Stewart Butterfield on the Pressure of High Expectations (Updated)

Stewart Butterfield has it made. He’s famous for cofounding the popular photo-sharing service Flickr in 2004. He lives comfortably in Vancouver, having sold Flickr to Yahoo for a reported $35 million in 2005. And investors including Accel Partners and Andreessen Horowitz have thrown $17.2 million behind his two-year-old game company, Tiny Speck, even though the Flash-based multiplayer game it’s been developing, Glitch, hasn’t launched publicly yet.

So why does Butterfield confess to living in “perpetual fear” these days? The truth is Butterfield is under enormous pressure. Expectations for Glitch, which Butterfield describes as a “shared, perpetual game with its own ecology,” are exceedingly high, both because of Butterfield’s personal brand and its ephemeral launch date. (Even after two years of alpha and beta testing by roughly 20,000 gamers, Butterfield declines to disclose when he plans to release the game. “We haven’t finalized [the release date] yet, though the end of September is likely,” he says.)

More significantly, Glitch is hard to categorize. Butterfield credits Zynga — the online gaming company behind the Facebook hits — as “the best thing that could have happened to us, pre-launch. Now there is something like 150 million people who previously didn’t think they’d play a game online and now do.” But Glitch aims to deliver a much higher level of engagement than Cityville or Farmville, two of Zynga’s most popular titles on Facebook. Butterfield says that it’s hard to play Glitch satisfyingly for less than 15 minutes at a time, and that Glitch’s beta testers play an hour on average — with some playing for up to six hours at a time.

At times, what Butterfield seems to be describing is a massively multiplayer online game (MMO) that Facebook gamers can play. The game of Glitch — which involves traveling billions of years back in time in order to re-create the future, by creating and collecting resources, gaining skills, and completing quests in increasingly challenging environments – will invite users to customize their virtual homes or to buy clothing items for their avatars. (Subscribers will receive more customization options, and be able to purchase more a la carte.)

Butterfield will also allow “third party developers to use your avatar and have it show up on other games that people can play in different environments.” The idea is for Tiny Speck to act more or less like a publisher, where developers create games, and Tiny Speck strikes deals with them. Butterfield isn’t sure what those deals will look like yet, however.

What Glitch won’t do, he insists, is allow users to pay to advance in the game. According to Butterfield, “the perception is that it’s unfair, but also, because [games that invite users to spend to get ahead] basically present stop signs with dollar signs,” such games can quickly alienate users.

And Glitch won’t be available through Facebook, nor should we expect an iPad version any time soon. Facebook is too cluttered with ads, says Butterfield. Meanwhile, “in the MMO style of play, people spend a lot of time talking with each other through keyboards, and it doesn’t make a good experience when the [iPad’s] virtual keyboard takes up 60 percent of the screen.”

Butterfield thinks Glitch’s independence from Facebook will yield much higher revenue per user – between $30 and $40 per year – compared with the roughly .33 cents per user per month that Zynga appears to be earning, judging by Zynga’s S-1 filing. The money will come from subscriptions, in-world advertising, and the sale of virtual items. For example, users will also be able to purchase “teleportation tokens” that enable them to get around faster. Over the long term, Butterfield hopes Glitch can snag users who want to play the game for months, if not years.

We’ll see, possibly soon.

Glitch is a “very ambitious project that’s been a long time in development,” acknowledges Butterfield. “In terms of a traditional MMO, it’s pretty modest in terms of timeline; they often require five or more years. But compared with most games that people play in their Web browser, we’ve had a longer development cycle and a bigger budget, so we’re worried about execution. We’ll just have to work our asses off” to ensure the wait is worth it.

(Update: Tiny Speck has asked that I clarify that I was paraphrasing in writing that Butterfield “says that it’s hard to play Glitch satisfyingly for less than 15 minutes at a time.” The company says that testing has shown users find it most satisfying to play at least 15 minutes at a time, but it’s not a necessity.)