Club Penguin is an MMORPG involving a virtual world containing a range of online games and activities, developed by Club Penguin Entertainment (formerly New Horizon Interactive). Using cartoon penguins as avatars, players waddle around, chat, play minigames and participate in other activities with one another in a snow-covered virtual world. After beta-testing, Club Penguin was made available to the general public on October 24, 2005 and has since expanded into a large online community — growing to the extent that by late 2007, it was claimed that Club Penguin had over 12 million user accounts. While free memberships are available, revenue is predominantly raised through paid memberships which allow players to access a range of additional features, (such as the ability to purchase virtual clothing, furniture and “pets”, also called puffles, for their penguins through the use of in-game currency). The success of Club Penguin led to New Horizon being purchased by The Walt Disney Company in August 2007 for the sum of $350 million, with an additional $350 million in bonuses should specific targets be met by 2009.
The game is designed for children between the ages of 6 and 14 years old. Thus a major focus of the developers has been on child safety, with a number of features introduced to the game to facilitate this — including offering an “Ultimate Safe Chat” mode, whereby users select their comments from a menu; filtering that prevents swearing and the revelation of personal information; and moderators (along with veteran players) who police the game. Nevertheless, the game has had a degree of criticism, including claims that it teaches consumerism and that some players “cheat” to improve their status.
History and development
Development on Club Penguin began in 2003 when Lance Priebe and Lane Merrifield, employees at New Horizon Productions (which became New Horizon Interactive in 2005) in Kelowna, British Columbia, saw a need for “social networking for kids”. As Merrifield later described the situation, they decided to build Club Penguin when they were unsuccessful in finding “something that had some social components but was safe, and not just marketed as safe” for their own children. Merrifield and Priebe approached their employer, David Krysko, with the idea of creating a spinoff company to develop the new product.
Prior to starting work on Club Penguin, Lance Priebe had been developing Flash web-based games in his spare time. As part of Rocketsnail Games, Priebe released Experimental Penguins in 2000, which featured gameplay similar to that which was incorporated into Club Penguin. Although Experimental Penguins went off line in 2001, it was used as the inspiration for Penguin Chat, which was released shortly after Experimental Penguin’s removal. Thus, when Priebe, Merrifield and Krysko decided to go ahead with Club Penguin in 2003, they had Penguin Chat to inform part of the design process. After two years of testing and development, the first version of Club Penguin went live on October 24, 2005.
Growth was rapid. Club Penguin started with 15,000 users, and by March that number had reached 1.4 million — a figure which almost doubled by September, when it hit 2.6 million. By the time Club Penguin was two years old, it had reached 3.9 million users. At the point when they were purchased by Disney, Club Penguin had 12 million accounts, of which 700,000 were paid subscribers, and were generating $40 million in annual revenue.
Although the owners had turned down lucrative advertising offers and venture capital investments in the past, in August 2007 they agreed to sell the company (both Club Penguin and the parent company) for the sum of $350 million. In addition, the owners were promised bonuses of up to $350 million if they were able to meet growth targets by 2009. In making the sale, Merrifield has stated that their main focus during negotiations was philosophical, and that the intent was to provide themselves with the needed infrastructure in order to continue to grow.
On March 11, 2008 Club Penguin released the Club Penguin Improvement Project (CPIP). This project allowed players to be part of the testing of new servers put into use in Club Penguin on April 14, 2008. Players had a “clone” of their penguin made, to test these new servers for bugs and glitches. The testing was ended on April 4, 2008.
In April 2008, Club Penguin opened its first international office in the UK for local support, and Disney announced in June, 2008, plans to open an Australian office in August of that year.. They opened the Australian office in August 08 and opened a Brazilian office in November 08.
Prior to being purchased by Disney, Club Penguin was almost entirely dependent on membership fees to produce a revenue stream. Nevertheless, the vast majority of users (90% according to The Washington Post) chose not to pay, instead taking advantage of the free play on offer. Those who choose to pay do so because full (paid) membership is required to access all of the services, such as the ability to purchase virtual clothes for the penguins and buy decorations for igloos; and because peer pressure has created a “caste system” separating paid from unpaid members. Advertising, both in-game and on-site, have not been incorporated into the system, although some competitors have chosen to employ it: for example Whyville, which uses corporate sponsorship, and Neopets, which incorporates product placements.
