Casual and social browser-based MMOs are hardly scarce these days, but social MMO Glitch
has been enjoying a special anticipation. That's in part because its developer, Vancouver-based Tiny Speck, was struck by four members of Flickr's founding team, and Katamari Damacy
creator Keita Takahashi joined them mid-development to add some of his whimsical aesthetic.
Glitch has now launched
, although invites are being rolled out carefully to manage growth. According to co-founder Stewart Butterfield, former Flickr CEO, it's the realization of a dream older than some might expect: The original concept for Flickr was a game, he tells us. The company was founded on the concept of creating "an MMO that is not combat-based, that has a lot of absurdity and whimsy."
But 2002 was the worst possible time to strike out on such a project, he says, amid the post-9/11 atmosphere, a dot-com trough and the Enron-era corruption scandal. The Flickr founders had raised a little bit of investment sufficient for a prototype of the game (early title: Neverending
), but finishing it would take more time and money than anyone had then.
"We just couldn't," Butterfield says. "We needed something that we could finish more quickly that used the technology we had developed so far, and that was the first version of Flickr; it was based on the game engine. At the time it was synchronous, so you all had to be online at the same time."
But the stopgap product very quickly became the main works. "It ended up taking over the whole company... at the time we did it, Friendster was really hot, and we thought we could sell Flickr for a million dollars and use that money to finish the game," Butterfield jokes.
Yet in a sense that's sort of what happened. Flickr's four founders can now leverage their success and reputation to invest in their game vision in earnest -- and in a much more favorable environment, says Butterfield.
"The tech has grown by leaps and bounds, and we're all more experienced. Most importantly, there are two orders of magnitude more people online. It was easy raising money; we've raised three rounds of financing, and now we have so much money that if we can't make this an enormous success, something's really wrong," he laughs.
One of Glitch
's biggest goals is to differentiate, and the sense of whimsy and absurdity that brought the team together with playful surrealist Takahashi is one approach to standing out. Most persistent social universes involve game mechanics like animal-raising, crop-tending and item collection, but Glitch
, a world that takes place within the dreams of giants, operates under some strange physical laws: "Batterflies" can be milked if you massage them first, trees require petting, and pigs can be persuaded to harmlessly volunteer some meat if you nibble on them.
The Flash-based 2D sidescrolling game screens also incorporate optional platforming elements that players can explore, for example climbing trees by jumping. "There's a lot of open-ended, generative gameplay," says Butterfield. "It's all hand-drawn illustration, all traditional animation, so it has a really distinctive look."
He cites Dr. Seuss, Monty Python and early Japanese games as stylistic influences. Available skin colors include Pollen Yellow, Matcha Green and French Mallow, but very little is naturalistic.
"We come at it from a strange angle," Butterfield suggests. "There's definitely people on the team who have backgrounds in the traditional game industry, but the founders are all web people. I think that gives us a unique strength on the community side."
That creates another goal for the team: To develop a community unlike those around other products, even ones that are similar. "We're used to managing big communities, but none of us really like Second Life," he says. "We can admire the technology and the infrastructure, but having it be 3D and giving it so much flexibility... one of the things that's fundamental to a game is that there's some constraints that you voluntarily enter into. There's gotta be a game."
"Having said all that, it's really hard to describe," he laughs. "Glitch
is a lot more fun to play when there's other people around. There are collaborative mechanics built into some of the ways in which people make money. Like any MMO some of the stuff ends up being grindy, so we try to make all of those things social. Mining by yourself gives you all of the resources, but mining with other players gets it done a lot faster and gives people bonuses."
is free to play, but will monetize on a dual currency system incorporating subscription options and virtual item sales. Butterfield says it's primarily customization options that are for purchase and that Tiny Speck has made it possible to have a full experience of the game without spending money.
"There will be social network integration, but it's in our interest to not abuse that kind of stuff, because so many people are abusing it and we get credit just for not abusing it," he adds.
also has a unique take on in-game advertising: Instead of brands advertising in the world, players in the game can advertise items and services to one another. The openness of the game has led to fascinating user behavior, Butterfield says, recounting how players have started everything from anonymous mail services to religious cults and banks. "People who are super into the game will spend money to get the attention of other players," he says.
One more interesting opportunity for the game to explore: Character APIs and other elements of the game will be made available so that independent developers can design their own tie-in minigames to Glitch
in which players can use the avatars they already have.
And as with any online product, launch is just the beginning, Butterfield says. "We will be limiting the rate at which people can come in, because there's a natural limit in the size of the road that is being expanded through the activities of players," he says.
"Plus, we don't want to overwhelm the community. It's a fragile thing and we don't want to screw it up,' he adds. "We spent a year up front just on tools and platforms to enable the kind of development we're used to on the web where you can push stuff out multiple times a day. We'll be constantly developing and constantly releasing new features."