Glitch comes out of beta: why it's a new breed of MMO
Incarnated inside the mind of a giant, asked to chow down on live pigs and apply lotion to grumpy butterflies - the newly-launched Glitch is is not your everyday MMO.
Overnight, Tiny Speck made it official - browser-based social MMO Glitch is now available to everyone, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
This is both a relief and a fearsome thing. In an era when "beta testing" often translates to "multiplayer demo" or "stress test", Glitch testers have had privileged access to the development of a game from a much earlier stage - up to once a week, for a few days at a time - and already found their hours and days consumed. Now that we have an always-on connection to the forests, caves, meadows and housing estates, it's possible some of us may disappear completely.
One element of uncertainty is thankfully gone for good: testers never knew if the game they left behind would be the same one they returned to. Glitch, to put it bluntly, didn't seem sure how it was going to meet expectations.
Those expectations are high, because developer Tiny Speck has an interesting pedigree. Many of the core team members helped kick off Ludicorp, the creators of Flickr. Yahoo snapped up the photo-sharing service barely a year after launch for something in the range of $35 million.
With one of the Internet's bywords under its collective belt, Tiny Speck managed to raise over $6 million in private funding for Glitch - all on the tenuous promise of the first truly interesting social gaming experience.
Social? For real?
All multiplayer games have some element of socialisation, but when Glitch was first announced, it sounded alarmingly "social" in the Farmville sense. Thankfully for those who dislike the back-and-forth begging of Facebook's killer apps, this isn't the case.
At first glance - or rather, at second glance, because your first glance takes in the clustered neurones of a giant's brain - Glitch is a side-scrolling platform MMO with social-game elements. Most tellingly, it features a limited pool of energy, but this is refilled by decreasingly onerous in-game actions, not micro-transactions - or spamming your friends. It's entirely possible to play through in a satisfying way without a single purchase, death, or begging request for assistance - an almost unique experience in the casual social sphere.
Players can interact with the environment, earn experience, level up, fulfil quests, and buy housing, but what they largely do at the moment is create. From the earliest screens, you'll find yourself gathering materials and finding ways to put them together using an increasingly complex chain of tools.
When you reach the highest levels of various crafting abilities, you'll be able to make money hand over fist, maintain your energy levels constantly, and accelerate your progress - but the real bonus only kicks in when you hit the edge of the map.
The world of Glitch is growing. Although players tend to cluster at the map's heart or in the fashionable new housing districts which cater to the wallets of veterans, the real game takes place on the fringe.
Here, players can actually contribute to the creation of new environments, providing high-level crafted items and unique deeds to trigger the opening of a new "street".
Upon entering any street, three players - those who did the most to spur its creation - are highlighted on its info screen, and to be counted among them marks a skilled and dedicated Glitch. Although players compete to earn top spots, every collaborator is rewarded, and when a new project opens, word spreads quickly and generously.
Tiny Speck has indicated that Glitch will eventually include two further kinds of meta-game.
According to early promotional material, the world of Glitch - the combined dreams of eleven giants - is the basis for the creation of another, future world. While building the world of Glitch, players protect and nourish that future.
Threatening this admirable goal is an enemy known as The Rook. This collective entity appears in the form of numerous black birds. Although constantly on the attack, The Rook has so far appeared in testing only sporadically, destroying neglected environments and requiring numerous co-operating players to drive them off - and repair the damage.
The Rook also turns up in a quest once the player has a few levels under their belt, and the resulting events, which take the fight to the enemy with little or no explanation, are disturbing. Up to that point it's possible to have no idea the world is under attack, and with only a talking rock to tell you who is friend and who is foe, one of the game's underlying tensions are foregrounded.
A later quest takes players to a museum in which the world's backstory is more fully revealed, and the co-operative combat needed to fend off the Rook menace detailed - but it's hard to believe in all that wandering through the peaceful landscapes in search of tomatoes for a lazy salad.
Tending my piggies in the garden behind my blue, Spanish time-share cottage, I was hailed by a bubble tree.
"Don't believe what they tell you," it whispered.
Bubble trees are notoriously paranoid, prone to conspiracy theories, but the tree's message was echoed days later by a pig. Pigs tell a lot of porkies - especially about parties - but it's hard to ignore the same advice when it comes from the always calm and reliable cherry trees.
Somehow, somewhere, I know Glitch is lying to me, and these brief messages advise me to keep an open mind as to what I am told as the second of the promised meta-games ramps up.
Each of the eleven giants of Glitch is vying for greatest control of the population, and thereby, the shape of the world to come. Players who have progressed far enough will eventually compete with each other to win over new players to their respective factions.
It's easy to see how one interpretation of the game's canon - that one giant is favoured, while another is the enemy - could emerge from the back and forth of player interactions, both competitive and co-operative. The world that forms as a result will be different each time one faction gains control over another.
It's probably going to be this competitive meta-game that inspires players to really connect with each other, but even now, when players can have an engaging experience even by ignoring others, Glitch is producing a culture of its own.
Glitch is one of the few MMOs where strangers greet you with hugs, kisses, and gifts - sometimes to meet quest rewards, but more often in recognition of your need for certain items. It's not uncommon to see high-level Glitches leading newbies around the overwhelmingly large map - there's a convenient "follow" option to facilitate this - explaining the best ways to avoid an empty energy bar and accompanying trip to purgatory.
There's something strange, emergent, and attractive in Glitch.
The introduction of social groups has seen a startling number of organisations spring up - groups to organise the famous parties that mark the end of a testing session, groups to pool resources for projects, groups to explore the game's mythos and philosophy.
When I first scored a beta invite after over a year of waiting, I was a little embarrassed to tell friends and colleagues how compelling I found the experience. I don't like MMOs much - I'm more the single-player kind. But there's something strange, emergent, and attractive in Glitch - something we're only just beginning to see the edges of, and which is sure to expand with a slew of new players. I'll see you there.
Glitch can be played in most browsers, and is supported by a free iPhone app. You can sign up at Glitch.com.