An alternative revenue stream has come through the development of an online merchandise shop, which opened on the Club Penguin website in August 2006, selling stuffed Puffles and T-shirts. Key chains, gift cards, and more shirts were added on November 7, 2006. October 2008 saw the release of a line of plush toys based on characters from Club Penguin, which were made available online (both through the Club Penguin store and Disney’s online store), and in retail outlets.
ne of the major concerns when designing Club Penguin was how to improve both the safety of participants and the suitability of the game to children. As Lane Merrifield stated, “the decision to build Club Penguin grew out of a desire to create a fun, virtual world that I and the site’s other two founders would feel safe letting our own children visit.” As a result, Club Penguin has maintained a strong focus on child safety, to the point whereby the security features have been described as almost “fastidious” and “reminiscent of an Orwellian dystopia“, although it has also been argued that this focus may “reassure more parents than it alienates.”
The system employs a number of different approaches in an attempt to improve child safety. The key approaches include:
- Preventing the use of inappropriate usernames.
- Providing an “Ultimate Safe Chat” mode, which limits players to selecting phrases from a list.
- Using an automatic filter during “Standard Safe Chat” (which allows users to generate their own messages). In particular, profanity is blocked, even when users employ “creative” methods to insert it into sentences. In addition, even some seemingly innocuous terms are filtered, such as “mom”, and both email addresses and telephone numbers are blocked.
- Employing paid moderators. Out of 100 staff employed in the company in May 2007, Merrifield estimated that approximately 70 staff were dedicated to policing the game.
- Promoting some veteran users to “secret agent” status, and encouraging them to report inappropriate behavior.
Each game server offers a particular type of chat — the majority allowing either chat mode, but some servers allow only the “Ultimate Safe Chat” mode. When using “Standard Safe Chat”, all comments made by users are filtered. When a comment is blocked, the user who made the comment sees it, but other users are unaware that it was made — suggesting to the “speaker” that they are being ignored, rather than encouraging them to try and find a way around the restriction.
Beyond these primary measures, systems are in place to limit the amount of time spent online, and the site does not feature any advertisements, for, as described by Merrifield, “within two or three clicks, a kid could be on a gambling site or an adult dating site”. Nevertheless, after Club Penguin was purchased by Disney, concerns were raised that this state of affairs may change, especially in regard to potential spin-off products — although Disney has continued to insist that it believes advertising to be “inappropriate” for a young audience.
Players who use profanity are often punished by an automatic 24-hour ban, although not all vulgar language results in an immediate ban. Players found by moderators to have broken Club Penguin rules are punished by a ban lasting “from 24 hours to forever depending on the offense.”
Players may pay to become subscribed members and doing so grants them additional in-game benefits. Players who have paid membership may buy clothing, wigs and furniture, own up to fourteen Puffles (the virtual pets of Club Penguin), enjoy early access to new parts of the game, buy furniture for their puffles, have access to all puffle breeds, and open up their igloos. Members also have access to Members-only parties hosted by Club Penguin.
Club Penguin provides a “non-membership” option. Although such play is free, it does not include all of the benefits of being a member. Non-members may still purchase different colors for their penguins, buy player-card backgrounds, travel to any place in the Club Penguin world (except during members-only parties), and play games. Non-members may also receive and use items given out at parties that are held monthly for all players. However, non-members are restricted to only two red or blue puffles, and no member-only puffles may be bought, (although if a former member once owned puffles, they may be kept). Non-members cannot purchase clothes, furniture, wigs, hats, or igloo upgrades.
During the beta stages of Club Penguin’s development, anyone could sign up to be a beta tester. Beta testers received special benefits upon the official release of Club Penguin, including a month of paid membership, coins and a pink and yellow party hat.
Club Penguin is divided into various rooms and distinct areas. Many game locations can be accessed by clicking on the Club Penguin map. Some places are reached by clicking their general area on the map and then walking the penguin to the specific location. Other places are only available for access on certain days or at certain times.
