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In the early 2000s, Club Penguin was a virtual world that captured the imaginations of millions of children sat at their parent's bulky desktop computers. The game allowed players to create their own penguin avatars, explore a snowy virtual world, and interact with other players in a safe and friendly online environment. For a few years in the early 2000s, Club Penguin was a cultural phenomenon with a massive following of loyal fans but after it's acquisition by Disney, the game began to slowly lose its popularity and in 2017, it was shut down for good.
We're taking a nostalgic look back at the rise and fall of Club Penguin and what contributed to its success, including its innovative gameplay, unique social features, and commitment to child safety.
So let's explore the history of Club Penguin, its impact on online gaming, and the re-release that was never as good as the original.
Club Penguin was created in 2005 by three Canadian developers: Lane Merrifield, Dave Krysko, and Lance Priebe. The game was developed by their company, New Horizon Interactive. The idea for Club Penguin came from a desire to create a safe and fun online world for children to play and socialise in. The creators wanted to provide a space where children could interact with each other and learn important social skills, while also having fun and exploring a virtual world. To achieve this, they created a game that was heavily moderated to prevent inappropriate behaviour, and that emphasised friendship, creativity, and exploration. Club Penguin quickly gained a large following of young players, and became one of the most popular online games for children in the mid-2000s.
Club Penguin was introduced to the public on 24th October 2005, after beta-testing. It quickly grew into a sizable online community and by late 2007, it had amassed over 30 million user accounts. In July 2013, the number of registered user accounts on Club Penguin had exceeded 200 million.
What was Club Penguin?
Club Penguin was a massively multiplayer online game (MMO) that took place in a virtual world filled with penguins, igloos, and various other icy landscapes. Players created their own penguin avatars and could explore the game world, chat with other players, play mini-games, and decorate their own igloos. When a player first logged into Club Penguin, they were presented with a list of servers to choose from. Each server represented a different instance of the game world, and players could select one based on the number of other players online and the level of activity. Once a player had selected a server and logged in, they would find themselves in the game world as their penguin avatar. From there, they could move around using the arrow keys on their keyboard, or by clicking on various areas of the screen.
Club Penguin's Origins
Club Penguin's origins can be traced back to a web-based game called Snow Blasters, which developer Lance Priebe was working on in his spare time using Flash 4 technology in July 2000. Priebe became interested in penguins after seeing a Far Side cartoon featuring the animals on his desk. While Snow Blasters was never completed, it evolved into a project called Experimental Penguins, which Priebe's employer, Rocketsnail Games, released in July 2000. However, Experimental Penguins was discontinued the following year. Rocketsnail Games was an online game and comic developer based in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada.
After Experimental Penguins was taken down, a similar game called Penguin Chat was created and released. Penguin Football Chat (also known as Penguin Chat 2) followed in January 2003, using FLASH 5 technology and the same interface as Experimental Penguins. The game included a variety of mini-games, including Ballistic Biscuit, which became a flagship title for RocketSnail Games and eventually evolved into Club Penguin's Hydro Hopper.
Meanwhile, Lance Priebe, Lane Merrifield, and Dave Krysko began developing the concept for Club Penguin when they were unable to find a safe social networking site for their own children. Krysko specifically wanted to create a platform that was free of advertising and safe for kids to enjoy. In 2003, Priebe and Merrifield proposed the idea of creating a separate company to develop the new product, which eventually became known as New Horizon Interactive.
The Making Of Club Penguin
During the design process of Club Penguin, the developers used Penguin Chat 2 as a starting point, while incorporating ideas from Experimental Penguins. In April 2005, Penguin Chat 3 was released to test the client and servers of Penguin Chat 4, which was later renamed Club Penguin. Users from Penguin Chat were then invited to beta test Club Penguin.
Originally scheduled for release in 2010, the first version of Club Penguin went live on 24th October 2005, after the Penguin Chat servers were shut down in August 2005. The developers financed their start-up with their own credit cards and personal lines of credit and maintained 100 percent ownership.
With 15,000 users at its launch, the number of users had reached 1.4 million by March, almost doubling to 2.6 million by September. Despite lacking a marketing budget, Club Penguin had reached 3.9 million users by its second year and was mentioned in The New York Times in 2006.
