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Dream On

Wed 16 Nov 2011 9:15pm GMT / 4:15pm EST / 1:15pm PST
OnlineDevelopment

Stewart Butterfield on defying convention for Tiny Speck's debut game, Glitch

Glitch was not created in a conventional way, but then Glitch isn't a conventional game.

It is free-to-play, but without the hidden costs that term now implies. It is a social game, but one that genuinely relies on communication between players to keep the experience fresh. It is an MMO, but you won't find an mage, marine, orc or space battle anywhere. In fact, you won't find any combat at all.

In your first few hours of play you might squeeze a chicken, tune a bubble, or sing to a butterfly in exchange for its milk. You might choose to specialise in Gasmogrification, Jellisac Hands or Bog Specialisation. The whole game takes place inside the imaginations of eleven dreaming giants - "It's, like, super metaphorical," the on-screen text explains - a premise that gives rise to eccentric leaps of logic and art direction, and a streak of anrachic humour that will soar over the heads of the demographics normally associated with games of this type.

Tiny Speck's long-term ambition, its co-founder Stewart Butterfield tells us, is to do for the MMO what the Wii did for consoles, and attract people who previously felt alienated by the rigid parameters of the form. For Butterfield, the only way to realise that lofty goal is to disregard received wisdom and convention. After all, there was a time when nobody thought the Wii could work, either.

"If we were trying to take advantage of specific trends right now we're doing absolutely everything wrong," he says. "It's not mobile, it's not on Facebook, we're not monetising by means of roadblocks to play that you can pay money to remove."

Tiny Speck was founded in 2009 by four of the people responsible for Flickr: Stewart Butterfield, Cal Henderson, Eric Costello, and Sergei Mourachov. The link between photo-sharing websites to persistent online worlds is far from obvious, but when Butterfield co-founded his first company, Ludicorp, in 2002, the concept for Flickr was buried in a far more ambitious project called "Game Neverending."

It was, Butterfield admits, a "lousy time" to start an internet company, not least one with its sights set on developing an open-ended online game. Enron collapsed at the end of 2001, a little under three months after the World Trade Centre was reduced to rubble by terrorist aggression. The Dotcom bubble had long since burst. The NASDAQ was down 75 per cent.

As Butterfield says, a lousy time to start an internet company.

Nevertheless, Ludicorp was showing the Game Neverending prototype to potential investors and partners. It received a lot of warm praise and encouraging words but nothing that would pay the bills, so Butterfield and his cohorts repackaged their work into something quicker, cheaper, and easier to sell. Essentially, they kept the social features, got rid of the game, and made the project about photos instead. Flickr was born.

I think a lot of people learned the false lesson that WoW represented the only path that you could go down

"Our na´ve idea at the time was that we would sell it for, like, a million dollars but not have to go work on it, and we would use that money to finish the game," says Butterfield. "So that's essentially what happened, except it took seven years instead of a few months."

Yahoo! acquired Ludicorp and Flickr in March 2005. Butterfield stayed on as general manager for another three years, eventually departing in June 2008 with one of the most bizarre and deeply amusing resignation letters ever published on the internet. Tiny Speck was up and running within a year, and the process of turning Game Neverending into Glitch began.

"The core of the game that we wanted to build is exactly the same: the ethos, the spirit of it," Butterfield says. "Technology has advanced, there's all this great open-source software, we're better developers than we used to be. The games industry has completely changed in the last nine years, so the realisation of the game is different, but this is essentially what we've wanted to do all along."

The germ of the idea that would eventually become Glitch existed long before Ludicorp, Flickr or Game Neverending. Butterfield recalls playing SimCity as a teenager, imagining a game where the fate of the city wasn't decided by some omniscient invisible hand in the sky, but by the collective decision-making of "the ants" on the ground.

"That's the direction we want to go in: that people have a certain amount of power to influence the world, and there's other people playing who also have power to influence the world; either getting together with them and collaborating or competing with them to influence how things unfold is the underlying play."

Butterfield believes that this is still largely unexplored territory for games. The majority of contemporary MMOs are like World of Warcraft, which was preceded by EverQuest and Ascheron's Call, which were preceded by Ultima Online, which was a direct descendant of the MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) that rose to prominence in Butterfield's early childhood.

"But there was another thread," he adds. "The MOO (MUD, object oriented) and MUSH (Multi-User Shared Hallucination) style games, which were more open ended, and not combat based - unlike MUDs - and never really got commercialised."

Other developers have tried to do so, but largely without success. The Sims Online, There.com, and Second Life are all examples of online worlds that discarded the combat focus and linear storytelling of the MUD derivatives, but the enormous success of World of Warcraft led the industry in a different direction.

"I think a lot of people learned the false lesson that WoW represented the only path that you could go down. Yet there's a whole bunch of people - like me - for whom that genre doesn't have a lot of appeal."

For Butterfield, the game that most closely matches Tiny Speck's ambitions for Glitch is EVE Online. In EVE, CCP Games' created a world that truly rewards collaboration, its players creating epic narratives that play out over months, even years. Ultimately, this makes EVE "too much of a commitment, too hard, too cut-throat" for most people, but the events that take place within its world remain fascinating, even to the layman.

