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 naïve 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."