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Stewart Butterfield is best known as one of the founders of successful photo-sharing service Flickr, but he's long held the inspiration to make an online game. Prior to launching that service, he worked with a team on Game Neverending, a title that never launched, but was a shared social and creative space.
Post-Flickr, Butterfield has moved forward with plans to launch Glitch, which he hopes will become a successful social online world in a way different from traditional MMOs.
The game, which is built on a sophisticated and flexible web-based toolset which allows quick iteration, is a colorful and appealing, with a variety of aesthetics and snarky humor. It also is designed to allow players a voice in the direction the game itself takes.
Butterfield hopes the mix will attract a savvy new audience. This might be a difficult proposition, as new-style gameplay is tough to market, and creative-focused social spaces are still unproven. But with investment and artistic vision behind it, Glitch stands a chance.
Where'd you get the idea for Glitch?
SB: So, I've been kind of thinking about this for a long time -- I've been thinking about it forever, basically since Sim City. When I used to play Sim City, I got obsessed of the idea of playing the game from the perspective of the little ants, like when you see them on the cars and freeway. Rather than top-down, it would be emergent from the collective decisions of all the people playing the game.
I feel like MUDs became Ultima, EverQuest, WoW, and MOOs and MUSHes just never went anywhere. There's that path that just really... I don't know, I think it would be really interesting. There's obviously things that are kind of similar, kind of inspired by... Metaplace was like that a little bit.
SB: Second Life... Yeah, "was."
Second Life is also an incipient "was", I think.
SB: Yeah. Yeah, well... In both cases, I think, there wasn't enough game context. Well, there wasn't any game context to take off. I remember the first time I ever installed Second Life and sat down, I was like... First of all, it was super fucked up then. I mean, it was really buggy... That was probably 2003.
And actually at that time, there was kind of a buzz. There was Second Life, then there was There, and then the Sims Online was about to come out. We felt like that was like, not "social games" in today's sense, but there was going to be this era of social games, and all of them busted basically.
I think There [did] just because they spent too much money, because otherwise a lot of it had really nice polish and nice feel. When you were talking to someone, they had a great way of doing eye contact and spreading people out in a group, so it was a good social experience.
But again there wasn't any game there, and it was all about these brands. I don't want to go into a virtual world and look at Gap shit, American Eagle T-shirts... It's just... I don't know, it seems kind of gross.
I'm sure you could write a psychology thesis on it or something like that, but you can't really role-play in that context. If you have real world brands in front of you, you can't... You can't invent a persona because you can make yourself look different and you can fly and stuff like that. I don't know, it definitely breaks the magic circle. There's no real opportunity for playing.
There's never been something that I feel like has been the right balance of social hang out, social experience, and enough of a game context. I mean, Metaplace was fucking awesome, technically, the stuff that they did. The tools were really cool and stuff like that, but again, just like Second Life, you get there and like, "What am I going to do?"
So, I think that the idea of a collaborative simulation is probably the core bit of it. That and bringing something like the MOO or MUSH experience to a bigger group of people, people who never got to experience it because they didn't... You know, if you got online on '95 or later, they were pretty much dead.
So, what do you see as sort of the important aspects of that experience that you want to preserve and move forward to people?
SB: That it's open-ended. It makes it tough for us to market, right? Or tough for us to have a headline. It's a real disadvantage, I think, because... like FishVille -- or I don't even know if that's a real one -- or any of those subject matter-plus-Town, Ville, or City, it's totally obvious what you're going to do.
Or if it's an existing genre of any other kind of game. People know what an RTS is. People know what a first-person shooter [is]... It could be a variation. You could like the style. Maybe they have some nice mechanics. Maybe they have better physics or whatever. It doesn't really matter; you know whether you like those kinds of games or not.
For this, what we want to do is build something that's a lot more open-ended, where people end up building the world out the way they want but still in the context of a game. So, it's not just, "Go and make a world." You get building blocks. There's a physics -- I don't mean in the Newtonian sense -- to the world. There's a ruleset and dynamics that are built into it that people can manipulate and take advantage of.
But I think that the game is much more about driving the culture, like people can create corporations and religions and weird cults and stuff like that, and create an agenda, and drive it forward. So, there's roleplaying in that, that doesn't have to be too serious.
What we really want to capture is... There's a kind of social attraction that happens in the context of games that just doesn't happen elsewhere. My dad loves to play bridge, and he doesn't like playing bridge against the computer at all, even though he likes the mechanics of the game.
At the same time, he wouldn't just invite those same three people over his house just to hang out if they had no agenda because there's something that happens in the context of the game. There's the competition, there's the friendly banter, there's the out-thinking each other, and it's just not possible outside [of that context].
I think that's a place where video games currently really actually fail a lot.
SB: I mean, poker is the same way, right? So much of the game is just looking at the other person.