Originals

01/16/2013

A Eulogy For Glitch

Words, and quotes, from those close to the ill-fated MMO.

By: Lana Polansky

Filed Under: Editorial Indie Industry Interview Reflections

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I don’t remember a lot about Glitch. I remember the side-scrolling. I remember the cartoonish art direction and colour scheme. I remember wearing a fez and a bathrobe and walking around the world collecting allspice because I wanted to guide my skill tree to making my avatar into a great chef. I don’t really remember many of the quests, specifically. I just remember little, meaningful moments. I remember thinking that this was the only MMO I’d probably ever like.

There was one quest that stands out, though, called Notice the Unnoticeable. It strikes me now because it encapsulates so many of the problems Stewart Butterfield, founder of developer Tiny Speck, remarked while reflecting to Gamasutra on the shuttering of the unusual MMO – citing content that lacked enough of a “game context,” among other things.

The quest was about death. It was about finding ghosts of a bygone time that you would spot in randomized locations. It was about collecting a useless artefact—a petrified Faded Heart—and about keeping it with you, sacred, forever, so that you might remember the ghost of the Half-Forgotten Glitch. It was about loss, remembrance, monument.

The quest didn’t strike me as much at the time. I felt awkward and inaccessible and esoteric—almost impossible to complete without a FAQ or a streak of luck. It felt strange, foreign, and a little out-of-place: this morbid thing in a happy-go-lucky world. It was the bubbling of inevitability underneath a rose-coloured surface.

Chris Whitman, former Game Engineer at Tiny Speck who now works with Gaslamp on Dungeons of Dredmor and Clockwork Empires, worked on Glitch for about a year between May 2011 and April 2012. His relationship to the game was far more intimate than mine, having worked on game content programming, including (scenario and character programming, skill and item programming and so on), game design and writing.

He remembers details I couldn’t, about the game’s quests and lore, its world. He lists for me the instance quests he worked on, the in-joke surrounding the Purple Flower content, scripting he did for the Jethimadh Tower end quest…

He remembers the flexible work environment, the welcoming of ideas from anybody who had them.

“Most of this was working in small, ad hoc teams, so I wore the design hat on some of these. Sometimes I just wrote some dialogue, sometimes I was implementing someone else’s design proposal,” he recalls.

And he remembers the choice he made to leave, after moving from full-time employee to part-time contractor to make room for his own independent projects.

“[Tiny Speck] were happy to accommodate the change, but unfortunately when the initial launch didn’t go well, I’d more or less moved myself to the non-essential personnel list. I stayed on for a bit to train other developers, but there just wasn’t the space for a lot of contractors there anymore.”

Now Whitman, upon reflection, thinks Butterfield “pretty much nailed it” on describing the downfall of Glitch:

“Casual games basically live and die by engagement mechanics and very tight pacing. Our open design philosophy resulted in a lot of really good content, but it was frequently distributed in pockets rather than presented in a steady drip feed,” he says.

He admits that there was an ambition and a heart there that didn’t always fit congruously into Glitch’s F2P MMO model.

“Everyone complains that every MMO plays the same—a steady feed of predictable, measurable content (pick 20 berries; kill 10 Orcs; collect 15 wolf pelts)—but very few people seem to accept (or maybe even grasp) that there’s a reason for it,” he says.

In fact, Whitman reminds me, the seeming inaccessibility of things like Notice the Unnoticeable was a common complaint for many gamers, and the “pocket” distribution of content made it feel like there was a dearth of explicit gameplay goals. Often, the game wrestled between an emergent, explorative approach and a conventional mission-based one that was never really reconciled. Similarly, many players struggled with the game’s lateral approach to problem-solving and its sometime-snubbing of conventional design even for simple tasks, even spawning a “Where Can I Get Salt” web page. (The answer was, obviously, by grinding allspice.)

