When Club Penguin shut down yesterday, it wasn’t just kids who were devastated. Among the most grief-ridden of mourners were people who had long aged out of the Club Penguin demographic.
Although Disney Interactive designed the game with preteens in mind, crafting a sort of “my first MMO” experience for the under-13 set, Club Penguin’s hooks kept the same people coming back for more than 10 years. It’s been the site of some outrageous stunts and fascinating political protests. It’s been the home to some pretty rad parties. Mostly, though, Club Penguin has been an all-inclusive place for people of all ages to dip into, even with that cartoony, childlike veneer.
“It’s kind of like going to Disneyland,” said community manager Bobbi Rieger of Club Penguin’s diverse appeal. “I feel like I’m probably a little bit too old for Club Penguin” — Rieger’s in her 20s — “but you go on there, and it’s a blast.”
Part of that are the minigames, which range from thematically relevant (think snowball fights) to addictively out there. (We’re partial to the pizza-making one.) It’s also because of the comforting sense of inclusivity that Club Penguin has cultivated, which stems from the fact that it’s a community made for children.
The chat options, design features and activities are sufficient for kids, but they’re limited compared to the massively multiplayer online games those preteen players generally graduate to. The paucity of features can be a selling point for overwhelmed older fans who just want something to relax with — something that’s intrinsically positive and fun.
Yet those same players have also put Club Penguin’s features to fascinating use. The game got back on many people’s radars in January when players assembled for a protest against Donald Trump, criticizing the then-President Elect and supporting others who were upset by his November victory.
“That incident was a bit surprising,” said Rieger. “We weren’t expecting to be so politically minded. But the bigger picture of our community is, it’s actually not. You’ll regularly find when global occurrences do happen, like with Haiti, you’ll see penguins online saying, ‘Pray for Haiti, let’s support them,’ and they’ll start organizing their own kinds of rallies around that.
“We really try to foster that, as well.”
HOLY SHIT THERES A TRUMP PROTEST ON CLUB PENGUIN RIGHT NOW pic.twitter.com/tY33Hq2mvi
— Lourdes (@gossipgriII) November 13, 2016
Less political are older players’ obsession with racking up permanent bans as quickly and often as possible, a popular pasttime with the Club Penguin community. Acts like those continue to astound the designers of the game, as producer Rebecca Warden told us.
“It is amazing to see what players unite around,” she said, “and again, I’m just so excited about [Club Penguin] continuing to be a safe place for players to express what matters to them.”
These are the sorts of things Warden and Rieger hope older players will check out Club Penguin Island in search of. The tropical-set, mobile-exclusive version of Club Penguin is out now, and the change of platform — and totally different, computer-generated art style — may at first turn off old school fans who appreciated the familiar browser game landscape.
Warden and Rieger are confident that that won’t be the case, because Club Penguin Island isn’t meant to transform the game. Instead, it’s keeping it relevant for the target audience — tweens — but refining what makes Club Penguin so beloved in the first place.
“We’re constantly humbled by this enthusiastic community, which does span quote an age range now,” Warden said. “Our goal with Club Penguin Island is to allow that to continue.”
Chat is still simplistic, for example, but Club Penguin Island has an interesting workaround for typing on tinier keyboards: having the game play in portait mode, which the designers found to be easier to use. There are also shortcuts to further make the social part of the game both engaging and accessible, like custom emotes and quick chat.
As for the minigames, it was important to the development team to have them be less like “little black holes,” and more like meaningful multiplayer experiences. They’re connected to the island setting in a much more narrative-focused way, with a progression system encouraging players to unlock new content, too. There’s even a clothing designer now, so that there are more ways for people to get involved and addicted to the Club Penguin life.
Refreshing the game for 2017 means embracing technical advances that didn’t matter for the browser version of Club Penguin. But what does matter, Warden and Rieger said, is that the game remains a quirky and inviting place to people unwilling to let go.
“[Club Penguin] mattered so much to you and others throughout your teen years, and it should still matter,” said Reiger. “We hope that we’re still delivering on that quirky and friendly tone.”
Club Penguin Island is out now on mobile, with an optional $4.99 monthly subscription offered after a seven-day free trial.
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