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The story of  Glitch : Why this odd MMO is shutting down
The story of Glitch: Why this odd MMO is shutting down Exclusive
November 30, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

November 30, 2012 | By Christian Nutt
More: Social/Online, Production, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

Glitch, the experimental MMO from Flickr developer Stewart Butterfield and his team Tiny Speck, is closing. Butterfield had been able to attract Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi and Journey producer Robin Hunicke, but what he couldn’t attract was players -- at least, he couldn’t attract enough players to keep the game viable from a business perspective, he tells Gamasutra.

Just over two weeks ago, Tiny Speck revealed that the game will soon close. Gamasutra spoke to Butterfield to find out more about why his attempt to create, as he put it in 2010, "something that I feel like has been the right balance of social hang out, social experience, and enough of a game context" couldn't find the players it needed.

It Just Wasn’t Fun Enough, Fast Enough

One major, obvious problem with Glitch is that it wasn't fun until very late in its development -- and not until after its launch, says Butterfield.

"There's no objective answer to what went wrong," he says, but "on top of everything else, it took us until the final four months for the game to actually become really fun from a moment-to-moment gameplay point of view."

"Sometimes we were in such a rush to complete a feature that the purpose of the feature wasn't realized," Butterfield admits. "There's dozens of examples."

By and large, people who tried the game often complained it wasn't fun, and trying to pin down the fun was a challenge for the team. "When you see people complain a game is boring because it's 'just clicking', there's usually something else the matter, because Civilization is just clicking, and Diablo is just clicking," he says.

Player housing never reached a point where there was a point to building or customizing it, he says; on the other hand, collecting coins Mario-style was iterated until it had a unique social element that made it a favorite activity of players. When a coin was collected, any player who was close enough "would get some benefit", he said, so people started playing together naturally. "There was this flocking behavior," he says. "That was super fun collaborative play, because you're jumping through the treetops."

There just wasn’t enough of that “super fun” gameplay to sustain a growing audience.

Where’s the Audience?

The game did grow a small, dedicated audience who loved it -- check out the outpouring on the game's official forums, where one player's reaction to the shutdown announcement was simply, "Stunned. And crying" -- but turning that into a larger audience remained out of reach for Tiny Speck.

"The people who loved the game really, really loved it. If we had figured out an easier way to get more people to that state it would have been a success," Butterfield says.

"Ultimately if I have to identify one thing as the problem -- I don't think there is just one -- but if I had to choose just one, I think the game was too foreign of a concept for most people," says Butterfield. "Most games slot pretty easily into a pre-existing category," he says, but with its varied activities and lack of combat, Glitch didn't.

This nebulous appeal was what killed it. "The promise of the game was always just, 'Here's a bunch of mostly beautiful looking scenes and vignettes,' and you can see it and be attracted to it, and start playing, and not know how to get there,” says Butterfield.

The result of this vague promise? "A lot of people were just like 'I don't know what the fuck I'm supposed to do.' Some people took 'I don't know what I'm supposed to do' as an invitation to explore and ended up loving it. Other people closed the browser. That's it."

He admits that the developers need to take the blame for this. "We didn't do a good job of explaining what it was or why they'd be interesting. So a lot of people who would have loved the game didn't get past the trailer, or the first part of the tutorial, or really had no idea."

The changes the team made to the tutorial in its twilight days would have "had to happen years before -- at least a year before" to have made a difference in the game's fate, says Butterfield.

"Whether you wanted that more frenetic second-by-second instant reflex kind of gameplay, or whether you wanted to play the auction house and the market, or whatever, there was something for you. But very few people could see that up front, and we could never figure out a way to show that that was in there."

This trailer, released late in its lifespan, was an attempt to try and articulate just what made Glitch fun -- but it was too little, too late.

"There wasn't much that you could just step into and immediately see that it was fun and how it was fun, until the end," admits Butterfield. For most of its life, Glitch was "a pretty hard row to hoe to get to the point where you loved it," he says, and the team couldn't figure out how to get players to that point.

Production Problems Made it Tough to Find the Fun

The time it took to iterate the game to the point where it was fun was a challenge hampered by production problems, says Butterfield.

By the time the shutdown was announced, "there were more things that were fun in an immediate and obvious way," he says. "It's not like we weren't looking for them, but sometimes, shit that you build, it turns out, it's not so fun."

"We really underestimated how long things would take to get right, and how much would have to be invested in... the core loops and making it fun. If we hadn't rushed, and had taken more time in the early stages to iterate, it would have been a lot more successful."

