Thought I’d talk about a fun little project I built that was mostly finished but not in time to be most useful. I use redux and redux-observable on some React projects at work, and it’s often said that redux isn’t just for React but there aren’t a lot of examples in the wild for that. One fun example is that I used redux as the “brains” of my Discord bot, SHARON.

The Problem Domain

I got rather involved in helping to run and moderate “fleet servers” in Sea of Thieves. Fleet Servers were attempts to run as many as six ships (Sea of Thieves’ server limit) under a single alliance flag, working to some sort of shared purpose. Ostensibly, that purpose was making the varied grinds of the game quite a bit more manageable. Allied ships share half the gold and all of the reputation gains of their other ships. But as with most things in games, the real purpose, for at least some of us, was as usual fun. (I, for one, had completed the most meaningful grinds prior to playing on fleet servers.) A lot of my fun in Sea of Thieves is the social camaraderie of a full Galleon (four players) working together.

Contrary to some of the hateful antagonist beliefs fleet servers grew on Reddit and Twitch and elsewhere, running a fleet server is a lot of hard work. There was no shortcut to building one, it took luck, time, and more than a few social skills. If you were lucky you might match two Galleons on the same server in about a half hour, depending on the number of players trying and the time of day in the server region’s time zone. Do it, say, on a busy Friday night and you might need twenty or so people and two hours. If you are really lucky you might match a third ship, but that usually seemed quite rare. Anything after that required naturally expanding the fleet with the social skills to ask politely for other players’ ships when they were done with them, and the PvP skills to back it up when the polite approach fails.

Similarly contrary to some of the worst misimpressions on social media, you couldn’t just hold a fleet server indefinitely. Some limits were naturally enforced by the game. (Our servers were sometimes very fun, natural stress tests for the game. We hit a lot of the game’s natural limits.)

So in general fleets needed to be rebuilt at least once every two days. Often, we could only hold a server for the full 48 hours on a busy weekend. While we had a few tricks for holding ships, the game always had afk/lazy kicks (and they only got better/harsher), and the easiest way to keep a ship is to have at least one person actively playing on that ship. Additionally, the reason we could sometimes keep a fleet going for an entire weekend (having players spread across time zones) was it’s own natural limit of server lifetime. People can’t play as many odd hours during the work week, so generally fleets were built at least once a day during most of a week. Even without the artificial lag of an old server, the physical lag of long ping times to server regions on another continent would sometimes drive players to build a new fleet closer to home.

After a fleet is built it has its own moderation and coordination needs. A full six galleon fleet has as many as 24 players active (and hopefully more players passively waiting their turn, and moderators). (At it’s height, the main Discord guild 3 I was a fleet builder in had several times hit a full peak of 48 active players simultaneously across two full servers, often one in a North American region and one in a European region.) That many people is always a potential source of conflicts or communication break downs, and not just the obvious ones from a game designed for PvP that encourages stealing. Some players would always want to play together, while others might never want to play together.

A lot of issues involved communications breakdowns of one sorts or another. Ships might have trouble with each other as communication wasn’t always so easy between them. Ships were each given their own Discord voice channel to focus on intraship communication. (Voice communication is often preferred for a good working ship.) Players were encouraged to keep a fleet-wide text chat channel up on another screen or device nearby for intership communications, but not everyone has two screens, and even if someone could have the text chat channel visible to them, they may be too busy on their ship to see texts in a timely manner, much less respond as such (having to switch apps or devices).

Tired players would make silly mistakes. Pirate players naturally want to push the limits of group rules, or ask for forgiveness rather than permission, even when it wasn’t intentional to grief or upset anyone. As busy as managing a single ship can be, but how isolating the sea can be sometimes when sometimes all you might see of an allied ship is when they finish a long voyage, it was often a case a ship might get it into their collective heads the concern that perhaps other ships on the server weren’t quite pulling the same weight. (This seemed to rarely be the case when such concerns were raised, but sometimes there might be a crew trying to take advantage.)

Moderation that is its own interesting communication challenge, as most moderators might only hear of problems after they’ve escalated in game. Moderators might have other things they are doing such as watching TV, studying, or playing other games. Even moderators active and playing inside a fleet might themselves be quite busy with their own ship’s activities and needs. If their own ship wasn’t involved directly in the issue, they may be unaware of other ship’s needs until it is too late, just as easily.

The “Ship Health Analysis, Reporting, and Organization Notifier” or SHARON, named after the fan favorite shipwright of the Golden Sands outpost, was my idea to try to automate a few chores of fleet building (watching /management / moderation), and add some simple klaxons for warning moderators about some of the basic situations that can lead to communication breakdowns. I built it toward the end of one of our busiest seasons, just in time for a lot fewer players to need or care about fleet servers as a daily gameplay driver (between players moving to other games, and a raft of new content in Sea of Thieves itself, most of not useful to large alliances).

Building a Bot

In a perfect fleet server world, it would be great to have an API to subscribe to in order to get a bunch of information about a server’s state. (Or better yet a full dashboard that directly shows it. 4 5)

Instead, fleet builders had the merest of proxies to track fleet status: voice channel player lists for basic ship crew status, and the fleet chat channel for intership status. Discord provides enough events to subscribe to for a bot track the same proxied information in nearly real time.

