Webchat with Lane Merrifield, co-creator of Club Penguin
Lane Merrifield, the executive Vice President of Disney Online Studios, is also one of the people behind Club Penguin - one of the fastest growing virtual worlds for children aged 6 - 14. He joined Mumsnet for a live webchat in July 2010 to answer your questions about the world of Club Penguin, what the point of "Puffles" are, and the secrets hidden across the online islands.
Trice: I would like to stop the Puffle blackmail! My child often says: "Please let me play Club Penguin or my Puffle George will run away!" The tears over the loss of a Puffle in this house are terrible. Please can we introduce a Puffle sitter for when you are away? Or Puffle boarding kennels?
Lane: Puffles are the "pets" of Penguins in Club Penguin. They can be adopted from the Pet Shop and will "run-away" if they're not cared for (feeding, exercise, sleep). This is important because we wanted to teach the children the responsibility of caring for a pet. One element to note is that the "timers" we use for determining the health of the Puffle are only activated when the child is logged into Club Penguin. Therefore, if a child goes on vacation for two weeks, their Puffle's status is not depreciating at all. Their Puffle will also send them a reminder post card that they're not being cared for before running away. Unfortunately sometimes some Puffles will still return to the wild, in which case, the child can adopt them again at the Pet Shop.
OneMoreMum: My son wants to know if he'll ever be able to design the actual igloo as well as decorate it?
Lane: For now, the only way to design your own igloo is to send in a drawing to us, which we do use as often as we can. We hope to add more features like this in the future, but technologically it is a challenge. It also poses a bit of a safety challenge as well because the designs would of course have to be moderated.
That said, we always want to encourage more creativity so we are constantly adding new designs and features.
islandofsoder: My six-year-old DS would like to know why it seems that Rockhopper never visits his favourite server, 'Cold Snap'?
Lane: I'm happy to say that when Rockhopper visits the island he does spend time on all of the servers. We make a very special effort to ensure he spends an equal amount of time on them. Unfortunately he does bounce around so he can be difficult to find. As Rockhopper is operated by actual trained staff-members in every time zone around the world, he can't be at all places at all times. We do train more and more of our team for every visit so we can make him easier to find, but unfortunately it can still be difficult.
plumbummum: I do understand that you are there to make money but why can the children not access the stuff they purchased when they were members? I think it is a little unfair as I am sure most children will renew their membership in time as they won't be able to buy any more stuff! Also, if I buy a membership card 3 months before current membership is due to run out, will the membership add on to the end?
Lane: We made the decision a long time ago to have a very liberal refund policy on our membership in an effort to build as much trust with parents as possible. Unfortunately this meant that some people would take advantage of it by purchasing a membership, acquiring all the member-items and then cancelling and refunding their membership.
In order to dissuade this behaviour, when a member cancels, we simply put their member items into storage and all will be activated again once the membership is renewed. No items are ever "lost" or removed, they just can not be used until the membership is reactivated. It is no different than your cable subscription or magazine subscription. Hopefully that makes sense. Also, all our memberships are additive meaning you can enter the card anytime you want and the time just gets added on. You do not have to wait for it to expire.
MathsMadMummy: I don't know much about Club Penguin, but I don't doubt that it is very safe and fun for children, and certainly better than alternatives like Facebook etc.
I was just wondering though, how you feel about the prevalent headlines these days, about children being so wrapped up in the Internet that they are failing to learn real life social skills?
Lane: As a parent myself, I know how important it is to regulate "screen-time" of any sort. My son has an allotment per day that he can choose to use watching TV or playing games like Club Penguin. Personally, I prefer him playing games (even if it's not CP ) because at least then I know his brain is engaged in reading, problem solving, communicating, etc. The truth is that most of our audience spend less than 10-20 minutes per session so that means the vast majority of their day is focused on schoolwork, socializing, playing outside etc.
That balance was so important to us, that we were one of the first children's games to install a parent timer on our site. Which gives parents the tools to determine exactly how much time they want their child to spend on Club Penguin. This can be found in the parent log-in on the site.
