Toons, Love, and Letting Go

Earlier this month the curtain finally fell on Toontown Online.  I am guessing that 90% of the people who read this post will have no idea what that is, was, or means.  I won’t spend a lot of time telling you what it is or was, but I do want to share a few words about what it means.

TTO End of the WorldToontown was a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, an MMORPG, if you can believe such an acronym exists.  It is more commonly referred to as an online world, or a virtual playground, where participants create a character, or avatar, that represents them among tens of thousands of others at any given time, in what is affectionately known as cyberspace, the intersection of computer networks, or the Cloud.  The most famous and successful MMORPG of all time is undoubtedly World of Warcraft, which was created ages ago by Blizzard Entertainment and has produced immense wealth for those behind it.  Toontown is kind of like the quirky second cousin of World of Warcraft, created by huge fans of WOW initially at Disney Imagineering R&D, seeking a key point of differentiation — Toontown was the first MMORPG for kids and families.  Yes, that’s right, kids and families.  It came from Disney, after all, where family entertainment is the brand promise.

Aside from appealing to a different demographic audience, Toontown accomplished a few other significant milestones.  For one, it lasted commercially over a decade, if not putting it in the wealth stamping mode of World of Warcraft, certainly getting it into the rare window of time warp triumph that few digital games enjoy.  It was certainly the longest living bit of software that I ever helped see the light of day, by an order of magnitude.  We started working on it in 1999, launched the free public beta at Disney Online in the Fall of 2002, and went live in full subscription model in mid-2003.  Earlier this year, Toontown Online celebrated a milestone of ten years active that very few libraries of compiled code ever have the occasion to note.

If you have never played an MMORPG or have no idea what the gameplay in Toontown Online encompassed, you can easily learn that by doing a few web searches or scanning the Toontown entry in Wikipedia.  Now that Toontown Online is over, I want to talk less about its being, and more about its resonance.  It was a turning point for those who worked on it in several capacities — proof that the Disney brand and Walt’s vision could be migrated to a new platform of which Walt never dreamed.  It galvanized a team to emerge from the DotBomb bubble years through a process of creative destruction and reinvention.  It bonded its developers to its customers in a true paradigm shift that redefined for all involved the notion of “community.”  I remember approving a job requisition for a position called “Community Manager,” and I swear I stared at the page for an hour wondering what that meant, whether we really needed one, and whether any person was superhuman enough to tackle such a role.  The truth was, we were all Community Managers, and residents, and participants, and young at heart immersives who knew something had changed.  We bonded with our customers, and we bonded with each other, and that bond proved to be something that will last in perpetuity.

World class work is contagious.  High performance teams willingly tackle shared dreams.  Achieving the improbable is a permanent bonding agent.  Copy and paste that in your signature file.

The bond of being part of doing something that hasn’t been done before with a team of impossibly talented individuals with whom you are unlikely to ever work again is both powerful and intangible.  The odds against Toontown lasting a year let alone a decade were incalculable.  It was so hard to describe the concept to people both inside and outside the company that building a consensus and maintaining funding was entirely improbable.  Yet because history told us Walt had faced the same struggle and challenge opening a branded family theme park — Walt’s Folly, as it was known — we just stuck to it and got it done.  We knew if we could get people to sample it — try it, touch it, be in it, share it — it would slowly catch on.  It did, like the Little Engine that Could, and those silly little Toon characters got stuck in our minds and our hearts.  We played in that world with each other, kids and adults, employees and customers, everyone an equal, everyone just looking for gags and Cogs to take down.

Years into it, Thomas Friedman wrote a critically important book called The World is Flat, but those of us making and playing Toontown already knew that.  The hierarchy had inverted, unrestricted except by carefully constructed parental controls, global in reach and appeal.  The Toons were in charge of this world, not us.  Our job was to be good stewards of the world, not run it, only to tend the expansive lands.  Yep, it was an online theme park that belonged to everyone there.  It was a community, a true virtual community, almost perfectly safe because the community kept it that way, alive and vital 24x7x365.  We discovered it then, and we feel it now.  The game might be gone, but our sense of belonging, no chance that can be dipped in solvents.  Belonging is eternal.

Therein lies the truest lesson of Toontown for me, a lesson I learned my very first years in the software business, years in which I rode the unruly swings of success and failure all at once.  Astonishingly few projects in media succeed commercially or critically, and even fewer achieve both, but the ones that do make up for all the ones that don’t, both financially and in life satisfaction.  An extraordinarily wise mentor taught me at the outset of my journey this simple but enduring lesson, that if I stayed in this racket and wanted a career instead of a job, I needed to learn and embrace the mantra that projects come and go, but it is the people with whom you work  you will remember way more than the projects.  He explained that anyone looking back on a creative career when it comes to an end — and they all do at some point because we are humans, not T0ons — is that a truly successful career will be built on the back of about a half-dozen successes you could never predict, mixed in with a landfill of failures.

