Feature

Glitch

A Kinder, Loving World

The online game Glitch went dark on Dec. 9, taking with it a community of peculiar, passionate altruism.

By Todd VanDerWerff • December 17, 2012

In the musical Brigadoon, the people of a Scottish highland town seal themselves off from society after a preacher entreats God not to let the modern world corrupt the good thing they have going. The town resurfaces through the mists once every 100 years, and, this being a fairy tale, there are rules. No one can leave. No one can move in unless they truly love a member of the town (and not just Brigadoon itself). And that one day every 100 years is all you get. If you leave Brigadoon after falling in love—as the musical’s protagonist does—you’re dooming yourself to a life of drunken evenings, a never-ending bender intent on phantasms.

In her book Communities Of Play, an examination of what happens to the cultures that build up around online games after they go dark, author Celia Pearce focuses on those who were forced to leave the game Uru: Ages Beyond Myst when it shut down. Pearce names this movement the “Uru diaspora,” and it’s not hard to see the diaspora, futilely trying to recreate their favorite game space in other games that don’t quite match up, as something akin to that Brigadoon protagonist. They’re waiting for the mists to clear, for a server to boot up, so they might step back into their memories.

When an online world shuts down, it’s not just the end of a game. It’s the end of a community, and it sets in motion a race against time to preserve that which will never be again.

Glitch, a utopian browser-based online game produced by the independent outfit Tiny Speck, headed up by Flickr mogul Stewart Butterfield, closed on Dec. 9. It’s silly for me to be as heartbroken as I am. All told, I’ve spent three months or so playing Glitch on a daily-to-weekly basis, and most of those sessions were short. My wife played more extensively, building up a massive bank account within the game and making a number of friends, but she, too, let her interest in the game slide.

It’s tough to describe the rules and goals of Glitch, because there was so little of them—at least in the traditional sense. A typical Glitch session usually began with the player hanging out in his or her house, feeding pigs, tending to a garden, and watering trees. From there, the session would usually lead out to the larger world of Ur, for exploring the depths of the world’s ocean or bounding through its treetops in search of cash, energy, and experience. The game also had some very light puzzle-solving—usually basic color-matching games—and you could build your character’s abilities, though players didn’t need to invest any actual effort to learn particular skills. Simply clicking on “animal husbandry” or “meditation” would then add that skill (and whatever abilities came with it) to the queue—then it was a matter of waiting. Your character could “learn” even when you weren’t playing Glitch; it’s how I learned almost everything on the knowledge tree earlier this year despite rarely signing into the game.

Glitch

Glitch was doomed to be a beautiful dream shared by a passionate cult, not the mainstream success it would have needed to be to keep funding its development. The game became too big, too fast—the team at Tiny Speck was large for a startup. I could come up with dozens of reasons, both for why we drifted from the game and for why it probably failed. Butterfield, for his part, contributed about a dozen of his own in a recent interview with Gamasutra, noting most crucially that the game had been programmed using Adobe Flash, which kept it from being ported to mobile devices. The game launched and unlaunched and didn’t market itself and eventually confused so many players that there was probably no way it could ever have succeeded, particularly when it was such a cult-y thing to begin with. And yet the news that Glitch is going away guts me.

In a 1996 paper, researcher Richard Bartle boiled the players of MUDs (the early text-based predecessors to the online multiplayer games of today) down to the following four categories: killers, achievers, socializers, and explorers. Anyone who’s played an online role-playing game will recognize all four categories among the people they’ve met. What made Glitch different was that it wanted to heavily weight its world toward players in the latter two categories. It was impossible to kill anyone, and if you wanted to climb the leaderboards, you’d likely wind up in a place where there wasn’t much left to do. (This, ultimately, contributed to my wife leaving the game.) In the Gamasutra interview, Butterfield said that it was hard to get many players to grasp that the point of the game was making your own fun. Too many people quit when they finished the tutorial and wondered what the hell they were supposed to do next.

