Experimenting with Penguins

Way back in the winter of 1999 I had an idea to create a multiplayer strategy game with penguins. But could Flash 4 do it? Was the internet ready? I decided to start small and create Experimental Penguins. (Launched July, 2000) Experimental Penguins was my first attempt at developing a multiplayer game. It was pretty simple. Each player could give their penguin a name, chat and explore a four room world. I was surprised by the success.

Sadly Experimental Penguins was closed one year later due to server costs.

In 2001 I starting working on my multiplayer strategy game again. This was quickly interrupted when companies started asking me to develop character chats for their websites. After building a couple custom chats, I decided to build the next version of Experimental Penguins called Penguin Chat.

In January 2003 the new and improved Penguin Chat went online. This version included lots of new features like emotes, chat balloons, depth sorting (you could walk behind an object), and the ability to throw snowballs.

By 2004 more than 1 million penguins had waddled around.

Sometime in late 2004, I had the idea to create a safe place for kids to play online. I wrote a short four page document that would later be called "Club Penguin". I had three design challenges:

  1. How to build a server that could handle thousands of players? My current server could not handle more than 100 simultaneous connections.

  2. How do you make the world "safe"?

  3. How do you generate income? This game was going to be very expensive to operate.

In 2005 I decided to build Penguin Chat 3 to test the new client and server for Club Penguin. I needed real users on real servers to make this game possible. Designing without feedback is dangerous.

During this time I was working part-time for Dave Krysko at New Horizon Productions. In early 2005 Dave hired Lane Merrifield (aka Billybob) to help with sales. I was developing Club Penguin every Friday, and my plan was to launch in 2010.

Lane loved the idea of Club Penguin and encouraged Dave to fast track the project. New Horizon Interactive was formed to create Club Penguin.

I was free to work on Club Penguin full-time.

My first task was to build a team.

I hired my multi-talented friend Chris Hendricks (aka Screenhog) to draw penguins, design clothing, construct furniture, compose music, and program mini-games.

My brother created the database and the support tools remotely from Belize.

I focused on developing the client and the server to run Club Penguin. I enjoyed designing all the rooms, doors, and secrets for the penguins to explore.

August 22nd, 2005 we welcomed 15,000 testers to the Club Penguin Beta. During the Beta we decided to hold a party to test the server capacity. We had the idea to giveaway party hats to encourage players to login at the same time. Thousands of penguins joined the party. (The idea for parties was born)

October 24th, 2005 Club Penguin was officially launched.

Most people don't realize Club Penguin launched incomplete. Why is there a Dojo? How do you become a ninja? Why is there a light house? Why is there a pet shop? Can you tip the iceberg?

By March 2006 Club Penguin had reached over 1 million penguins. The game was growing so fast that the servers struggled to keep up with the demand. I completely rebuilt Club Penguin three times in 2006. The team grew quickly, we added more programmers, artists, and moderators.

By 2007 we needed help. The company had grown to over 100 employees, and we had more than 12 million active penguins. We had become the modern Saturday Morning Cartoon. How do we continue to grow the company? How do we expand into other countries and languages? How do we create toys? How do we keep the game online? We needed an experienced partner.

August 1st, 2007 Club Penguin joined the Walt Disney Company.

This was an excellent decision. Disney is an fantastic company. I am amazed to see the Penguins waddling around in the theme parks, and toys on the shelves. Everyday the same team that created Club Penguin before Disney continues to imagine new content every week for millions of children to explore.

I spent the last couple years (2007-2009) training the team, and finally launching Ninjas. It has always been a personal goal to create a game with Pirates, Spies, and Ninjas. (Never thought they would all be penguins.)

I learned many lessons Experimenting with Penguins. Here are a few that I would like to share:

  1. Ideas take time.

  2. Listen to your audience.

  3. Give back generously.

  4. Partner well.

I always joke, Dave built a company, Lane built a business, and I built the product. Perhaps one day someone will write a more detailed book on the complete history of Club Penguin.

So what are you doing today?

Well I left Club Penguin in 2010 to spend more time with my family and work on new projects. For the past 10 years I have been developing Club Penguin and its time for something new.

Keep following as I invent new worlds, games, and toys.