An evaluation of Glitch

Glitch is a Flash-based browser MMO that came out of a closed beta phase into full launch about 6 weeks ago, in late September.  The company behind it, Tiny Speck, has some ties to the founders of Flickr.  The game bills itself as being a MMO about imagination and cooperation.  They are consciously trying to distance themselves from the Zynga crop of “social” games by attempting to create a game that is deeper and richer than what you’d normally expect from a casual/social experience.

I heard about it and decided to check it out pretty soon after it launched.  I was in a phase where I was looking for something to occupy my PC time, and I’d burned through several “Free To Play” MMOs on Steam prior to hearing about it.  It seemed to be exactly what I was looking for – something fairly casual, but deep, with a quirky sense of imagination and humor.  I’ve spent at least an hour a day with it (sometimes much more than that) since it launched, and I think I’ve logged enough time to give an in-depth critique of its successes and failures.

The weird thing about Glitch is that although it’s a MMO, it forcibly rejects the common tropes of MMOs, and in many ways takes the lessons of the last twenty years of persistent online experiences, turns them on their heads, and says “Why must a game treat its players this way?”  Initially I found this to be a breath of fresh air, but as the hours wear on, I find that as much as we’d all like to play a game that avoids the most annoying aspects of its genre, sometimes removing those aspects creates more problems than it solves.

Let’s examine these tropes in detail and see how Glitch attempts to “solve” them:

MMO Trope #1: The content is massive, but arbitrary barriers keep you corralled

In a game like World of Warcraft, this would be implemented by the level hojillion monster that lives just across the river from where you’re currently playing.  It’s there to keep you in your current area until you’ve spent enough time grinding there (days, or perhaps weeks) to qualify to move on to something new and interesting.  The game world is massive, but there’s no way to explore it all without investing near-infinite time.  You could also say that dividing skills and classes and forcing the player to choose one at the beginning is a form of this – there are other skills, ability, quests, areas, and so forth that are only accessible if you start the game over and reincarnate as something different.

Glitch’s approach is to throw all of this out the window.  Any player can learn any skill, get to any location, use any item, etc.  There is a skill tree, and it may take you a couple of months to get to the top of it, but you don’t have to be logged in in order to learn skills.  You can gain a broad skill base that lets you tinker with almost every skill tree in just a few hours.  You could create a character, and manage its skills via the website or an authorized 3rd party tool, wait a month, and you’d have access to just about everything in the game.    Almost every location in the world is accessible from level 1.  The game encourages you to explore and try new things constantly.

The upside to this is that at least for the first few days you’re playing, there’s always something new and interesting to explore or do.  The downside is that, for the most part, you can experience the vast majority of the content in a very short amount of time.  There may be hundreds of streets, but each street is essentially just a container for the world’s limited number of interactive elements.  You might be in a forest, but there’s only around a half dozen varieties of trees, and of those, only a few are grown in any particular area.  The streets quickly blur into each other as they fly by.

Another problem with this is that although the game is focused on cooperation, each player quickly becomes able to create any item and harvest any resource with maximum efficiency.  Why would I buy an item off an auction, with a sometimes substantial markup, when I could just craft the item I needed myself?  Why would I work together with another player to reach my goals when I’m perfectly capable of reaching them alone?

The different regions in the game provide some amount of diversity, but there are large swaths of the game world that seem awfully similar.  For instance, there are several ‘forest’ regions, several ‘savannah’ regions, several ‘cave’ regions, and so on.  Granted, there are parts of the world that are unique and creative, and almost seem like they could be worlds from a Dr. Seuss book.  In a game that is supposedly imagined by strange, immortal Giants/gods, it just seems like there should be more interesting things to see than this.

MMO Trope #2: Resources are scarce, and controlling them is key to success.

In most MMO’s, there’s a clear way to make the most money or experience, and people frequently will camp these resource spawns in order to maximize the amount of that resource they control.  For instance, there may be an extremely rare dagger that only spawns on one mob, .001% of the time.  It is not unusual to see players camping and killing that enemy constantly in an effort to get the rare, valuable item drop.  Another aspect or side effect of this is that gaining resources gets harder the more players there are in the game.

Glitch takes a 180 degree stance on this – almost all resources are plentiful, and it is relatively easy to amass large quantities of almost everything in the game.  The more people who are simultaneously trying to acquire a resource, the more everyone gets.  Cooperation and working towards a common goal are encouraged and heavily rewarded.

