Flickr cofounder Stewart Butterfield’s game Glitch takes shape in Vancouver

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      Stewart Butterfield calls the world of Glitch “absurd”.

      In this massively multiplayer online game—being developed in Vancouver and San Francisco by his company Tiny Speck—eggs grow on eggplants under the ground, dairy products come from butterflies, and pigs, if you pet them first, will give up some meat.

      Glitch is surreal because the game takes place in the collective imagination of 11 giants, Butterfield explained to the Georgia Straight.

      “You’re inside this world that they are imagining,” the 37-year-old president and cofounder of Tiny Speck said in the start-up’s Yaletown office. “But, because they get distracted from time to time, things kind of come apart and come back together. When they come back together, the pieces don’t always fit right.”

      Butterfield—who was born in the Sunshine Coast village of Lund and grew up in Victoria—is best known for being one of the creators of Flickr.

      In 2002, he cofounded Ludicorp, the Vancouver-based company that launched the popular photo-sharing site in 2004. Yahoo acquired Flickr for a reported US$35 million in 2005, and Butterfield stayed with the Internet giant until 2008.

      Now, Butterfield’s latest project is in its alpha stage, with a closed beta expected to start in late January and the launch slated for spring.

      Tiny Speck is “strobe testing” Glitch, meaning the browser-based Flash game goes live around once a week, so players can try it out. So far, about 50,000 people have signed up online to test the game and around 5,000 of them have received invitations.

      Butterfield noted that Glitch is “handcrafted from scratch”, and he expects his company to be developing the game for “many years”.

      “One of the things that’s different about this is it’s all one big world,” Butterfield said. “A lot of massively multiplayer games have relatively small worlds, and they make duplicates of them called shards. World of Warcraft is like that. They have 12 million players, but it’s 20,000 players per server. So, they have hundreds and hundreds of distinct servers, which are all exactly the same world. For us, you want to make one big world. So, there’s a limit to how fast we can grow it.”

      Super Mario Bros., LittleBigPlanet, and classic platformers, according to Butterfield, have influenced the game’s aesthetic. Players walk around, chat with each other, gain skills, and go on quests. A day in Glitch lasts four hours in the real world.

      Butterfield describes Glitch as a “collaborative simulation”, in that players will help guide its development.

      “The intent here—and this is experimental and maybe a little bit risky—is that, in the context of the gamelike structure, giving people the power to evolve the world in the direction they want to see it evolve will produce results that are more interesting for a certain class of player,” Butterfield said.

      Founded in March 2009 by Butterfield and three other members of the original Flickr team, Tiny Speck has a staff of 15. The company’s animators and illustrators are based in Vancouver, while its engineers are housed in San Francisco.

      Tiny Speck has raised US$6.5 million in funding, the bulk of it from Silicon Valley–based venture-capital firms Accel Partners and Andreessen Horowitz.

      While Glitch will be free to play, Butterfield said the company plans to make money by selling virtual items and subscriptions to increase players’ options “mostly on decorative axes”. Purchasable mini games, which will allow players to unlock skills in the main game, are also planned for the iPhone and Android platforms.

      “We’re not going to push the virtual-item sales nearly as hard as they’ve been pushed by social games, in the sense of stuff that people play on Facebook,” Butterfield said. “There, I think, it’s a high degree of burnout, because the whole focus of the gameplay is on driving purchase conversion.”

      Glitch isn’t the first game that Butterfield has worked on. Indeed, Flickr came out of Ludicorp’s development of a massively multiplayer online game called Game Neverending, which was eventually cancelled.

      Butterfield noted Glitch and Game Neverending share the “same germ of an idea”. But he observed that Glitch is being made in a “totally different world”.

      “I think it’s almost like the proverbial frog in the slowly boiling water—that we don’t notice what a big change it is that almost everyone’s on Facebook or that almost everyone spends a significant portion of their discretionary time online,” Butterfield said. “Whether that’s online on a laptop with a browser window or on their mobile device or whatever, people are much more connected to each other through electronic means than they have been at any time in history.

      “And it makes a big difference in building a game like this,” he added. “There’s a much bigger audience, a much bigger set of possibilities for how we develop it.”

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