The Tiny Speck team also wasn't filled with experienced game developers; Butterfield has an enterprise and web services background, for example. While he admits that "it's possible that bringing someone like that in earlier would have made a difference," he's not sure that anyone really could helped, because Glitch was a new idea.

"There haven't ever been other non-combat MMOs that are based on absurdity, humor, and whimsy," he says. "I'm not sure anyone has the specific expertise in making this thing work."

The team did manage to recruit Keita Takahashi, but his role was "more as a weird spiritual teacher, and yogi in the corner, proposing crazy things," says Butterfield. Conversely, Robin Hunicke, an experienced producer, came "too late" to save the project. "At that point what we were doing was so solidified, and we didn't have a whole lot of options," Butterfield says.

Handcuffed by Flash

But one of the biggest hurdles for the team was making the wrong technological choice -- which hemmed the game in, locking it into the browser space just as tablet games were exploding.

"We realized a year after we started that we shouldn't've done it in Flash," says Butterfield. "Not because any intrinsic problem with Flash, but because it really prevented us from porting it to anything else."

"If we could have just made an iPad app it would have been great on iPad," he says. The problem was that "Flash permeated the whole system" -- even to the level of networking code, the renderer, and every other aspect of the game.

"People assume you can just push a button and export it... but it just touches everything," he says. "It would have been much easier to just start again with some of the very lowest level server code and some of the drawings."

Being tied to Flash "trapped us," he says. While the team realized Flash was a mistake early on, the choice was to "either throw away the first year of work and start over again" or plow onward using Adobe's technology. "In retrospect, we would have been better to throw it away at that point, but it didn't seem like that at the time," says Butterfield.

"The principle that people should just be able to open a browser window and just start playing the game was a lot less valuable than what it cost us in the end."

Onward to the End

In the end, the game could not attract enough users to sustain its 42-person team. "If it was growing quickly enough and there was a path to it being successful, we wouldn't have shut it down," says Butterfield.

A combination of factors killed the game, ultimately. "We had spent a lot of money; we had a big team; we had no real avenue to port to mobile, or have a good and powerful mobile component," he says. "If one of those things was different, it would have made sense to keep going. Given the totality of the position we were in, it made no sense."

So Butterfield decided to shut down Tiny Speck. "We wanted to stop before we had to so we could give people severance pay, and support them in finding new jobs, and refund players," he says.

For his part, he won't be jumping back into games immediately, though he's always wanted to make one and may, in the future, try again.

"I definitely liked the challenge and it was really interesting, and I learned a lot. If we were starting fresh today, we would have done an enormously better job," says Butterfield.

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Matthew Paul
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I am sorry to see the game go, as I had played for some time and really enjoyed it. I wish the best for the team and hope they all go on to bigger and better things.

I think many of the problems could have been solved if only a few tweaks were made. I played the game and did not work on it, but here's my take:

- Having played the game for hours on end, I was never compelled to actually spend money on the game. I played with my wife and when I asked her if she wanted to spend money, she actually didn't even realize there was a subscription model. Unless the player really want some unique customization to their avatar or house, I found the game did little to encourage the player to spend money. Games like Farmville often have significantly less content and "fun", but make back their money by being far more aggressive. I would be curious to know if there was an analysis of those who did contribute money to the game and what compelled them to do so?
- Although the game had some viral and cooperative components to it, I found that I rarely needed to play with a friend, let alone evangilize the game to them. In fact, if I remember correctly, I had to play the game for nearly an hour before I could even invite another person to play the game, and even then I was limited by the number of invites I could send out. Perhaps by rewarding users for bringing other members into the game with bonuses instead of limiting them it would have helped increase the total number of users.
- The game could have also done more with social networks, like Facebook, to attract users, even if the game isn't a Facebook app or directly tied to a Facebook page by allowing people to brag about their progress. Perhaps Glitch did this already but I never came across the functionality.
- Finally, I have done little research on Flash, but I have heard of many teams that have taken Flash to other platforms using only Adobe tools, such as Air. In addition, has the team investigated Starling, a free open source multi-platform Flash engine? I haven't used it myself, but from a few reviews it is intuitive and works seemless with few changes to the Action Script.

Anyways, good luck to all and I will miss Glitch.


Christian Nutt
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I didn't include all of his comments, but it's clear they put a lot of thought and investigation into how to get the game onto other platforms, and at least as far as Butterfield is concerned, it just isn't possible.

Samuel Batista
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For anyone feeling trapped under Adobe's tech, please look at Haxe & NME. Porting Actionscript code to Haxe is easy (even for large codebases). Adapting a blitting based rendering pipeline for the phones would be difficult to optimize, but Haxe NME implements almost the entire Flash API, so it should be possible with a bit of effort to get existing assets to run on multiple platforms. Check it out:

Jeremy Reaban
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City of Heroes is also closing down today.