For some time in day job projects, the Reactive Extensions (or ReactiveX or RX, whichever short form you prefer, not to be confused with DOM framework React itself) has been a common tool for complicated event-driven programming. redux-observable was the immediate reach for me, providing both the RxJS event reaction mechanics I wanted and a redux store for state management of all the domain-specific details I wanted to track.

The high level architecture of SHARON thus flows directly and easily out of these basic components:

I think this gives a bit more structure than many comparable chat bots I’ve seen. I feel that anyone comfortable with redux and/or redux-observable should have an easy time seeing the structural components: Actions, Action Dispatchers, Store models, Reducers, and Epics for asynchronous and/or complicated event side effects (such as sending chat messages) and reactions.

I feel like it made for a good architecture and I’d likely reuse it for future bots.

A Single redux-observable Disappointment/Wish

One thing I’m moderately dissatisfied with redux-observable in this use case is an inability to signal a shutdown for epics. This is something that generally matters less in React in the browser, but is often requested for greater server-side rendering (SSR) support for React applications.

While I can mostly rely on the single-threaded nature of JS to avoid serializing a bad redux state to JSON on a clean shutdown of the bot, it still would be nice knowing that it was also after training any remaining in-progress epics finished their work.

Per the suggested practice of one of the SSR proposals, I tried to make sure that all of my Epics in SHARON complete if the main action$ observable itself completes (adding a takeUntil(last(action$)) in the worst case).

SHARON Progress At Current Pencil’s Down

I tried to track my ideas and progress on SHARON in the GitHub issues. The Demo Day milestone was my progress tracker for where I felt secure enough in recommending the bot to my Discord guildmates. I feel like summarizing the work finished here to celebrate spare time achievements that may never otherwise be recognized, given I didn’t make it to “Demo Day” while a SHARON would have still been useful to my main Sea of Thieves guild.

What I completed I think is easy and readable in the Epics, even months since I last looked at the codebase:

The two big goals for “Demo Day” were to add text chat monitoring for two key bits of information:

The indications from my guild was that this particular functionality was particularly important, but also the toughest part, because you would need to train at least some players to opt in to this sort of tracking. What you really want is voice chat monitoring as that would reduce friction of players needing to switch to text chat and input anything. (But I wasn’t sure I had a way to do that cheaply/reliably in hobby project for a game’s Discord bot mode.) A further complication, and the largest skepticism from my guild was opt-in training for “bot commands” and that no one would want to learn them, should have to learn them, would probably use them.

I thought I had two great mitigations planned:

  1. Mostly English-like language recognition over a “command language”. You can see a small example of the compromise-based approach I was intending to use, already modeled for leaving utterance recognition in the code repository.
  2. Gamification: People will opt-in/learn if it is fun. People will opt-in/learn if there are prizes, such as leaderboards tracking fastest voyages (or parts of them).

Plus, for things like voyage tracking I’d only need one of out every (usually) four active players to learn how to do it, and do it. (Another concern often brought up was multiple report handling, but I figured an RxJS grouping by ship for short time windows then “sorting by most specific” would easily handle that.)

redux-observable Seems Great for Bots

I thought applying redux-observable was the perfect architecture for my hobby project bot for Discord. It’s a cool use of redux and redux-observable outside of the usually expected React (or other GUI framework frontend) world. SHARON might not currently be live and shouting fleet alarms at Discord guilds, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a useful hobby project.

  1. One mitigation we started enforcing was that any treasure, loot, or cargo that was unwanted should be dropped into the sea itself to sink making it easier for the server to garbage collect it. When done as a rule, from the start of a server, we pushed the old server “wonky” point sometimes as far as around 40-45 hours. 

  2. Made for some fun, tense last minute “sell everything we have”, given with bad wind it was easily possible to be fifteen minutes from the nearest outpost, especially on an already lagging server with the added stressful lag of server notifications from everyone else in the Alliance selling as quickly as possible. 

  3. I realize that most people refer to these as “Discord servers”, but I find that name somewhat dumb (as technically inaccurate, and confusing with other uses of the word “server”), and much prefer Discord’s own API documented name for them “guilds”. I realize why that term fell out of favor at it is very videogame and not all groups on Discord are game players, but it’s still a better term for a group/team on Discord. 

  4. Our ships always flew Reaper’s Flags, which display their location at all times on the server’s map, even and especially when didn’t control a full server. This made it easier for spotting the lucky circumstances if someone managed to match a fresh ship on our server. It sometimes deterred would be PvP players as players would sometimes skip servers full of Reaper’s Flags. (Other times it encouraged them, especially during the social media blow back against fleet servers.) Alliances themselves also give full such surveillance among members. Given the existing in game “double” opt-in to surveillance, having an out-of-game map display, at least, wouldn’t be hugely game changing. 

  5. As long as I’m wishing for ponies here, let’s not forget it would be lovely to have private or semi-private server management APIs. It would be great to spin up ships and send player invites without the messiness of daily luck and talking to people. 

  6. Here so much is a wish for an API directly to pull that information from the game itself.