I've seen some research by Jackie Marsh who has some articles that would be worth looking at if your interested in more detail on the subject.
lottiejenkins: Can I say on behalf of my son a huge thank you for Club Penguin! He is profoundly deaf and has Asperger's Syndrome and due to his deafness, he finds mixing with children difficult sometimes, and finding things he can play with and interact with them with. He adores playing on Club Penguin, especially at school and he often tells me which other children he has been playing with. Are there any plans to bring out a CP Wii game?
Lane: You have no idea how happy I am to hear that he enjoys Club Penguin. We receive letters from numerous parents every week who have children with similar difficulties who all say that Club Penguin has provided them a new opportunity to socialize. To be honest, it is one of the realities I am most encouraged by.
You also asked about a Wii game and we just recently announced that we'll be releasing it in September. It's called Club Penguin: Game Day and has a whole new collection of minigames that are designed for kids and parents to play together. I've tested them with my own kids and we really have a lot of fun together.
sparklerainbow: Are the club penguin trading cards coming back? I tried to buy some yesterday and was told they were withdrawn a couple of months ago. He loves playing Card-Jitsu with anyone who will sit long enough!
Is it possible for non-members to do some of the extra challenges and games? Or buy from catalogues, when they are not so new and novel? We can't afford the membership and so he just plays on the free elements, and is sometimes frustrated that he canot interact with all the aspects of the site. I appreciate you have to make it work financially, but perhaps to unlock something extra for non members when you introduce something new for members?
Lane: Trading cards are still available, although the store you were looking for them in may not carry them anymore. I believe they have them at ASDA or WH Smith here in the UK. You can find more info at our website under "Toys" section.
Regarding membership, we do always try to have free elements for everyone and actually launch several free items every month. They are not always launched at the same time as the catalogues, but usually at parties and events so that everyone can feel included.
pugsandseal: My seven-year-old DD wants me to ask, why does Herbert P. Bear always get up to mischief?
Lane: Herbert is the only antagonist on the island. He is a vegetarian polar bear who hates the cold and is angry that he is stuck on Club Penguin Island. He's a bit like our "Grinch" who doesn't hurt anyone (being a vegetarian and all) but he is grumpy so the secret agents do need to help keep him in line.
deepdarkwood: I'm amazed your figures suggest kids are usually on for less than 10-20 mins at a time. How is that average calculated, and does it ring true for you?
Lane: Obviously that is an average across all of our players who span a fairly wide age range (6-14) so the time online does vary. My DS, who is eight years old, will usually spend about 30 minutes at a time, but he's also been playing it for a few years, so he just logs in to see what is new.
Katisha: My eight-year-old DS would like to know whether you can really get to Rockhopper Island? Is there a secret t-shirt you can unlock? Is there a background of BillyBob like there is for Rockhopper?
Lane: Unfortunately Captain Rockhopper doesn't let any other penguins sail with him on his ship so none of them have ever been to Rockhopper island. Yes, there are plenty of secret items all over the island, hidden in various catalogs, as well as within the world. We always work hard to make sure a certain percentage of items have to be "discovered." Regarding the background, Billybob doesn't have one yet, but hopefully in the future.
paisleyleaf: Do you need to be an online member to play the Nintendo DS game? or rather, to get the most out of the DS game?
Lane: Nope! You do not need to be a member to enjoy the Nintendo DS game to the fullest.
deepdarkwood: Any plans for Club Penguin Minis? DD wants a slice of the action, having watched DS play - but can't manage the complexity yet.
Lane: Thanks for the idea! We do consider making a younger version at times but we have usually landed at instead trying to find a way to make the existing experience more accessible so that siblings can play together and not on separate worlds.
Finbar: My eight-year-old DS is struggling on EPF Field Ops to find the designated item and is getting very frustrated. He tells me that once he even searched the whole island for a field op item. What's going on?
Lane: Sorry to hear that! As that was only launched a few weeks ago, it seems we still have a few bugs to work out. I was told this latest mission was easier to locate and we will work to make sure the experience continues to improve as we receive feedback from kids and parents.
stop0inattwo: My DS has been told he has a lifetime ban from Club Penguin, but we genuinely have no idea why! I've emailed, but haven't gotten a response. Do you have any advice?
Lane: I'm not sure why your child was banned. If you haven't heard from us after a couple of days, feel free to resend the email. Like everyone, our email servers aren't always flawless. We also recieve 5,000-10,000 emails per day and although we attempt to answer all of them the same day, sometimes that isn't always the case.