Rebecca Richards
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Yea, you'd think Gamasutra would try to cover the more high-profile title that closed down yesterday. The one that ran for eight years?

Ciaran Wills
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I played it in the beta, a year ago I guess, and I liked it but yes the fun definitely wasn't there yet. Nor the social - my wife and a friend were also playing but we barely played together at all, there just didn't seem to be much to do but chat and show our empty real estate to each other.

From the trailer it looks like they added a bunch of nice stuff since I stopped playing - would have been nice if they'd got that together earlier and, yes, mobile would have been killer.

Darcy Nelson
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Is this anyone else's first time hearing about this game? The only two times I've ever seen a peep about this game was from a friend who played (but never told me about it) and this article. I don't exactly live under a rock, it makes me wonder what the marketing was like for this game.

Simon Windmill
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Same here! Sounds fascinating, I feel I missed out.

nicholas ralabate
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I looked them up when I heard they hired Keita Takahashi, was really looking forward to the announcement of their launch... then I read this.

Phoenix Lomax
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The marketing was really bad. The only info for a looong time was a pretty vague teaser trailer, and trying to explain to people what the game even was was a chore in and of itself. Seem like more advertising could've made a distinct difference.

Terry Matthes
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Glitch was fun for a bit and then booooring!

Michael NIKKI
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My experinces when using Glitch: TOO MANY ASSETS THAT MAKE SLOW INTERNET CONNECTION. And when it finished loading, it crashed then loading the assets back again. Wait what?!? Never mind, close the window...

Kenneth Blaney
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It seems to me that the major problem was a poor tutorial. Both in the article and in the comments people seem to be saying they didn't know what to do or didn't know about some feature of the game. A good tutorial explaining these features would have gone a long way towards guiding people to what is fun and what makes money for the developer.

Liz Gosselin
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I was a beta tester for this game over a year and half ago. I didn't quite get it at first. Pet a pig? Pet a tree? It was a whole different mindset. I don't think Glitch was meant to be played so much as lived in. It reminded me a lot of Second Life, without much of the building skills enabled. But I just loved the artwork and the spirit of this game. I agree that marketing was really overlooked. I stepped away last August, and I'm amazed at the developments since I started roaming around again in the past week. There should have been regular weekly emails to users about the latest developments. I hope Mr. Butterfield tries again. His heart is in the right place. I think this game was before its time.

First Last
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1) I've never heard of this game. Where was the marketing?
2) You only get one shot at grabbing a user's attention. If you lose it because:

a) the game wasn't easy and straightforward to play
b) the game had too steep a learning curve
c) the game had no tutorial, or the existing tutorial was not fun or rewarding to the user;

That's all you get. So I take it that this was a browser-based game? It'd have to be at the very least compelling...after all, you're competing against Farmville.

What were the reasons that made the game unfun? Was it something about the interface? Something lacking in how the graphics/sound/interaction all fitted together? Was there some odd lag between a mouse-click and game response? I find it a little hard to believe that quirky humor was the reason. Isn't quirky humor more window dressing than anything else?

Something tells that just something fundamentally was wrong with the direction or design of the game. Having "no combat" is fine - but without something to represent some form of struggle within the game, what is the player striving for?

Mike Engle
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I love quirk. From Old Spice's game ( to Kingdom of Loathing ( to Monty Python to Hitchhiker's Guide.

But Glitch rarely felt witty, just random.

I love a good sandbox. In a game like Sim City you immediately say, "Oh it's a game about building a city properly -- I'm going to build the best city ever!", so the intrinsic motivation is high to explore the hidden depths of the game systems and subsequently learn how all the systems fit together, so you can build the best city.

But Glitch's theme prevented this intrinsic motivation while lacking the straightforward discoverability of Kingdom of Loathing (where you may be a Pastamancer, and WTF is a Pastamancer, but at least discovering each new step of your journey is straightforward and well-rewarded with delightful wit.)

And that's without even breaching the subject of payment.

Glitch wasn't a complete mess, and I'm sure there were many very skilled people working on the team, but the game's aesthetic and systems seemed to stifle any business potential.

Callie O Farrell
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An early Beta player I totally loved the social platform that Glitch provided. The graphics were very atmospheric and beautiful and allowed a totaly different environment. Many players comments were "fun and escapism"

The Tiny Speck team specifically chose not to go down the PR route, possibly not a good decision in retrospect, the build it and they will come ethos is not reliable. The game was barely out of Beta a matter of weeks and the game was mostly by invite only.

