As the head man in charge of Club Penguin, Disney Interactive Worlds Vice President and General Manager Chris Heatherly has a problem many people would love to have.
While other games grapple with the dilemma of how to position themselves in a muli-platform world, Heatherly and his team already have one part of the equation figured out. Club Penguin is a well-established online brand. The virtual world designed for tweens ages 8 to 12 is also a global success, with its audience split evenly between North America on one hand and Latin America and Europe on the other. It’s even got an enviable gender breakdown that is almost 50/50 between boys and girls.
Now the game is taking its next logical step, which is to bring those same impressive numbers to the mobile space. Its first iPad app, My Penguin, launched on May 9, and Disney has high hopes that it will enable players to enjoy the best of Club Penguin without being tethered to their computers.
The app allows kids to change the appearance of their penguin avatars and shop in the Penguin Style catalog. They can play five of the most popular mini-games from the online world, with the chance to unlock cosmetic items that are exclusive to the app. It’s not the full Club Penguin experience yet, but Heatherly feels there is a good reason for that.
“Our product is seven, almost eight years old now, and there is a ton of content,” Heatherly told Gamezebo. “So there’s no way we could really do all that in one shot. But every month or every other month, we want to be releasing new significant updates that include more pieces of our world.”
That doesn’t mean a straight port of Club Penguin, no matter how popular it’s proven to be. Disney seems to be very aware of the differences between online and mobile, leading to a cautious roll-out of new features and content to My Penguin.
“We want to start humbly in mobile, and we want to learn,” Heatherly said. “We’re very cognizant of the fact that kids and all users play differently on mobile than they do on the web, and some of the things that work great on the web may not translate as well to mobile. So we really want to do this in sort of a step-like fashion, and as we do it, we’re going to learn how people want to engage on mobile, and we’re going to adjust.”
To that end, the company has some of its top talent working on My Penguin. The leader of the mobile push is Jim Molinets, who was the general manager of the studio that created the iOS hit Where’s My Water? One of his primary tasks is to take the core concepts from Club Penguin and refresh them for mobile players.
The goal is to give current players more options. But if new players decide to join after getting their feet wet on the mobile app – especially kids who are more comfortable with a mobile game – that’s a great bonus.
“We’re trying to serve our existing audience on mobile, but I do think that there is a generation of kids who are growing up on mobile first, and for whom [online] experiences may feel kind of stale,” Heatherly said. “It’s why it’s so important for us to have a mobile first approach to the way that we’re developing the mobile product instead of just porting the PC thing, which is why we’re taking time to bring pieces of it and not just jam it out there. We want this to feel native to the mobile environment and familiar to kids who are growing up with iPads in their hands from the age of 2.”
One of the things the mobile team has already learned is that the app is a great vehicle for spotlighting the game’s blog and videos. In particular, My Penguin allows content from the game’s YouTube channel to be accessed in a more seamless fashion without raising safety concerns.
That’s important, as Club Penguin prides itself on being the safest possible virtual world for kids. The online game has over 200 people devoted specifically to safety, with moderators working in multiple languages and spread over several different countries. The app launched without a chat feature, meaning there is less to watch over, but players can expect to see it added down the road.
When it is, My Penguin will be protected by all of the same safety features found online.
“We will be releasing chat, and we will be moderating it with the same systems used to moderate the web,” Heatherly said. “From a technology perspective, the back end kind of safety mechanism, they’re really connected to the same thing. So there’s really no difference between the web and mobile from a safety perspective.”
Parents will no doubt recall seeing Club Penguin ads mixed in with Disney programming on the Disney Channel and in other places. The My Penguin app won’t have the same kind of high profile at first, with the company content to use social channels and the existing player community to solicit feedback before bringing the full power of its mighty marketing machine behind it.
Eventually, Heatherly says that Disney will “leverage all of our communication vehicles” to let people know that they can play Club Penguin online or on their iOS devices. And while he admits that there might be a time in the game’s future where it’s primarily a mobile proposition, he thinks the two platforms will serve as complements to each other for now.
“I’m not of the school that believes that the web is dying,” he said. “Club Penguin has seen its audience grow over the years. There are countries where mobile is not very well penetrated with kids, and where kids have better access to computers. So I don’t know when that moment in time will be. I believe that mobile is the future, and that’s why we’re investing heavily, but we will continue to drive ClubPenguin.com as hard as we are today unless the audience all migrates to mobile. For us, we’re going to serve the audience where the audience is and sort of let them decide what platform they want to engage with us on.”