Thursday, October 25, 2018

Stripe Programming - The Complexity Factor

For anyone who is contemplating building their own E-Commerce solution, particularly those of you who are doing RPG related projects with any sort of Subscription and/or Platform (where your users can sell their things through your site) model ... this is for you. I'm going to go over the maddening realities of Stripe programming.

First, let's be clear. Stripe is probably (almost definitely) the best, simplest, and most coherent of all the options out there currently. It is the easiest one to program and work with that I've found so far. Paypal? Fuggetaboutit. First Data? OMG, no please no. In fact, I did an exhaustive analysis of the features of all of them and Stripe turns up as the best of the lot. Perhaps most principally in that Stripe along with all the other important e-commerce features required allows you to plug in Avalara which is a Tax Calculation and Processing system so you can easily handle all of the State sales taxes for your product and/or service.

So, that said, Stripe sucks. It's enormously complicated stuff. Not so much in how to code it, which depending on your language of choice (it supports many languages such as
Ruby, Python, PHP, Java, Node, Go, and (to a lesser degree than the others for some reason) .Net)) is more or less straight forward. In the case of .Net, my language of choice, we get code like this:

Dim CustomerService = New StripeCustomerService()
  Dim Customer As New StripeCustomer
  Dim CustomerID As String = ""
  Dim StripeRequestOptions As New StripeRequestOptions
  Dim CustomerOptions As New StripeCustomerCreateOptions()


    CustomerOptions.Description = "Customer for " & StripeCustomerEmail
    CustomerOptions.Email = StripeCustomerEmail
    CustomerOptions.Metadata = New Dictionary(Of String, String)() From 
       {"UserID", UserID}
    StripeRequestOptions.IdempotencyKey = IdempotencyKey.ToString


    Customer = CustomerService.[Create](CustomerOptions, StripeRequestOptions)
    StripeCustomerKey = Customer.Id

    Catch ex As StripeException
    End Try

So, not too horrible. Of course, in the case of .Net your first task, which isn't as easy as you'd like, is to find coherent complete code examples. The Stripe website support system offers the barest minimal examples for you, and often they are inadquate for anything more complicated than the equivalent of Dim strSayHi as String = "Hello World".

Ok, so where does it get complicated to the point that you're sitting there at 2:30am pulling the last of your hairs out of your head? Ahhhhh... ok. Let's take a look.

You're a good developer. You set up a good solid development environment. A local machine on which to do your initial development, a test machine (or site) on which to post your code and test it out, and have your friends and testers try to find bugs in it, and then the Production (aka Live) server on which you are hosting your Real website. Fine. That's normal.

Now lets look at Stripe. They too have a Production and Test system. So you can create test accounts and they will show up in the test system, and not pollute your production system with test junk. Fair enough. But they don't have anything that is equivalent to your Local environment. So ... when you create new accounts while you're doing your initial Stripe programming, what you want to do is send Stripe a message that says "Hi, please create a new Stripe Customer in your database for me, and then send me the Stripe Customer Key back." Then you can keep a record of that key in your own database so that when you do transactions with your customer, like allowing them to upgrade from one Subscription Tier to the next, you have the customer key so you can ensure the correct customer gets their account updated. Makes sense so far, right?

But what happens when you create a customer on your local machine, as you are naturally bound to do while you're doing your initial development, or else how can you program the thing? So you create a new Stripe Customer. Presumably in their test system. But you record it in your local system database. Hold that thought.

So everything works and you deploy to test. Goodie goodie. You have your friends test and create a customer. This new customer also goes into the Stripe Test database, but on your side it doesn't go into your local database (of course) but goes into your Test system database instead. Did you consider what will happen when you go to look for these two customers from either your local or your test application. Each one will only find one of those customers. Both of them are in the Stripe Test Customer database, though.

What does this mean? Well, it means that your code has to account for whether or not your code is being run in Local or Test mode (or Production for that matter). That turns out to be a whole bunch of code, by the way. Let's say that you didn't realize this, and there's nothing on the Stripe support site to tell you that you should be thinking about this BEFORE you get started coding, until you've gotten midway in your programming effort. You now realize that something weird is happening when you look for accounts on your local system, and they don't exist. Making matters worse is if you happen to back up and restore your production database back to local to debug what you think is going on. Now you have only your production stripe accounts locally, and they do not match your stripe test accounts at all. Wow. What a mistake! You can, of course, roll back to your local database provided you thought of this in advance and thought to back it up before overwriting it with the production version. But why would you think of that? Well, experience with Stripe will teach you to make those extra moves, believe me.

