Customer service, above all, will drive all online game creators to create better games and businesses, said Club Penguin co-creator Lane Merrifield in a densely-attended Austin GDC keynote. Merrifield looked to his Disneyland origins -- and now his Disney-owned online game smash -- to explain why genuine respect and caring make a massive difference.
"If we can truly learn how to put the player first... we will build better games, stronger teams, and thus better businesses," said Merrifield of his essential ethos.
Merrifield was one of the two original developers of the subscription-based kids' Flash PC game, and subsequently presided over its acquisition by Disney in August 2007 for $700 million.
He worked at Disneyland long before Disney acquired his company, controlling a remote controlled crocodile on the Lion King parade. Merrifield recalled that he "...got to see first hand what it was like to be an environment about... serving each other."
The executive referenced Starbucks as being a company that tries extremely hard with customer service, but in his dealings with his local coffee shop, has been consistently misremembered as "Jason," instead of Lane.
"He meant well," Merrifield said, "but great service needs to come from people really wanting the best for you."
Merrifield explained that on the Internet, "children need advocates" to walk side by side with them. The designers' oldest kids were about 4 years old when Club Penguin was created, and its genesis was motivated first by the desire to "build a place online for them to play in."
He also pointed out that there's no room for ego -- developers focusing on games, particularly kid-oriented titles, need to check egomania at the door.
"Far too often, we as developers end up front and center... we remove the player and we start to serve ourselves," he said. According to Merrifield, there's even an internal 'crush the ego' mantra among incoming developers, as espoused by one of the Club Penguin co-founders in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner.
Also, it's important to get the right people to handle the human interaction in games, Merrifield added. "We rarely hire techies to take care of the kids... we hire people who care about the kids," with backgrounds as teachers and other professionals.
As for support, the support team -- 150 people, plus offices outside North America in England, Australia, and now Brazil -- personally responds to between 5,000 and 7,000 emails every day, and the company uses personal dialogues back and forth, using custom tech support software, to carefully listen to the audience.
But won't they "just send you more emails," Merrifield asks? This is a good thing, he stressed, because the kids will "feel heard", and it helps shape story in Club Penguin. For example, in a story event where feedback was emailed in extensively by the users: "We didn't do what the kids said would be lame, and we did do what they said would be cool."
In an extensive question-and-answer session following the keynote, Merrifield expounded on a number of interesting topics. He first tackled subscriptions versus microtransactions, noting that subscriptions are working for Club Penguin because of the age of the children, and the necessity for parents to buy subscriptions for them. This means that they can serve parents too, by adding a game timer, for example, with no in-game advertisers to get mad at them.
Asked about being child-friendly and even protecting against predators, Merrifield noted that they have a very large amount of checks in place, explaining that they are "adding and removing several hundred words a day" to their censorship list. He particularly referenced the word "lollipop," noting that: "All of a sudden a new pop song comes out, and it means something new."
In addition, there are no beds in the game, partly to forestall any issues -- though the Club Penguin founder can explain it away because "...penguins sleep standing up." The game hasn't had a single reportable major incident thus far.
In addition, he commented on the fact that a percentage of revenues still go to charity with Club Penguin, something they don't generally talk about -- in a separate custom challenge last Christmas, two and a half million kids gave away two billion coins to help decide where $1 million would go to. He noted of the charity revenue part: "Disney was one of the few companies that never even questioned that."
In fact, Merrifield went out to explain, the Disney acquisition choice, in addition to having "the same philosophical values," was "...as much about infrastructure as anything else." But he noted that the biggest challenge is the size of Disney overall - even acknowledged by top Disney executive Robert Iger, who said to Lane, post-acquisition: "We brought you on for more than just a brand... if you ever feel that the size of the company is stifling... I want to be the first to know."
Merrifield concluded his well-received Austin GDC keynote by explaining a central tenet of the immensely popular kids' online game: "If it doesn't matter to a kid, it doesn't matter."