Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Interviews with Runescape Fan Sites: Grand Exchange Central

Today's interview is with Absenm, founder, owner and developer of Grand Exchange Central. The site is a very unusual and very focused (in a good way). And when I think of innovation done by Runescape fan sites, Grand Exchange Central with it's Mock Grand Exchange feature is probably the first site that comes to my mind. Enjoy the interview!

Q: How would you describe your site in a few words?
A: The Grand Exchange Central is a safe place for RuneScape players who enjoy the economic side of RuneScape. Merchanting in RuneScape has negative tones, and the goal of the GEC is to be a safe information and training tool that is focused on changing merchanting from a negative to a positive.

Q: Can you tell us about major milestones of your site? A little bit of a history?
A: The GEC started out as a simple script I could personally use for my blog. When I wrote in my blog about items I thought were good investments, I wanted to have realtime data displayed in my blog. In concept this was a cool idea. But in practice I soon discovered that posting realtime data in a blog actually was a bad idea. When I'd write an article about good items, everything was fine. But over time those items may become bad investments, and thus the realtime data removed all sense from the blog post.
But the fact that I had the scripts to do the calculations and store the data still seemed to me to be a powerful tool. So I took my focus away from simple realtime data for a blog, and focused instead on making a site that improved upon the official RuneScape Grand Exchange Beta website.
The official GE website was an okay tool for RuneScape investors. But it lacked a lot of resources that merchants could use to make better investments. I started out the GEC slowly. First just giving realtime data on tradeable items. But once I had that data easily accessible I started making tools to use that data. I liked the idea of "indices" that could show how categories of items where performing over time. I called these Runedexes. This was not an origional idea to me. I first fell in love with the concept from the Grand Exchange Market Watch. Then I started making specific lists of items. First there were the normal lists, like most valuable items, and items that had the greatest price drops/falls. Then I started getting the GEC a little more advanced. We got lists of items that were bottoming out (near their historic low) or peaking (near their historic high). Then we developed a detection formula that could potentially spot items that were suffering from clan manipulations. Other lists followed.
While we were doing all this, I had this wonderful idea of creating a GE market simulator. We call it the Mock Grand Exchange. Visitors could make mock accounts on the GEC website, be giving a certain amount of mock GP, and trying out investment ideas without the risk of losing real RuneScape GP. This added a fun aspect to the otherwise static and intimidating process of researching RuneScape investments.

Q: What inspired you to start a Runescape fan site?
A: I already explained how the GEC started, so I'll focus on how the original blog started. While playing RuneScape, week after week I would see all the changes going on. It was an exciting time in the world of RuneScape. I wanted to talk about these things, but none of my real life friends played the game. So I decided to express my views publicly in a blog where other RuneScape fans could read and comment on my ideas.

Q: What were your original goals for the site?
A: Originally, I just wanted a place to quickly find historical information about tradeable items in RuneScape. I kind of wanted the GEC to become the Wall Street Journal of RuneScape.

Q: Had your goals changed over time? If yes, how and why?
A: My goals for the Grand Exchange Central are basically the same as when I started. I still want a safe site for everyone. I still want it to have the best investment tools available on the internet. I still want to remove the bad stigma that is sometimes associated with the word Merchanting.

Q: Was it the first web site you ever created?
A: No. For a brief time about a decade ago I had an antivirus help website. But it was straight HTML code, and mainly only provided links to antivirus resources. Back then blogging wasn't as popular as it is now. That first website of mine could have easily been a WordPress blog in today's world.

Q: What technologies were used to create the site? Did you add new technologies into the mix after you created the original version?
A: My coding background is very limited. I wrote my first program in BASIC almost thirty years ago when I was eight years old on a RadioShack Color Computer 2. But I never really got into programming. It was only ten years ago I tried my hand at limited HTML coding. It was only a couple of years ago, when I first wanted a more dynamic aspect for my RuneScape blog which meant I needed to teach myself PHP and mySQL. I had, and still have, no formal programming education. It's all been trial and error as I learn and improve the GEC.
The GEC itself is extremely heavily dependent on PHP and mySQL. With the exception of the forums, the entire site is custom made. This has been a blessing and a curse. Even though there are several thousand pages accessible on the GEC, only a few pages need to be coded to build all the pages visitors see. Yet that also means that even the simplest changes require making sitewide changes to some very important scripts. One mistake can take down thousands of pages, and even take down the entire site.
Currently the only new technologies I'm looking into are integrating with Facebook Connect and developing HTML5 graphing. Visitors can share various things already from the GEC to Facebook. But I'd eventually like to add the ability to logon to the GEC using Facebook. But I'm talking technologies here. We have ton of new features we are adding that use our current technologies. PHP and mySQL are still very powerful tools.

Q: Is there a unique feature/service your site provides to Runescape players?
A: That would be the Mock Grand Exchange. As I mentioned before, this is a virtual Grand Exchange that allows visitors to try out investment strategies without risk.

Q: Which feature/service took the most time and effort to create?
A: The Mock Grand Exchange. This changed the entire direction of the Grand Exchange Central. Before the MockGE, anyone could use all the features. But the MockGE required user accounts (which is why I added the forums... so I could use the forums user accounts for the MockGE). It require required fairly complex coding to mimic the real GE. It required detection of Official GE price updates almost immediately. Plus it required a fair bit of politics. How to mimic the GE without stepping on Jagex toes? It had to be an effective tool without duplicating the real thing. Also, since members can compare their performance to other members, I had to find a way that new members could still "compete" with older members who might have more mockGP.

