Back in September, game startup Tiny Speck launched an unusual online game called Glitch. Today, the company said it is “unlaunching” the game. The company will keep the game running, but it will take it back into beta testing so that the developers can rework the game play to make it easier for users to start the game and also to add new tools for fans to create things in the game world.
Fans have fallen in love with the zany title, said Stewart Butterfield, chief executive of San Francisco-based Tiny Speck, in a a post on the Glitch blog moments ago. But there are a couple of major improvements the company wants to make to change the way the game plays. I guess you could say that Glitch has hit a glitch.
“There are two obvious and huge improvements we need to make: the first is to make the early game reveal itself more easily to new players so they can get into the fun faster,” Butterfield wrote. “The second and larger task is to give those players who have gotten over that initial hump and fallen in love with the game — spending dozens or even hundreds of hours playing — the creative tools that they need to change the world in more tangible ways: building whole new locations themselves, designing new buildings, setting up resource flows and forming flexible organizations to create bigger things together.”
Butterfield added, “And we’re committed to giving people a square deal: we know going back to beta was not what you expected, so if you have bought anything from us and you don’t feel like you got your money’s worth or you don’t like the idea of everything changing, we will give you a 100 percent, no hassle, full and complete refund.”
The funny there here is that most other game companies do major revisions like this, and they simply require their users to download a big patch. They don’t announce that they’re “unlaunching.” It’s almost business as usual in online games for the games to change over time.
[Update: In an interview, Butterfield said that the company felt like it was making a couple of major changes and had to go through the formal process of “unlaunching” because it was already generating revenues from the game. He said that the game has more than 100,000 users and that it wants the customers to be happy or get their money back.
Tiny Speck will likely work on the new features for a period of months — more than a couple of months but less than a year — as it seeks to enable the changes. The biggest change will be making the world more malleable so that heavy-duty users can create their own major objects, such as buildings, and stay busy so they don’t run out of content, Butterfiled said.
Butterfield said that the game would stay available but would have occasional down times as the company does the revisions. ]
Glitch is unlike most other games you’ve seen. From the moment you log in, you know you’re not in the real world anymore. You appear inside a brain, one of the minds of eleven giants who imagine the game’s zany landscape.
“It is super metaphorical,” the greeting for the tutorial says. “Your job is to grow and expand the world, shaping it while developing your own unique character.”
This journey into the imagination isn’t your normal game, so it’s no surprise it came from a startup that’s been working on it for a very long time.
Glitch is the brainchild of Butterfield’s Tiny Speck. Butterfield previously co-founded photo-sharing site Flickr. Video games are often slammed for their blockbuster mentality, not creativity. If Glitch takes off, it will show that there is still room in the perhaps overly commercialized game industry for artistically crafted and thought-provoking independent games. The animations of the persistent world are hand-drawn. The world has its own ecology and economy.
From the very start, Glitch is different. You can water plants, but you can also pet them to make them grow. If you nibble a pig’s ear, it will give you some meat. You can find little “music blocks,” which play snippets of music when you click on them. If you find a butterfly, you can give it a massage. If you squeeze a chicken, you can get a piece of grain.
You have to do things that keep your energy and your mood high. In order to do that, you have to collect and eat things. Everything has to stay in balance. These complex systems, such as the world’s trees, have to be cared for in order to keep the world in order. Pigs have to be fed or they eat leaves off the trees. If the leaves are eaten, the trees die.
Tiny Speck’s own press release opens with a quote from James P. Carse, who said, “There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other, infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”
Glitch is a web-based massively multiplayer online game. It is non-violent, highly social and is played as a two-dimensional cartoon animated world. Butterfield says the designers of the game and the players create the Glitch universe in tandem, with the designers constantly tweaking and improving the platform while the players cultivate a sophisticated and irreverent civilization.
Players can do just about anything, from curating an art installation to hosting a diamond-infused dinner party. Tiny Speck provides the raw materials and a stimulating environment. “The vision is to bring a new level of creativity, beauty and social engagement,” Butterfield (pictured at top) says.
Part of the mission is to bring art to a wider audience. The game mixes all sorts of original visual styles. The look varies as you travel up and down the boulevards of the world. It changes from psychedelic to surreal, from Japanese cutesy animation to hyper-saturated pixel art, classic cartoon to contemporary mixed media.
Players can adjust their avatars, or game characters, in many different ways. They can buy outfits and customize as they wish. They can go on missions. In one, they have to get some official papers from a government agency. They have to interact with bureaucrats, who keep saying they have to check with someone to get a proper answer. At some point, the bureaucrat finally delivers the papers.
The game invites players to come back a lot by getting them to learn skills. There are about four months’ worth of skills in the game now. The game also has hundreds of different objects.
You can also come back just to explore the surreal universe. If you want eggs, you can get them from an eggplant. Then you take them to a chicken to incubate them. Dairy products in the game come from butterfly milk. And pigs are born from the eggs.
On the social side, players can go on quests together or play multiplayer sports mini games. They can form conga lines and dance. The world is unified, so friends can interact with anybody in the world. The game is built in Adobe Flash, so it isn’t that demanding, technically. But Tiny Speck tried to push the limit on how many objects can be on the screen at one time. The game has cool lighting effects and faux 3D animations.
Butterfield and his wife Caterina Fake were thinking about making a game before they did Flickr. But Flickr took off like wildfire and they sold it to Yahoo in 2005. They then returned to work on the original game that they had started. Tiny Speck’s founders include Butterfield and three other original team members from Flickr: Cal Henderson (pictured above and below in green shirt), Eric Costello, and Serguei Mourachov. They started the firm in 2009 and it now has 40 employees. Tiny Speck raised $10.7 million in April from Andreessen Horowitz and Accel. Legendary game designer Keita Takahashi (no relation to me), the creator of Katamari Damacy, joined the team in July as a Glitch game designer.
Players can stay in touch with the game while on the run. The full Glitch site is accessible from a mobile app, Glitch HQ, for the Apple iOS platform. The mobile app lets players keep up with updates and chatter from their game friends. Third-party game developers are busy creating web and mobile extensions of the game using Tiny Speck’s applications programming interface.
The game is free to play, with virtual item sales. But you can subscribe to the game if you wish to get wider access to cool things. You can’t purchase anything in the game that gives you an advantage over other players. If you buy anything, it’s mostly for the sake of decoration or vanity.