MMObility: Why the closing of Glitch matters

Glitch screenshot
When it was announced that Glitch was closing, I felt a blend of shock and sadness. Glitch is one of my favorite MMOs, but it's special for a number of reasons. The game achieved a lot in a crowded market that is filled with the same gameplay, same lore, and same stock characters that we have seen for years, and it achieved all of this within a Flash-based browser environment.

The official announcement gave us a lot of clues as to what happened, but it looks like the money was just not enough to keep the game afloat. It's also very possible that the money was enough, but just barely. Running a business is hard, and running an MMO that is so unique and unusual can be the same as living paycheck to paycheck. It's stressful and scary when the future is never certain... sometimes it's easier to call it quits.

Glitch screenshot
I hate to sound like an alarmist, but the MMO genre is slowing down and will eventually be replaced by casual, core, and single-player games that optionally host large numbers of players. I'm talking about FPS titles with multiplayer options and social games that provide enough of a social connection so that players do not need to seek out the real-time interactions that we MMO fans crave. Am I saying that MMOs will be destroyed completely? Not really. I am estimating that within a few years' time, pseudo-MMOs will take over the market. It could be argued that they already have, thanks to social games that allow players to occasionally interact with other players, those games pulling from Facebook's potential millions to play with.

What does this have to do with Glitch? Well, not only is Glitch a step forward in so many directions, but it successfully toes the lines between social, casual, core, sandbox, roleplay, and a dozen other genres, all within the confines of a browser. With one release, Tiny Speck showed just how much can be done within the browser and how much originality can be pressed into what many first thought to be yet another silly browser game. So during these days of the doubtful MMO future, Glitch showed just how nice an MMO can be when it stops being snobby about other genres and embraces many types of designs.

It's not all doom and gloom, of course. Those three or four million players who switch from AAA title to AAA title are dwarfed by social and casual players. Luckily for all of us, social and casual is slowly becoming a more and more multiplayer genre. That means that within a few years, we will have not only have MMOs that feature solo content but also solo games that include MMO-sized communities. Technology will make it so. A game like Glitch will not stick out as much in this more forward-thinking future.

Tiny Speck's developers said as much in their farewell address:
Unfortunately, Glitch has not attracted an audience large enough to sustain itself and based on a long period of experimentation and our best estimates, it seems unlikely that it ever would. And, given the prevailing technological trends - the movement towards mobile and especially the continued decline of the Flash platform on which Glitch was built - it was unlikely to do so before its time was up.
Essentially Flash is on its way out in a lot of ways, especially for mobile. It runs heavy and is growing very long in the tooth. HTML5 and other methods are poised to take over, but Adobe is not sitting on its hands while all of this goes on. Adobe, too, is investing in HTML5. Unfortunately, Flash is not the shiny thing it once was. Tiny Speck seems aware of the fact that going further with what might possibly be a very outdated tool is a mistake. There are now plenty of warnings against Java and Flash's security issues, so many people are turning to alternatives. HTML5 might be a solution for publishers who want to spread their game across multiple devices, and the browser will play a large part in that.

I've predicted for a while that the browser will soon take over as the primary means of MMO gaming. I still believe that. Sure, there will always be client-based gaming, but browser-based gaming including casual or social gaming that is slowly more and more MMO-like holds more players than any client-based MMO. Glitch embraced the browser and kept tools and information within that same browser environment. That was a work of genius. But using Flash to build the game? Obviously not so wise. There are great lessons to learn about browser-based gaming, especially real, persistent, and true MMO gaming, from the closing of Glitch.

Glitch screenshotOn top of all of the wonderful art, music, and hipper-than-hip nods and winks that went on during Glitch's run, Tiny Speck released a very robust sandbox that was not all about "hardcore" PvP, looting, and griefing other players. It was a sandbox that was first and foremost a journey into a very unique world with elements, characters, and systems we had never seen before. More innovations, please? Glitch delivered innovation in the tired and often angry sandbox gaming genre.

Glitch encouraged players to work together, made combat an occasional and shocking thing (as it should be), brought some of us almost to tears with lore that spoke of alien yet parental love, and gave us choices to do almost anything we wanted with our characters. Even our character's sex was unknown. It was up to us to do what we wanted, which is the true reason a sandbox should exist, not just for hardcore PvP that is actually quite unrealistic and silly.

Sandboxes are the red-headed stepchild of the MMO genre. They represent only a small fraction of the playerbase, perhaps because outsiders hear one too many tales of player-to-player thefts, lies, and real-life deceits. Lying to your friends and stealing from them is not a mechanic, yet many sandbox developers appear to think it is.

Glitch gave hope to sandbox lovers that, finally, a sandbox could be about something other than standing over your enemy's corpse while spitting out cursewords. Combat in video games is drudgery most of the time, and Glitch replaced it with imaginative descriptions and systems that turned normal sandbox gaming on its ears. It's too bad that many hardcore players consider realistic graphics a prerequisite for logging in. They missed one hell of a good game.

Glitch drove browser gaming forward, gave sandbox gaming a much needed boost in the ideas department, showed just how much can be done in a flat environment, brought customization to all-new heights, introduced players to a world that has quite literally never been seen before, and actually took the time to suck players into an evolving storyline, complete with world events.

What happened, then? Perhaps MMO gamers weren't ready for Glitch, or the game was just much less than I believe it was. Either way, it is a sad day when such an innovative title closes down while more and more of the same titles with the same systems keep coming out with updates. What can you do but sit back and watch it happen?

I've written about it, streamed it, bragged about it, talked about it through social media, and loved it. Games like Glitch are rare and wonderful, and at my age, they're more needed than ever.

Glitch screenshot
Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
This article was originally published on Massively.