Ok, so at some point you decide, it's probably a good idea to check the returned customer key to ensure that it is a valid key. Right? That's normal. So you do some checks. Does the key start with "cus_"? Is it 18 characters long? Ok, good. It's valid so you continue with your code. Except wait. Sometimes it is not 18 characters. So you figure it must be an invalid key. One day of debugging later, you come to realize that valid Stripe customer keys can be any length! Wow!! Who the hell does that?? Stripe, of course. So you go to the IRC channel and ask the engineers who very politely explain, yes, we can change the key length at any time without notice. Ohhh... wowowowow. Ok. Well then I can check the "cus_" at least. Nope. That too, they calmly explain, can also be changed at any time without notice. Sooooo... wait, you say, ... exactly how am I supposed to validate that I got back a valid stripe customer key? "If you are a good programmer you will figure that out. We can't help you with that kind of thing - that's on your end." they calmly tell you. In other words - you can not validate that you have a valid stripe key because they do not ensure consistency of format. Fascinating. So you rip out your validation code because it not only doesn't work, but produces phantom errors. Fine. Whatever. You keep going.

The more you build the more complicated the issues get... mostly because Stripe very nicely offloads all of the validation work to you. You wind up having to build a great number of additional structures in your system to compensate for Stripe not doing so on their side. Here's another example.

As you are tooling along minding your own business building your site and having fun learning all about Stripe's idiosyncrasies, you discover another fascinating fact. Stripe does nothing at all to prevent the creation of duplicate keys with the same email address for your application in their system. Zip. So as you are building and testing your login and Stripe account creation system you later find that you have dozens of accounts with different Stripe Customer Keys and the same email address. Ask yourself - how will you know on your side which customer id is the one that conducted a given transaction if you have a dozen stripe customer keys for the same user? Hello?

The answer to this is, according to the calm and soothing Stripe engineers, is to build your system "the right way, not the wrong way". Ohhhh... duh. Of course! But what does this mean? It means you need to account for possible duplicate Stripe account creations on your side. They do nothing to either ignore a new Stripe request from your application if there is already an existing account and send the original Stripe Customer Key back to you (which is what they should do), or even alert you that such a key already exists (a lesser solution they could also easily implement that still leaves you somewhat in the lurch on your side). Instead they just blithely create yet another Customer Key and send that to you. Yay. That is so wrong.

So anyway, now you have worked it out. You realize these things and you build a bunch of additional structures necessary to track what system on Stripe you are addressing ("Production", "Test", or "Local"). You have in your web.config file keys for both systems and a flag saying which keys to use depending on which system. You have in your database REF_Stripe_Customer table a "System" field that says which system the account is for, and you check that (because for a while there you were pulling out clumps of hair trying to figure out why your customers seem to be valid on one system but flagging errors in the others). And you have at least a dozen extra functions to manage dealing with these, among other, Stripe related conundrums you've slammed face first into along the way. Here's a little diagram to suggest what you're dealing with.

So no, I do not have a complete solution to offer you at this point, I'm sorry. I feel like I'm at the tail end of the issues, but I'm not 100% sure. At any point new gotcha's can surface. I will say, however, that this should at least get you over the hump in terms of the kinds of things you need to think about when doing Stripe programming.

Stripe programming is not hard ... once you know what to do. In fact, once you get it, it actually is pretty easy. But watch that first step! It's a doozy! And be ready to do lots of Stripe Account cleanup coding along the way. You will likely need it!

Friday, October 19, 2018

Elthos RPG - Meta Game - Round 5

So far the Primordial Age has passed over 500,000 years with the Elkron fashioning mountain ranges, great rivers, fertile lands and forests, and a number of Enchanted lands. In the 400,000 year era, unexpectedly, the Elkron of the Moon created a race of Crystal Giants who feed on crystals produced by volcanic magma. These giants were the first race crafted by an Elkron, and are by far the oldest race in the world. They procreate by a method of crystalline budding, where a giant may grow up to 100 feet tall, and then calve in half, forming two giants, both with a shared memory. The magma crystals the giants consume is from a volcanic mountain range in the farthest northern tundra of the world. Having 100,000 years of growth before the next Elkron decided to create a race, the Crystal Giants are strong at about 8,000 of them. When their numbers grow too large for them to be supported by the crystals of the magma mountains, the elder generation of Giants voluntarily sacrifice themselves by hurling their ancient bodies into the tallest volcano, Mount Erebus, thus seeding the magma with a new generation of crystals for the Giant Folk. The Elkron of the Moon created this race at great cost to his Kismet, but wished to be the first to have created a race in the world.

