As of today, My Penguin, the mobile companion app to the popular children’s virtual world Club Penguin, is no more – but only because it’s becoming Club Penguin for iPad.
When it launched back in May, My Penguin was designed to give players a way to connect with the web-based MMO while also giving Disney Interactive a chance to learn about how people would interact with the game on mobile devices. Kids could dress their avatars, redesign their igloos and try out a selection of mini-games, but it wasn’t the full Club Penguin experience.
With its latest update and name change, the mobile version of Club Penguin is ready to take a big leap forward. For the first time, young gamers can play the same way they do online, teleporting to rooms, visiting their igloos, and everything else they’ve been accustomed to doing on the web.
Disney Interactive Worlds Vice President and General Manager Chris Heatherly told Gamezebo that the mobile launch includes about 20 to 25 percent of the content found online, but regular updates over the coming months would get the two versions to be very close to identical before too long.
“This release is really the launch of the virtual world, which is the heart and soul of Club Penguin,” Heatherly said. It’s not the entire virtual world, but we will be launching new rooms into the app every week or every other week until we get the complete experience on mobile. This is a really important milestone for us, because we can now say we have the Club Penguin world on mobile and are in the process of bringing the whole thing there.”
Heatherly added that the process of making Club Penguin accessible to mobile devices has been in the works for two years due to the technological changes necessary to make it happen. The web version was built on Flash, which obviously wasn’t going to work for its mobile counterpart.
Disney Interactive ended up devising what is essentially a mobile web browser for gaming, one that loads all of the game assets from the cloud and serves them to players in an efficient fashion. It wasn’t easy, and it required a big change in the way the Club Penguin team went about its business.
“You have to think completely differently about the technology,” Heatherly said. “You have to have different types of people, you have to develop everything in a different way. We’ve gone through that transition, and continue to go through that transition as an organization. We’ve had to become a mobile gaming studio in order to do this. And we’ll continue to have millions of kids playing on the web, but web is just going to be one of our platforms, and the technology behind Club Penguin is now a true cross-platform technology.”
Because mobile devices are actually more powerful than some of the low-end PCs supported by the web version (which has been around since 2005), Club Penguin is actually getting some upgrades. Avatars on iPad are 3D as opposed to 2D online, and rooms and igloos are rendered using hardware-accelerated 3D graphics. Heatherly pointed out that these changes will actually benefit players on the web as well once the technology makes its way back there.
One thing that won’t be changing is the game’s business model. Club Penguin is free-to-play online, but the full version requires membership that is paid for through recurring monthly subscriptions. It’s a model that is becoming less common among MMOs in general, but it’s worked for Club Penguin because it gives parents the satisfaction of knowing exactly what they will be paying for their kids to play.
Keeping recurring subscriptions in place – and more importantly, keeping things consistent between the web and mobile – took some work on Disney’s part.
“It’s not something that Apple has traditionally done on iOS for things that are like games,” Heatherly said. “We worked with them and convinced them that Club Penguin is more of a kids’ social service along the lines of other things they allow to have subscriptions like Pandora or Netflix. We’re one of the few in this type of space – the first, as far as we know – that will have the ability to do this.”
Regardless of where people choose to pay, the membership will be good for both versions of the game. But getting the subscriptions into the app was still key. Disney has seen about one-third of new accounts since May come through My Penguin, while discovering that mobile players tend to want to stick to playing on mobile.
That puts Club Penguin up against a whole new set of games and apps competing for kids’ time. Yet Heatherly proudly pointed out that all three versions of My Penguin charted on the App Store with very little marketing behind them, a testament to the brand’s strong and vocal community.
“This is not the first time that Club Penguin has faced competition,” he said. “Every year, it feels like there’s a new kind of up and coming game, or couple of games we compete against, and they’re always different. But Club Penguin‘s endurance and its focus on community is what has made it special.”
It’s hard to argue against his assertion that Club Penguin is more than a game, and its track record speaks for itself. Moving to mobile just proves that an old dog, or penguin in this case, still has some new tricks.
Now it has an additional advantage over other virtual worlds for kids in that it is going cross-platform first while retaining all of the qualities that made it a hit online. That can only do good things for its longevity moving forward.
“Our focus is on creating a safe place for kids to connect with one another around the world, and no one has really ever done that as well as we do, no one’s got the technology or human investment that we have to do that, and no one’s got that on mobile,” Heatherly said. “I think that kids will play other games in addition to Club Penguin, but I think that we still remain the only place that’s really offering that kind of safe, connected play experience in that way.”