In this post, I'd like to provide the context for the project I'm currently writing about on this blog. I'm also using this as an opportunity to start a series of blog posts breaking down my recent talk from DjangoConUS 2022 about what I learned related to Django while building this project.
I've realized since giving the talk there are a few things I'd like to change in/add to it. So instead of a blog post summarizing the talk, I'm opting to revisit the talk and discuss those changes/additions (as well as highlighting the advice I feel holds up). The beginning of the talk covers some of the content of this post. The other sections of the talk will be covered in dedicated posts in the coming weeks.
In 2018, I founded AstroVenture with my former colleagues from Penn State University. When I worked there from 2010-2014, we built a videogame that teaches introductory astronomy to undergraduate students that we later named 'University of Mars'. We founded the company in order to sell that game to anyone who wants to learn astronomy. If you'd like to check it out, the first quarter of the game is free as a demo at the link above. If you'd like to play more than that, contact me! There is also a video at the site if you just want to see some gameplay to get a better idea of how it works.
In the nearly 5 years since we founded the company, this has been a side project that I've worked on actively. It is the project that I really dove into and learned Django with. I'd previously had some professional experience with Django, but I had a lot of other responsibilities on that project, so I didn't have time to dig into Django itself as much as I would have liked. The game was built with Unity3D, which I also learned as I built this project.
The game uses a story to engage students and set up discussions for each topic. The gameplay loop for each lesson is for the game characters to start discussing the topic of the lesson (ranging from gravity to dark energy), then the student explores some type of interactive minigame on the topic, followed by a quiz. Then we usually lead into the next section's discussion and repeat.
The servers that I manage for the company handle the website, which has the functionality you would expect from a Django website: login, download the game, view content related to the game (mostly in the form of our static 'encyclopedia' pages that accompany the game). Additionally, those servers also track student progress as they play through the game in order for instructors to give credit to students for finishing the different sections of the game. Currently, instructors can download a CSV file with player progress and quiz scores, but I'm working on integrating with Canvas and Blackboard to make grade syncing more direct.
The backend code for this player tracking was the first API that I ever wrote and was originally written in PHP hosted in a VPS. When I founded the company, I rewrote the API in Django and moved the hosting to AWS. Since my time was limited, I mostly ported the previous API to Django, faults and all. Fortunately, I had some time to dedicate to this recently and I've just finished updating it to be more efficient and use more of Django Rest Framework's built in features. As for the infrastructure, I chose AWS because I had some experience with it, and I had access to free credits there for a limited time. I'll cover more about the infrastructure in a future post.
We use Sentry for error handling and Stripe for payment processing, and I highly recommend both.
The front end of the website is in a separate repo written in Typescript with a bit of jQuery sprinkled in. It also uses Bootstrap for CSS. I chose to not use Django for the front end because I thought I might have someone else working on it who wouldn't have familiarity with Django. If I were to start again today, I might do it differently and have everything in one repo. I'm not exactly sure what I'd settle on, though I'd investigate HTMX, Alpine.js, and Tailwind for CSS as I've heard good things about those.
If any of these technology choices are interesting to you, I'm happy to discuss them more. See the contact links on the about page, or at the bottom of this page.
In the upcoming posts, I'll talk more about the other sections of the talk: infrastructure, testing, and Django vs DRF.