Each player is provided with an igloo for a home. Members have the option of opening their igloo so other penguins can access it via the map, under “Member Igloos”. Members may also purchase larger igloos and decorate their igloos with items bought with virtual coins earned by playing mini-games.
Notable places within Club Penguin
The Stage was released in November 2007, in the Plaza, between the Pet Shop and the Pizza Parlor. In the stage, penguins can act out plays. Subscribed members may buy costumes for the play, an option that non-members do not have. The script for the play is located at the bottom right corner of the screen. When clicked, a list of lines is brought up. Each month, a new play is released.
Players can express their feelings with emoticons. There are numerous emoticons, such as a happy face, a sad face, angry, winking, etc. The emoticons appear above the avatar’s head in a speech bubble. There are also secret emoticons that may be unlocked by holding down letters on the keyboard (e.g. holding down E and I produces the igloo emoticon). On December 5, 2007, the heart and skull emoticons were removed because players found these offensive, and were replaced with the flower emoticon. On January 9, 2008 the heart emoticon was brought back as a result of popular demand by players, suggesting that it could be used in a positive and caring way.
Members may use the virtual coins that they collect from playing mini games to purchase various items from a wide variety of shops. Shop types include clothing, wigs, stage costumes, igloos, furniture, and sports. Members and non-members alike may also purchase new colors for their penguins.
Each player has their own penguin card, which is used to manage the player’s inventory. Players may decorate their card by purchasing new backgrounds, clothing and other items. Penguin cards can also be to display “pins” – new examples of which appear within Club Penguin every two weeks. Pins are free, but are hidden throughout the game. On January 4, 2008, Club Penguin hid their 50th pin, a snow shovel. Flags are similar to pins; they also appear in the top left-hand corner of a player’s penguin card.
Clothes are worn by penguins, which can either be bought or given out during parties. Only members can buy clothes, but those given out at parties are wearable by all penguins.
Members’ igloos can be upgraded into many different styles. Some igloo styles are themed for parties, such as the Bamboo Hut or Log Cabin. Furniture may be bought for the igloos of subscribed members and can be used to design and decorate an igloo. Flooring for an igloo (introduced January 19, 2007) is also only accessible by subscribed members.
Puffles are small, fluffy creatures that players may have as pets. They are available from the Pet Shop in blue, green, pink, black, purple, red, and yellow. Non-members have access to the blue and red puffles only, and may have no more than two; members may adopt up to fourteen puffles. Members whose membership has expired are permitted to retain their puffles.
There are seven official breeds of puffles, each with a different personality (as described in the in-game “Adopt a Puffle” catalog):
- Blue Puffles are known to be mild-tempered and content. (Available to non-members)
- Green Puffles are very energetic and playful, and “like to clown around”.
- Purple Puffles are dancers, and are described as being “usually happy”, but are finicky eaters.
- Red Puffles (from “Rockhopper Island”) are known to be adventurous and enthusiastic. (Available to non-members)
- Pink Puffles are very active and cheery, and like to exercise.
- Black Puffles are described as possessing a strong and silent disposition.
- Yellow Puffles were added in November 2007. They are depicted as both artistic and spontaneous.
The Club Penguin Times
Club Penguin has a free virtual weekly newspaper delivered every Thursday. It is accessed from within the game and contains news about Club Penguin and features games, comics, polls, a calendar and more. It also has an advice column where a player can write to Aunt Arctic and ask questions about Club Penguin. Any user can submit questions, jokes, riddles, poems, comics, fan art, and tips or secrets to The Penguin Times, which may be chosen and displayed in the next issue. A particular honor is to be named “Penguin of The Month”. Within the game, the Boiler Room under the Night Club contains an archive of newspapers from the last six weeks.
Club Penguin: Elite Penguin Force
A video game was released by Disney for the Nintendo DS on November 25, 2008. The game uses the player as a member of the ‘Elite Penguin Force’ and solve mysteries around Club Penguin. The game features mini-games from Club Penguin; coins earned by the mini-games can be transferred to the player’s Club Penguin account.
