Glitch, the quirky browser-based MMO, announced earlier this week that it was closing down for both financial and technical reasons. The news came as quite the shock to most industry observers. While Glitch was never a powerhouse title, it was definitely a recognizable name with a lot of great talent on board and it filled a niche that no other game did.
The news was particularly shocking to me because the week before I had been in the Tiny Speck offices in Vancouver, talking to President and braintrust Stewart Butterfield about taking on a Community Manager role. The physical home of Tiny Speck looked almost exactly as I imagined an indie game company would, from open floor plans to funky mismatched furniture to the exposed brick wall. Everyone I spoke with was incredibly polite and even in the brief time I was there I got the sense that it was a collaborative workplace full of passionate, creative people, lead by the frankly brilliant Butterfield.
In retrospect, though, there were possibly a few signs that a closure was being considered if not actually immediately forthcoming. Usually I leave an interview feeling excited about a product or company, or at least as though my interviewer wanted me to be excited about it. I left the Glitch offices, though, feeling thoughtful and oddly nervous about where the game would fit in to the MMO ecosystem. Butterfield was quite honest about the limitations of Glitch, including talking about the unfortunate decision to harness the game to Flash technology and the fact that there needed to be many many more players and quite soon for the game to survive.
In fact, I got the sense that Butterfield saw Glitch as less of a game and more of an interactive social platform, more like Second Life than World of Warcraft. The game elements were there to give people structure for interacting and socializing rather than to actually be a game, which seems like the opposite of most MMO developers who create a game first and then think of social interaction second.
I feel a bit hypocritical for saying this because while I have given Tiny Speck money in the past for cute hats I didn’t play that game that much, but we’ve lost something really unique in Glitch. For one, its player base was mostly women, and of those women most were age 35-50, which is a pretty maligned and ignored demographic in gaming. The dominant player culture encouraged sharing and collaboration, and slurs and other non-inclusive behavior was shamed by the community. Perhaps the biggest indicator of Glitch’s culture is the fact that there was no such thing as a “male” or “female” Glitch character, and no one was ever limited to dresses for “girls” and baseball caps for “boys” or whatever gender boxes we tend to put things in.
Glitch was one of the few non-combat games in any genre (the occasional rook attack aside), and I think because of that it had an amazing, deep crafting system, which we aren’t likely to see again soon. People have been heralding Guild Wars 2′s emphasis on appearance upgrades over stat upgrades as a new paradigm in MMO design, while Glitch has been quietly chugging along for two years with that exact attitude (and, frankly, a way more adorable and flexible array of clothing choices). And of course there was the dry, whimsical humor in the game, with plenty of wordplay that Butterfield agreed seemed to be a draw for the booksmart crowd.
I have no idea what has been actually going on behind the scenes or exactly why Glitch is being shut down, aside from the public letter. My sense, though, is that it’s not so much a failure of the model or the market as it is the promotion. Glitch actually “unlaunched” a year ago and went back into beta and never really came out again. As someone who has been studying their community engagement for the past few weeks, I feel as though while the Glitch community itself was amazing the company wasn’t aggressive enough at grabbing people outside of that community to come play. Their social media accounts were relatively quiet until a few weeks ago, and there wasn’t a concise message of what Glitch was and why people should check it out. (But hey, that’s just my amateur analysis.)
If you read the Glitch closure announcement you’ll notice it’s full of personal sentiment. It mentions that the folks at Tiny Speck are “heartbroken” about this, and from my experience in both playing the game and meeting some of the people behind it I absolutely believe that. For good or for ill the Glitch team truly loved their game, truly loved their game’s audience, and dreamed of making something different. I’m sure this decision was made with a heavy heart and a lot of soul-searching, and that there’s no way to keep the game going.
I hope the Tiny Speck folks aren’t finished with the online social space genre. I hope they don’t lose that spark to be different. To quote the final thought of the closure announcement, “The game was absolutely preposterous. And yet, we kind of liked it.”