Q&A: Stewart Butterfield on the Launch of Glitch

Last spring, after leaving Yahoo (s Yhoo) and taking some time off, Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield started a company called Tiny Spark Speck with four other members of the original Flickr team, and started work on a browser-based, massively multiplayer game. The product of that effort was Glitch, which Tiny Spark Speck launched this week with a web site and a video highlight reel. The game is in invitation-only alpha, Butterfield said, and then this summer will be moved to open beta in preparation for a full-scale public launch later this year. In a phone interview on Tuesday, the Flickr co-founder talked about how he had always wanted to build a massively multiplayer fantasy game, about the benefits of building a 2-D game rather than a 3-D one, and about how he originally wanted to start a bank.

GigaOM: Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of Glitch?

Butterfield: It’s something I’ve wanted to work on since I was a little kid. When I played SimCity — the original one, I guess, in the mid-80s — I remember always being curious what it would be like to play a game like that, where you got to play from the perspective of one little ant driving around the freeway rather than from the god’s eye point of view. It was the collective or emergent action of all the players that determined the way the simulation unfolded.

GigaOM: Did you want to start a game company right after you left Yahoo?

Butterfield: I knew that I wanted to work with the same group of people again. I actually tried for awhile to convince them that we should make a bank instead, in late 2008. That would be incredibly boring, but I think there would have been some nice opportunities to change the world on that front. But a game is just as good, and everyone else was much more interested in building a game than building a bank. I guess if you’re an engineer, banks are phenomenally boring to work on.

GigaOM: What’s your view of where the gaming industry is now?

Butterfield: I’ve been watching everything that’s been happening over the last five years. The pace seems to be accelerating. We’ve seen a lot of increased uptake of what we’ve been calling casual games, and at the same time the iPhone’s done a lot for indie game development. With the Wii, tens of millions of people are buying their first console, and of course there is the rise of social games on Facebook. All these different avenues…it’s like, letting a thousand flowers bloom. There is all kinds of interesting stuff happening all over the place.

GigaOM: Flickr also started as a massively multiplayer game called Game Neverending. How is this different from what you envisioned then?

Butterfield: Obviously in the last eight years, a huge number of things have changed. From the perspective of 1982, hardware is effectively free. But the biggest shift is that there are now hundreds of millions of people using Facebook, whereas back then Friendster was yet to launch and when it got to a million people that was a huge deal. So there’s just a lot more people online now, using the web in a social way, and that wasn’t really such a big thing before. So it’s a much better time to be working on this.

GigaOM: With all those different platforms out there, are you planning to extend Glitch into any of those other markets?

Butterfield: In the ideal future, we would like to have it be playable across all kinds of platforms. At first it will only work in a browser on a PC, but we will have companion applications for mobile — so iPhone and Android — that give you a more limited amount of gameplay but allow you to kind of interact with the game without having the whole client open. Because it’s massively multiplayer and you’re encountering other people, talking to friends or strangers, it’s tough to play without a keyboard in front of you, because that’s the way people talk. But if, for example, you’re participating in an auction, you should be able to use the iPhone app for that sort of thing; or if there’s a local election happening or some other asynchronous social interactions, that kind of stuff can happen in a mobile app.

GigaOM: Tell us a bit about the game. What are players trying to accomplish?

Butterfield: The 30-second version of the backstory is that it’s a billion years in the future and everything worked out perfectly — everyone’s enlightened and it’s peaceful and and just perfect. And of course, that’s a very unlikely future. One day scientists discover that and determine that the solution is to go back to the past and fix it so the future actually happens. Now, as everyone knows, the world was originally spun out of the imagination of 11 great giants, wandering sacred paths on a barren asteroid, and singing and thinking and humming the whole world into existence. So we have to go back into the past, into the minds of the giants and grow the world — so that the future can actually come to pass.

GigaOM: You’ve mentioned Facebook games such as Farmville and World of Warcraft. Is Glitch anything like either of those?

Butterfield: When you compare it to Farmville or any of what we’re calling social games for Facebook, they’re all single-player games with a little bit of access from my single-player game experience to your single-player game experience. You can fertilize your friend’s crops but that’s about it. If someone’s better at growing corn, for example, in their farm in Farmville, I can’t just buy their corn. There’s no economy, no real interaction; what I do doesn’t really make any difference to you. So this is what people used to call a persistent world game, a massively multiplayer game — but it’s different from most massively multiplayer games because the focus isn’t on fighting. And the reason for that is just that once you have fighting in a game, then the game becomes about fighting, and it’s really hard to fit in any other kind of significant human interaction. When it’s about getting better weapons and better armor so you can kill more impressive foes, then that ends up being what the game’s about, and we didn’t want it to be about just that.

GigaOM: Is it the type of game that takes hundreds of hours to play, like some other massively multiplayer games?

Butterfield: People can sit down and have a multi-hour game session, but they should be able to get some satisfaction out of short bursts as well — 10 minutes snuck in at work, stuff like that. It is definitely possible to wander around the world by yourself, and go exploring and — to use the game industry word, to grind — to do the repetitive tasks and level yourself up by yourself. But there are other people always there. There’s plenty of opportunities to work with people so that for example, a lot of the larger, more expensive things that you can build or develop in a new area require a group of people who have different skills and pool their resources. But there can be competition as well — economic is the most obvious, but I think we’ll see a lot of sort of tongue-in-cheek politics and even religions. Someone started the Church of Emergent Complexity back in the Game Neverending days.

GigaOM: Glitch is a bit of a throwback design-wise to the early days of 2-D, side-scrolling PC games. Why did you decide to do that?

Butterfield: It was partly a technology decision, because it’s much easier to develop in that way, and the tolerance for latency is a lot higher. But also 3-D, while it often looks beautiful, is a lot more complicated for people to deal with. Just physically moving a 3-D avatar around in a virtual world is a lot more challenging than in 2-D. If you look at something like Second Life, there are many differences, and just moving around in Second Life is a challenge for a lot of people. But everyone can sort of immediately grok the 2-D, side-scrolling, platformer method of moving and that kind of gameplay.

GigaOM: What kind of funding does Tiny Spark Speck have?

Butterfield: We did a small angel round of $1.5 million last spring, and the bulk of that was Accel Partners, plus there were about a half a dozen angels including Marc Andreessen; Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn; Rob Solomon from Technology Crossover Ventures and the former CEO of Sidestep; as well as Brad Horowitz, who is VP of products at Google. So there has been a pretty big group of people. We’re going to be doing a Series A round sometime soon.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons