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Club Penguin owes popularity to Disneyland attitudes - Merrifield

Austin GDC: "If it doesn't matter to a kid... it doesn't matter," says co-founder

At the opening keynote of the 2008 Game Developers Conference, Lane Merrifield, co-founder of the immensely popular children's virtual world Club Penguin, said that it was by putting the customer first that the industry could build better games, stronger teams, and better businesses.

The service, which has seen a population stronger than even World of Warcraft with well over 10 million total users and nearly 7 million unique users per month, was recently the subject of a Los Angeles Times story which suggested that the Penguin Times - a weekly digital newspaper delivered to players - enjoyed a circulation above the Dallas Morning News or the Chicago Tribune.

Merrifield would argue that much of that popularity was due to the philosophy that drove the company itself, one he first picked up in his first job working for Disneyland - for the company that would eventually acquire Club Penguin.

Not only did the Disneyland staff have great attitude of service in front of visitors, Merrifield told his audience, but they "took care of each other behind the scenes... For someone who grew up a bit of a cynic, that was a revolutionary thing."

Merrifield said that from its foundation, his company took the approach that in order to foster a "warm, caring, respectful atmosphere online," they had to similarly reflect that in the office. "Disneyland is great," he explained, "because heart of serving came directly from Walt," that its passion "cut deeper" because Walt built the park for his daughters who wanted something different than traditional "scary, dirty, grungy" carnivals.

Along with his co-founder Lance Priebe, the two set out with the same approach to create a safer place for children on the internet, which Merrifield said also deeply affects its hiring process and sees new hires have to go through the process Lance calls "crushing the joy" - "toning down" egos and making sure that the player and their experience remains the solitary focus.

"Far too often we as developers end up front and centre of what we build each day," said Merrifield, "we remove the player and serve ourselves." Those philosophical rigours actually saw the company let go by their staffing service, because the two founders were turning away highly qualified technical prospects because they didn't appear to fit the service mould. Instead, Club Penguin's support staff is as much made up of recruits from summer camps and teachers as it is the technically inclined.

The underlying motto that the company adheres to, said Merrifield, was "if it doesn't matter to a kid... it doesn't matter." That, he said, keeps the company "focused on the right things."

"It's so easy to get distracted and focused on ourselves, to get caught up in creating what we think is cool and what our friends would think is cool, and ignoring what the kids want... I believe that by striving to serve the audience in every way I possibly can, that is what will lead us to create better games, working environment and a business as a result."

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