The game was too easy to play for free - additions such as housing and stores should have been by subscription levels only. Level ceilings for subscribers - there was no need to subscribe to play - I had many alts all at the ceiling level without having to subscribe.

Sorry to see Glitch go - there is a place for social environments. Remote working and trends that see teams working from home could use virtual environments to allow a sense of community building.

Marc Schaerer
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Whats that with 'no way to port to mobile'?
Ain't that exactly the whole reason of existance for Adobes Air to Mobile?

The only case where that would fail would be one where they used AS2 and then they would have done much more than just a bad technology decision.

Out of my view Glitchs main problem was that nobody ever heard of it, including me until the shutdown news spread. Thats barely a good sign especially in days where even medium to bad mobile games are able to reach 10000-100000 times as many potential customers.

Brad Borne
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There's really no excuse to have animation that terrible nowadays, regardless of the genre. Especially in Flash, an animation platform.

Maybe I'm just biased, but if I'm supposed to be spending hours AS one of these avatars, the have to show personality in their look AND movement.

Steven Stark
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I am very shocked at this person's view on Flash. It's one of the most portable languages as far as environments that can use it. 99% of the code will always work with Air, which you make your mobile apps using. This approach has some drawbacks, mainly when it comes to some OS specific operations, however it is a very viable option. The company I work for uses a lot of the same code base for their FaceBook Flash version and their mobile Air version. Glitch was actually in one of the easiest positions to make a mobile game with as the new code development would of been very minimal. Heck, I could take that project on myself. ;)

Andrew Sega
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"A lot of people were just like 'I don't know what the fuck I'm supposed to do.' Some people took 'I don't know what I'm supposed to do' as an invitation to explore and ended up loving it. Other people closed the browser. That's it."

Yep, that was pretty much my first impression. Sandbox-y worlds are great, but you need to provide the player a compelling thread, some sort of loop to draw them in. I couldn't figure out why I was supposed to be exploring this world, why I was collecting all these grindy items, or what the "meat" of the game would eventually be.

Also, re: Flash -- I just don't get it -- why not just port it to AIR? Sure you'll have to downsize assets and probably do a bunch of rendering optimizations (blit vectors to sprite sheets at load time), etc, but it's certainly doable.

Barna Biro
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The Flash part is silly... So, because the developers failed to adhere to best practices and split things up ( decently ) with some MVC, it's Flash's fault? I stopped reading there... Sorry but the guy clearly hasn't got a clue. He should blame himself / the developers for writing crappy code. Period.

marilyn traber
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I know it is a bit late, but I would have suggested a ploy that other MMORPGs have used. You offer a 1 month premium subscription at a high discount - $5US plus an in game tchatcheke like a heli-kitty for the players street, or a tower already started instead of the top $15US. If you offer it when teens are out of school [and I know it is supposed to have been an adult game, but for this to work you have to drop the player ages down to 14+ instead of 18+] on the various game planet type game sales sites. Yes you would get periodic tidal waves of kid players, but you actually get about 10% or so of them sticking around. [From previous experience what happens is they are bored, and it is cheap, and they play the heck out of the game for the month and either drop it because it is not for them, or they end up getting a regular subscription and sticking around.]

I still believe that with 1 year of advertising *NOT IN POPUPS OR POPUNDERS* and in several different venues it might be possible to save the game. I think that you could also replace several of the cs staff with volunteers like Everquest's Guide program [they got 'paid' by comping their play account fee]

Like many other players, I feel that the game is just coming into the state where you could build a player base, and have something positive. I just think that perhaps LS were just not experienced with running a MMORPG instead of a photosharing site.

Stephen Chow
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I play this game 1 year ago. Very high quality product, but I hardly to understand what I should do in the game. The game is too board I hardly to find interesting thing to stick with.

Carlo Delallana
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What became of Keita Takahashi's supposed involvement with Tiny Speck? What about Robin Hunicke of ThatGameCompany who joined Tiny Speck a few months ago? My take on both these developments was that Glitch would address it's biggest issues which were lack of focus and having a compelling singular mechanic. Takahashi's Katamari had a singular mechanic, the games that Robin made at TGC utilized singular mechanics. I was hoping they would bring these insights to Glitch but given how unfocused the game was I doubt it would have been a quick turn around.

Rik Spruitenburg
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Instead of adding my thoughts to the list of "woulda-coulda-shouldas", let me say that I thought you guys handled closing the site really well. Lots of warning, open the cash store so people can play with the toys, refunds, and keeping the forums up a little longer so the community can change and heal. Class Act.