How do you make a virtual world like Club Penguin?

Start Small.

Every day I get questions about how I made Club Penguin. People ask this because they want to make the next big world. My first answer is always the same: start small.

Two years ago, the original Flash-based Club Penguin closed down. In six months, Flash will be disabled in the Chrome browser by default. By the end of 2020, Flash will basically be dead.

It’s time to build something new. And it’s not just time for me to build something new. It’s time for you to build something new, too. I’d like to help you do that by sharing what I’ve learned.

Every big project must be broken down into smaller pieces. I built Club Penguin in small pieces by coding little experiments, like Experimental Penguins and Penguin Chat. We started building an audience five years before Club Penguin officially launched. If you’re looking to build a new virtual world like Club Penguin and an audience, it will take persistence and time. By breaking up your big idea into little pieces, it will be easier to improve things and finish the project.

Take this post, for example. I want to write a book for you and the Club Penguin community. How will I write a book? By starting small. Here on the RocketSnail website. And by sharing each chapter here on the blog, I can get feedback from you to what you want to hear about. Together, we make the book even better.


Why am I writing these posts?

My goal is to inspire you, the next generation of creators. I want to give back to the amazing community of fans like you.

I want to help you by sharing what I’ve learned in my journey from creating Club Penguin to starting a new company to building a brand new virtual world called Box Critters.

I want to answer the big questions — give you answers that don’t fit in a tweet. I want to celebrate the Club Penguin world and its history with you.

In case you didn’t know, I tend to be a slow reader and writer. My gift is with pictures and interactive toys. That’s why I’ve asked Club Penguin alumni Chris Gliddon (formerly known as Polo Field) to help me write this blog-as-a-book. Each post will be a potential chapter in the book. And you can help me decide which chapters are good enough to feature in that book.


How do I know where to start?

Start With Your Strength.

Whatever your skill is — start there. Just start.

Break it down. What is the absolute minimum thing you have to do? With Box Critters, I’m trying to demonstrate how to do it. At first glance, it’s one room with a character moving around. But it’s a little more than that.

Take one step back from that — “can I chat?” Meaning, can one connection know that the other connections are present, and can they all say something? If you can accomplish that, then it’s just layers and layers and layers.

Right now, I’m adding items and inventory. I’ve built it a little more complicated, though because I know what can come up due to my previous experience. I’m not adding animation or fancy stuff. I can polish later. Add small little layers, keeping it as simple as possible. Especially today.

A simple execution today is going to save you so much time and money. If you start complex today, your creation will become unmanageable much more quickly. MMOs are about scale. What happens when you have thousands of requests of adding that item on top? Don’t worry about that now.

If you’re an artist, draw. If you’re a writer, write. If you’re a coder, code. Work in Minecraft. Just find a place to start.

I’m still not an object-oriented programmer today. In fact, I’m going to spend the next two days learning about events to figure out why on earth I should create an event listener. Be prepared to learn on an ongoing basis.

I could hire people to work on Box Critters, too. But this project is too intimate. I love to do it. Eventually, I will have to hand it off, but I like doing it. And when I find people to hire, their solutions often end up too complicated — they build the complex solution. Then when I ask for a change, everyone is horrified. I end up shaking my head, going, “It’s not hard. Just go back to square one - a chat. The character chats and others see it. Keep it super-simple.”

If it takes too long to find a bug, then I burn the whole thing down and start again. I don’t write perfect code, I write it and trash it, write it and trash it. It’s my style. It’s much easier to change things when they’re simple, and you’re less attached to them.


Learn from Failures

What we learned from Mech Mice

The last couple of years of Disney, I listened to a lot of brilliant business people, many of them very educated, Harvard Business School-educated leaders. I learned a lot of great things from those people. I also spent too many years hearing that I don’t know how to program. That I wasn’t to standard. I kept hearing all this negative talk, and started to tell myself, “I’m not that good, I’m not that good.”

After taking some time off to mow grass and drive tractors (long story), I started Hyper Hippo Games. Our first project was this big new idea – a massive, transmedia IP called Mech Mice. I assembled a team of talented people, many of them former Club Penguin staffers.

With Mech Mice, I leaned into what I thought I’m good at, which is building worlds and stories and environments. Then instead of programming, I built a team to put all those pieces together to make something great. And we went after a really big IP.

  • Chris Hendricks (Screenhog) composed a great musical soundtrack

  • Cale Atkinson (2DCale) created some beautiful artwork

  • Johnny Jansen (Businesmoose) built some beautiful videos

  • Cody Vigue (Jabberwocky) wrote some hilarious dialog and provided some fantastic voiceovers

  • Clint Schnee (Screencaptor) designed great UI and a logo

  • Oktobor Animation animated some beautiful 3D assets

Everyone else, including project management and marketing kept everything on-track and on-schedule

We spent years working on Mech Mice, getting it ready for the world. And over two million dollars. There’s just one little problem...

At launch, Mech Mice made only a few thousand dollars. In its original form, Mech Mice was a complete flop. It was just not fun.

I failed on a couple of big things:

1) I didn’t intimately play, design or build the game world. I’ve since learned that I do have an incredible strength there. I may not be the best programmer, but I do have an intimate and innate ability to feel how the characters should move and feel. And that feeling on the screen just wasn’t there.

2) I didn’t listen at all to the audience. Not at all. I didn’t even ask them.

3) I didn’t test. I didn’t run a single experiment. At the end of Mech Mice, I looked back at what made Club Penguin work. And what made Club Penguin work? Experimental Penguins. Small projects. Intimately building with a small audience. Delegating critical technology decisions to help grow beyond my strengths. That all made it work.

Mech Mice was me, going “I have a great idea,” then I gave it to everybody else and waited for the end product. It very much applied the approach of what much of the AAA gaming industry does. I don’t like that process anymore, and I don’t even think about it. It’s almost like building a product to fit a hole, not actually building something that anybody wants.

Things that I’m great at: I killed Mech Mice.

Perhaps Mech Mice will come back in a new form in the future. The idea of Mech Mice doesn’t have to be dead, but the original execution just wasn’t fun. A great idea will always be a great idea, but a poor execution will always be a poor execution. Execution is everything.

Not a single person on the team wanted to kill Mech Mice at the time. But during post-interviews with the team, they said they wanted to kill it a long ago. They just kept working on it because they wanted the paycheck. There’s this mindset of “well, I’ve been assigned this and here’s the project list and the project list keeps showing up every day. So I’m just going to keep working on it. Nobody stops, pops their head out and goes, “should we build this game?”

When I ask them, they say, “no”. They don’t stop until it stops. So I stopped the game, which was a shock to everyone.

That’s when we went back to basics. We started small again.

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Question for You

What did you think of this first chapter? And what would you like to read more of next?