Q: Which feature/service was the most complex from the programming stand point?
A: The whole site. LOL. The truth is, not being a programmer, almost everything has been a challenge. But if I had to pick one thing, it is getting the graphs right. Since the start I have used a nice FLASH app to create the GEC graphs. But I was never particularly happy with it. And once I got my iPhone, it became more important to me to look into graphing in HTML5. That is something I have been looking into for almost a year now, and have yet to implement. Only on the GEC mobile pages do I touch HTML5 graphs. But our mobile site is very limited, and the graphs are not particularly interesting. Yet.

Q: Is there a feature/service of the site you are most proud of?
A: Most members would probably think this is a minor feature, but I still smile when I think about it. The Clan Manipulation detection formula. Our Clan Manipulation detection mathematics are not perfect, but they do provide a nice level of logic and reasonable accuracy. The GEC uses what we call the 4x4 Rule. Any items that have increased and/or decreased in overall value by more than 4% for four days out of the last five days are flagged as potentially being manipulated. It seems to be fairly on the spot, and I'm a little smug about that.

Q: Did you start the site alone or with friends?
A: I started the site by myself.

Q: Are you the only developer of the site's code?
A: Yes, I'm the only developer. Again, I have no formal training in coding and I'm pretty much the only person that could understand my admittedly poor coding design. Though over the past year I have been updating portions of the site to be a little more clean.

Q: How much time do you normally spend supporting the site? A few hours a day? A few hours a month?
A: That really depends. There are times where I can easily put in 20 or 30 hours in a week on the site. But then there are times (like recently) when an unholy convergence of personal conflicts happen an I have almost no time at all to work on the site. Sadly, with me, it is an all or nothing type of situation. When I'm working on the site (about 40 weeks a year) I'm putting in at least 20hrs a week. The remaining 12 weeks I'm doing almost nothing but putting out any small fires (maybe a few minutes a week).

Q: What is the most difficult/challenging task you have to do to maintain the site?
A: Finding the free time to write (or rewrite) quality features. I have a backlog of features/fixes 13 pages long I want to implement. Coming back from those before mentioned unholy convergences is always hard. What to do first? What amazing features can I add that will make up for my time away?
I am thankful that I am a very anal person, and therefore I wrote the site with backup contingencies that allows the GEC to run itself in most situations. Every once in a while something horrible will happen that seems like it will require my immediate attention. But then I'll discover that the GEC somehow self corrected and is functioning properly. At those time I sit back and say out loud "Wow. I didn't know it could do that."

Q: How many staff members do you have? How did you find/chose them?
A: I have two staff members. Unfortunately one of them has disappeared over the past six months (that happens to everyone from time to time). But my other staff member Stramel has been an incredible addition to the site. He keeps an eye out on our forums, keeping them safe for our members, and tries to answer questions as best he can. I choose him and my other staff member based on their involvement in the forums and maturity level. Pretty much if someone is being helpful in the forums, and PMing me with questions and suggestions, and they do not present a negative attitude, I'll eventually ask them to become a mod. Over time, I hope to have more things for mods to do. But right now their job is focused on the forums. Though Stramel does have some limited ability to make minor changes to item detail information.

Q: Are there aspects of web site management you were able to completely delegate to others?
A: I wouldn't call it completely, but I have pretty much handed almost all control of the GEC forums to Stramel.

Q: Did you ever have to deal with hostility and/or attacks from other fan sites?
A: Not specifically from other fan sites. I usually am approached from other sites to merge or work with them as partners. I'm looking into a separated partnership with one such site right now, though I haven't had much time to follow up on it. However, every once in a while I do have to deal with attacks on the site as a whole from persons unknown. This happens to any sizable site, and is standard business. But as a community, I have heard very few negative comments about the GEC. Usually the only negative comments I see are about site design. And usually I agree.

Q: Did you ever consider making money with the site or is it just a hobby?
A: It is a hobby, though I do have some Google ads that go toward paying my web hosting costs. I wouldn't say I make any profit off the site. When all is said and done, I probably make about $0.17 an hour for my time.

Q: Do you still play Runescape? If yes, how often?
A: Sadly, I play almost never now. What little free time I have to play RuneScape, I need to spend working on my site. Thankfully, the nature of my site doesn't require me to be an active RuneScape player. It does preclude me from giving much investment advice these days. But my members can take care of the advice part. I focus my attention on the mathematics, which doesn't require my involvement in game. That said, I do miss playing.

Q: What kind of Runescape player are you? Which Runescape aspect is most appealing to you: quests, role-playing, skilling, pking, minigames etc.?
A: When I was playing actively I stuck to trying to making money through combat. And the quests were pretty fun. Ironically, I didn't use to GE much to make money. Though I did fully adore merchanting when I made a small fortune off Strange Fruit a couple of years ago when the Random Events update occurred. Everyone knew about the update for a few weeks before, and I just knew those fruit were going to skyrocket. That was a ton of fun.

Q: Are there other Runescape fan sites you personally use as a Runescape player?
A: Whenever I need advice or quest help I use There are a lot of quality sites out there, but was the site I used when I first started playing, and therefore they are the first (and usually the only) place I need to go.

Q: Is there something you don't mind revealing about your RL (age, country, hobbies etc.)?
A: I live in the midwest USA. I play darts and do computer consulting. Love the Green Bay Packers.

Thank you very much, Absenm!


Josh said...

The GEC is a great website, definitely worth checking out.

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