"Kudos to them [CCP Games] for having persisted all this time," he says. "It's just so much easier to do what WoW and many others have done, which is - I don't want to sound overly critical because there's some great things about it - but the side of the genre I don't like is that standard amusement park criticism: you grind to level up and then you get to go on this ride, but nothing you do has any real impact on the world."

"That boss will still be there for the next person to kill. Everything respawns. The world can't really change."

Glitch is designed to sidestep both issues: on the surface, it is a side-scrolling platformer in the vein of Super Mario Bros, and about as inviting and accessible as a game can be; underneath, it has been constructed from the very first line of code to be adaptable, its future almost entirely dictated by the whims of its players in what Butterfield terms a "call and response" dynamic with its designers.

There is an obvious tension between making a game accessible and giving its players absolute freedom, and finding the right balance between those qualities has defined Glitch's existence to date. Butterfield admits that the current tutorial doesn't give a clear enough picture of the basic processes that will allow players to go on and discover new things for themselves. It needs work, but it is one of the only parts of Glitch that can be easily improved.

"The harder challenge is the first five minutes of play. In a single-player game you can script it incredibly tightly... but at some point we need to drop players out of tutorial mode and into the world, where other players are doing things - people who have been playing for a week, or a month, or six months if they were in the beta. That can just be confusing and overwhelming, especially if you've never played an MMO before."

Kudos to CCP Games for having persisted all this time. It's just so much easier to do what WoW and many others have done

And the potential for confusion is growing all the time. Glitch left beta around six weeks ago and it already has 1200 items and 93 skills, and those numbers will only get larger. However, where in a game like World of Warcraft new players are often seen as easy prey, the absence of combat and general atmosphere of levity has created a community based on generosity and altruism. As long as Tiny Speck keeps on providing new things to discover, the community will be far more effective than any tutorial in guiding new players through the world.

Butterfield quotes one of Glitch's players, whose description of the game is apparently superior to any of the sound-bites generated at Tiny Speck: "a massively 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."

A more pressing issue is that, left to their own devices, individual players tend to be less kind to their own experience. Butterfield claims that the one lesson he learns afresh each day is that players will always chase the largest reward, no matter the cost.

"People get a lot out of the humour of the game, they like the quest copy, they like all the flavour and stuff like that. But if there's two alternatives for your next action and one of them gives you ten points and the other gives you seven points, once you know that this one gives you ten points you'll do the ten point thing. Period."

"That's a fundamental of game design, and certainly a fundamental of MMO design... That part is a constant battle."

The constant introduction of new items, systems and features is an integral aspect of what Glitch is trying to achieve. However, its sandbox structure makes balancing in advance extremely difficult, and gamers tend to be highly attuned to spoiling their own fun in the name of cheap and easy experience points.

"In the game you can sing to butterflies once you get a certain achievement," Butterfield says, offering one of "dozens" of examples of self-defeating player behaviour. "It takes a big chunk of energy and gives about half of that back as experience points. It's something we imagined you would do once or twice, but you wouldn't do it a lot because it's not a very good return."

"There's also a drink in the game that gives you a buff that means your interactions with animals don't cost energy. These two features were developed at different times; the intention of the 'girly drink buff' was so that you could sing to butterflies, squeeze chickens to get grain, or nibble piggies to get meat without it costing you any energy. It was pretty well thought out and balanced."

In no time at all, players in their droves were gulping girly drinks and clicking on butterflies as quickly as their index fingers could hit the mouse button. The rapid ascent of certain players through the game's levelling system caught Tiny Speck's attention, and after a brief investigation the root of the problem was identified.

"So we took it away," Butterfield continues. "The people that were doing it freaked out. They were like, 'that was the fun part of the game for me.'"

"I can sympathise, because finding those magic combinations can be fun, but at the same time if you create an incentive for people to do something that's that boring - they log into the game and just click on the butterfly for four hours, then stop, and come back the next day and do it for another four hours - at some point they're going to say, 'Why the hell am I doing this. I'm just running a number up and nothing else is happening.'"

"Running a number up and nothing else is happening" - it wasn't Butterfield's intention, but these words could serve as a particularly sceptical description of the experience of playing a social game. Indeed, Glitch has been likened to the games of Zynga, Playfish and Playdom, but the comparison clearly makes Butterfield uneasy.

"We get asked all the time what the demographic is, and we say, 'people who like the game.' Definitely not meaning to be flippant or glib or anything, but it's not the kind of thing where you can say, 'Women, 35 to 50,' or, 'Men, 18 to 24,' or any of those characteristics. There will be all kinds of people for whom it holds appeal. We're designing it on its own terms."

We weren't trying to have the biggest possible audience because then very few people would really truly love it

As Butterfield sees it, there's a uniformity to social games that contradicts Tiny Speck's core values; a degree of commercial consideration to their design that gets in the way of original ideas and unique experiences. Tiny Speck wants Glitch to be "strongly flavoured, like cilantro", even if that means leaving certain players in the cold.

