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MMO Week: Club Penguin

Co-founder Lane Merrifield talks about the challenges of connecting with new audiences, and why the brand of trust has worked

Finishing up the GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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 that.

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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.