I’d like to start by explaining the future of these kind of interviews: previously, you may recall that I intended to publish one on the first Monday of each month. For several months, this has posed a variety of issues, so I’m going to just publish them whenever I can!
However, I’m extremely delighted to have had the chance to ask a couple of questions to someone who’s been around at Club Penguin since the very beginning as its Director of Community Support. That person is Nathan Sawatzky, although you may also recognise him from his penguin name: Gizmo!
The story behind Nathan’s hiring is frequently told by one of the game’s founders, Lane Merrifield, who has talked in the past about his frustration with the support services that tech companies maintained in 2005. In an attempt to do something different, he tells the story of visiting a company that provided him with daily fantastic service: his local Starbucks. Unfortunately, it might not have been entirely so magical…
Lane is a wonderful story teller, and while the facts may differ a little in my memory, the heart of his telling is true. 😉
If you’re curious, Lane explains the story in the talk below. I suspect that you’ve probably seen it, but the whole talk is worth watching if not; it goes into a lot of detail about how things work, some of which is built by Nathan’s responses later on!
However, the story of Starbucks is still an interesting one in the customer care of Club Penguin! I really like the idea about building an ethic “more like a coffee shop than a call centre”, and even though Club Penguin had support phone-lines, it’s something which a lot of us recognise.
I was working at Starbucks at the time and had developed a strong sense of what good customer care looked like. Without a doubt, I took much of what I learned while at Starbucks and applied it to our support philosophy at Club Penguin. When Lane first showed me Club Penguin (this was before CP launched), I was completely taken by the idea that children could find a place to be creative and engage with children from all over the world.
The challenge presented was how we could do that safely, and with the support ethic of something more like a coffee shop than a call centre. Lane, Lance, and Dave were 100% committed to building something that had every ounce of integrity in it, including the way we would support players and parents.
All this to say, my initial impressions of the game were of deep excitement; but more importantly, my initial impressions of the founders and the sort of company they wanted to build were what really drew me in!
That being said, things changed rapidly from 2005 as the game only grew, and certainly did engage with children all over the world!
Nathan was right to be excited so early on! Club Penguin grew massively and reached millions of players worldwide, which made me wonder about the challenges that were faced in providing support to such a large and diverse audience. And it seems like Club Penguin was constantly catching up with that growth too, with offices opening worldwide!
When I first joined, the support team was essentially Lane, myself, and sometimes Lance. We soon hired Lynn to manage the increasing calls and billing inquiries. Within the first month of me being hired we began hiring PSRs (player support reps) and CSRs (client support reps). Basically, for the following 4 years, we were constantly hiring. For much of that growth, it was necessary to manage the rapidly increasing community size of Club Penguin, but things really became interesting in 2007 when we opened our first global office in Brighton, UK. Shortly after we opened an office in São Paulo, Brazil.
The Brighton office has an interesting story; it’s probably the office which people are most familiar with as a popular YouTuber purchased it after Club Penguin shut that office down as part of tragic budget cuts in 2015.
However, what I never knew before was that the decision to locate the office in Brighton instead of Britain’s capital (London) was interestingly an intentional one aimed at attracting students, with ideas even floated to build support offices on campus! Perhaps that’s one of the many reasons the Club Penguin community was fortunate enough to have team that was genuinely passionate and caring about what they did.
One of the things we learned quickly though was that there was a type of town/culture that worked best for our support philosophy. This was first proven with the launch of our Brighton team. We deliberately choose not to setup our office in London in favour of finding a community of college students who were passionate about the sorts of experience Club Penguin offered. Kelowna is a college town, as was Brighton. When we grew into our other offices, we tried to find the areas where we could attract college students.
We even had some big bold ideas of what support offices built on campus might look like, but sadly, we never tried them out.
In 2005, Club Penguin was still relatively small, but Nathan explains how direction changed in 2009 (bear in mind that this was a year after the Brighton office was opened).
With the new offices and new markets to support, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the sort of culture the support team had. Eventually, in 2009, we decided that we need to stop solving the challenges presented by an ever-growing community with more support reps, and start looking at our processes and tools. For the following few years, our team began to get a little smaller as we became a bit cleverer in how we managed the humongous support and moderation queues.
Safety & State Attorneys
It’s certainly understandable why Club Penguin wanted to become “cleverer” with their support and moderation queues, but there was limited precedent for what the game did in terms of moderation at the time. This inevitably would pose its own challenges, especially in terms of balancing automated moderation and safety with allowing people to have flexible conversations.
It’s widely accepted – even by some on the team at the time – that in Club Penguin’s final two years, the balance was wrong. But maintaining it was important (and done successfully for a long time!) so I asked about the challenges in regards to that.
We had really amazing people working on it. Chris, who was the main architect of most of the early support and moderation tools (now the founder and CEO of Two Hat Security) cared more about the tooling for this than anyone I’ve ever met.
