'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.