The beauty of Glitch, however, wasn’t in its “hardcore” appeal. It was in the idea that if you gave people the right tools and got out of their way, they would naturally build a world based on kindness. The term “emergent” got thrown around a lot in discussions of Glitch—meaning play that emerged from the players’ experimentation rather than by the specific intentions of the designers. The game was weird and whimsical, prompting players to milk butterflies and grind spices to make salt, ideas that might have seemed counterintuitive to new players who just wanted to go to the grocery store and buy some goddamn salt.

That weird whimsy extended to the game’s backstory, which involved 11 dreaming giants who were imagining the universe—called Ur—and required the players’ help to expand it. It was all meant to be an invitation to take the tools Tiny Speck had made and see what could be done with them. For those who were able to get into that mindset, the game was immense fun, allowing players to all but invent the game they wanted to play. Achievers could race up the leaderboard. Explorers could race all over a constantly expanding world, filled with gorgeous art and even better music.

Glitch

It was the socializers who got the most out of Glitch, though. The game rewarded kindness. My first night playing, someone gave me 10,000 currants (the Glitch currency), because that’s just what was done around Ur. It wasn’t uncommon for players to hand over valuable items to less skilled players or host massive parties in their Ur homes. Particularly as the game neared its end, Glitch became seemingly all about socializing. Flocks of players would race through the trees, collecting this and that, because everyone surrounding the person who collected the item received an offshoot of that item—a kindness bonus.

Glitch had its roots in a previous project its core team had worked on, called Game Neverending, a game that lasted about three months before ending. Neverending was fabled for its community and conversations, and Tiny Speck was intent on recreating that aspect in Glitch, almost as if trying to will its own Brigadoon back to life. Glitch was the first game I ever played where altruism was the best way to win.

In its last days, Ur became a giant garbage dump. Players left behind whatever inventory they had, the better to let the lower-level players check out the best toys. Tiny Speck itself planted ultra-rare items—like a “Glitchmas Yeti,” only available in the Christmastime beta from 2010—so those of us who never got to see them can take a look. The company’s cheeky sense of humor also re-emerged, as horse prophets of doom—Forehorsemen—appeared to portend the looming shutdown.

My wife and I returned for the final weekend, to get a better sense of the place and figure out why we’re so sad to have it vanish. By all accounts, Tiny Speck, which is offering full refunds to players who are upset at the game closing down, is handling the closure of the game as well as such a thing can be handled. (There are even Indiegogo projects that will preserve the game’s art and music—both fully funded.)

Glitch

Yet last weekend, the diaspora was already forming. On the game’s forums, players were trying to find another game that will give them the blend of whimsy and kindness that Glitch nailed. They kept coming up short. In Ur, more and more of those who had drifted away, like my wife and me, returned to find each other and reminisce. And all over, the notes. Tiny Speck community manager Kevin Collins has collected a small number of notes that littered the world of Ur at the end, but he’s unable to capture the full sense of apocalyptic terror and yearning for an improbable savior that many of the notes had.

Glitch was popular with couples, particularly those in long-distance relationships. When I asked on the forums for players to e-mail me their stories, most revolved around the people met in-game, or around real-life relationships bolstered by a fun, quiet space in which people could hang out and go on weird little quests. (I occasionally used Glitch to occasionally spend time with a friend from Malaysia I’ve never met.) And many talked about how they hoped the world will go on, even though the giants were awakening.

Before the end, my wife, who had been my tour guide, got booted off and couldn’t get back in. I ended up standing in an out-of-the-way corner of the map with a stranger. We exchanged goodbyes, the final song began, and I went home one last time. The world ended not in fire or ice, but in a server reset.

At the end of Brigadoon, love conquers all. The guy goes back to where the village was, even though it’s months later, and there’s the preacher, waiting to bring him back to the girl. What happened at the end of Glitch is nothing like that. The posters on the forum stand where they saw the village, but all they get are vague assurances that Tiny Speck will go on. Game Neverending resurfaced for one day in 2008. It’s unlikely that Glitch will ever have even that brief moment of rebirth.

