Earlier this month, I shared that I was hoping to publish a very exciting interview soon, and this is it! It’s with somebody who had a whole series of roles at Club Penguin, varying from handling support tickets, to holding a leading role in the first series of Card Jitsu cards, to eventually becoming the Community Manager until his departure in the spring of 2015.
That person is Chris Gliddon, who you may recognise by his penguin name, Polo Field, and he joins me for this month’s interview in which he shares some stories, explains some events, but above all, provides an insight on what it was like to manage the community of a game with millions of players!
Before we begin though, I’d like to insert this little disclaimer from Chris: these are based on his views, and aren’t necessarily a reflection of the team’s.
First thing I should say here is that these are only MY opinions. I do not speak for the rest of the former team or companies, etc.
And of course I could be totally wrong about any of this, so take it with a grain of salt!
Coping with Different Demographics
I’m going to start with something that I suspect a lot of people reading this would rather forget: the Frozen Fever Party of 2016. Lasting six weeks, it was the third and longest Frozen takeover to hit the island.
Although this was just over a year after Chris left the team, I bring this up as it highlighted the difficult question of catering for demographics on the island.
The majority of older players found it to be a nightmare, yet there was that argument then that younger players requested and enjoyed it. And this posed a challenge…
Demographics were an interesting one for many of us to learn about. There was a constant tug of war between wanting to create something that our diehard, aging fans would love vs making accessible content that players of many ages could enjoy.
I can only speak for myself, but my goal was to make a Mario-like experience for players of all ages. And to make those experiences feel rooted in the lore and world of Club Penguin as much as possible.
The difficulty though was actually making that “Mario-like experience” which enticed everyone of all demographics, as Chris highlighted.
It did make it difficult as a team, as we did work hard to bring these experiences to life. There were plenty of girls who didn’t participate in the “Extended Universe” of the Club Penguin community on social media, but who loved experiences like the Frozen Party for example.
As any product ages, you need to find new ways to find an audience. Those ‘takeovers’ brought in new fans to Club Penguin.
So what was the alternative? Well, I was admittedly quite surprised to hear Chris say that the takeovers did go a bit too far into “cheapening” the island, but in retrospect, he would’ve preferred a different approach.
If it was up to me, I would have done much more fan service and deepening of the core CP lore. Then stick all those other brands into a special catalog and not run them as parties.
CP Island did something like this, and that seemed smart to me. It just felt a bit shocking when the whole classic CP Island got taken over by some other brand’s lore.
I get why we did it, but I felt like it cheapened the CP lore when takeovers reskinned all the rooms. Again – just my personal opinion.
A Global Community, a Global Team
Of course, demographics included more than just age. Although Chris mentioned age was the most the challenging one, Club Penguin had six available languages at its peak.
Bringing that content to all areas in the world required a team of translators, but Club Penguin managed to achieve it – with a lot of regular meetings too!
For a long time we had a team of in-house translators who worked really hard to bring the same tone and feel to the other language versions.
I would have regular meetings with all those amazing translators and they did a fantastic job porting that same sense of charming, friendly fun into their own communities. We’re still all friends on social media many years later.
But the global aspect of the game extended to more than just players: people worked on Club Penguin from all over the world, with offices in different timezones.
My second favorite thing about Penguin was collaborating with all these talented people everywhere. It was a bit like magic, really.
The downside for me was that I couldn’t be as random and spontaneous — I would have to warn the global teams if I had some crazy, random idea. And I had some truly crazy ideas, haha.
An example of people across the world collaborating together was the official Club Penguin blog, on which you’d have British bloggers such as Daffodaily5, and then a lot of bloggers in Canada too.
I wondered if this was all ever difficult to co-ordinate.
I really tried to make our social content process as nimble as I could so fans around the real world could get news at roughly the same time. The hard part of that was managing expectations with the teams around the world. At lot of times the global teams had it hard because they had to react and respond to stupid stuff we came up with at the HQ in Canada, which I think was frustrating for many of the global teams. So that was the hardest part.
It was really neat once we introduced more of the global team penguins on social. Then things started to feel a bit more diverse and interesting. For example, I loved watching Simon’s videos from the UK team. It all just worked better when we let people create freely with guidelines and independence.
The Mystery of Happy77
But since Chris was on, I did want to try and answer a mystery: in 2012, Happy77 announced her departure from the team. However, it was revealed a few years later that the person who initially owned Happy77, Holly, who you may recognise from the New Horizons documentary, actually left much earlier.
I was wondering why there was a decision to continue acting as Holly.
We always wanted CP to feel like it was small and humble. Having the original female penguin writing on the blog felt like the right move at the time in 2008 or whenever that happened. I wasn’t involved in that decision.
Personally, I just felt kind of uncomfortable with the concept and wanted to slowly move away from it. I pushed for more of an authentic approach, with the entire team writing or posting as themselves… their own penguin names. It was awesome! The beginning of Mod Mondays, the varied guests on the Spoiler Alert… I thought it was much more interesting to have a big cast of creative people. Because we did actually have a big team of very creative people! It just took some time to lay down a foundation before retiring Happy77.
For those who don’t remember what the Spoiler Alert was, it was a weekly series where some information would be given about future updates, but above all, it just provided a bit of fun; different staff members would come together, often playing mini-games, and having fun.
When I first received Chris’ response, I found it genuinely wonderful to read just random stories of joy within the team, and this was one of them!
