Glitch in the Afterlife

Stewart Butterfield tells how a few million dollars worth of art, created for a beloved massively-multiplayer game, ended up in the public domain after its death.

Working on the now-defunct massively multiplayer game Glitch meant daily conversations — most of them quite earnest and a few of them even heated — on topics such as what a bubble tuner should do (aside from "tuning" the bubbles one harvests from a bubble tree) or which alchemical compounds should be required to produce a Powder of Startling Fecundity.

We were creating a world that was deliberately preposterous, one where "that seems implausible" was considered as a statement of praise. Players would go about donating to shrines in order to gain favor with one of the Eleven Giants in whose shared imagination the whole world existed, so that they could speed up the rate at which they were learning skills like "Bureaucratic Arts" or "Soil Appreciation". After several years of effort, the game actually got fairly fun.

Cosma, Lem & Spriggan, three of the Eleven Giants in whose imagination the world of Glitch existed

In the end, however, it got fun too late. It didn't help that we were on the wrong side of a big technological shift, building around Flash as a client technology right before people started shifting their "discretionary computer time" from laptops to phones and tablets where the game couldn’t run. It eventually became clear that the game was never going to be a sustainable business. So in November of 2012, it was shut down.

Samples of some of the thousands of images created by players using the in-game "snapshotting" skill.

The shutdown was very sad. Thankfully, the decision happened with enough time to give players refunds for their purchases and launch a campaign to get new (and mostly better) jobs for the team.

But there were a lot of broken hearts out there, as there is any time the medium for an online community ceases to exist. There was also a deep sense of loss, shared by the players and the developers, for all the creative effort that went into constructing the world.

Concept art for player’s rag-doll like butlers who would stand outside their homes to interact with passing visitors.

A spritesheet showing individual frames of the dance animation for one possible butler customization

The team that gave life to the game's concepts were hugely talented. The expression of this world was both vast in scale —a huge variety of locations designed in a bewildering number of artistic styles— and minutely detailed, with hundreds of items, many individually animated and highly customizable.

Samples of a few of the landscape styles from the world of Glitch

But with the game offline and the art assets locked up in proprietary formats on private servers, the whole thing was effectively gone. The idea that all of that effort and creativity being forever inaccessible seemed more than a shame: it seemed almost criminal. One way to help mend those broken hearts was to get it back out into the world.

A sampling[a] of characters from Glitch’s world. From left to right: The Rube, a figure who appeared at random to propose a totally lopsided trade with a player (in the player’s favor); a Garden Gnome, a special kind of toy that players could place outside their house and train to speak certain phrases when people walked by; a Delivery Frog who was dispatched to deliver when you bought something at auction (and who could not leave without pretentiously showing off a yoga pose); a Helikitty, a flying cat pet; and a Crab, shown here enjoying some tunes (crabs always asked you to play them in-game musicblocks and would reward you for tunes they liked).

And so it was an easy decision to to contribute the art (along with all the writing, and nearly all of the code) to the public domain. The logistics took a while, but in November 2013, the formal announcement was made and all of the packaged-up assets and code were published on the Glitch site.

There are more than ten thousand items, millions of frames of animation and tens of thousands of lines of code to control them. It includes the whole avatar system, the world’s flora (from bubble trees to egg plants) and fauna (from metal-eating tree sloths to milkable butterflies), hundreds of unique characters (from the mythic Giants and the Rook to everyday vendors and street spirits), thousands of items (tools, resources, furniture), the complete housing and tower building systems and many thousands of environmental art assets used to create a massive world with dozens of styles.

A player, having just completed a puzzle quest stands outside the Rube’s house.

By giving up our ownership and any rights associated with all these designs, images, characters, drawings, animations, systems, and code, we hope more people will be more easily able to create new works with them. (The initial release was targeted towards developers; the hope is that they will repurpose the assets in ways that will lower the technical barriers so they can be enjoyed, appreciated, or re-used by more people.)

It doesn't matter to us if those new works are commercial or artistic or educational. It doesn't matter if the Glitch art is just the basis for inspiring something else or if it is reproduced exactly. It doesn't matter if we like the results or not. Anyone can use any of it for whatever purpose they want without any restrictions.

Some of the different health and production states for a mature gas plant.

That measure of freedom is important to us because when you come down to it, as a species, culture is all we’ve got. The more of it we make, the better. The freer the materials the easier it is for people to make new things.

Glitch was not a significant cultural milestone in its own right, but we hope that it has an outsize impact in its ability to foster the creation of more art and the expression of more creativity.

So please: help yourself. Go and make something beautiful.

Glitch was created by Tiny Speck. After shutting Glitch down, the company began work on Slack, a tool for team communication that was built on the systems used in developing Glitch.

Slack is currently in ‘preview release’ and is being used by high-performing teams like Soundcloud, Rdio, Buzzfeed, Medium & Lonely Planet. It will launch early next year.

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