Mini Games on Club Penguin
One of the main features of Club Penguin was its social aspect. Players could chat with each other using pre-written messages, or by typing their own messages using a special filter that prevented inappropriate language. Players could also add each other as friends, and could see where their friends were in the game world. In addition to socialising, players could also play a variety of mini-games within Club Penguin. These games ranged from simple arcade-style games to more complex puzzles and strategy games, and were designed to be accessible and fun for players of all ages. Games included classics like Puffle Roundup, Jetpack Adventure, and Cart Surfer.
Chris Hendricks, an illustrator, was responsible for designing many of the initial environments in Club Penguin. Each player was given an igloo to use as their home. Members could choose to make their igloo accessible to other penguins through the map, under "Member Igloos."
Additionally, members could buy larger igloos and decorate them with items purchased using virtual coins earned by playing mini-games. Players could decorate and customise own igloos using a variety of furniture, decorations, and other items. This allowed players to express their creativity and make their own unique mark on the game world.
Users could also take care of Puffles. Puffles were small, furry pets that players could adopt. They could be fed, played with, and taken for walks around the virtual world.
Memberships and Purchases
Although free memberships were an option, Club Penguin's primary revenue stream came from paid memberships, which granted players access to a variety of extra features. These included the ability to buy virtual clothing, furniture for your igloo, and in-game pets known as "Puffles" using in-game currency.
Club Penguin opened an online merchandise shop on its website in August 2006, offering stuffed Puffles and T-shirts for sale, in addition to other items such as key chains and gift cards, which were added on 7th November 2006. Two years later, in October 2008, a series of plush toys based on Club Penguin characters were released online through the Club Penguin store and Disney's online store, as well as in retail outlets. Club Penguin primarily relied on word-of-mouth advertising to attract new members, similar to its major competitor Webkinz.
Parties and Fundraisers On Club Penguin
Club Penguin regularly hosted parties and events that were themed around holidays and special occasions. These events included decorations, music, mini-games, and other activities.
Club Penguin typically hosted at least one party per month, during which a free clothing item was often offered to both paying members and free users. Some parties provided exclusive member-only rooms, which were only accessible to paying members. The annual Halloween and Holiday parties were among the most popular, alongside events such as the Music Jam, Adventure Party, Puffle Party, and Medieval Party.
The Coins for Change event, introduced in 2007, was a virtual charity fundraiser that coincided with Club Penguin's "Holiday Party" and lasted about two weeks. Players could donate their virtual coins to support three charitable causes: sick children, the environment, and children in developing countries. Donation options ranged from 100 to 10,000 virtual coins. At the end of the event, a portion of real-world funds was distributed among the three causes based on the amount of in-game currency each cause received. The inaugural campaign resulted in a $1 million donation by the New Horizon Foundation to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and Free The Children. The event saw participation from 2.5 million players in both the 2007 and 2008 campaigns.
Acquisition By Disney
Club Penguin's triumph resulted in New Horizon being acquired by the Walt Disney Company for $350.93 million in August 2007, with the possibility of an extra US$350 million in bonuses if specific goals were achieved by 2009.
The co-founders of Club Penguin had previously rejected offers of advertising deals and investment from venture capitalists. Unfortunately, Club Penguin did not meet their targets, and Disney did not pay the extra $350 million. At the time of the acquisition, Club Penguin had approximately 11-12 million user accounts, including 700,000 paid subscribers, and was generating $40 million in annual revenue. In 2007, The New York Times reported that the game was attracting seven times more traffic than Second Life. According to Nielsen, Club Penguin was the eighth top social networking site in April 2008.
After being acquired by Disney, Club Penguin experienced continued growth, expanding into a larger franchise that included video games, books, a television special, an anniversary song, and an MMO app. Disney also frequently used the game as a promotional tool for their new films, such as Frozen, Zootopia, and Star Wars, by holding themed events and parties to celebrate their releases.
To personalise the level of moderation and player support, the first international office was established in Brighton, England in 2008. However expansion was halted quickly and international offices began closing and extra game features were halted. On 20th June 2011, the game's website temporarily crashed due to the company letting the Club Penguin domain name expire.