The downside to this is that it removes the acquisition of resources as a goal.  There’s no point to having tens or even hundreds of thousands of the game’s currency, because there’s effectively very few meaningful scarce items.  Most are luxury items that have no in-game purpose except to tell others that you, at one point, were rich.

I feel like the point here is to reinforce the idea of community – that banding together for a common goal should make me feel closer to others.  However, nine times out of ten, the times when I work cooperatively at gaining resources are simply random events where we happened to be doing the same thing at the same time.  I haven’t really forged any meaningful relationships by spending seven seconds staring at the same progress bar while my character mines a rock for the 9,000th time today.

MMO Trope #3: The game penalizes you for playing too much in a given time period, versus coming back later.

Early online multiplayer experiences (such as Legend of the Red Dragon) used this mechanic to ensure that people didn’t hog the game resources by playing constantly.  More modern implementations include WoW’s “rested” state where you gain bonus experience up to a cap if you’ve not played in a while.   The game designers want the game to take a while.  They want you to stop playing now, but have an incentive to come back later.

Glitch does this to an extent – every action in the game requires energy, and you have a maximum amount of energy per day that you can acquire through food and other sources.  However, the limit is so very high, and the increases to this cap you gain by leveling up make it effectively nonexistent.  I don’t think I’ve hit this cap once in the last 3 weeks of playing, and some of those days I played a rather long amount of time.

There are certain incentives to return later – every 4 real world hours, a new day in the game starts.  There are certain per-game-day limits to your actions.  However, at higher skill levels, the amount you can do in one game day is ridiculous.  In an hour’s time, I can easily fill my inventory to the brim with any manner of valuable items.

MMO Trope #4: The game world is always the same

In most MMOs, the game tries to convince you that you’re on a quest to make a real change to the current situation wherever you are.  But, despite the fact that they may tell you the situation has changed and everything is different due to your involvement, nothing in the game world actually changes.  Every player character gets the same quest to rid the land of the same mystical evil, and they’re all praised as a hero when they complete their quest.  Granted, some MMOs have approached this in different ways, and sometimes gamers as a group are allowed to bring meaningful change to the world, but for the most part, the game world stays the same despite your actions.

This is one where Glitch tries hard but ultimately falls very short.  The game world is expanded by players, through “Street Projects.”  Street projects essentially require players to contribute massive quantities of certain items in order to unlock new content.  This could be viewed as an overall goal of the game.  However, the content unlocks are not player generated – there is very limited opportunities for players to actually create new content in the game.  On top of this, the streets themselves are created by and unlocked on the schedule of the developers of the game.  The items and skills required for new street creation are also determined by the developers.  The game developers also reward the people who contribute the most to these projects.  This sets up a competitive environment that feels at odds with the rest of the game.  I’ve done some to contribute to these projects, but at the end I didn’t really feel like I’d done something useful or engaging to expand the game world.

The Verdict:  What’s the point?

I find that more and more before I log into Glitch, I’m asking myself this question – what’s the point?  There’s not much ‘game’ here.  Mostly it is watching progress bars fill and some light platforming with very little consequences.  The world’s content is not particularly novel, and much of it is cookie cutter and repetitive.  My involvement and engagement in the game world is surprisingly limited, despite the intentions of the developers.

It’s fine to say “this isn’t a game that is aimed at gamers” or “it’s a social experience” or “you have to use your imagination” – I would accept those as valid observations of my opinion, except that in all of those areas it does nothing new or interesting.  I’d love to use my imagination, but there’s very little for me to do with it.  If I want a social experience, there are plenty of other avenues that are better suited for it.  And irregardless of what demographic the game is aimed at, it still needs to be a game.  Games exist that target almost every possible player, but it takes more than progress bars and arbitrary numbers to make one.

I’ll probably continue playing for at least a little while longer, if only because I feel like there’s room here for something interesting, immersive, and fun.  The art style and the humor are appealing, and I feel like they’ve hit on something that could be big.  I don’t see them moving in a direction that fixes the game’s flaws or creates a more engaging experience, however.   I understand where they seem to be focusing the majority of their efforts – it’s on things that encourage subscriptions and paying customers.  That’s an important part of the long term survival of any site, game or not.  However, I think that focusing on realizing the grand goals of the game is going to be an important part of retaining players, paying or not.