Glitch

When I reviewed Glitch for The A.V. Club, I offhandedly said that its mythology was “stupid.” If there’s any part of that review I wish I could take back, it’s that. At the time, it seemed like the mythos was just an excuse for weirdness, but as Glitch evolved and developed, it became evident that this mythos was a link into the game’s soul. The older it got, the more Glitch exemplified a kind of nostalgia for a world that had never been. It was a game suffused with melancholy and startling beauty, and even its lighthearted moments came tinged with sadness. There were quests dedicated to the act of remembering, to simply looking back at a perfect autumn’s day or remembering a time when one tiny believer reunited the giants. Glitch didn’t want to provide players with cheap thrills. It wanted to give players emotional wholeness, the ability to look at that which they didn’t like about themselves and realize it was vital to who they were.

The more you wandered Ur and chatted with people, the more they, under cover of their Muppet-like avatars, opened up about themselves. Some were hurting, physically or mentally. Some hated their jobs. Some had never been able to find a place where they belonged. They’d all found a world in Glitch that didn’t judge—a kind of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood for adults, where off-color jokes were the norm, but so was forgiveness. By not being yourself, you could be yourself.

The world—and the internet, while I’m thinking about it—is cruel and random and cynical. Maybe Glitch grew more nostalgic and melancholic as it got older because Tiny Speck understood it could never last as it was. This second childhood was going to end eventually. What remains is a dream shared among thousands: an uncertain hope for a kinder, loving world.

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  • Scurvyhead

    Couldn’t agree more, Todd. I didn’t get to play Glitch as much as I would have liked, but among its players I a more thoughtful, subversive, and kindhearted group than in any other MMO I’ve played. That the game was appealingly quirky and aesthetically brilliant only sweetened the pot.

    If anyone wants a way to get a Glitch nostalgia hit in the dark, unglitchened future, I recommend checking out the Indiegogo projects an artist and composer from the Tiny Speck development team have started.

    http://www.indiegogo.com/glitch-soundtrack
    http://www.indiegogo.com/the-art-of-glitch

    • Persia

      It was also such a soothing experience; even when you died you got to go exploring.

    • The Guilty Party

      I liked how Glitch was funny. As in actually funny. As in would make me laugh out loud. That’s hard to do. I’ll miss you, my glitchling.

  • Citric

    I’ve been in a few online communities that died out, for various reasons, whether a natural drift apart, a forced shut down (like this instance), or a bizarre flame out that burned a multitude of bridges (or, at least, it seemed like it would have burned a multitude of bridges, years later those who could find each other are friends on Facebook again in one case.)

    It’s always such a weird experience when you realize it’s all over, and you have to go and find friends again in a new corner of the internet. Incidentally, for the first real time that’s happened in real life on me, as all my friends have gone and splintered off in every direction due to their careers. Meeting people sucks, I don’t wanna.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      I’ve been a member of a number of really rewarding online and real-life communities that eventually dissolved, and that’s always a little sad. On-line diaspora is a little more melancholic than real-life to me, as I can still keep in touch with my real-life college friends wherever they are, and visit them from time to time, but assorted pseudonymous internet folks who I had years of positive interactions with are now either totally out of touch because we never exchanged real names/contacts, or because lines of communication have atrophied without the convenient substrate of a shared forum or comment board. It’s weird.
      I’ve since become comfortable with the ephemerality of such things, and developed a kind of Trafalmadorian awareness that those lost periods still exist in the landscape of time and my life, they just don’t happen exist now, and that’s okay.

      • http://www.facebook.com/mjbrady Matthew J. Brady

        Liked for Vonnegut reference. That’s actually really eloquent; I’ll have to remember it.

  • Mr. Glitch

    Hey, you’ve still got me. 

    You’ve all still got me!!

    • Colonel

      Mathman!  Mathman!?  Maaaaathmaaaaaaaaaaaan!!

    • Effigy_Power

      And Zoiiiiiiidbeeeeeeerg.

    • spark grrl

      MOTHERFUCKING MATHMAN.

      A+ nostalgia.

