What The Wii Did For Console Gaming, Glitch Wants To Do For MMOs. And It Just Might.

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The bleeding edge of sailing technology

Last night, the news started to come out about Glitch, the new massively multiplayer online game that a few of the key cogs that built Flickr had been developing in secret for much of last year. Today, I got to see a still relatively early build of the game. It is both beautiful and impressive.

I met up with Stewart Butterfield, one of the co-founders of Flickr, so he could demo Glitch for me. Sitting in a hotel lobby on a WiFi connection being used by who knows how many other people, the game, which runs in the browser and is Flash-based, was incredibly smooth. Even more impressively, Butterfield was able to manipulate the game from the backend (using his “God” mode tools) to add new elements on the fly right in front of me. This is a key part of what will likely make or break Glitch.

While Glitch itself as a game is still coming together (it’s not going to be released until Fall 2010), Tiny Speck, the company behind the game, has spent much of the last year creating a backend that can allow them to quickly and easily build out an expansive multiplayer world. In fact, up until this point, about 80% of the time has been spent on building this backend, with only 20% devoted to the frontend of the game itself, Butterfield says. Over the next nine months, that will flip.

So how easy is it to add elements to the game? Right before our meeting, Butterfield asked one of his developers to create a Michael Arrington element in the game. When we sat down, there was Mike, in the game, ready to go (see picture below). Butterfield also dynamically altered worlds on the fly and added new elements all with a few mouse and keyboard clicks.

One reason Tiny Speck is able to do this is because they decided to focus on making the game 2D rather than 3D like some of the more popular MMOs out there right now, such as World of Warcraft. This saves them countless hours of rendering time for countless angles. More importantly, Butterfield says he realized during his last gaming project, Game Neverending (which eventually gave birth to Flickr, before it was bought by Yahoo), that how a game looks matters less to a lot of users after a few minutes of play. All of that peels back to the fundamental gameplay, which Glitch is focusing on.

And that’s not to say Glitch doesn’t look nice. In fact, as I noted above, it looks great. Tiny Speck has several artists developing the landscapes for the different worlds in the game, as well as different intricately designed elements that you use in the game itself. The game already has a distinctive look even though Butterfield is quick to point out that maybe the key element, the characters you inhabit in the game, aren’t done yet.

So what’s Glitch all about? Well, it’s a bit convoluted, but basically you start out in the future and travel backwards through time to save the future. In doing so you jump in and out of the minds of eleven giants. Or something. See? Convoluted. But that shouldn’t matter — many of the best games are.

Ultimately, it’s a collaborative puzzle solving game on a massive scale. Interacting with people in the game is key, and meant to be fun. It’s a big part of Tiny Speck’s goal to do for MMOs what the Wii did for console gaming — which is to bring it beyond the stereotypical players and to the masses. Butterfield notes that while World of Warcraft is huge, its player base is just a fraction of those who play Farmville, for example. The goal is to find a middle ground.

And that middle ground applies to revenues too. While World of Warcraft is pulling in a ton of money for each player (thanks to its subscription model), Farmville pulls in much less (because it’s mostly based around micro-transactions). Butterfield sees a middle ground here too that Glitch will try to tap. While the core game will be free to play, users will be able to buy items in the game, and hardcore users will probably be able to pay for special rights, maybe even voting on new features (an interesting idea that Butterfield floated out there).

Since the game is Flash-based, I asked Butterfield for his thoughts about the recent controversy surrounding Flash-maker Adobe since Apple and Google appear to be moving away from Flash and towards HTML5. Butterfield said that while they have no allegiance to Adobe, there is simply no way they could have made Glitch the way it is trying to use anything but Flash. And while performance is often a knock of the technology, Tiny Speck has done a ton of work to optimize things on their end to keep the game running smoothly, even as it scales (obviously, they test that sort of stuff even in this early stage).

I also asked Butterfield why not just build Glitch as a Facebook game, like Farmville? His response was that their vision for Glitch was to use more than the small window within a social network. Fundamentally, it’s an extension of what he started with Game Neverending, but they’re far beyond what was capable back then, so the technology is finally matching the vision.

And as a best case scenario, Butterfield also hopes to see Glitch extend beyond the browser and onto systems like the Wii and Xbox 360. And while there may not be a full iPhone app, he foresees them using that platform (and Android) to make app mini-games of sorts that give you power-ups in the game when you play them.

On top of being a co-founder, Butterfield is serving as President of Tiny Speck. His other co-founders include Eric Costello (also the Client Lead), Cal Henderson (the former head of engineering for Flickr who is now Tiny Speck’s VP of Engineering), and Serguei Mourachov (who is the Server Lead). As we noted back in September, they also hired Digg’s lead designer to be their be their Director of Design, Daniel Burka. There are about a dozen or so people working on Glitch now, with most based in San Francisco or Vancouver (where Butterfield spends most of his time).

Tiny Speck quietly raised a seed round of funding last year led by Accel Partners, and including angels such as Marc Andreessen, and Jeff Weiner. Butterfield said they’ll soon raise a larger Series A as well. They’re going to need it for such a lofty goal. And they’ll get it, when the VCs see how nicely the game is coming along.

You can watch the demo video and sign up to be a part of the alpha test (starting in a couple of weeks) on Glitch’s site.

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