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The story of Glitch: Why this odd MMO is shutting down
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.