What is Glitch? The website says it’s a massively multiplayer game that takes place “inside the minds of eleven peculiarly imaginative giants”. Elsewhere, a trawl through some promotional videos suggest it’s a smarter, prettier, savvier twist on free-to-play micro-transaction-driven games like MapleStory, with a little of the endless reward schedule of FarmVille thrown in. In other words, it’s a thin-client, single-shard MMOG in which you take on quests, pick fruit, invest in skills and equip amusing hats.
Speak to Stewart Butterfield, the founder of Glitch’s developer, Tiny Speck, and he will tell you something else. “This sounds very strange, and possibly lofty,” he laughs, “but the ultimate goal is that the game will create a culture. We have societal mechanics, like corporations and some tongue-in-cheek religions, and there’s some good game elements that come out of those competitive group things, but what’s more interesting to us is building that culture: building the kind of world that the people who play it want it to be.”
This shouldn’t be too surprising, really, because, on a fundamental level, that’s another definition of Glitch: it’s what the co-founder of Flickr – and one of the people who engineered Web 2.0's cheery sense of community – did next. Actually, it’s what he originally wanted to do in the first place.
“Someone once said that Flickr was massively multiplayer photo sharing,” says Butterfield. “And that’s totally true, even down to the fact that there was all this code that was written to support a game that was still in there. Over time a lot of that was removed – at first, Flickr was a lot more real-time, and more synchronous – but a lot of the dynamics came from the game we wanted to make, and a lot of the community did too.”
That game was called Game Neverending, and it was a dangerously complex multi-player project by the standards of the early years of the decade. “Flickr itself was never part of the game, but it was based on the same technology,” explains Butterfield. “We started working on the game in 2002, and we built a prototype. This got great reviews from testers and everything, but it was literally just a prototype: something you’d have to throw away before building the real thing. We shut it down and started building the game itself in the summer of 2003, and it was really a terrible time to try and raise money for anything, what with WorldCom, Enron, the crash and all the markets tanking. We just couldn’t get anyone interested. We knew the game was big and ambitious and would take another year to launch, and we knew we couldn’t last that long.”
Instead, Butterfield and his colleagues stitched together Flickr in order to get some money coming in. “We had this idea that we could launch Flickr, then sell it, and then put that money into making the game,” he says. “That’s in the end what happened – but it just took eight years.”