Let’s get over our (well-meaning) shock of Star Wars: The Old Republic getting so many awards at GDC. As surprised as I am, I probably shouldn’t be. The game did everything that it got an award for and it probably did them exceedingly well. I didn’t stick around long enough to really appreciate them all because …the game sucked as an MMO and it wasn’t my cup of tea. Great story-telling though, I guess.
I want to look at a game that I overlooked for most of 2012, Glitch. It’s developed by the indie company, Tiny Speck. It probably deserved more recognition than it received, but I think it’s because it’s so different that GDC probably doesn’t have adequate categories and criteria to truly give this game credit.
Glitch is a browser-based MMO. At first glance, it’s very simplistic and childlike. In fact, my first impression was that my children finally had an MMO they could grow up with, something fitting for our young household. It’s very approachable, very patient, and very intuitive in it’s gameplay–just like all my kids’ games. However, it’s very deceptive in that area. This game has intrigues that only a modern adult would really understand or appreciate. That in turn makes it quite a good family game, especially for parents wary of the games their children play. That said, this game definitely satisfies the more mature needs of the adult gamer. WoW is far more patronizing than this game and doesn’t assume you’re stupid in the least. In fact, it counts on the smarts of the player in order to deliver the experience.
It’s very akin to the style of game of Farmville, in that it’s intensely social. The game makes interacting with others very easy and desirable for the player. As a result, the playerbase is extremely friendly and even mature. Since the game thrives on positive interactions, negative ones are relatively rare. Players cooperate and enjoy doing it. The game is designed such that these positive interactions are rewarded in course. What I mean by that is it doesn’t rely on Skinner techniques. Players are kind to one another because it’s fun to do so while being immediately beneficial. Epic loots not required.
The game is a sandbox. There’s no rifles, brass knuckles, or any sort of fighting at all which is a really impressive feat for an enjoyable game. Non-violent MMOs are a real rarity. Glitch pulls it off beautifully. The only enemy in the world of Ur is a villain called The Rook, and he can only be defeated by paralyzing him and donating to the Giants (the gods of the game) so that they banish him. What’s wonderful about this is the game successfully acknowledges evil without proposing murder and killing as the solution to defeating it. Instead, gameplay relies almost strictly on building rather than destruction. Most activities involve building, learning, and exploration. Even when farming animals, there’s no slaughter. If you want meat from a pig, you just “nibble” it. If you want eggs from a chicken you ask them to incubate it. If you want to harvest butterflies, you massage them. It’s a very subtle and successful way of acknowledging real human activity without adopting the position that we must be violent to attain things. Some may think that this is carebear-ish, but I call it downright creative and informative. Games too often teach that violence is the answer. Glitch acknowledges threats and danger without blood-letting and competition. It does so by emphasizing community and the power and centrality of creativity to finding alternative solutions. If this game is carebear because of that, then traditional MMOs are bruttish. One of these is associated with human civility and progress; you be the judge of whether that’s something you can appreciate. For me, I definitely appreciate a game that doesn’t define me as constantly and necessarily a killer and which doesn’t operate from the premise that killing is the best answer.
Which brings me to the next awesome thing about this game. The naming conventions and the metaphors which are woven into the fabric of the core gameplay in order to really teach the player something and alter their perspective. Experience in traditional MMOs is termed Imagination in Glitch. The more stuff you do the more imagination to wield; the more imagination you use the more world building you do. It’s a very nice way to represent the idea that what’s exciting in daily life is what we do with our minds creatively. Humans love making stuff and this game drives that lesson home by simply rephrasing/reframing the conversation about what it means to live in a virtual world. Along the same lines, instead of having a Health and Mana bar the player gets energy and mood meters. It’s much more akin to how The Sims handles player well-being than your average MMO. Energy is depleted by doing any activity; some are much more arduous than others such as chopping wood versus making a sandwich. Your mood basically determines how much imagination you earn during your activities. It’s like a happiness meter: some activities increase your mood, such as caring for trees and animals, while others decrease it like drinking a sour glass of lemonade. Performing tasks with a low mood will yield less Imagination while higher mood increases those gains. It’s a very poetic way to say that doing things which fulfill us makes us happy and that the happier we are the more we get out of our daily activities.
As for actual activities in the game …again, sandbox. I haven’t discovered every single thing one can do in the game, but among the options are farming, husbandry, carpentry, fashion, exploration, alchemy … and MEDITATION. I haven’t figured out what that does, but I love this idea of having spirituality as something a player can be really passionate about. All of these activities are improved by learning the associated skill but many of them don’t require a skill to perform them. Only to be good at them. Each player has their own Home Street, which is like a private instance. Others can visit your Street and you can build up your home there, even add additional buildings. You can also have a farm there, factories, and unlimited storage. Forget banks and static inventories. By handling item storage in this way, players don’t have to part with anything and rarely out grow it (level). In fact, it encourages players to set goals and achieve them because your home is an important place to display your accomplishments and share your wealth with others. It’s like bragging rights, except much more constructive. There are no “best” anything in this game. There’s just you and your goals, equal to the goals of all other Glitches (players).
Something else worth mentioning here is how the game deals with death. In most MMOs, death is a penalty. You lost all your health and as a result you lose something, whether it’s items, levels, points, or just time. Glitch has a really nice way of handling death. To put it shortly, death is just another journey. Players don’t “die” in the traditional MMO sense in this game. You just go to Hell. Everyone. There’s no heaven. Now in Hell, it’s just like all the other areas of the game: you explore, collect items, unlock secrets, talk with other players …not much difference at all. It’s presented as merely a new adventure and metaphorically it teaches players that life is a journey and that death is just the next level. Imagine that!
The game is free to play, but does offer monthly subscriptions which start at just $4.99. There’s some different thinking, amirite? This is obviously a maintenance type of fee, less designed to wring wads of cash from customers. For paying 5 bucks a month players get more skins and home customizations, but no game advantages. The second level subscription is $8.99 and players gain credits for the item shop. This shop allows players to basically buy clothes and teleportation tokens. These tokens allow players to access to expedient world travel. The last subscription level is $14.99. It just gives more credits and tokens each month. What’s more is that you don’t need a subscription at all to buy store credits. You can be subscription free and still reap the same benefits. Of course, you don’t have to spend a cent to enjoy the game as is; purchasing isn’t really incentivized, which is a breath of fresh air in the world of MMO service models. The game is truly free to play.
So, I’m going to keep a live journal of my adventures of this game each week in order to really do a review justice. The simplicity of this game makes way for incredible depth and real teaching and learning. The lessons of the game carry over into real world application. For those of us who have been wondering about the power of games to become a healthy part of our lives and to impart important lessons that are relevant to our out-of-game activities, Glitch is a wide view of what a game which does just that looks like. This is a game worth playing if you’re into MMOs — traditional or nontraditional. I highly recommend this title to all you game bloggers out there. It deserves a lot more inspection and admiration and it’s been too low profile in the gaming community at large.
Hopefully some of you give this game a look and share your thoughts on it as well! If you already play, you can find me as Doon. I’ve sent many of you invitations over the past week and some have responded that they have already discovered it! I’m the one late to this party, but in this case it’s definitely better to be late than to never show up at all!
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