But, “I feel sort of guilty,” I tell him, “for not supporting it more.” This is because by the time I heard that Glitch had been shuttered, I had already stopped playing the game for the better part of a year. I had loved its subversively cooperative approach to the MMO genre, its emphasis on exploration rather than mere stat augmentation. I loved that skills seemed to have whimsy and flavour that made them charming to use and observe. I loved that every world had its own character—and yet, I found myself running out of things to do. I found myself running up against the inevitabilities of Glitch; my fatal inability to find more things to explore or accomplish; my grinding and FAQ-ing quests like Notice the Unnoticeable just to get them checked off. I found myself coming up against the illness in Glitch and taking it for granted.

I felt guilty because I was feeling loss. I felt a tinge of something like what the Faded Heart represented—a gloomy reminder of a thing half-forgotten.

But we all have our own ways of dealing with loss. The only time I felt grief sharply—and can sharply recall the feeling—was when my childhood pet died. Her name was Hobbes. She was a cat. She died about a year-and-a-half ago after suffering a paralyzing blood clot due to a previously unknown heart condition.

And I wasn’t there for her enough. And I spent too much time out of the house. And the pictures of her won’t fade because they’re digital, but my memory of her fur and meow will. And only little punctuated moments will stand out to me, half-forgotten but looming like a ghost under the rosy surface of my world that has to keep turning anyway until that gets shuttered too.

Like lots of former players, I wasn’t there for Glitch but Whitman doesn’t hold that against me. There are things, according to Whitman, that we can notice hidden in the failure of Glitch. There are things we can take away.

“If it wouldn’t be certainly the end of my career in this industry, I might suggest we start embracing failure,” he tells me. Because this will allow us to take more risks, or learn from our mistakes, I ask?

“Yes and no!” he tells me, “I mean, iterating on unsuccessful designs is definitely important for success, if that’s your bag. I mean something more in line with the old, but true, cliché that you like someone for their virtues but love them for their faults.”

Whitman takes this away from Glitch because, he tells me, what you get from any game personally is “what justifies it,” regardless of the game’s success, or recognition, or even the fatal flaw of its own genre. Those little punctuated moments you carry with you are what matter. What Glitch had to teach me about remembrance, and what its shuttering had to teach me about loss, is what matters.

“If the market demands we make things that we like instead of love, and threatens us with failure otherwise, maybe it’s better to just not listen.”

But the loss of Glitch, for Whitman, was not just an exercise in intimacy. There is, he tells me, a bitterly sobering aspect to all of this. There’s a lingering reminder of paralyzing market demands hanging over Glitch’s death.

“It’s a slightly sickening catch-22, really. You can make an MMO that some people will love or you can make an MMO that everybody will play,” he says.

“It’s hard to sum up what Glitch meant, I think. It was a lot of long hours, but a lot of camaraderie, at times extremely frustrating, but also very satisfying. I wish I could recall verbatim the original quote on the Tiny Speck main page, that it was a freak eruption of strange particles, or something along those lines. Some piece of particularly Stewart-esque verbiage, but pretty descriptive. It was weird and good and, in retrospect, too brief. I think what upset me about the closing even after I’d been laid off was that I had this hope that getting a lot of really talented people together to do something they love was, at the end of the day, more important than just routinely meeting market demands.”

The hope isn’t gone, he says, but “bruised.”

“I guess I feel the choice developers face is to do the big experiment and face the prospect of commercial failure, or to hedge their bets and take home the paycheque. I think I’ll probably always go with the former because I don’t actually know how to do the latter, but it has its toll for sure.”

Glitch, an MMO that was weird, good and brief, could not play in the ecosystem that it tried to subvert with only relative success. But part of Whitman’s grief is the knowledge that this is a market problem he doesn’t see the end to. Speaking for myself, what I have in the end is a powerful memory. There’s frustration, grief, guilt, regret—just like there are nuances of discouragement and frustration streaking through Whitman’s insights. But there’s a flash of optimism over those things that Glitch affected me in a way that no other game in the genre ever managed to do.