There wasn’t an issue getting development support for our safety tools, it just wasn’t ever a thing anyone needed to convince anyone else to be important. Our priority was safety, and our community bought into that priority. Things have changed though, and with the proliferation of social networks and social features within games, the challenges of finding that balance are far more complex now. At the heart of it though is that marriage between what technology can do best, and what humans can do best!
It would be interesting to consider how Club Penguin would’ve faced scrutiny in the modern world; you may recall a 2009 news report (shown above in case not!) frustrated about the membership aspect, but it seems that social networks attract more scrutiny in general from legislators these days.
The success of Club Penguin’s moderation though is probably conveyed best in this really nice story about the game bringing hope to even law enforcement, which the team often worked closely with.
We were invited to participate in a law enforcement conference in Dallas, Texas. One of the state AGs [Attorney Generals – basically lawyers] had been running a training program for law enforcement agents in how to catch online criminals. After a week of this training, most of the officers and agents were feeling pretty deflated about technology and the internet. It was at this point that the AG would introduce them to Club Penguin as an example of how things could be!
Creative Couch: Ideas to Implementation
In-game content was often influenced by the requests of players (you may remember the phrase “real-time conversation” that was frequently used to describe the dynamics between the team and community) but it’s never entirely been clear what the process was between someone suggesting an idea and it ending up on the island! The process described is interestingly one I’ve never heard before: the Creative Crouch!
We had this process called “The Creative Couch,” which was just one way that support reps could feedback to the game team. Every week, we had a formal opportunity (which was quite informal) for support reps to share the feedback from the community.
The game team paid great respect to the players by seeing the support reps as the voice of the community. This happened in far less formal ways as well. Support reps would frequently just approach the game team (something made possible by the culture Lane [Billybob] instituted at the very beginning) with feedback and/or ideas. And the game team would frequently come and sit with support reps (something modelled by Lance [rsnail] from the very beginning).
Email and phone were probably the most common ways of contacting the team, but if you’ve followed this blog for a long, long time, you’ll be aware that the team responded to written letters too! A lot of responses had a lot of love and care included, and I was curious as to where all the written mail went.
Unfortunately, Nathan wasn’t sure what happened to it – perhaps it’s still in a huge folder somewhere! But he did say there was a lot of it.
Something which I had not previously considered though were the risks of such a support system that Nathan details; pretty much everything was a personal response, with the possible exception of the email on how to clear cache (which a lot of people probably remember!) and some memorised puns (fin-tastic!).
It never occurred to us not to answer every mail that we received. It wasn’t until a few years in that we even realised how different our approach was. Obviously it meant that we needed to have a big team, and we did. It also meant that we needed to prioritise hiring and training more than most orgs need to. This feels obvious, but the importance of this can’t be overstated. We barely used any form responses, and when we did, we refused to write them in such a way that someone could simply click on a form response and then hit send.
We would use form responses only in situations where there was some complex instructions that needed to be accurate. Because of this, we were putting a tremendous amount of the company’s success in the hands of the support reps. Had someone sent out a bad email, or spoken out of turn with a vulnerable player on the phone, the whole thing would have fallen down. So much of our success was based on the trust we built with parents and children. But, that was also what made it really fun. Our support team rooms were made of round or rectangular tables that fostered communication. Reps were encouraged to talk about the emails or calls they were responding to so that each rep benefited from their peers. In my opinion, this is how every company should be doing it.
At its core though, that “real-time conversation” between the community and team really did influence content heavily.
The support system was simply the catalyst of ideas from the community. On my first day, I was sitting beside Lance as a player sent us a message saying, “I would really like a green shirt.” I read the request to Lance and, within an hour, you could get a green shirt for your penguin. This became more complex, and the time between request and release increased, but the heart this flow never changed.
Nathan now works at Supercell, the company behind games such as Clash of Clans and Clash Royale, on Trust & Safety. I was curious if his time at Club Penguin had any influence, but I wasn’t expecting Club Penguin to have provided inspiration for Supercell…
My time at Club Penguin has influenced every part of my professional life (and much of my personal life). My role at Supercell is to ensure our players are safe! The world has changed since my CP days, but there are still vulnerable people who are harmed by disruptive people. At CP, I developed a deep passion to help guide technology towards being a boon for humanity. The very tech that Chris [Priebe] and I worked on back in those days in now the foundation of some of the tech we’re starting to use at Supercell to care for our players.
I even have it on good authority that Club Penguin inspired some of the folks at Supercell to build the kind of games we build. 😉
I’d like to conclude by giving a really massive thank you to Nathan for the time which he spent in answering my questions! I’m always fascinated in hearing new things about how Club Penguin functioned, and his answers really provided an interesting insight!
Thank you very much for reading, waddle on!