The founders of Flickr give us Glitch, an online exercise in world-building
Stewart Butterfield finally has the game he set out to make nearly a decade ago, before he got sidetracked by his own success.
It’s called Glitch. It’s a massive multiplayer online game world, developed in Vancouver. It went online full-time this morning after months of test runs that attracted more than 10,000 volunteer beta testers.
There isn’t an orc in sight, although the customizable avatar you choose to represent you could have a greenish tinge to his or her skin.
It’s billed as a non-violent, cooperative exercise in world building. You can grow stuff here, or run a business. But unlike online game giant Zynga’s FarmVille or CityVille, the world encompasses a vast geography through which you travel, side-scrolling.
You water trees, you pet pigs, you collect stuff. You can start your own business, or religion.
One beta tester said this about it: “I found myself describing Glitch to a friend last week as something along the lines of ‘a massive multiplayer online environment in which you gather resources and learn skills so as to devise ever more creative ways in which to do nice things for each other.’ ” The game plays in a Web browser. Fans and developers can create their own Glitch apps and mini-games for mobile devices.
Butterfield and his partners set out in 2002 to make a game like this, but it was the bottom of the dot-com market. Nobody would lend them money.
“We got down to the point where the only person on the team who got paid was the one with kids,” he recalled in a recent interview at the Yaletown office of Tiny Speck, makers of Glitch.
Their timing was lousy but they had one salvageable idea – Flickr – an online photo sharing program that was subsequently sold to Yahoo for an estimated $28 million.
“Flickr was kind of a lastditch attempt to build something based on the technology we’d already developed, that was quicker to complete. We had the naive idea that someone would buy Flickr for like a million dollars and we’d use that money to finish the game.
“That’s kind of what happened – it just took seven years or so to get back to it.”
The original target for the Glitch release was spring 2011, but the game world proved more complex than anticipated.
Very early on, they shut the world down after a short beta test and left for the weekend.
“We came back and all of the pigs in the world were dead. There weren’t people around to tend to the trees or water them, and all the trees died. The pigs survived long enough to at least starve to death, and then it was basically like an apocalypse world.”
On another occasion, one player harvested every tree in the world in order to set up a lumber store.
“If there’s too easy a way for somebody to advance in the game they will always find it — and when there are thousands of people testing they will find every little loophole that we couldn’t have anticipated.”
It usually takes about five years and a $50 million budget to develop a massive online game, Butterfield said.
Tiny Speck started working on Glitch two and a half years ago, and through three rounds of financing they raised $17 million. They have a staff of 40, and “cash left in the bank.”
Investors include LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, former Groupon president Rob Solomon and Google+ vice-president Bradley Horowitz.
The game is free. Tiny Speck hopes to profit with subscriptions and credits for people who want a custom experience.
There will also be advertising sales, of a kind. Players can buy advertisements for products they create inside the game world for sale to other players. “We should be break-even with a couple hundred thousand [players]. It should be an attractive business with a million players.”
Digital industry senior analyst Michael Inouye of ABI Research said in an interview that the online game realm is “relatively competitive.”
Zynga (FarmVille) and a few others dominate but “there is definitely room” for ventures such as Glitch – particularly if it catches on via Facebook Inouye said.
“In all successful cases the experience between the user who never pays and [the one who] spends a lot should not be so disparate that the free track is the far lesser experience,” Inouye said.
“First of all we wanted to create an environment where that stuff didn’t matter as much. The point of the game isn’t that you crush your enemies.”