When Johnny and I started the documentary, one of the first ‘mistakes’ I wanted to fix was the Happy77 story. We actually got some irreplaceable footage of Holly playing as Happy77 for the first time since she left — it was quite special.
We also captured this hilarious moment where Holly asked who was writing as Happy77 now, only to find out that it was… me and Johnny. We actually got her reaction on camera. How awesome is that? It was pretty funny. We all had a good chuckle. Those are the kind of moments that I would love to have in a documentary for you.
Interaction on Social Media
This was probably another major mystery involving the community. Overnight, the Club Penguin team stopped interacting with people on social media accounts such as Twitter, in a move that frustrated a lot of older players.
Fun fact: Chris even had his account suspended for unfollowing too many people at once that night!
So why was this?
Note: COPPA refers to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which imposes several restrictions and requirements on managing data for services and sites targeted at children
You know how last year every YouTuber was complaining about COPPA? I just laughed about it, thinking “welcome to our world ten years+ ago.” It was all about safety of the younger players.
I had to take a very black and white stance on the use of social media, particularly Twitter. Twitter at the time didn’t seem to know what age demo[graphic] they were for, with some of their terms saying 13+ and other places saying 17+. Because some external people would market Club Penguin as being entirely “for kids” (even though I don’t believe that was true), it meant we could really only interact with fans on our own platforms like our blog and the game itself.
The impact of that was frustration within older players: players from 2014 may recall the #SavetheClubPenguin hashtag that was partly motivated by a sense of feeling ignored.
Accusations flew about external intervention from Disney, perpetuated by the occasional reply from a staff member that would immediately be deleted. But in reality, the team did try incredibly hard.
But those weren’t the best platforms for teen communication… they were too restrictive for that audience. That’s one thing I really admire about Roblox — they realized that they needed a ‘graduated’ program that provides the right experience for the right age group.
We did our best but I think it was definitely frustrating for the older members of the community.
If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it?
Perhaps one of the most curious things is how things were constantly revisited: the major shift in artwork that many now class as “modern Club Penguin”, the changes in rooms, to name a few.
I asked Chris if in retrospect, would Club Penguin have benefitted from an attitude of “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”.
What if it was actually broken? In hindsight, yes, some things should have been left alone. But I don’t think changing rooms was really as big a deal as say the launch of the iPhone or iPad. Though I do suspect we spent too much time rethinking stuff instead of making new experiences.
The example that sprung to mind was the transition from the Stage to the Puffle Berry Mall. Ironically, it was heavily criticised by the older demographic, yet I vividly remember Chris explaining the switch back then as a result of the Stage being the least used room.
The Mall was slightly disappointing in terms of features at the time, but keep in mind that most people voted for a Mall over keeping the Stage. And players could still have their own Stages as igloos, which was actually much more interesting than a room with costumes and a script. And I’m actually biased towards the Stage since I worked on quite a few of those plays!
I thought his answer highlighted something interesting about the attitude and skepticism to change that, in hindsight, was probably overdone by players such as myself. And talking about change…
The Present: Private Servers
If I walked into a candy store, stole all of their candy, then opened my own store with the same name, and then started selling that candy… would that be okay?
There was curious symbolism in the recent Spike Saturday on Club Penguin Rewritten, with seeing Chris Heatherly (former General Manger), who was once so deeply cautious of private servers in 2014, playing a private server.
Of course, circumstances and times have changed, but I wondered if Chris’ views had too.
Taking all the CP assets and putting them up on your own server is the same deal. If it was truly an altruistic thing, these CPPS hosts would not have any ads up, would not make any new content or modifications, and would work with a museum to truly preserve the game. And of course, they would also seek official approval from the rights holder to do so. But that’s not what’s happening with the CPPS operators. Sorry.
The issue with a lack of altruism within current private servers has been a prevalent concern, emphasised by Chris’ remarks.
Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing CP going and the community still playing together. There are some talented people that play or operate these pirate servers. I get why people want to play the game, and I don’t like the idea that it’s closed down, either.
But at least with a company there is some accountability when things go wrong.
The Present, with Small Bursts of Imagination
You may remember Small Bursts of Imagination, which was something Chris and Johnny were working on – if not, click here for more information.
I just had to ask for an update about that!
Making a documentary or writing a book would be the easy part. Funding it and getting all the permissions needed? That’s the hard stuff.
I have faith that we will get it done one day. It’s just a question of ‘what is the story?’
Along with that, Chris mentioned a book a while ago with Emma (Bambalou) – again, this post has more information! – and I was curious about the progress of that.
On the book front, I do have a first draft of a book telling Lance’s story! It is quite rough right now, and need to spend a lot more time on it, but it’s got a lot of great stuff and learnings for you guys in there. Over 100,000 words to sort out, so it’s still going to take some time.
There are lots of great stories to come from the former Club Penguin team and players!
That does sound genuinely exciting, and I’ll be sure to keep you updated as more is released! I really enjoyed gaining the deeper insight through this interview, and I hope you enjoyed it too. I’d like to give a massive thank you to Chris for dedicating his time to answering my questions.
Without the community that formed around it, Club Penguin wouldn’t have been as special as it was. Many, many products are released around the world, and very few of them will have that same special spark that we had as a Penguin community.
A community that positively engaged with the content, and drove the direction of the product. We were all lucky to be a part of it. I am still so thankful.
Thank you very much for reading, and once again, a huge thank you to Chris!