Requiem for a game: Quirky MMO Glitch to close

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Late this summer, a friend introduced me to an open-world MMO beta called Glitch. Handsome, well-written, and deliciously odd, Glitch was like nothing I've ever played. Some games you play to see how they end, and some games you play because you want to win them. I play Glitch for the sheer delight of getting to the surprise beyond each corner. When my character reached level 35, it seemed I finally knew enough to convey the game's uniqueness and enjoyableness in a review. But yesterday afternoon, as I wrote the review, developer Tiny Speck told players—first in a cryptic in-game announcement and then in a FAQ and forum thread—that the game will close down on December 9.

Although Glitch's online signup has been disabled, you can play until December 9 if you have an account or an invitation. Players with unused invitations can still invite friends to play in this brief period. All current players have received game credits and a subscription for the duration.

Glitch's robust snapshot galleries helped build the community.

Subtitled "A Game of Giant Imagination," Glitch was created by the people behind Katamari Damacy and Flickr, and it brings the strangeness and the sociability those names suggest. Although Katamari creator Keita Takahashi's role was not defined, it's easy to picture his involvement when you see the eleven Giants, omniscient beings that look something like H.P. Lovecraft's Elder Gods as drawn by Sanrio. We do know that the dinosaur-innards underground passages were his idea. Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield is a high-profile member of Glitch developer Tiny Speck; perhaps that's why in-game snapshots (complete with photo filters, sharing, and comments) are such a big part of the game. In fact, Flickr started as a part of a previous Butterfield project, Ludicorp's Game Neverending. Under the handle Stoot Barfield, Butterfield plays the game and conducts lively forum discussion.

Welcome to Ur, a land powered by imagination

If you can secure an invitation, you can still play the game. Your avatar is a Glitch, a tubby little humanoid imagined by the Giants. You tumble through clouds and stars to land on the world of Ur, where you make your home. Exploring the world, using your mad skills (that's mad in the sense meaning "insane"), and opening your home street to visitors all generate more of the imagination that makes the world go round.

Perhaps because the game rewards cooperation and sociability, players of high-level Glitch characters are often kindly and helpful.

At the beginning, your Glitch looks very similar to many others, but you can tweak its hairstyle and hapless expression—and build something of a wardrobe—for free. Your 100 free starting credits let you buy more clothes to mix and match, but subscribers have exclusive access to some of the most unusual clothing, features, and hair.

Despite the Kewpie-doll proportions, few Glitchen (the game's own plural for the player characters) past fourth level look much alike. I've seen characters with fangs, fins, pointy elf ears, purple skin, and the glossy black eyes of a Roswell alien. I've seen characters with cavalier hats, checkered pants, flip-flops, lumberjack shirts, and tailfeathers. I may have seen all of those on the same character. The variety of decorations for your house (which you can expand) and tower (which you have to build) is similarly vast.

You immediately move into a small cottage, where you discover a tart-tongued Magic Rock. The rock sends you on quests, many of which are tutorials, and rewards you when you succeed.

Absurd but elegant game mechanics

You can finish most quests on your own, but some require a partner or a group, and some are based on generosity toward your fellow Glitchen. As you progress, you can also take parts in collaborative quests called feats, in which the entire Glitch community performs the same task a given number of times to unlock rewards. Feats can be anything from saying lines from a short script to streaking across the streets of Ur in one's chubby, sexless birthday suit.

Beyond the quests, Glitch offers a number of badges for achievements such as exploring a large area, eating a certain prime number of raw eggs, or dying at home. In the sort of consistently off-kilter touch you come to expect from Glitch, all the numbers required to earn badges are primes.

Many Glitch players looked forward to Zilloween, a festival that includes candy and jack-o-lanterns.

Your Glitch's energy and mood meters fill up every four hours, when a game day is completed. With every dawn, your Magic Rock gives you imagination points based on how many other Glitchen have visited your home street and how much they've done there. As you cultivate your yard with firefly hives, gardens and trees, rocks to mine, and so forth, your yard attracts more visitors and earns more imagination. Imagination acts both as experience points for leveling up and as upgrade points to buy upgrades for everything from bigger energy tanks to more brain.

