Flickr Founder Launches New Game

July 1, 2011

Stewart Butterfield first put his mind to making a video game nearly 10 years ago. He and some friends had formed a company to make a title called Game Neverending. Building from the technology used in that game, they created other software projects, including a photo-sharing application.

In his modest Yaletown office, Butterfield—dressed in jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers, and with the stubble seemingly mandatory among 30-something guys in the tech and game sectors—recalls the economic conditions in 2002. After the dot-com crash, WorldCom, Enron, and 9/11, funding for technology start-ups was crazy hard to come by.

Neverending was shelved, but Butterfield and his partners saw the potential in releasing the photo-sharing application, called Flickr, on the Web. Flickr, of course, became one of the first online utilities that let users share pictures. Sign-ups for the free service skyrocketed, and Yahoo! acquired the application in 2005 for a reported US$35 million.

When their stock options vested three years later, Butterfield and three of Flickr’s original employees—Eric Costello, Cal Henderson, and Serguei Mourachov—formed another startup called Tiny Speck and began work on another game. With their millions, and the renown of Flickr, they’ve found it relatively easy to raise money for the new game, called Glitch. Three times in the last two years Tiny Speck, with about 25 employees, has raised capital, largely from people they know: investors at Silicon Valley venture-capital firms Accel Partners and Andreessen Horowitz, as well as family members and friends like Biz Stone, the cofounder of Twitter.

Whip smart, Butterfield in conversation moves quickly from topics like religion and philosophy—he’s got a master’s degree in the field from Cambridge—to movies and music, to technology and programming, salting his observations with nuggets like this: “The 20th percentile of the U.S. population by intelligence has about 60 million people.”

Yaletown has become the centre of Vancouver’s video-game development industry. Most of the engineering and coding for Glitch is done at Tiny Speck’s San Francisco headquarters, but the creative hub is this subdued space. The main area is simply two rows of long tables pushed together, with workstations lining either side—as no-frills as you can get, and in stark contrast to the kind of pampering lavished on employees in these same buildings during the dot-com bubble of the late ’90s.

Once envied for its tight-knit and talented cluster of developers, the local game business has been decimated in recent years by layoffs and closures. In January, Disney Interactive closed Propaganda Games, which had just released Tron: Evolution, the game tie-in to the Vancouver-shot film Tron: Legacy. In February, California-based Activision cancelled True Crime: Hong Kong, which was being developed by United Front Games, just around the corner from Tiny Speck; staff there have been cut back so severely that people who helped found the company no longer work there.

These are only the recent shakeups. Over the last three years there have been major layoffs at many studios around town. The reason, says Howard Donaldson—a former vice-president for Disney Interactive and a co-founder of Propaganda—is that the video-game industry is shifting from a business model reliant on the sale of packaged goods to one dominated by digital distribution. Donaldson has subsequently taken up the mantle of president at DigiBC, the industry association for digital media, including interactive entertainment, visual effects, and mobile applications.

Consoles (Playstation 3, Wii, and Xbox 360) propelled the video-game industry through the beginning of the millennium. And though some console games still sell in staggering numbers, they’re the blockbusters (like Call of Duty and Halo) that are priced upwards of $60. Growth in the industry nowadays—Donaldson pegs it at 10 percent a year—comes from games created for mobile devices and Facebook, games like the 99-cent Angry Birds on iPhones, iPads, and Android devices, and the free-to-play FarmVille.

Existing console games are also moving online. A few years ago, FIFA, the massive soccer franchise developed at Electronic Arts Canada in Burnaby, was available only as a disc in a box. Now, 30 million people play it at any given time on a multitude of platforms, including computers and mobile devices. As EA’s CEO John Riccitiello put it: “FIFA needs to change from being a thing that you buy to being a place that you go.”

Which is exactly what Butterfield’s Glitch is all about. It’s designed to be played by thousands, even millions, of people at a time on any Web browser that runs Flash. It’s a social game, encouraging collaboration and cooperation among players. With a look that mixes cartoons and contemporary mixed media, and a surreal environment that includes creatures like chickens that dispense grain when you squeeze them, Glitch is a whimsical world that invites exploration. (The plot, such as it is, has to do with 11 dreaming giants.) It’s World of Warcraft without the violence, CityVille with substance.

Glitch will be free to play; it will earn revenue from subscriptions and the sale of virtual goods like wardrobe items for characters. (Companion applications for mobile devices are also likely to be money makers.) Whereas most games are created and then shipped, with bugs fixed by means of downloadable software patches, Glitch will be constantly updated. Even complex narrative elements can be updated immediately. Butterfield demonstrates on his computer how quickly he can alter an object in the game. Within minutes such a change can be implemented for every player.

Glitch has been running in alpha, the first release of a piece of software used for testing, since the spring of 2010. The official release is expected this fall. Butterfield says the community that has flocked to the game—the waiting list is thousands long—is a positive, enthusiastic bunch. “They get the vibe that we wanted to create for the game,” he says. “It can still be competitive, and there can still be people playing at odds in the game,” but spoilsports who want to wipe the pieces off the board in a tantrum will be kept out, because other players won’t tolerate them. Those who engage with the game will actually be responsible for telling the story and expanding the world.

Glitch’s thin back story, says Butterfield, is simply fodder for people to make up their own. He mentions Finite and Infinite Games, a book written by theologian James Cares. Finite games, Butterfield explains, are played for the purpose of winning, while infinite ones are played in order to keep playing.

“The idea of bigger games has a lot of appeal to me,” he says. Which is why Glitch doesn’t have an ending. It just keeps on growing, getting bigger and more complex and wonderful. It’s taken Stewart Butterfield 10 years to make his game, and he’s building it to last forever. VM

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