This interview with Lance Priebe, the co-founder of Club Penguin, is excerpted from Amber Atherton’s The Rise of Virtual Communities, forthcoming from Apress in March. Atherton is head of community growth at Discord, and the book consists of interviews with founders behind some of the earliest internet communities, from virtual games like Habbo Hotel and The Palace to sites like DeviantArt and Flickr. Pre-order the book here.
Club Penguin was launched in 2005, and was specifically designed to be a kid-friendly social networking site and multiplayer online game. Players created their own cartoon penguin avatars to explore the island, where they could chat with other penguins, decorate their igloos, play mini-games, and attend parties. Priebe and his co-founders sold the game to Disney in 2007, which shut down the browser version of the game in 2017, but Club Penguin remains a beloved hallmark of 2000s internet culture.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Amber Atherton: How was the world of Club Penguin designed?
Lance Priebe: The truth of Club Penguin is that our aim was to distract the children. We wanted it to have this fun party feel like a world of activities that you knew you weren’t doing alone. So we thought let’s run this like a kid’s activity magazine rather than run it like a game. There would be new content and challenges every week akin to OWL magazine or Nat Geo Kids. We also knew from user feedback on other games that we had created in the past that fans kept asking for a place to gather and talk, so right from the beginning we had chat built in. We launched in 2005 with a basic world, just a couple of rooms as a free sample on miniclip games.
AA: Can you tell me about the architecture of Club Penguin?
LP: So we had the world itself, which we called “rooms” but they are essentially screens. Penguin would walk from screen to screen, or “room to room,” around the world. Kids logged in and started in the town square, and they went into the coffee shop or the dance venue. They would explore the secret rooms: the boiler rooms, the secret agents, the underground caverns. We decorated these venues for events, Halloween was perhaps our biggest art change. Users also had their personal space called an igloo, which is their own room that they could furnish. In later versions they could invite friends and have their own little parties.
Each public room in-world was carefully designed for the activity that we wanted to encourage in that room. Your town was a hub that you never really hung out in, instead you would move through it and go on to explore the next place.
There was somewhere to move through, somewhere to socialize and somewhere to play a game. When you step out of the game with pockets full of earned coins, there would be a shop selling items and clothing. Then you would step out of the shop, into the town and choose what to do next: visit the coffee shop, socialize at the dance hall. That loop is everywhere in Club Penguin. In the ski village, through the forest to the beach, there would be gaming spaces, shops and social venues. It is how Disneyland is designed, and how towns are planned. Disneyland has these hubs, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Frontierland with shops that sell drinks or merchandise and so forth.
AA: The game really quickly blew up since the launch. Do you have any idea of what triggered the growth?
LP: We believe that it grew because of kids just talking about it at school. Kids made their Club Penguin groups in real life in the school yard or at the school computer lab, then they would go home and meet up in Club Penguin to play together. Later, as it grew, we watched kids play and noticed some interesting patterns. We learned that kids would play on a schedule—because the game was so huge you could never re-collide—so kids would agree when to play so you could encounter the same person.
AA: How did the monthly parties on Club Penguin contribute to community growth?
LP: The parties were key to Club Penguin’s success. We didn't know why, but when we’d host parties everybody showed up. There were collisions of different social groups at the parties who would converse and play unique games. It would have a build-up beforehand, kids would talk about the upcoming Club Penguin party at school. “Are you going? I can’t wait, etcetera.” It was capitalism at work, because everyone who attended a party received a free exclusive item that evidenced their attendance. The parties also drove the monthly subscription, because if you attended a party as a paying subscriber, you would unlock an extra item the following month. A party never went into the next month of subscription, so it encouraged members to stay on for the next one.
At the time we thought it was a form of marketing our subscription, but what we have now learned is that these items formed our user’s identities. It wasn't just looking forward to the party, it was that commonality between those who attended the parties, which was evidenced by the items members collected.
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It was like a reputation that kids could earn for themselves, they essentially collected parties for their social value. The equivalent social capital at work that you see on Twitter where people post the NFTs they have purchased. It's like saying, “well, I was there, were you there?” All the blogs associated with Club Penguin are filled with posts like “Remember the blackout party? Who was at the blackout party?” The value was a past tense thing: I attended, not that I'm going to attend. It’s like proving you were at that music festival by wearing the T-shirt. In fact in the later days of Club Penguin we launched a merchandise store that sold T-shirts, key chains and physical goods.
At the time we were oblivious. We thought items given at parties were a monetization system for subscription. Now we look back, it’s clear that these items were the social fabric of our users' identities.
The Dirt: Are you a party penguin?
Main Image: Screenshot of a 2011 April Fools' party in Club Penguin. (Sourced from cpwrittencheats.blogspot.com)