects with a Web browser and transforms inactive Web pages into play areas that users can explore whenever they can spare five or 10 minutes of their time.

Unlike traditional online multi-player games, PMOG does not require users to devote hours at a time to sitting at their computer screens to play the game. "You install our PMOG Firefox plugin and then that just kind of follows you around the Web," he Gough says. "Just by browsing the Web and going to Gmail and blogs and forums and stuff, you start earning points in the game.... If you've been browsing around the Web, you've earned points that you can spend on in-game tools that we have."

During the development stage, which took about three years, Gough considered both Ruby on Rails and Django, a Python Web framework that reportedly encourages rapid development and pragmatic design. He built one PMOG prototype in Django and another in Ruby on Rails.

"It's not fair [to say] one's better than the other," he Gough says. "We could have used Ruby, we could have used Django, we could have really used any kind of framework. We just decided to go with the Ruby on Rails because it seemed to fit what we wanted to do and gave us a foot up so that we could start building the game straight away rather than kind of try to build the registration stuff and user sign-ins and all that kind of stuff that you have to use for every project. It was already pretty much there in Ruby on Rails."

For the record, Gough never considered closed source software for the project. His programming experience has largely been centered around open source software.

While PMOG has been well received by users, Gough acknowledges that GameLayers had to deal with some challenges on the implementation front. "Some of the coding challenges -- you have to write the code in the nicest way and have to make it as modular and as object-orientated as possible -- were fairly easy to address because I've had a lot of experience developing projects," he says. "The more exciting and harder challenges dealt with the database side of things. I had some experience with large databases before, but not to the level that PMOG generates. PMOG just generates a lot more data than I've ever experienced before.

"Because it's open source, there's a lot of dialogue that goes on and you can go to conferences and talk to people. I had a lot of help and was able to talk to a lot of different people."

Right now the Ruby on Rails experiment that led to PMOG is doing well, says Gough. He says that PMOG was about 90% passive and 10% active when it was launched in February, but is now about 80% passive and 20% active since there are now more things for users to do.

As for return on investment, Gough figures that his company was able to put its resources to better use since it used a free open source software tool rather than an expensive proprietary alternative.

"It's hard to say how much money we saved by choosing Ruby on Rails over platforms like .Net, simply because I've never used them," he admits. "However, I can say that open source software is free and comes with excellent community support and a huge developer network to tap into. As a young startup, we simply couldn't have paid for a development platform. By choosing Ruby on Rails, we were able to spend our seed funding on hiring staff to help us build the game, which meant it went a lot further. Open source was a great way for us to turn a promising idea into a small company with minimal cost."

For these and for other reasons, Gough recommends Ruby on Rails to companies that might be in the same situation that GameLayers was in at when it used the solution to build PMOG. "It's very mature software now. And for an open source project it's had a lot of people look at it and fixing bugs. And they've implemented a whole lot of features."


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