Coins For Change
Coins For Change was an in-game donation available from December 14 to December 24, 2007, in which players could donate their virtual coins to any of three charitable issues: Kids who are sick, The Environment, and Kids in Developing Countries. Players could donate in increments of 50, 250, or 500 virtual coins. At the end of the campaign, the New Horizon Foundation donated a total of $1 million to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and Free The Children. The proportion of the 1 million dollars that each organization received depended on how many virtual coins were donated by players toward each issue. For example, if most players donated their virtual coins to the environment, the environmental organization got a higher percentage than the others. Issue #115 of The Penguin Times stated that the standings were:
- Kid’s Health – 39.4%, $394,000 went to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation
- Environment – 33%, $330,000 went to World Wide Fund for Nature
- Kids in Developing Countries – 27.6%, $276,000 went to Free the Children
Coins for Change returned for a second time on December 12, 2008. This time a total of 1 million dollars will be donated to:
- Kids who are sick – 30%, $300,000 goes to Partners In Health to help provide medical care to children in Haiti and Rwanda.
- Kids who cannot afford to go to school – 37%, donations given to the following two organisations:
- $30,000 goes to Partners in the Horn of Africa to support education, play therapy, and structured activity programs for AIDS orphans in Ethiopia.
- $340,000 goes to War Child to support education, children’s rights, and poverty reduction for children affected by war in Georgia, Afghanistan, and Northern Uganda.
- Kids without parents or hurt by war – 33%, $330,000 goes to Free The Children to help communities in India, Ecuador, and rural China build schools and provide education to children who are poor and can’t attend school.
This time a total of over three billion virtual coins were donated by two-and-a-half million people. In addition to the donations made to the above organisations, Club Penguin decided to contribute another $500,000 to support charitable causes in the areas where Club Penguin maintains international operations as they were so impressed by the enthusiastic response to Coins For Change.
Reception and criticism
Club Penguin has generally been well received: the site has been used by positive model when training police in Canada, and it was awarded a “kids’ privacy seal of approval” from the Better Business Bureau. Similarly, Brian Ward, a Detective Inspector at the Child Abuse Investigation Command in the United Kingdom, stated that he would far rather children experience a system such as Club Penguin before moving into social networking sites, which provide less protection. In terms of simple popularity, the rapid growth of Club Penguin suggests considerable success, although there are signs that this is leveling out. Nielsen figures released in April, 2008 indicated that in the previous 12 months Club Penguin traffic had shrunk by 7%.
A criticism expressed by commentators is that the game encourages consumerism. While Club Penguin does not require members to purchase in-game products with real-life money (instead relying on a set monthly fee), players are encouraged to earn coins within the game with which to buy virtual products. In addition, the “competitive culture” that this can create has led to concerns about cheating, as children look for “shortcuts” to improve their standing, and, it is suggested, this may influence their real-world behavior. In the game’s defense, Club Penguin has added guidelines to prevent cheating, banning players who are caught, and even going after those who encourage the practice outside of the confines of the game. While on the consumerist front, some commentators have stated that the use of in-game money may help teach children how to save money, choose what to spend it on, and improve their abilities at maths, encouraging them to “practice safe money-management skills”.
In spite of the attempts to create a safe space for children in Club Penguin, concerns about safety and behavior still arise within the media. While the language in-game is filtered, discussions outside of Club Penguin are beyond the owner’s control, and thus it has been stated that the off-site forums can become “as bawdy as any other chat”. But even within the game, some commentators have noted that “cyberbullying” can still occur, with flame wars potentially occurring within the game; and the “Caste system” between those who have membership and items and those who lack full membership, (and therefore are unable to own the “coolest” items), can lead to players having a hard time attracting friends.
One criticism came from Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic Monthly: in relation to the safety procedures, she noted that Club Penguin is “certainly the safest way for unsupervised children to talk to potentially malevolent strangers — but why would you want them to do that in the first place?” While views of the strength of this criticism may vary, the concern was mirrored by Lynsey Kiely in the Sunday Independent, who quoted Karen Mason, Communications Director for Club Penguin, as saying “we cannot guarantee that every person who visits the site is a child.”
Thanks to Wikipedia.com !