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Q&A: Club Penguin’s Chris Heatherly on How to Make a Social Game for Kids

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“A virtual world is an extremely complex thing. It’s almost as complex as writing an operating system.”

That’s Disney Interactive VP and Club Penguin boss Chris Heatherly on the kids’ Web-based MMO, which has grown steadily since 2005 to become one of the bright spots in Disney’s gaming portfolio. Last week, the company hosted a “media summit” about the game and the social issues surrounding it. Shortly after day one concluded, Heatherly sat down with AllThingsD for a wide-ranging Q&A.

Players may know Heatherly better by the name of his in-game penguin, Spike Hike, who has gained prominence since Heatherly replaced Lane Merrifield at the top of the org chart. He discussed the similarities and differences between Club Penguin and Facebook, his slow-and-steady mobile plans for the game, why kids play, why some stay and how “CP” is different from the more story-driven worlds for which Disney is better known.

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AllThingsD: You and others at the summit put forth this idea of Club Penguin as a set of “training wheels” for social media. Is that an idea you’re actively communicating to parents?

Chris Heatherly: We don’t really market ourselves against Facebook, but we are a kids’ social network. Kids socialize around play, while adults socialize around chat, text and photos. It’s something we want to start talking about more, that Club Penguin is a safe start to social. It’s certainly always been the intention, and messaging safety has always been important, but I don’t know if we’d ever want to pit it head to head and say, “Hey, we’re the kids’ Facebook.” We’re a social experience, but a different kind, and the difference is that we create a safe environment for your kids to play.

What are you doing with the game on mobile devices?

Long-term, we want to bring the Club Penguin experience to mobile. No one really owns the kids’ virtual world on mobile. We think we have the opportunity to create the category in the same way that we did on the Web.

It seems like that would be harder to do on mobile than on the Web. A lot has changed since CP launched in 2005.

There are a lot of technical limitations. If you have an existing virtual world, you want to transition that community; you don’t want to say “start over.” Connecting a mobile environment with a flash world, you’re talking about two very different technologies. You’ve also got a difference in play style between the devices.

What sort of difference?

With computers, for the most part, you’re always-on. With mobile devices, you’re often always-on, but sometimes you’re offline, other times you lose the connection, and you can’t always count on the same amount of bandwidth. That said, we’ve made a lot of investments in the past couple years to allow us to make the Club Penguin experience available on mobile. We’re going to start in a humble way, with an app that is a companion experience to Club Penguin — it’s not a walk-around-and-chat kind of “world” experience. You’ll be able to access your avatar, change your costume, play some mini-games for coins, and get things for your coins. Over time, we want to bring more and more pieces to mobile, but we don’t want to just port the Web experience, and we want to be thoughtful as we do it.

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You recently announced that 200 million penguins (user accounts) have been made from 2005 to the present day. When do kids start to age out of the game? How does their activity level change over time?

It really depends on who the kid is. Some kids really love a certain mini-game, and come just to play that. Others really love the role-play aspects. There are other kids who come just to take care of their Puffles (multicolored virtual pets). We have a very broad audience, but about 80 percent is between 8 and 12 years old.

You get the most out of the experience when you’re able to type and read. Kids who are below, say, 6 or 7, tend not to be our most engaged kids. On the other end, we have some kids that are 13, 14, 15 years old, who started playing years ago. We have players that play as long as three years, and players that play six months. The kids who stick around after [age] 12 are the ones who are really invested in that community. They feel like it’s their place.

It’s a destination.

Yes, and it’s different, I think, from a social network. I like Facebook, my friends are on Facebook, but I have no particular affection for Facebook as a place. I use it as a tool. For kids, Club Penguin is their alter ego. They’ve invested into a persona there. They know the history, they know about the water party of 2006, all that stuff, and they pass that down to the next generation of kids.

How does that work? Do people just pass it down in chat, or does that oral history happen outside of Club Penguin?

Both. Kids tell each other that stuff in the game. But there’s also a big third-party blog network that surrounds Club Penguin. Some of these kids have maybe 300 readers. But there’s a lot of those blogs. All those kids follow each other, and it spreads like urban myth.

So the memes of the game outlive the life span of an account.

Absolutely. The Rainbow Puffle is something that has been rumored for years and years and years, and yet every kid knows about it. You ask any kid who plays, they know about the Rainbow Puffle. How? Because they found a blog. Or they found something on YouTube.

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Why has Club Penguin succeeded where other MMOs have failed?

The community is important, and there’s a unique tone and humor and a quirky style. But there’s a way in which Club Penguin is sort of neutral. You’re neither a boy nor a girl. Everyone’s kind of a silly, funny penguin. It’s a blank slate, and it’s a level playing field. It’s Play-Doh. Kids can make it into anything they want, and they do.

And that’s different from Disney’s usual style.

We don’t want to bring too much story. It’s very different for a company like Disney that has a lot of storytellers. Whenever we work with other parts of the company, it’s something that we talk about a lot. If you create an engaging experience that’s very linear, kids will go play it through. But then they’ll never play it again, because “you already told me that story.”

The open-endedness reminds me of Toca Boca’s kids games, which have no story at all.

I ran Disney’s toy business for many years. The way we thought about play in the toy space is completely different from the way people think about play in the game space, except for Club Penguin and things like Toca Boca. Some of the biggest Disney princess toys were props — things like tea sets, dress-up, those kind of things. The mentality of most of the games business is, “I need to tell a story. I’m going to create some levels. You need to play those levels through. If you do, I’m going to give you a badge and some points.” We’re giving kids those props and letting them create their own play.

And that even extends to the changes that have been made to the game over the years, right?

The kids will find a way to misuse whatever we give them, guaranteed. I am never bored … Club Penguin will never be finished as long as kids keep coming up with funny ideas.


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