The size of your brain determines how quickly you can learn skills. The skill tree is broken into Alchemy (for tinctures and potionmaking), Animals (for the skills that yield grain, meat, and the fox fiber you need to make rugs and sofas), Cooking (which includes "cheffery" and cocktail-making), Gathering (for harvesting and various nonsensical resource conversion processes), Growing (for crops and herbs), Industrial (for working with wood and metal, as well as creating furniture), and Intellectual (which includes bureaucracy, meditation, and teleportation).

Crafting, exploring, and dying well

It's good to look at the official Glitch Encyclopedia to see what skills and materials required to make things. I was disappointed to discover that Furnituremaking was useless without materials such as the half-screw, half-nail thingamabobs called snails. To make snails, you feed metal rods to sloths. Making metal rods requires more skills. The pricey alternative is buying them at auction.

Oh yes, there's money for buying items, too:  The currency is called currants. You can spend your currants with the vendors who float down the streets of Ur, or at the auction house. The auction house works seamlessly in a separate browser tab. I once posted and sold an auction lot of tomatoes while in Hell.

In Glitch, even death is a social occasion.

There are no enemies to slay you, no monsters to strike you down (at least, not at the beginning, and fighting them is both cooperative and optional). When you're playing a low-level character, you can expect them to die of starvation. When you die, you go to a hell called Naraka. Hell's pretty okay. It has jazzy music, some useful item pickups, and a bar. Cooperation with other players is key here, too, though: For you to get the drink ticket that lets you pick up the items, someone has to notice your passing and interact with your gravestone. Whenever possible, die in public.

The game's controls make it easy to bustle about Ur for long stretches without tiring your own hands. When exploring, you can interact with anything that's highlighted in blue when you touch it. All of these creatures and items speak to you in distinctive onscreen dialogue that turns them into characters themselves. The metal rocks quote heavy metal lyrics, the gas plants talk like hippies, the bubble trees mutter conspiracy theories, and the wood trees…well, they're one of the reasons that children from 14 to 16 years of age need a parent's permission to play. Double entendres abound in Glitch.

In Glitch, Hell is more interesting and more pleasant than the Bureaucratic Hall.

The crafting and inventory menus are well-designed, but I would have liked more consistency in their behavior. For instance, if I run out of flour while making waffles, I can chop more from within the same window…but if I run out of butterfly butter, I have to abandon the cooking while I shake milk into butter. Similarly, I don't understand why it's possible to peruse the inventory while converting cherries to mangosteens, yet everything other than IM locks up while I smelt rocks into metal ingots.

In a few months of play, I've encountered few bugs in this actively developed beta. The most frequent problem is lagginess, which can be managed somewhat by shutting down the browser and restarting. The most serious problem is the occasional Flash crash. Although it's never been a daily occurrence for me, it happens often enough that I appreciate the in-game joke about it. Tiny Speck cited "the decline of the Flash platform" as one of the reasons for the closure.

A fitting end to a friendly game

In-game, paid subscriptions conferred only cosmetic advantages (for upgrading your appearance, furniture, home, and tower) and convenient ones (extra teleportation tokens for subscribers at the middle and high tiers). Out-of-game, they gave you votes that you can use in Glitch ballots to influence what the developers introduce to the game next. The only vote conducted concerned the addition of foxes and sloths. Votes rolled over with every month of subscribing, so the longer you subscribed, the more influence you could exert in the next vote.

This image greets players on Glitch's closing page, where Tiny Speck announced the end of the game and posted a FAQ about the upcoming closure.

Tiny Speck offers anyone who's purchased a subscription since November 1, 2011 the choice between a refund, a donation to charity Partners in Health, or to Tiny Speck to help with severance pay and finding new employment for staffers.

During my time playing Glitch, a new area or ability showed up pretty much every week. Tiny Speck hints that more things will appear before the world of Ur vanishes altogether. Thursday night, the giant Zille appeared on game screens and announced (or perhaps sleepily muttered) that the Zilloween seasonal holiday would start and never end. The Halloween analogue, which includes candymaking, pumpkin-carving, and pumpkin ale that makes your character moonwalk, has been a popular fixture in the Glitchian calendar.

Glitch is a surprisingly rewarding game. Its combination of good looks, sly wit, and glurgeless niceness have made it a great deal of fun to play. If you have an invitation or can get one, it's worth playing even a few hours to see what Glitch is and wonder what it might have been.

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