I started working on Club Penguin almost exactly 10 years ago (May 9, 2005, if you’re curious). At the time, I didn’t know how big it would become… I figured it’d be a game that I’d work on for a little while, it’d be enjoyed by around 100,000 people or so, and then it would drift away and I’d be on to something new. But then, Club Penguin got huge, and I started to think that this odd virtual world of clothes-wearing neon-colored penguins would last forever.
Yesterday was a reality check for that, as a significant number of Club Penguin employees – including many close colleagues of mine – were laid off work. Never more than now have I needed to remind myself that all worlds eventually pass away, and while I think Club Penguin will be around for years to come, it won’t be the exception to the rule. So, I’m asking myself the question: how should Club Penguin end?
To properly answer that, I should explain some things about the business of making virtual worlds. Most virtual worlds do not get popular. Club Penguin beat the odds and got very popular, as seen in this super scientific, ultra-specific graph below:
For the first few years, Club Penguin grew in popularity, users, membership, and income. (In some ways, it actually grew too fast… there was more than once in 2006 when it looked like Club Penguin’s servers would crush under the weight of their own popularity.) Like all popular entertainment franchises, it flourished, but also like all popular entertainment franchises, the growth curve couldn’t last forever. Eventually, the curve started to look like this:
The curve began to flatten out. It wasn’t growing as fast as it used to. If left unchecked, it would soon start to slide, but this wasn’t worrying by itself. In fact, it’s completely normal. Many forms of entertainment have this kind of curve of rising and falling popularity; musical groups, TV shows, movie franchises. The question is, what do you do about it? If you keep everything going as normal, the curve was going to fall, and we didn’t want that to happen, so Club Penguin was given a bump:
What was this “bump”? Well, if it was a TV series, it would be some shocking development or cliffhanger ending to an episode. For an MMO like World of Warcraft, it’s the yearly expansions of content that bring people flooding in again. In the case of Club Penguin, there were many bumps designed to extend its life, popularity, and revenue: the addition of more languages, the higher emphasis on membership during parties, merchandise in stores, console games, going to mobile phones, etc.
These are all wonderful things in the life of any product, and they do work… for a while.
Eventually, though, the bumps don’t help as much as they used to. More drastic measures need to be taken for the game to survive. Sometimes people even lose their jobs, like they did yesterday.
So, now what? Is Club Penguin going to die? Yes. Not any time soon, but like I said, all worlds die, it’s just a question of how and when. So what is the best possible way for Club Penguin to end? Well, what we don’t want is this:
Unfortunately, many virtual worlds do die this way. They get to a point where the publisher simply decides that it’s not worth maintaining or supporting them any more, and the plug is pulled.
Do I think this will happen to Club Penguin? No, I don’t, and what I truly desire for Club Penguin is for the company to start planning its long term strategy, so that instead of the plummeting graph above, it looks like this instead:
Other sites are in this same situation. Webkinz, a frequently cited competitor of Club Penguin, is nowhere near the height of its popularity, but it hasn’t died. Neopets, even older, is still up and running. Ultima Online – an MMO that began back in 1997 and almost disappeared – is not only still going, but has some months where it gains in popularity.
How? How is this possible? How can Club Penguin stick around for years and years to come? You. The community of Club Penguin fans. The thing that keeps a game like this going, more than anything else, is a committed audience. As long as there are enough people who care about the existence of something, it would be financially foolish to let them go.
I don’t know exactly what the future of CP will look like, but here’s how I would do it: First of all, the weekly updates to the game would have to be smaller, in proportion to the income of the game. Some of the parties from a few years ago would be brought back exactly as they were before; no new content would be in them, but at least you could experience them again. Many old clothing and furniture items would be available again.
And if I looked even farther ahead, in the final years of CP’s life (whenever that turns out to be), the population of penguins would be smaller, but the audience would be more dedicated. A much higher percentage of penguins would be “old-timers”, players who’ve been around for a few years. The big, news-making events would be less frequent, but replacing them would be parties with a sense of quirky humor; goofy events that happen because “why not have a party about cowboy astronauts this month?”. And if it finally came time for Club Penguin to close its doors, that final month would be sad, but joyful, as memories are shared and new worlds prepared to be born.
That’s what I would do. That’s what I hope for it. But no matter how it ends, I am comforted by the fact that I was part of something big that helped millions of people worldwide to waddle around and meet new friends.