Stewart Butterfield, Philosopher Game King

Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield aims to put the play back in online gaming, with his latest effort, Glitch.

Flickr creator Stewart Butterfield is putting in long hours building his latest creation: a whimsical online game called Glitch.

Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield aims to put the play back in online gaming, with his latest effort, Glitch.

Stewart Butterfield takes play very seriously. Born in tiny Lund, B.C., and currently a resident of Yaletown, the former Cambridge philosophy student is best known for co-founding the photo-sharing website Flickr, which sold to Yahoo Inc. for an estimated $35 million in 2005. Now, pursuing a calling closer to his philosophical roots, the 37-year-old Butterfield is preparing to launch an Internet-based game called Glitch, which he believes will shake up online gaming much as Flickr did photo sharing.

“There aren’t any other big-budget, high-production-value, massively multiplayer games out there that aren’t about killing other people,” Butterfield says of Glitch, due to be released early this year. “Hopefully, people will just come and play.”

Butterfield’s new company, Tiny Speck, is based in San Francisco, but he spends most of his time working at a small satellite office in Yaletown, within walking distance of his apartment. On a rainy afternoon, three staffers are at work at a bank of computer screens in the middle of the room. Drawings of the game’s characters – mop-topped dwarves and sprites and multi-eyed ghouls – hang on the wall. Butterfield emerges from his office and picks up a carefully folded paper airplane from the floor. He throws it, watching its trajectory with intense interest, and then says hello.

A new infusion of $5 million from such investors as Accel Partners – the venture capital behind Facebook – and a recent round of testing for the game have meant long days and nights at the office. Butterfield, in jeans and a rumpled shirt, reaches for a battered metal coffee mug and rubs his eyes. “There’s a philosophy that underlies all of this,” he says, “that play is a really wonderful thing that most adults don’t get to spend enough time doing.” Glitch users, he explains, collaborate in a kind of crowd-sourced civilization-building that differs entirely from the Armageddon scenarios that dominate online games.

With Glitch, Butterfield is returning to the original impetus behind his digital career. The UVic grad was partway to a philosophy doctorate at Cambridge when he returned to Vancouver in the late ’90s to start an online gaming company. A photo-sharing element of one game morphed into Flickr, which developed a momentum of its own. “We knew it would be big, but not that big,” Butterfield says. With memories of the 2000-02 dot-com crash still fresh and tech prospects uncertain, he and his partner opted to sell in 2005 after receiving an attractive offer from Yahoo – a decision he now regrets. “We would have made 10 or 20 times as much money if we’d waited just six months. But there was no way to know that,” he says.

This time around, the timing might be right for online gaming. FarmVille developer Zynga Inc., started in 2007 in San Francisco, is anticipated to earn as much as $500 million in revenue this year, according to the research firm Inside Network Inc. While Glitch will be free to play, users will be charged for access to extra levels and virtual goods and will even pay to open stores within the game itself.

After three years working for Yahoo in San Francisco, Butterfield left the company and returned to Vancouver mainly for the lifestyle, rather than the city’s nascent tech sector. “Vancouver is just insignificant in the tech scene compared to Silicon Valley,” he notes, citing the critical nexus of investors, entrepreneurs and technical people that exists only in San Francisco. However, he says there is potential here, thanks to creative designers and low costs. Relaxing immigration policy for tech entrepreneurs could also help woo talent from the U.S., he adds.

He shows me out to the foyer of the office, where a big-screen TV sits in front of a bank of sofas. It’s hooked up to an Xbox, but no one is playing today. “I work a lot – every day,” Butterfield says, reaching for a sip of his coffee, which is already drained, before returning abruptly to his desk and back to the serious business of gaming.