Flickr Cofounder Launches Peculiar Online Game, Glitch

September 30, 2011

2:00 pm

I’m not an obsessive gamer, but Glitch, which just launched this Tuesday after over two years of development and 27,000+ beta testers in five months, is helping me understand that particular breed of human. Glitch tempts players with a huge virtual world to explore, with hundreds of places full of curious hand-drawn illustrations, peaceful little tunes, and blue butterflies fluttering around.

“There are quests to go on, skills to learn, races to run, puzzles to solve and piggies to nibble. You can specialize as a chef, build your own multinational construction company, or just hang out with your friends,” their website explains. This world is a product of Tiny Speck, a game company founded in 2009 by Flickr cofounder Stewart Butterfield and three early Flickr team members; it is funded by Accel Partners and Andreessen Horowitz.

Glitch is a massive multiplayer, Flash-based browser game that takes place inside the imagination of 11 giants. It’s also nonviolent – which makes some observers question its addictiveness. Players can participate in auctions, buy houses and host parties, and earn currants (money), achievement badges, and skills like smelting, cocktail crafting, and focused meditation. The designers clearly have a sense of humor; scattered throughout Glitch’s world, Ur, there are items like jars of secret sauce, the Glitch game itself, and an herb called purple, which user Don Draper is allegedly trafficking.

I played around in Ur for a while, and it was intriguing. Glitch forum users complain about the normal suite of bugs, but for me the game loaded pretty quickly. The tutorial tips in the beginning were helpful but not annoying, and I got my own personal greeter – one of many volunteers that offer advice to new players. But mine turned out to be Butterfield himself, his avatar wearing an olive-green feathered cap and regal garb. He showed me how to pet and milk a butterfly, gave me fruit juice and stew, and led me up a tree to collect energy points.

Butterfield, who admitted he was exhausted after the launch, said they learned a lot from players during the beta. While discarding some game elements like a class system, they were surprised by the enthusiastic response to others; for example, players are now spending millions of currants on wind-up toys that the Tiny Speck team built in a few hours.

Glitch is not available as a Facebook or mobile app, although the Glitch HQ iOS app lets players view their profile, interact with others, and learn skills. And unlike in many Facebook games such as FarmVille, players can’t buy their way through Glitch; most of the items available for purchase are clothing. Glitch generates revenue through these items as well as subscriptions, which come with allotments of credits and exclusive character looks.

While the name “Glitch” may have negative connotations for a game, its creators think otherwise; Butterfield told me that his favorite thing about the game is “the absurdity.” Real-life glitches demand to be experimented on and played with, the inspiration for creative and slightly wacky fixes. And so with this game: there is lots to discover, including a supposed interrogation room for disruptive players.

Tiny Speck also encourages players to participate in deciding feature and content priorities by casting votes with referendum points and has asked players what kind of chat they want. Beyond that, the company is releasing APIs and SDKs for developers to build apps integrated with Glitch.

“We’ll be adding a lot more content,” Butterfield told me while showing me around Glitch. “But, mostly we’ll be adding more tools for players to build things themselves.” Meanwhile, I’ll be avoiding the game to save myself from addiction.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact [email protected]

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