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Learning To Fly

Disney's Jeff Jones on making Club Penguin a secret success

Core videogames has been an uneven time for Disney of late, with Epic Mickey underperforming and UK studio Black Rock suffering sudden closure. However, one area that is safe for the House of Mouse is Club Penguin, a kid-focused online world that remains big business despite increasing competition from upstarts like Moshi Monsters. spoke to Jeff Jones, Disney's vice president and general manager of Digital Games, about Club Penguin's status within the company as a whole, the rise and threat of mobile and social, and when we can expect to see traditional Disney properties explore similar territory.

GamesIndustry.bizDisney's games portfolio has been through some major changes lately - which parts of the business are you heading up, specifically?
Jeff Jones

I'm the general manger of digital games for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, so I have the portfolio of Club Penguin and other virtual worlds we're looking at, plus our social games that we got through Playdom and also the apps from a whole raft of different sources on iOS and Android. We're also starting to think about some of the future technologies like TV apps and streaming gaming, etcetera.

Club Penguin, I remember when, pretty much a few months after it launched, I started to pick up on the uptake in it and was going in trying to work out what the heck it was all about. So I was one of the early advocates of us looking at Club Penguin. I then worked on the acquisition, and then when we set up the first office internationally in Brighton I really worked on that; getting the team up and running, getting a new framework for that. Then I stepped away for a while, and last year or so came back to take more of a GM role on that. So I've been with it almost as long as the founders, but not quite.

GamesIndustry.bizIs it your major responsibility, or just one small part of it?
Jeff Jones

It's 50 per cent of my responsibility. That's because it's just continuing to perform extremely well. The market is certainly getting a bit livelier in terms of competition, but we're still up and around number one in the UK and certainly across the whole of Europe we're the number one site. We just announced 150 million kids have signed up for Club Penguin, and frankly that's an old stat now. We're still getting a rapid level of sign-up.

GamesIndustry.bizWhat proportion of those are playing regularly?
Jeff Jones

We have pretty clear stats on how the game is performing. Indicatively at the moment, roughly 30 per cent of kids in the target demographic of 6-12 are playing Club Penguin pretty much every two months. There was a report came out this morning from Mintel that said Club Penguin is the most popular site for kids after Facebook and Twitter. So, it continues to be, even though it's our sixth birthday last week, a very strong performer here in the UK, and we're growing in Europe. We are truly a European business - we've got French, Spanish, Portuguese, and we're making an announcement soon about another language.

GamesIndustry.bizWhat's the main source of the growth? Word of mouth? Constant SEO battling?
Jeff Jones

It's a really interesting question. I think for the last six years it has been almost entirely word of mouth. We have had some strong partnerships with sites such as MiniClip who continue to provide us with a feed of consumers, but it has really been a word of mouth thing.

Some search engine optimisation, a little bit of search marketing, but what we've seen over the last year is a lot of new entrants coming in with much more aggressive, above the line marketing campaigns. So that's starting to change the business a little bit. But for the main part, it's been that kind of classic network effect that people talk about these things, and once children get into it they start to get evangelical about it, get their friends onto the service. Social groups start to form around it.

GamesIndustry.bizWhat's the major type of competition? Other online games like Free Realms and Maple Story, or Facebook games like FarmVille?
Jeff Jones

Our sense is that the social games that you see on Facebook are not... well, obviously children under 13 aren't supposed to be on that platform.

GamesIndustry.bizNo doubt a lot of them are finding a way, of course...
Jeff Jones

Yes. But our sense is that it's competition for more immersive games, because frankly the social gaming experience that's presented on Facebook is very much an adult-orientated sort of environment. The whole mechanics are designed to engage with an adult audience, and the sort of gameplay that appeals to children and the social experience that appeals is all around play and a much more dynamic environment.

GamesIndustry.bizAs opposed to just clicking and waiting...
Jeff Jones

Yes, as opposed to farming. I think the competition's more from other types of virtual worlds. Increasingly obviously, kids' time is being spent across other platforms - touch devices coming in is competition for their finite amount of play time.