"We weren't trying to have the biggest possible audience because then very few people would really truly love it. A lot of people eat at McDonalds; not a lot of people have such brand affiliation with McDonalds that they would wear a McDonalds T-shirt or have a McDonalds sticker on the back of their car. We want to build something that some people will truly love, which means that other people won't like it. That, right there, kind of implies that the audience is going to be smaller - it's not going to have 100 million people playing it like CityVille."

"At the same time, if people love it they can be more deeply engaged. We should be able to be a good business with a smaller number of players. The intention on the business side is to design something that is sustainable and does slightly better than break even with a couple of hundred-thousand players. It's certainly been done before - again, EVE Online is the canonical example of that."

Part of that "flavour" is Tiny Speck's interpretation of the freemium business model. Early in the development process, the team took the decision not to charge for anything that offers a "game advantage" - a prominent revenue stream for most social games. They didn't want their players to hit roadblocks demanding either a cash payment or a protracted waiting period before the game continued. On the flip side, they didn't want any player to be able to buy their way through the game.

"If I can always be ahead of you by paying more money it will ruin the game to a certain extent," he says. "Obviously, it can work - that's what Mafia wars is, right? It's like a test of who's willing to spend more money. If I can spend more money than you I can beat you every time."

Butterfield points out that paying for progress was a problem in online gaming long before the explosion of social games, but in the last few years it has been taken to a "whole new level." The issue evolved from hand-wringing over gold-farmers and real-money transactions to become an integral part of the way games are designed.

"Once it became apparent that's what was happening we felt even more strongly that we didn't want to have those kinds of monetisation systems. Not just because it seems unsavoury and I think people will burn out on it, but once you go down that road and start designing the game mechanics around that you can't help but design the whole game around that."

"Here's something you can do, it's gonna take three days or you can pay us five bucks, or you can do this totally other thing which is fun, right now, and you're just going to do the thing that's fun and you'll forget about the five bucks. In that case there's no point in having that mechanic."

"I can afford it - that's not the issue - but I think that what Zynga and everyone else have done is kind of a scorched earth policy. People will get burnt out on this; maybe some of them will last for a very long time, but I feel like the easy successes have been taken already, and that won't work in the long run. I mean, I could be wrong about that, and I hope I'm not, because that would be a lame future for games."

"Just my own reaction, the first time I saw that it was okay, the second time I saw that it was okay, and by whatever time it is now I'm like, 'I get this. It's transparent, and I don't give a shit about having a bigger building here that cost me three dollars.'"

So when Tiny Speck says that Glitch is free to play, that's exactly what they mean. At present, the only items you can buy are outfits for your avatar, and beyond that the game is open and unabridged to all. More paid content may be added over time, but that core philosophy of never charging for game advancement will remain. Butterfield claims that he would rather introduce a regular subscription fee than compromise that ideal.

What Zynga and everyone else have done is kind of a scorched earth policy. People will get burnt out on this

However, even though the game is still very young, Butterfield calls the proportion of people paying for content, "very encouraging."

"Certainly, there are some people playing the game who really respect that we're not [charging for progression], and are almost more inclined to support the game because they don't have to. I don't think that will extrapolate out to the 5 millionth player - it's a smaller audience that feels that way."

"What we're selling right now is the ability to customise your avatar, which might sound ridiculous and trivial, but the more you play the game, the more important your in-game identity becomes to you, the more your desire to express who you are in the game world becomes worth five bucks, or three bucks, or whatever."

Tiny Speck recently released developer kits for iOS, Android, Unity and C#, with a long-term aim of allowing players to transfer their Glitch avatars to games and applications on other devices. It's another potential revenue stream, but, as with avatar customisation, the emphasis seems to be on improving the experience rather than making money, based on the assumption that one will naturally lead to the other.

Ultimately, the success of Glitch will be determined by the enthusiasm of its community, and that's very much to Tiny Speck's taste. In the handful of weeks since the game's official launch a dozen new features have been added, hundreds of bugs have been fixed, new code has been deployed to the production servers more than 900 times, and the transition to a free-form economy that allows players to sell self-created items through vendors has started in earnest.

And the real story of Glitch has barely begun. Tiny Speck is striving to provide its players with a sandbox that, like EVE Online, will allow them to author narratives that play out over weeks and months, and radically alter the world. Singing to butterflies and tuning bubbles is the very tip of an iceberg the size and form of which will be decided by the interplay between engaged players and receptive designers.

"We have so much more planned even for the next six weeks that will keep on ratcheting up the richness and the complexity of the world both in economic and ecological senses," Butterfield says. "It feels like it's very close to a threshold where economic and ecological play will just be interesting in itself - even in the absence of larger goals, though those larger goals are coming as well."

"Tomorrow it will be one month since we launched, and what we launched, the 1.0, has a lot of great stuff in it and we're proud of it. But sometimes I just feel like, God, it'll take us another decade to get to where we want to go. There's so much more."

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