  • fieldafar

    How come I hear about cool things after the fact? :(

    • http://twitter.com/thanat_o_maton PXL

      The marketing was awful- there was a very vague trailer (that I didn’t even see till after I’d started playing), and very few places online seemed to have any info on it. I signed up to the beta May 2011, got in at the end of July 2011, and completely forgot I’d signed up in the meantime, due to the lack of publicity and advertisement. The devs have talked a lot about there just not being enough people playing, and I think that was a lot of the problem- just not enough publicity and a difficult time getting people in the door as a result.

    • http://twitter.com/MikoSquiz Miko the Squiz

      I heard about it while it was still around!

      I heard that it was terrible. Really slow and mostly progress-bar-watching-based and no fun. One friend of mine did rave about it, but I never got interested enough to go have a look for myself.

  • Effigy_Power

    I imagine that when online communities such as this end, the people left behind are basically fugitives, from a cultural standpoint.
    The desperate search for a new home, the heightened nostalgia for the place left behind, the breakup of friendships and the loss of cultural identity. All those things appear to resound in what Todd is writing here.
    Most of us know the end of a connection with such a community due to ourselves moving away from it, usually on our own terms.

    I have stopped playing quite a few online games with communities, a few of which afforded me to get to know some decent people. But in the end there were always other ways to communicate without the staleness of a game that didn’t satisfy anymore. I already had the email addresses and online handles of the people I liked, so the community had done its deed.

    The breakup of a community such as described here however throws all of that around, especially if you don’t know people beyond the game. Glitch appears to have made secondary lines of communication redundant, so the loss of it almost assuredly equals the loss of contact altogether. Sure, maybe you will find each other on a lifeboat or refugee-camp such as a forum or chat, but many will be lost along the way.

    With online communities creating groups of tightly knit individuals, who share common goals and interact through play and discussions, the loss of a meeting hub can be socially devastating. If the Gameological Society just went and left tomorrow, for example, my social group here would be limited to the few people who frequent the Steam Group. Merve, Hobbes, Mooy, DJSub… to name a few. These are people to which I have a secondary line of communication, so they represent a family rather than friends. I would however lose contact with everyone else, perhaps never to talk to Stew Bum or Girard ever again.

    The social and cultural impact of losing online friends appears to be a pretty big one, considering that not much is talked about it. Bullying and cybersex are the money-shots for the media when talking about online interaction, but the creation of friendships and loss of contact rarely seem to come into play.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      It’s pretty strange. I have some very lovely memories of very lovely people from previous online communities who I will never interact with again, and who I don’t even know who they were in many cases.

      Even those who I know the identities of beyond the community aren’t really keep-in-touchable without the forum that provided the substrate for our communication – it would feel weird (maybe just to me as a socially anxious person) to send someone a personal email through their website or something saying “Hey! Remember me! We were friends on [Forum X] from 2000-2006! Let’s have a one-on-one email conversation in a completely different social context appropos of nothing!”

    • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

      I’ve seen some online communities transcend the internet. The AV Club is so massive in scope that its commentariat inevitably discusses personal matters, and multiple real-life connections have been forged there as a result.

      On a smaller scale, lots of people in the Blue Oyster Cult online fan community became real life friends. They started with newsgroups in the early 90s, then migrated to AOL’s message boards by the late 90s. Most of them were middle-aged family men, but were otherwise united only by their love of BOC. They would have off-topic discussions on politics, technology, etc.; it was the second or third most active board in the AOL Music Message Center (behind the Beatles and Journey). I was but a teenaged lurker at the time, and I was amazed at how civil they were. Members of the band would comment there regularly. They even had an annual barbecue on Long Island.

  • Brainstrain

    I got into glitch during my semester overseas last year. Fond memories abound, despite my terrible internet. It had definite flaws, of course, but it was just so lovely. Sad to see it go.

  • Halloween_Jack

    I played City of Heroes for nearly eight years, made dozens of characters, wrote origins for some of them (including the longest piece of fiction that I’d ever written, which encompassed not only my oldest toon but also several others on that server), spent hours every week playing with a regular group… and it all ended last November 30th. 

