Glitch, launching today from start-up Tiny Speck, is a massively multi-player game, but it’s different from many other MMOs such as World of Warcraft in that it’s not a combat game. It’s a quirky, humorous, non-combat game. But it’s just as ambitious, perhaps more so than those combat games. Butterfield has set out to create his own humanistic version of those violent games with a positive culture all its own. Butterfield is challenging the conventional gaming wisdom that nihilistic killing is necessary to build a popular game. It’s the product of years of thinking–Flickr itself was a spin-off of a game company–since many of the early Flickr team have joined Tiny Speck.
The game is so elaborate–but also open-ended–that it is difficult to boil down to a simple summary. Glitch takes place in the shared imagination of 11 ancient giants. People in Glitch play in real-time in one shared world, where everything that people do affects others in the game. For example, individuals at the edge of the world can unlock new regions for everyone else. The game revolves around learning new skills and unlocking tools, quests and activities. Skills that people can learn include animal kinship, levitation and transcendental radiation, mining metals or refining chemicals, skills which can be used to create powders or use magic.
The game is designed to be very social, with a Facebook-style stream of activity of your friends, the ability to instant message friends, status updates, in-game messages and forums. Also, much of what people do in the game is social. Besides talking to people and interacting with them, one popular activity is throwing themed parties. People who buy houses- can invite people over for impromptu get-togethers. At these parties people do things like create Conga lines. There are also games within the game, such as one called Game of Crowns, where people chase each other to grab a crown from atop each others’ heads.
While it is an MMO, with levels and achievements, Glitch is quite open-ended like a virtual world. So many beta testers have created their own games and activities. For example, some have created scavenger hunts by hiding jewels behind trees and leaving notes for people to follow. There’s also a big cave that looks like a dragon, which people have decided is a mythical place–so they’ve left notes there with wishes for the dragon. Some of those wishes have been answered. In another example, the game’s creators left dice in the game, which have no specific purpose for the formal game itself–but people have used the dice to create their own games. “We leave it open-ended so we’re constantly surprised by what people are building on their own,” says Kakul Srivastava, vice president, product & operations.
This player-driven “culture creation” is an important part of Glitch and defines how it is different from combat-oriented MMOs. The point is not to make alliances and kill off people, but rather to form communities for other activities.
The elaborate hair styles in Glitch
Butterfield’s original vision for the game was to create an MMO-style game–without combat. When he was growing up he played Sim City but wanted to create a game where you are one of the Sims, instead of a God figure that controls everything. When Butterfield talks about the game he sounds a little like an anthropologist. “It’s interesting to see the social-cultural evolution that takes place, when a game world gets developed and there’s a a persona with people in cooperation or in competition,” Butterfield says. “It’s partly also that I loved the idea of MMO games but have never been into the intensely muscle-armed killing. It’s hard to take seriously.”
Because it is not a hard-core MMO game, Butterfield expects to draw a wide range of players from male core gamers to young women to grandmothers. “I wanted to make a game where it wasn’t an act of combat, because play I think is a really valuable part of life,” Butterfield says.
However, it is not a social game as you would find on Facebook. It uses Facebook to find people’s friends but the game is separate from Facebook. While most social games have a high rate of churn–people playing for a little while then leaving–Glitch is designed to be engaging like an MMO for people to play for hours. Butterfield sees some social games as having a “scorched earth” effect, where people have to pay money to advance in a game or “bug their friends” to get their help, but eventually burn out. Virtual goods in Glitch are designed to be for self expression–with avatars for example–rather than to advance in the game, he says. Butterfield says he doesn’t have to have the same massive numbers of users of other Facebook social games as long as players stay very engaged in the game.
Glitch also has APIs and SDKs for developers to create third party apps from Glitch. The company has put out one iPhone app itself, called Glitch HQ, that enables people can see the activity of their friends in the game. Butterfield anticipates developers pulling out people’s their avatars–one of the biggest features on the site–and using them in other applications. In one example, there’s a website called Glitch Mash, where people can vote on other people’s avatars to decide which are the best.
Another interesting aspect of Glitch is that it’s built on both detailed and intricate hand-drawn art, while also built on a deep technology platform. The technology was built first and took some time. Every action and item in the game can be changed on the fly. Butterfield showed how the back-end of the system worked. Selecting from a long list of game items, he clicked on one, then selected from a drop-down menu to add new energy and mood points to the item, then added conditions such as to work only in certain parts of the game. The system then automatically writes codes that can be updated to the game on the fly. This infrastructure makes it possible for game developers to make changes to the game without having to get engineers to rewrite code, which can be necessary in a game that is so large with so many parts that affect each other.
As far as the art, the game has been intricately created. Each section of the game is wildly different. The player avatars can be customized down to intricate detail from the distance between the eyes to a wardrobe system of more than 1,000 items. The avatars are all hand-drawn, not computer rendered, which looks different than many other games. Overall the art is quirky and whimsical, as the interaction in the game is. “There’s been an incredible focus on art and detail of hand-crafting of illustrations to match that to incredibly flexible scalable back-end,” Srivastava says. “When you put the two together it can scale to how a game is played at Internet or web scale.”
Glitch, which has been testing in beta since April, is backed by venture firms Accel Partners and Andreesssen Horowitz.