An Innovative Approach To Child Safety
Club Penguin was known for its strict rules against bullying, inappropriate language, and behaviour. Among the safety features were an "Ultimate Safe Chat" mode, which allowed users to choose their comments from a list, filters that blocked swearing and the sharing of personal information, and moderators who monitored the game.
Some of the key strategies included prohibiting inappropriate usernames, limiting players to pre-approved phrases in "Ultimate Safe Chat" mode, using an automatic filter to block profanity and inappropriate terms. Telephone numbers and email addresses were also blocked, and paid moderators were employed to police the game. As part of the initiative, users were promoted to "EPF (Elite Penguin Force) Agent" status, with a responsibility to report any inappropriate behaviour. Players who used inappropriate language were frequently subjected to a 24-hour ban.
Its security measures were so thorough that they were compared to those of an Orwellian dystopia, as noted by the Western Mail.
Club Penguin Controversies
Club Penguin was generally seen as a safe and kid-friendly online game, with a heavy emphasis on moderation and safety features to protect young players. However, like any online platform, it was not without its controversies and concerns.
One concern was that the game could be used by predators to groom and prey on children. While Club Penguin had strict rules and filters in place to prevent inappropriate and illegal behaviour, it was still possible to communicate with young players.
Another concern was that Club Penguin could be addictive, and that young players could spend too much time playing the game to the detriment of their other activities and responsibilities. This led some parents and educators to criticise the game for encouraging unhealthy levels of screen time.
However a positive aspect of the game was its emphasis on creativity and imagination. Players were encouraged to create their own unique penguin avatars, decorate their igloos, and even create their own games within the game. This helped to stimulate creativity and encourage players to think outside the box. Club Penguin was also known for its philanthropic efforts. The game frequently partnered with charities and organisations to raise money and awareness for important causes, such as environmental conservation and disaster relief. This helped to teach young players about the importance of giving back and making a positive impact in the world.
Shutting Down Club Penguin In 2017
It was announced on 30th January 2017, that Club Penguin would be terminated on March 29, 2017. The servers for Club Penguin were ultimately taken offline on 30th March 2017, at 12:01 AM PDT.
Starting from 31st January 2017, Club Penguin stopped accepting membership payments, and paid members were expected to receive emails regarding refunds and membership. As the game approached its shutdown, users attempted speed runs to get banned from the site as quickly as possible.
In the days leading up to the shutdown, Club Penguin declared that all users would receive a free membership until the final day of the game's operation when the servers would be disconnected. After shutting down, a message would be displayed on the screen, bidding farewell to all players: "The connection has been lost. Thank you for playing Club Penguin. Waddle on!"
Club Penguin was shut down due to a combination of factors. The game had been owned by Disney since 2007 and, by 2017, it was facing increasing competition from other online games and platforms, particularly mobile games. This led to a decline in the number of active players and a decrease in revenue.
In addition, the technology behind Club Penguin was becoming outdated, and Disney was unwilling to invest in significant upgrades to keep the game competitive. Instead, they decided to focus on other online gaming ventures.
Disney had also launched a new online gaming platform called Club Penguin Island, which was intended to replace the original Club Penguin but it failed to gain the same level of popularity as the original game, and was quickly shut down in 2018. Upon its worldwide release, Club Penguin Island received mixed reviews from critics and negative reviews from some of the original game's old players who criticized the game for lacking many features of the original version at launch.
Following its shutdown, the original game has been replicated on various private servers that use SWF files from the old website. However, many of these servers were shut down in May 2020 due to Digital Millennium Copyright Act filings by the Walt Disney Company. The company was concerned about Club Penguin Online and its unauthorised use of copyrighted material as well as the lack of safety for young users using the copyrighted versions.
Club Penguin has had a lasting influence on online gaming and virtual worlds especially for young players in the 2000s. Its unique approach to safety and moderation helped to set the standard for other online games and platforms, and its emphasis on social interaction, creativity, and philanthropy helped to shape the way that many young people view the internet and their place in it. While the original game is no longer in operation, Club Penguin's legacy lives on in its devoted fanbase and the impact it had on the gaming industry as a whole.
Thanks for reading "The Rise and Fall of Club Penguin: A Nostalgic Look Back At The Cult 2000s Game" on January Media.