    NCSoft, the publisher, whose record with games in general and MMORPGs in particular has been somewhat spotty (Google “tabula rasa richard garriot” if you don’t already know the story), shut the game down completely with three months’ warning and allegedly refused several offers to buy the game’s IP so that the die-hards could keep playing. Also allegedly, the game was still making money when it was shut down. There were numerous protests, in game and out, but the writing was on the wall when, simultaneous with the announcement, NCSoft fired almost all of the CoH staff on the Friday before Labor Day. 

    So, yeah, I feel your pain, and then some. Some former players migrated over to Guild Wars 2, but NCSoft isn’t getting any more of my money, ever.

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      My friend who’s into MMOs really liked City of Heroes when it came out. I even made a few characters on his account, which was pretty cool. I never did play it though, because subscription based games scare me, and this is precisely why. I wouldn’t want to dump hundreds of dollars and thousands of hours into a game that can be turned off

      That said, are there no unofficial servers that are running the game? I guess you wouldn’t have the characters that you made, so it may not even be worth it. 

      • Halloween_Jack

        Even if I couldn’t directly transfer over my characters to a server, I’d gladly reroll and recreate my favorites. But, no, I’m not sure what would technically prevent someone from doing their own server, but it doesn’t seem to be possible. 

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

          That’s a shame. I know WoW has some unofficial servers out there, but i’m not sure of the specifics and I’m sure WoW had way more players than City of Heroes such that someone might think it was worthwhile to crack WoW but not crack CoH.

  • Camilla Swan

    The Glitchen Diaspora lives on…
     So far there are several groups on FB and G+ (some with membership in the hundreds). We’re also keeping a google docs spreadsheet listing who is playing which games under what names etc. All of this makes it a lot easier to stay in touch with one another. Nothing has filled the void that losing Glitch created, but it does make it a little easier to deal withI’m sad to have lost Glitch after playing daily since July 2011, but have made new glitchen friends that I never knew in Ur. We all hope to find another game that will capture our imaginations. Sadly, Glitch set the bar so high that nothing seems to come close yet.  

    I lobe you glitchen xoxox
    Arietty

    • http://twitter.com/thanat_o_maton PXL

      And we love you back :)

    • http://twitter.com/lizhenry Liz Henry

       LOBE!!!!!

      - lizzard

    • Chrissie McGaw

      Lobe!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mjbrady Matthew J. Brady

    It was such a shame to lose this game. I started playing after reading that AV Club review, which was soon after the game launched the first time, and it was a huge time-suck for a few months. But I kept on playing because even after I maxed out all my abilities, there was always something to do. Tiny Speck did do some weird stuff, like going back to beta not long after they launched, but they kept releasing new features and adding new thing on to the game, and playing was always fun and relaxing, with such a variety of things to do that you could always just wander around and goof off even if you weren’t actively pursuing some goal or other. I kind of wish I had done more social/friendmaking stuff while the game was active, because there was always a welcoming culture of people who were really into that sort of thing. But I had a lot of fun while it lasted, and I’m sad to see it go. I don’t know if I have the energy to put into something similar anytime soon, but I doubt there will be something that amazing coming along for quite a while.

  • claire Wang

    Omg I loved this game. I was so sad when it was closing. So I find it really heart-warming that the entire community wants to keep in touch with one another.

  • Gwendolyn Cone

    Lovely and thoughtful article about a game I still miss daily.  I’m podle and that’s my husband, moribund, in the last picture you used in your article.  That’s how and where we spent our last minutes in Ur.  Glitch is the first MMO I’ve ever played and I absolutely loved it for all of the positive reasons you’ve mentioned here.  2012 was a year of major surgeries and immobility for me, and having Glitch to play – to be able to explore and socialize when I couldn’t do so in the real world – was a heart and sanity saver for sure.  I’ve never experienced anything quite like it – but I am hopeful the players and developers that made Ur so wonderful will go on to create equally delightful and inspiring things.

  • montuos

    I never knew I wanted to play in an MMO until Glitch.  The game has already been gone for longer than I actually played it, but I miss it terribly!