Five things learned from five years of Poptropica

James Lema

When we launched Poptropica in 2007, we had spent months doing research into other products. We discovered many of them were following predictable patterns that had become the norm. At the time, virtual worlds were popping up everywhere. We knew we needed to stand out from a growing crowd and made some decisions that were necessary for us to be lean and scale quickly. In this entry, I will detail how we came to some of those decisions.

Be More Than a Game – Story Driven Play

They: A virtual world is a bunch of games.

Us: We are not building a game. Let’s create a collection of narrative driven quests.

We take great pride in the stories we create for our users. Our editorial director, Jeff Kinney (creator of Poptropica and author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series), is a widely respected and passionate storyteller. He has overseen the publishing of more than 30 stories with a strict attention to detail based on one rule: “Every story has to be unique.”

When users enter our world, they become part of the story. They can engage with as much, or as little, content as they choose. Currently, our users are spending an average of 30 minutes per session on our site (that’s equivalent to a cartoon episode on TV). This engagement can be directly tied to the deeply engaging experiences our team creates every day.

Get Big Quickly – Delay Registration –

They: Before anyone can play, collect all the information you can and force registration.

Us: Ask for age and gender. If they want to register, ask them after they have played around for a while.

At launch, we knew we needed to grow our audience quickly! We consistently found many competitor sites placed barriers to game play; requiring users to create a username, character name, attributes, supply email, parents email, etc. One popular site had a 22 point registration (awful).

Instead of creating barriers to game play, all we require is a users’ age (to supply appropriate content) and gender (to supply the appropriate character) to create a character. Once a user plays around and engages with the world, they can choose to save their game by registering their account. This approach has been massively effective. We have over 500 million characters created on Poptropica.

The Look of Your Character and World –

They: In order to make a believable world, everything should be rendered in 3D.

Us: 2D is faster, cheaper… and none of us know 3D.

In the Fall of 2006 when we first started developing Poptropica, we had a staff of two artists (I was one of the two). Neither of us knew how to develop artwork in 3D, but we had extensive training in vector art using Adobe Illustrator and Flash. We were big fans of 2D art from classic arcade and Nintendo games of the 80’s. Some of the work from back then is phenomenal (Mega Man is a personal favourite)!

We knew we could create a believable environment for avatars to run around in. The choice to render Poptropica in vector also meant the loading time of each scene would be considerably faster. Although the decision to work in vector was out of necessity, it has proven to be beneficial when it comes to art development, marketing and licensing. We can create an entire world in matter of days.

Safe Communication Between Users – No Moderators

They: You need to let users openly chat!

Us: We will use pre-scripted / random chat.

We actively decided to not allow our users to openly chat. The major reason was safety. There are many fantastic companies that offer moderation software, but there always seems to be a way for kids to get around them.

By using a pre-scripted/random chat system, we’ve eliminated the need for moderators. There is absolutely zero-percent chance of personally identifying a child on our site. We are more than happy to say our world is one of the safest destinations for kids.

On Poptropica, kids will never be bullied, never share information and never witness questionable content. We want them to focus on having fun. They can freely express themselves through costumes, powers, and through our social offering – Poptropica Friends.

A Social Network for Kids – We’re Not Facebook

They: We want to be the next Facebook for kids!

Us: We are NOT Facebook for kids.

Since the magnificent rise of Facebook, there have been numerous companies that have tried to create a social offering for kids that follows the Facebook model. Poptropica actively decided to not go down that path.

As Poptropica grows, we want to engage kids in ways they have never experienced. From that, we created Poptropica Friends – a 100 percent safe, social experience that allows the user to tell the story about themselves.

Everyday, we ask the user a question (ex. What’s your favourite sport? Have you ever tried sushi? Do you like dogs or cats?). The answer is a visual tile that becomes part of their profile. The more questions the user answers, the more visual their personality becomes. It’s a rich tapestry that tells the personality of the user in a way that has never been done.

In addition to creating a robust profile, kids can collect more costumes and add in-game photos for a richer experience.

Never Stop Growing

Poptropica has been available for more than five years. We have been massively successful with kids because we never stop. Our staff is filled with brilliant designers and developers whose imaginations are limitless.

We are always publishing new stories and will continue to publish on any and all platforms where kids will engage with content.

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