In depth with Tiny Speck's Glitch

The new online social MMO from Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield's Tiny Speck puts players through a wide variety of paces. Quests, egg growing and clouds on a string are just a part of it.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
Glitch is a game of esoteric skills, leveling up, quests and a series of wonderful artistic aesthetics. The game takes place inside the minds of 11 ancient giants. Tiny Speck

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to live inside the imaginations of a group of ancient giants, get ready to play Glitch.

A new game that went into alpha testing on Tuesday, as reported exclusively by CNET, Glitch (see related behind-the-scenes feature about its development) is a puzzle-heavy, Web-based social MMO built around sending players billions of years into the past to develop the optimistic future that today seems increasingly unlikely.

"The whole world was spun out of the imagination of 11 great giants," said Stewart Butterfield, the president of Glitch developer Tiny Speck, and better known as the co-founder of Flickr. "So you have to go back into the past, into the world of the giants' imaginations and grow...the number of things in the world, grow it in terms of physical dimensions, to make sure the future actually happens. So all the game play takes place in the past inside the world of the giants' imagination."

The logo for Glitch, the new game from Tiny Speck. Tiny Speck

While Glitch shares some of the features of hard-core MMOs like World of Warcraft and EverQuest--principally quests, leveling up, an in-game economy and working socially with other players, as a 2D Flash game--it might at the same time feel mildly familiar to players of Facebook games like FarmVille or Nintendo titles like the many iterations of the Mario franchise.

At its core, Glitch is a social game in which players must learn how to find and grow resources, identify and build community and, at the higher levels of the game, proselytize to those around them. For those expecting warfare of the orc versus mage kind, perhaps it might be best to reset your expectations. "Rather than you and me fighting each other with swords," Butterfield explained, "it could be you and me having rival religious factions battling each other for converts."

But that's only deep into the game. At first, players must get through Glitch's early levels by completing quests, gaining skills, growing, and making many different kinds of things with basic ingredients--from a cheese plate to a pickle to a fruit salad, for starters--and winding their way through an often Mario-esque world of various artistic styles, many of which can be thought of as being inside an individual giant's memories.

Still, despite what may seem like a simple game system, Glitch is by no means intended to be mastered in a few short hours. Rather, while players should be able to rise through the first few levels very quickly, getting into the upper reaches of the game could take weeks, or more. And, since Glitch has no specific goals or end-game, committed players could find themselves entertained for months or more.

Not for your average FarmVille player
Because Glitch is a thinking-person's social game, Tiny Speck is not aimed at the entire world, at least not at first, especially not teens eager for the next World of Warcraft. Instead, Butterfield admitted, "There's not a better way to say [who we're targeting] than people with above average intelligence and sophisticated tastes, in their 20s or early 30s...The intersection of NPR listeners and game players."

From the beginning, it was clear that an artistic aesthetic was essential to Glitch's fortunes, and in that regard, at the very least, there's no doubt Tiny Speck has succeeded. Throughout the game, players will encounter a series of stunningly beautiful styles, from denim mountains to clouds hanging on strings to a cracked open sky. Each of the many illustrators on the team is responsible for a different style, and in most cases, each style represents a different giant's imagination.

Tiny Speck's founders, too, seem to have a notable imagination. For example, the game plays out in accelerated time, with a game hour advancing six times as fast as a real hour. That means a day takes just four real hours to complete. The game also has what some might consider a strange calendar. Its 11 months are: Primuary, with 29 days; Spork, with 3; Turkmenbashi, with 55; Candy, 17; Fever, 73; Junuary, 19; Augtober, 13; Remember, 37; Doom, 5, Wiidershins, 47; and Eleventy, 11 days.

Images: Stewart Butterfield's new gaming start-up

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In the early days of Glitch's creation, Tiny Speck was using a game system in which each player would initially choose from among five character classes, each of which had a primary and a secondary talent. But after many months of work on that game mechanic, the team ripped it out in October.

Now, players will begin the game and as they play, decide on which paths they want to pursue. In order to achieve those paths, they must acquire certain skills. Among those skills are animal kinship, green thumb, gardening, botany cooking, baking, making drinks and so on. "We just thought about the kind of world we wanted to make," Butterfield recalled, and came up with "skills that related to each other in a supply and demand sense."

As you play, you gain experience points, and use those to level up. When you get to a new level, you get to choose new skills from a sort of skill tree, and each tree path has five or six different sub-skills.

So, for example, someone who wants to become a grand farmer must, over the course of the game, learn skills like animal husbandry, as well as gardening. "You need a bunch of different kinds of skills to get there," Butterfield said, "but you might not get there until level 30 or level 40, which could take a few months."

Players will earn skills by completing various quests and other achievements throughout the game. But while there may eventually be 40, 50, 60, or even more levels, the alpha will launch with only about 10, Butterfield said.

Another goal is to ensure that there are no barriers to people of different levels playing together. "So if your friends started playing before you," Butterfield said, "it can still be fun and not be lame, because you're in a totally different world."

A concept screen showing a player presented with choices about what to make using skills earned while playing Glitch. Tiny Speck

Ultimately, because many elements of the game require people to work together, Tiny Speck has taken to referring to Glitch as a "collaborative sim."

Dr. Seuss' ecology
Listening to Butterfield talk about Glitch, and seeing it in action, one can't help but feel the presence of Dr. Seuss. And there's little doubt that the good doctor was an inspiration.

Butterfield explained that the game has a complex ecology in which one element is crucial to the development of many others.

So, for example, an eggplant in the game makes plain eggs. But those can be used in recipes that involve eggs, Butterfield explained. "If you season them properly and take them to a chicken," he said, "they incubate and then they'll hatch for whatever animal you seasoned them for."

Similarly, Glitch features a spice plant that produces spices, and a bubble tree, which is the source of all bubbles used in potions and such things.

And because the game has a silly and sometimes pastoral feel to it, players will not suffer too much if they suffer the mild form of death the game has to offer. The Tiny Speck team discussed how dying should be handled, and chose a direction in which players will have to go to purgatory for a short time and do some annoying task, like feed a goat, Butterfield said.

There will also likely be a humorous edge to that. Players who've died may have to spend a little while in purgatory crushing grapes, which will be used for a Wine of the Dead, which will be sold in the main world.