The takeaway was that it would always be easy to forget projects magnificent and awful, but the people with whom you shared those projects could rise to the level of unforgettable if you made that a focus.  If process was as important as outcome — more important than outcome because it is the only path to sustainable outcome — then you might forget the rotten days, the missed milestones, the modules that wouldn’t compile, the costly customer service calls, all that junk — but the joyous memories of the people would stay with you.  The people were the gift then, and they would remain so forever.

The incomparably talented people who built and nurtured Toontown were many of the same people with whom I shared any number of initiatives that didn’t go right.  It would be impossible to acknowledge and commend all of them here, and to pick just a few would inevitably be read wrong by the many.  The ten-year run of Toontown didn’t make them good, they were good already and they are good still.  All of us shared this tiny bit of magic, and now like most forms of media it joins the destiny of the ephemeral.  Our bond with each other is unbreakable , and our bond with that community is impenetrable.  The memories of the cast endure, the value of the bond beyond price, the stories of each other ours forever.  We are a little geeky, a little playful, a little different, and a little older.  We are forever Toons.

Toons of the World Unite.

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Corporate Intelligence Radio is On The Air

Isn’t this where we came in… ?

My Turn
by Ken Goldstein
Game Daily, January 2004

Happy New Year! Holiday 2003 is now handed off to accounting, winners and would-be winners for the key selling season are now largely known, and one thing becomes certain: the uncertainty of a platform shift looms menacingly ahead.  Details will begin to unfold, and together we lean forward to the next frontier… but if history tells the tale, not before one last great harvest.

Thus our beloved game industry is presented with a significant opportunity over the next few years.  The entertainment community is taking note that games are a meaningful business opportunity, no longer a niche play.  Mainstream press and consumer audiences are taking note as well.  Since the turn of the Millennium we have seen a huge up-tick in consumer and business press devoted to games, not to mention dedicated cable TV channels now focusing on our universe.  My sense is that once again the challenge for our industry is one of creativity – how will we manage through the dip that so often precedes full acceptance of next generation platform evolution?

My fear is that because we have done such a good job squeezing performance out of our current platforms, we may squander these precious years – a time when we have a ripe audience for the innovation of our field, our art form, and when we could be meaningfully broadening our core audience, surging into the mainstream and building our future.

More specifically, my fear is that because we’ve maxed out technology on current platforms – games are as realistic as they are going to be in the near term and you can’t throw more polygons at a game to leapfrog the competition until new machines arrive – we will wait around for technology to push us forward rather than showcase and advance the field while we have the world’s attention.  Current trends seem to support that.  More and more games seem to be relying on pure outrageousness to drive hype, and not surprisingly, exploiting those all too familiar lowest common denominators.  The wow factor of current platforms is behind us, so why not get headlines the easy way: shock and awe.

I’m taking “My Turn” to challenge us as an industry to resist the pull of this platform shift to lull us into creative laziness.  I am in no way puritanical, there is nothing I would not do to defend our First Amendment rights, and I am not saying there aren’t businesses to be built on more exploitative titles.  What I am saying is that there are very good businesses, as well as interesting, creative and innovative games based on strong characters and storytelling, to be created if we make this a priority.   Examples already exist: Mario, The Sims, Oddworld, Animal Crossing, the Backyard Sports series.  But there are not enough.  Look at the past holiday release list and you won’t find a great deal of diversity – and for where our overall market stands, you might conclude we left money on the table as a result of a too narrow focus.  You see it coming every year at E3, just walk around and you aren’t surprised with tone we set for success.

I know what many of you are thinking.  You’re Disney, your brand compels you to pursue E rated, non-violent games.   While that is indeed true, I continue to believe our industry as a whole will benefit if we begin to offer a broader array of games to consumers, and a much deeper selection of non-violent games.  I’m also not necessarily speaking of E rated or children’s games.  The true market leaders of our industry, those who find repeat creative and financial success year after year, fully embrace the notion that it is smart business to make interesting games – even war games – without piling on gratuitous sex or violence.

If there is at last an underlying art and science to what we do that is a partner of commerce, then perhaps there is nobility in not letting our talent be exploited.  There is revenue, and plenty of it, to be found beyond the obvious.  The market will always decide what titles make it and while I am certain the young adult male audience always will support mature rated games, I wonder who is not playing games, or not playing very often, because the options we have presented are limited.  Simply put, we are not going to increase female gamer counts with the current top ten.  Roughly speaking, that is one in two human beings we continue to chose not to serve.  And yet, I have seen our own Toontown Online take the MMORPG genre into this realm, where boys and girls, gamers and non-gamers, parents and children all play in the same virtual space.  If there is a more hard core genre than MMORPG, I await the opportunity to play there as well.  Creative challenges are met by inspired individuals because they are driven by a muse, not seduced by easy money.  And by the way, in a platform shift, there is no easy money.  It will take every brain cycle we have to get our businesses to the other side.

Let’s not ride out the platform shift waiting for technology to push us creatively.  Let’s take the higher ground, take some risks, and do something interesting with our collective talents – and while we’re at it, let’s broaden the game market so that when we have more polygons connected through broadband networks, we have many, many more players who are waiting for us to deliver against our artistic potential.