Sunday, May 11, 2008

Club Penguin

Finishing up the
week of special content around the massively multiplayer online genre
is a look at a title that's not often considered as part of the MMO
stable at all - although that's not likely to bother the founders of
Club Penguin, an online social play experience for children that was
acquired by Disney in August last year.

Here, co-founder and general manager of the title
talks in-depth about the challenges and rewards of putting together
something for a wholly different audience, and how trust is the brand
is of paramount importance.

Q: You've
done a great job of connecting to audiences not really catered for in
the usual suspect MMOs - are the parents understanding what it is
you're trying to do?

Lane Merrifield:
Yeah, because it's so different, even the concept of virtual worlds
didn't exist when we first started talking to the press about this, so
they would ask if it was an MMO like World of Warcraft - and we'd tell
them that it wasn't really, that it's far simpler, it's not about
levelling up, it's much more of a social game.

And then people would compare it to
Facebook or MySpace, and again, we'd tell them that it wasn't like that
- in the exact antithesis of those we encourage kids to not reveal any
sort of personal identifiable information. And we have huge filters and
over 100 moderators to try and keep the world as safe as possible.

So we'd always use the example of a
virtual playground, like a sandbox - taking lots of fun elements,
putting them together, and watching how the kids use them. And then
learning from that, and creating more elements that are attuned to

For example, there's a coffee shop, and
often you'll come in and see somebody posing as the coffee shop
manager, or find people walking around and serving each other coffee,
and it's no different to a play set in school.

How did people respond to that message? Has it been easier over time?

Lane Merrifield:
Well, we didn't really have a marketing budget when we first started,
but a lot of the media were finding out about it by watching their kids
play it. And then they'd come and talk to us about it, so there was a
general understanding of it, because of a relative who happened to
play, so we really haven't faced a lot of barriers.

I think one of the biggest challenges
is the irresponsible nature with which our industry has taken care of
kids for a long time - so there's a great cynicism out there, and
understandably so. I'm a parent myself, and part of why we created Club
Penguin was my own frustration with what was out there.

And even this over-reliance on
technology...I mean, we're technologists, but we know its limits, and
there needs to be that human element - which is why over two thirds of
our staff are safety moderators, customer service, and so on.

We know the limits of technology, even
though I would put our filtering software up against anybody's,
especially because of that human element - we're adding 500 to 1000
words every day to the filters, simply because of slang that works its
way into the language.

And every new pop song that comes out
is inevitably going to reference something that was innocent the week
before, but isn't so much now.

It's a kind of emergent play in a way - that must throw up a lot of problems?

Lane Merrifield:
It's been refined a lot in the past two years, when you look at the
number of players coming through, and we've still not had a single
reportable incident. For most of our peers it's pretty common to at
least have one or two issues.

We've had to work with authorities when
for instance somebody has sent an email to customer support threatening
to hurt themselves or something - those are issues that we'll deal with
if they come up, and Disney has a great infrastructure to deal with
that sort of thing.

But there's nothing that's actually
happened in-game, because of how much we've learned, and the human
resources behind it. There's a lot of human intervention, and if there
are any gaps, they are spotted pretty quickly and dealt with before it
can become an issue.

Have you been surprised by Club Penguin's success?

Lane Merrifield:
Absolutely, I'd be silly if I said I wasn't. We built this for our kids
- I mean we built it scalable, and part of why we didn't have any VC
money, no investors, was because we didn't build it as a business - we
built it as a side project.

Lance, another of the partners - his
oldest child and mine are about three months apart, and we were talking
about how they were learning to use the mouse, starting to use the
computer and the internet.

And it was that dialogue, and some
technologies that Lance had been working on that really was the birth
of Club Penguin. So a lot of this has come as a surprise. We were
hoping that a lot of parents would see the value in it, to subscribe in
order to keep it ad-free.

A lot of people accuse us of being
anti-ads - the ad model is a great model for most of the Internet, and
it even is for older kids who understand the differences, but I found
that my son would sometimes end up in shopping carts on websites,
because at five years old he couldn't read it all to tell the
difference - and that really bothered me.

So we decided that for this young
demographic, to keep it as pure and as clean from advertising as
possible, and we needed to fund it another way. People said we were
nuts for trying to do it on subscription, but if we're nuts, we're
nuts. We thought we'd try and build it on a shoe-string, and then build
a scalable model.

We have a saying in our office that if
it doesn't matter to an eight year-old, it doesn't matter. And that's
why we didn't spend a lot of time with the press, we didn't spend a lot
of time at conferences or trying to build up awareness of the site -
because we wanted to focus on the user experience.

And we thought if we did that, and
delivered what we said we were going to do, didn't overhype, then the
rest would take care of itself.

My hope is that it's shown a lot of
other companies out there that there's a desire for parents to have
that kind of experience, and a desire from kids who play the site and
enjoy it that they're not shying away from safe environments - that
they do long for that, but the also want a compelling social experience
as well. They don't want a single player experience all the time, they
want to connect - and there's nothing wrong with connecting with their
friends in a moderated environment.

What led to the decision to accept Disney's offer? What does it bring to the table?

Lane Merrifield:
Well, we got to a point where we'd gone as far as our infrastructure
could take us - not that we couldn't continue to grow it out privately
or independently, but being in a smaller city in Canada...and frankly
we were getting to the point where the desire to spend three or four
years building up the infrastructure versus getting into the creative
process was a difficult one.

We used the example of home-schooling a
child - we'd brought it through elementary school and high school, and
we saw that it had the potential to go on and get its PhD, but we
weren't fully equipped to get it there. So we had a choice.

A lot of people obviously focus on the
money, and obviously that's been a big part, an amazing part of it, but
for us...we've been offered money from VCs in the past, but it really
came down to not needing the financial resources as much as the
creative resources.

We feel like kids in a candy shop now
because we're able to explore all these avenues now, with experts in
these fields, who are very willing to work alongside us while also
being careful to not trample us. From the top down they've been very
careful to let us continue doing our thing, and not squash us.

I've actually been very surprised,
because I went into the process almost quite cynical about it, and it's
gone far better than I could have hoped.

Are there any plans for cross-brand experiences with some of the other Disney properties?

Lane Merrifield:
We're never going to do anything in-game - we'll never do anything in
Club Penguin. So Mickey's never going to show up. The game will
continue to stay pure, in the same way that a Pixar movie would. It's
that kind of environment.

In terms of taking the brand offline, it's something that we've been
listening to our fans about for a long time, and they've obviously been
wanting to experience it in other ways - and we're still in the initial
stages of talking about that.

There are conversations happening with
the parks, but we're trying to tread very slowly and make sure we're
simply being responsive to the audience, and that we're never pushing
anything on them. It's a delicate line - you don't want to ignore them
on the one hand, but at the same time Disney is not treating this like
a movie, they're not going to through a million products at this.

No 'Club Penguin on Ice', then?

Lane Merrifield:
[laughs] Actually...that's one of the few things that could work...but
no, there's nothing in the pipeline, not even in the early stages of
planning at this point. Disney sees this as a long term brand, and they
want to continue to explore it, but frankly they've seen the power of
letting the fans make the choices, and the hope is that we'll simply be
able to extend that offline.

Lane Merrifield is the
co-founder and general manager of Club Penguin and executive VP of the
Walt Disney Internet Group. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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