'Zille-O-Ween Fashion Show!!', 'Best Animal Name Screenshot Thread!' and 'Cheese nerfed?' You can learn quite a bit about an MMO just by scanning the user forums. And what you learn about Glitch is that, although it hasn't been running for very long at all, it's already gathered a devoted and distinctly pleasant kind of audience.
The subjects and replies tend to suggest helpful, thoughtful sorts of people, and when you wander through the actual game world, you may well find yourself showered with random gifts and hugs, and swamped with detailed advice if you ask a question in local chat.
None of this should be particularly surprising. Glitch is bright and breezy, and it's the work of Tiny Speck, a company founded by Stewart Butterfield, whose previous credits involve Flickr - another internet community marked by a cheery supportiveness. Flickr was originally meant to be part of an online game too, but the photo-sharing refused to give up the limelight. This time, however, Butterfield's kept his eye on the prize, and the result is pretty interesting stuff.
I've only been playing on and off in beta, and sporadically for a week or so now that it's been officially launched, but I can already tell that Glitch is a bit weird. It's weird because it's an MMO based around non-violent play, because its universe is set inside the imagination of eleven giants, and because it's built from bubble trees and floating rocks and quests about trying to remember the poem at the start of the Great Gatsby.
It's weird because someone may - or may not - have nerfed the cheese. Beyond that, though, what's really weird is that, despite all this palpable oddness floating around, the end result doesn't actually feel very unusual to play. On a minute-to-minute basis, certainly when you're in the game's early stages, it's disconcertingly traditional casual MMO stuff, albeit with a lovely line in quips.
Tiny Speck's game takes the form of a delicately rendered side-scroller. Despite those bubble trees and floating rocks, its landscapes are only faintly fantastical most of the time. The fauna may be a little unusual, but a lot of the world is taken up with craggy caves, lush, North-Western-styled forests, and breezy meadows. Your avatars, meanwhile, can be decked out with pug noses, snaggleteeth, and buttons for eyes if you so wish - I did wish - but the basic design isn't a billion miles away from Farmville. It's Farmville's distant cousin, perhaps: Glitch went to a more radical university and took part in a few sit-ins, but the resemblance is still there.
What do you do in this world? For the moment, at least, new players get to wander wherever they want, acquire objects, gather resources (you click on a rock or a tree or a pig and then wait for a little time to elapse before you get your stone chunks, fruit, or meat) and take on quests. The skills system is the backbone of the early game: you select what you want to learn from a screen that looks a little like the periodic table, and then, once the studying timer has run down - half an hour or so for the simple stuff, the best part of a day for more complex skills - you'll suddenly be able to use new in-game objects and take on fresh missions.
You rarely feel like you're actually, you know, learning something, but if it's all rather intangible, it's at least pleasantly interlinked. Cheffery I, for example, will let you mess with a few basic recipes to make in the game, but it will also open up the option to move on to Cheffery II, Saucery I and Grilling I, where you can start to expand your repertoire. Skills are learned passively, and you can keep an eye on your countdown timer and assign new studies even when you're out of the actual game. It's a smart move, keeping you quietly engaged with things and regularly reminded that, "Hey! Glitch exists!" even if you aren't logging in that often.
The game itself is similarly streamlined. Movement is fuss-free (just as long as you're using the keyboard rather than the mouse), highlighting objects and NPCs is effortless, even when the screen grows cluttered, and each item in the game comes with a menu that tells you how you can interact with it - allowing you to choose whether you want to sing to a butterfly or milk it, say, or whether you want to block a fellow traveller or cuddle them.
Aside from a few instanced treats that whisk you away for treasure hunts or rudimentary assault courses, early quests tend to be of the "buy a knife and board and then cook three dishes with it" or "fire up a smelter and smelt me 100 of these" variety. They're a way of introducing the game's interactions, from mining to blending smoothies, and even here there's a certain slickness. Highlight that knife and board in the quest text, for example, and you'll be told which in-game vendor type you can buy it from, or you can be whisked to a player-to-player auction in a fresh tab - and the auctions feature pretty speedy delivery.
The game's currency is based on currants, and you can sell just about everything you mine, bake, blend, smelt, or pick from a tree - and there are often co-op bonuses for working with other players when you gather resources, too. Eventually, you'll be able to save up and buy your own house, at which point, you'll want to start filling it with stuff. Nice stuff. Stuff you may have to buy or trade for.
As ever with this kind of thing, there are a couple of meters to keep an eye on as you play. Energy is diminished through interactions, and must be topped up regularly by eating. Mood, meanwhile, and as the name elegantly suggests, is a measure of your happiness. Mood can actually be improved through interactions, and if it drops too low, you'll get less XP and use more energy as you go about your business.
Both mood and energy are refreshed entirely at the end of each in-game day; if you run out of energy, you die, and have to tit around in a genuinely charming vision of purgatory for a while until you come back to life. Seriously, it's practically a documentary. On top of all that, you should also take into account your favour with those eleven giants that have created the world in the first place. Favour can be earned by levelling up or collecting in-game achievements, or you can just donate items to various shrines dotted around the landscape.
It sounds like there's a lot going on for a casual MMO, and, in fact, a nose through the wikis suggest Glitch is going to be a pretty deep game. If you're just starting out, however, you may find the whole thing marked by a certain aimlessness that can be hard to get accustomed to at first.
The landscape is huge, and it's divided into a handful of areas and hundreds of different streets with an extremely slick navigation system in place, but, aside from hunting for the right vendor or looking for the ingredients you need for your next smoothie, there's rarely a sense that you have to be anywhere in particular at any specific time. You're just wandering around, and so is everyone else.
I quite like it - playing Glitch is like being between lessons at a sixth form college, only with a talking rock who wants you to make him a salad every few minutes - but I can see how it would be a bit of a shock if you were coming here from Azeroth.
Glitch players won't be coming from Azeroth for the most part, though. They'll be coming from Facebook, from Flickr, and from Spotify. And if Glitch is currently rather lacking in focus, that may actually be part of the plan. This is very, very early days for the game, and Tiny Speck's model hinges on community interaction when it comes to laying out the future of the entire undertaking.
Players are already working to unlock new locations through street projects, and on a more ad hoc basis there are dozens of odd new traditions - if that's possible - being created by in-game groups and tested out informally every week. Beyond that, if you've chosen to be a subscriber - there are a range of different subscriber options, allowing you things like teleportation tokens and the ability to access special content - you'll also be able to vote on the features you want the dev team to implement next. It should be a great feature by itself - as soon as it's implemented.
Subscriptions aside, Glitch is extremely generous with the content you can access for free, and it's nice to poke around in a world that's so freshly minted - even if a lot of the stuff you're going to find in there won't seem particularly novel. Where's it all headed? I have no idea. Glitch isn't a bad name, as things go - but perhaps, for the time being, they should have called this one 'Limbo'.