I remember the most impactful moment I had in Glitch, vividly, even if other details fade. I had developed a skill where I could write short letters and leave them in the environment, and they would remain. Part of Glitch’s beauty was the sense of permanence objects, actions, consequences, and so on had—that the things you did could have an effect on others, so you better make them count.

Anyway, I formed a habit of writing quotes on pieces of virtual paper with a virtual pencil, and dispersing them randomly around the world. I don’t particularly remember any individual quotes. Inspirational, poetic, thoughtful, funny, beautiful—any thought or feeling I found valuable enough to share. Quotes from Kurt Vonnegut, Dorothy Parker, Leonard Cohen, whoever. I never knew who picked them up. I just hoped they at least got a kick out of it.

With the exception of one conversation. Chatting in small text bubbles with a random player—whose name nor their appearance comes back to me—I told them about my newfound habit. And then they revealed to me that they had picked up one of my notes, and that it had made their day, and that they liked the pun in my username and my fun hat. And we exchanged smiley faces. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in a videogame.

Whitman tells me I wasn’t the only one. Note-writing was a powerful feature for lots of players, some of whom dropped hints or left poems or made “art installations” out of them—some of which I remember having found. This kind of emergence gave Glitch an incredible power to connect people, to humanize players. Little things like this were transcendent. They made us more than stats and skills.

I’m prepared to embrace the failure of Glitch, the failure of the system in which Glitch exists, the eventual breakdown of all things. I’m prepared to accept a hidden Faded Heart, a previously-unknown cardiac condition, a thing I didn’t want to accept or acknowledge. The sensation of positive contact with a stranger. The permanence of objects. The appreciation of artefacts. The time spent getting her high on catnip. The little hairs I kept finding everywhere after she died. The wind-up mouse toy I keep on my mantle. I know how to appreciate small moments and to take the opportunity to make as many of them as possible. It took me too long to write this partly because I had to search my own vocabulary to figure out to describe mourning Glitch, or mourning at all. But I know what loss feels like for me. I know its process and its complications. I know for a fact I will feel this way again. And things will become half-forgotten, and some things will remain profoundly, lucidly meaningful no matter how small they were, or how incongruous. It’s the glitches that will stick the most.

Filed Under: Editorial Indie Industry Interview Reflections

About the Author:
Lana Polansky is a game critic and writer peddling her wares at Kill Screen, Gameranx, Medium Difficulty and here at Bit Creature. Also, a ludonarrative disco-dancer.

  • http://twitter.com/vonhorst fröken von Horst

    Very beautiful. Very close to my own experience with Glitch and grief. Thank you.

  • https://twitter.com/WallCrawlinHero Wesley Hampton

    That was a really great write-up. You said a lot of things that I felt about the game closing that some of the other articles have somehow missed. For me, even when I first got the quest, “Notice the Unnoticeable” meant a lot to me. I loved that the developers loved the game enough to include this underlying sadness to it, even though the surface looked like all fun and good times. The quest perimeters were odd, the reward was mostly useless and there didn’t really seem to be a point other than the experience and I loved that so much. When the end was announced I gave away all of my stuff except my Faded Heart and a few other useless odds and ends. I even crafted myself a real Faded Heart out of fleece so I would have something to keep when the servers shut down.

    Realistically I’m not surprised it didn’t work for all the reasons that have already been listed, but I love that someone tried to build something using more heart and creativity than equations and focus group numbers. These are the games that I look for and that’s why the people that loved it really loved it.

    Oh, and the first time I found a note on the ground it was like a light bulb going off in my head. My only goal after that was to earn the skills necessary to write and leave notes. One of the highlights was just days before the shut down I had left goodbye notes all over Ur and I randomly found one tacked to a message board in a machine shop in Groddle Forest where I know I hadn’t left one before. Shortly after I received several notes on my doorstep and messages from people thanking me for what I wrote.

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