One of my current projects is the building and running of a player tracker for Hattrick. Hattrick is an online football management game where players can start teams, enter leagues, buy and sell players and eventually try to win some trophies. There are a few things about it that I think are nice:
- The games take place in real time, so league games are weekly. No need to be online all the time to be successful.
- A decent community of fellow football fans, and special forums for fans of particular clubs or nations to come together.
- A national team aspect, allowing you to take part in the ups and downs of your club's country's national team.
It's this last aspect that in particular is exciting. Every 6 months, the players in a nation can vote for an individual to become the national team manager. This person then has to call up players from clubs around the world in order to try to win national team games. This process is often tricky, because the manager does not see the skills a particular player has until they are called up. The manager can't call up more than a handful of players at a time, and every time they call someone up the squad's morale takes a hit. This means that it is very much advantageous to have a network of scouts working for the national team, keeping track of player skills wherever they can get their hands on them.
The scouting aspect is where I come in to play. I thought it would be fun to get involved in my national team in Hattrick (Scotland), but I'm by no means the most tactically astute person in the country. My talents are better served in making an automatic tracking system, which is what I've done. Around this time last year, I started working on Hattrick Scotland, a website where users can register to have their players' skills tracked. After registering, a special access token is retrieved from Hattrick to allow the website to access Hattrick on their behalf. Then the user may leave, and not necessarily have to come back ever again. With the token, I can use scripts to systematically and periodically access the required data that the national team scouts require.
With a database of player skills available, scouts can then access the site to view this data privately. Scouts are assigned by the national manager and so the site can identify them and let them access the database accordingly. It was a lot of work to put this together, but I found it fun learning the reasonably new aspects of PHP 5. The last time I used PHP on a large scale was when I was in high school, hacking together forum software for my friends and I. I learned it the way that most kids do, by online examples. It turns out that PHP is very much a victim of its own ease of use, and a sizeable chunk of its users are equally oblivious to basic programming paradigms. For a long time, the examples available regarding aspects of PHP were hacky and didn't follow good programming practice. This can be important, because programs are increasingly being reused rather than rewritten as they become more complex, and powerful new features to modern languages often require programs to be organised in a certain fashion. The consequences of this meant that coming into the task of programming a player tracker, my experience with PHP was biased towards the 'get it done quickly' attitude.
The initial site I made was a reasonably badly written pile of code. After a little while I started to realise that I had made some fundamental mistakes in the design of the tracker, and went back to the drawing board. The design I eventually ended up using turns out to be quite similar to Django and other web frameworks. This was a happy accident, and it meant that I could add new features quickly towards the end of summer last year, after weekends and evenings spent here and there on the project. Now the tracker is more or less complete in its initial purpose, and additions I've made since then have been along the lines of ease of use and look and feel rather than functionality.
Running a large site like this has some interesting challenges. Although there are only around 80,000 Scottish players to track in Hattrick, which is a small number to relational databases that power most large websites, there are plenty of other things that also need tracked. Each player's skills are of course the primary information to track, but it's also useful to track this across time - is a player improving with time or are they being neglected? This is important information that the national team manager must be able to find out. Also, details of the matches the players have played in are important, so the manager and scouts can work out if the player has been getting the correct game time they require to improve. All of this leads to a database with many millions of rows of data, each needing to be organised and stored. It's certainly been a good learning exercise.
Since some of the code I've written I am quite proud of, I think I will eventually release this project as an open source program, letting other Hattrick countries adopt their own trackers. I have not yet done this because I want Scotland to gain an advantage from having a shiny, new and featureful tracker, at least for a while. My work has appeared to have inspired other countries to start developing similar trackers, so when the advantage diminishes I will open up the code. I am sure there are plenty of improvements that could be made by other members of the community.