In the 500,000th year, to the east the Sun Goddess fashioned a race, also at great cost. Her race are known as the Centaur-Pegisi. They are centaurs, in other words with Pegasus wings. They are able to fly to the Enchanted floating forests in the Realm of the Sun.

To the south, the Elkron of Death, in Pluto's realm, created a mountain range of radioactive Plutonium. His plan, grim and diabolical, was to create a race of savage cave men whom he will enslave and set about mining the radioactive ore. They will of course die horribly from the exposure. And so the grim Elkron has decreed that the radiation of the deadly metal shall turn them into a new race when they die ... and so the brutal and inhuman race of cave zombies will be born. He intends to equip them with radioactive weapons and armors such that they will be invincible foes to all who are foolish enough to stand in the grim Elkron's way.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Marketplace GMs on Elthos Mythos Machine

I had a problem with the business model of the Elthos RPG Mythos Machine that for a long time stumped me. But I think I, with the help of my friend C.D. (I don't know if he would wish to be named here, so ... C.D. will do) have licked it.

The setup is this. I want to create a platform that offers an RPG Framework for Settings creators. I want them to be able to create their own Worlds as RPGs, and offer them to others to buy at a price they set, and with my platform getting a modest commission of 12%. Purchasers can obtain a copy through the Mythos Machine, and play the World with their friends, modifying the things of that World however they wish. To this end I created a Worlds Marketplace.

When you first create an account on the Mythos Machine you come in as a Player. This allows you to create Characters in the Worlds that GMs have made available. Presumably you've been invited by one of your friends to play a character in their World. They sent you a link to the Mythos Machine, you create a free account, find their World, and begin creating your Character there. You select the class and race you want to play, depending on what your GM has made available to players as part of their world, purchase your character's armors, weapons, equipment with the money your character starts out with, and select your skills, and maybe you add some background information about your Character, their personality, traits, etc, and perhaps add an image to represent them... and voila, you're ready to play. The Mythos Machine handles all the math of figuring out things like your Armor Class and Attack Level and so forth according to the Elthos RPG rules. The rules are available on DriveThruRPG or on the Website. And so, you can now play in your friend's World. You can even keep an ongoing history of your Character's adventures through the Mythos Machine.

One day you decide you want to run a Campaign. Before I changed the business model this week it was the case that you needed to upgrade to a Basic GM. This gives you the ability to create your own World in the Mythos Machine. You can create as many of your own Races, Classes, Weapons, Armors, Cultures, Places and Campaigns as you wish. It's a very expansive system. This costs a measly $2.99 / month. You can also as Basic GM purchase Worlds from the Worlds Marketplace. So you create a World and it's great. You and your friends have a blast, and now you have a new idea for another World... totally different than the last one.

At this point you might want to upgrade to Premium GM. This allows you to create as many Worlds as you wish. It also allows you to create Shared Worlds that you can work on with other GMs whom you invite to that World. It also allows you to create "Packaged Worlds" which can be sold in the Worlds Marketplace at a price you set. So lets say you have some cool World ideas, and you think other GMs would like to take them for a spin. You spent a few weeks slinging your ideas together, set a price of $5, and then let your friends know it's up on the Marketplace. They buy it, and tell some of their friends, and so you wind up making, oh, who knows, let's say you sell 20 of them and make $100. Over time, maybe word gets out that you have a cool world there, and you sell 100. Who knows? Anyway, as Premium GM you can set up shop and sell your Worlds, as many as you like, for whatever price you think their worth (minimum price is $3 to cover Stripe Transaction fees, and prevent that all-sucking race to the bottom that happens with PWYW systems).

So the problem was that there was no way for GMs to purchase Worlds unless they joined as Basic GMs. It seems like a inhibiting factor, right? So the solution: Marketplace GMs. This tier is also free, except it allows you to purchase Worlds from the Worlds Marketplace and play them with your friends. You can create new places, and adventures in these worlds, but you can not add or modify the Things (Weapons, Armors, etc) within it. So it's pretty much a very basic setup for GMs to try out the system without having to sign up for the subscription service. I think this works out well. Premium GMs can offer their Worlds, and Marketplace GMs can purchase them at the base cost without a subscription fee.

That's all been programmed and is current in test at

What do you think of this solution?

Also, please feel free to give it a spin and let me know how it works for ya. You can copy a final draft of the Elthos RPG Rules book from the website once you've created an account on the Mythos Machine.  Thanks!

Ok, that's the story. Have fun. :)