The History of MMOs and Disney

In this academic article, we will be discussing the beginnings of internet MMOs (massive multiplayer online games) as well as compare and contrast to the introduction of Disney’s take on the genre, mostly focusing on their largest success: Club Penguin.

Mazewar, (as pictured on the bottom) was the first online game ever. Created in 1974, Players could interact and battle one another whilst navigating a puzzling maze. The game took the industry to the next level, people could now talk to each other across the internet.

A portion of Mazewar’s layout.

Nearly 20 years later, Meridian 59 was one of the first subscription based games. Meridian 59 is a MUD, (multi-user dungeon) though they’re closely related to MMOs. Over the years, the game gathered a large following, the community is still active to this day. Though this was a big deal in 1994, the game was soon overshadowed by Ultima Online, a year later. The game united a community of heroes, villains, and all of those in between. Its creator, Richard Garriott especially coined the term MMO, and Ultima Online was the first of its kind to be called this. This game, however, is not to be confused with MUDs, (later variants came: multi-user dimension or multi-user domain) though the two genres are extremely similar. MUDs can be tied back to dice based tabletop games (most notably Dungeons and Dragons), whereas MMOs are strictly sourced online. MMOs have their roots in the first and foremost MUDs, but the two have rooted in different directions.

Before the end of the 20th century, came EverQuest in March 1999. In this game, users could choose to create their own character of 12 different “races:” humans, wood-elves, high-elves, half-elves, dark-elves, erudites, barbarians, dwarves, halflings, gnomes, ogres, and trolls. Besides, the “racy” usage of the word race to categorize each specie, EverQuest later added on more choices of the customization of characters.

The 2000s

Toontown characters.

In 2003, Disney came out with it’s first online virtual MMO: Toontown Online. Players could choose between a wide variety species of characters: cats, dogs, pigs, rabbits, etc. The “toons” could then interact with other players along with battle their enemy “cogs.” The game was set for all ages, including a chat protective feature that censors unsafe language and specific key words.

2 years later, Club Penguin was released and entertained children across the globe. Despite Disney purchasing the company two years later after its initial release, its popularity within that time period skyrocketed simply by “word of mouth awareness among kids.” The cultural phenomenon of fascination with internet games allowed for interaction between adolescents ages 6–14 around the world.

And then, came World of Warcraft in 2004. By 2009, WoW had 10 million players and held the record of the most online players by the Guinness World Records. Between Club Penguin and World of Warcraft, both were definitely at close arms in terms of popularity.

WoW Screenshot from 2009.


The community of World of Warcraft is thriving; just recently, Battle for Azeroth Season 2 was recently released as of August 2018.

In the game, players have a choice of 3 different account levels. The first, a starter account where anyone can join to play. Users of this have a level cap of 20 while being able to choose from many “races of sentient and sapient beings.

The next level would be the subscription version of the game. Users have the choice of $14.99/month, for 3 months $13.99 monthly, or for 6 months $12.99/month. This time, with a level cap up to 110. With the upgrade, subscribers have access to 6 game expansions. The extended version of this plan would be the Battle for Azeroth (or BfA) that was just recently released.

As of 2015, it was reported that there were 5.5 million users, a little less than half of reported back in 2009.

A Large Audience

In 2007, Disney purchased Club Penguin. By then, the website had over 700,000 paying users and 12 million active users. According to an official Walt Disney Company website statement: the reason why they purchased the online game was because of their “objective establishing clear leadership in online virtual worlds for kids and families” and also to make money.

When purchased by Disney, the company valued our online virtual website at 700 million. However, by 2010, it only made up to 350 million, half of what it was valued at. By 2015, (two years before its’ inevitable end) all three of the games co-founders left the company — completely leaving Club Penguin in Disney’s hands. As game developers, they left to do other games. For Disney, this was a seemingly great investment to maintain.

To give those a simple explanation, Club Penguin is an MMO where users can interact with other penguins, dress up, play games, own puffles, and much more. The platform ran for nearly 12 years, part of why it ran that long was simply due to the large number of features that the game contained. Penguins didn’t have to interact with others, but they could if they wanted to. But like a lot of MMOs, players would have to play games in exchange for coins, and coins for items in exchange. During its time, users actually had to pay $4.99 per month for a membership. This membership would give exclusivity to a majority of the items. One could consider this as “decking out” their own penguin in items that had to be paid for.

When the Dojo was introduced in September 2009, through “Sensei’s Fire Scavenger Hunt.” After this scavenger hunt, Club Penguin was yet introduced another game that was on the website for the remainder of its existence: Card Jitsu. The platform was constantly changing, given the long list of events including seasonal holidays. There was no reason for users to grow tired of the game.

So, when did Club Penguin actually reach its peak?

The way we would define a “peak” would have to be according to the revenue generated in the entirety of the games existence. But because Club Penguin was extremely overvalued during the Disney purchase in 2007, it’s difficult where to pinpoint exactly the online website reached its peak. Disney lost a substantial amount of investment money into the game — this cannot be labelled a success even if the company expanded its horizons. In a simple statement, Club Penguin was at its greatest for the two years its original creators kept it running due to the later overestimation made by its second owners. If Disney hadn’t started the company at such a large starting price point, there is the possibility that the game would have lived longer. But with the introduction of Club Penguin Island the mobile game, Club Penguin the online website eventually reached its end.

A Bitter Ending(?)

Nearing the games last few months of running, the Club Penguin team saw a substantial decline in users from 7.4 million users in July to 5.6 million later in December 2016. After 11 years of running, it was time to put the project at rest and focus on the next step. [x]

Videos on YouTube and on other social medias surfaced of “Club Penguin’s Final Minutes” where hundreds of penguins appear to have logged into the platform’s last moments on March 30th, 2017. In the video, a swarm of penguin users flooded the chat, using heart emoticons and stating “WADDLE ON!” The game made an impact on millions of kids around the world, for many people, it wasn’t easy to see the website go.

Upon typing in, we are instead not met with an error message or a final statement by the website, but rather Disney’s official website.

Club Penguin Island Mobile

After Club Penguin’s shutdown, Club Penguin Island the mobile game immediately followed. Released on March 29th, 2017, the project was actually underway for three years before its successor. With sneak peek videos rising from the official Disney platform, it seems like the company had been planning the switch-over from website to mobile for some time. Club Penguin Island was created for the “next generation of players who have grown up on mobile devices,” just as it was made for kids who grew up playing the game on the computer. The switch was a reasonable move for Disney to take; had they known what was to follow shortly after, maybe it wasn’t.

Club Penguin Island was a modernized, more updated version of its predecessor. Users of the older game could even connect their computer account to the mobile game, further being awarded with an alumni item when making the account. A membership of $4.99 per month was also optional, also similar to Club Penguin. A big difference, however, was the chat filter. Though it was already included in the initial game, this aspect would have been non-mandatory. Players on the web game had the ability to create a “safe” account along with joining chat protected servers. Instead, penguins of the mobile platform could only use “unique emojis and 3D animations.” This is particularly a massive feature that could have made or break the newer version.

With the reputation Club Penguin had, Club Penguin Island already had its footing in potentially becoming a popular mobile game. Except it didn’t. A year after the mobile game was launched, the game was shut down on December 20th, 2018. In September, even employees were “blindsided” by the news. Though they had an idea that the game wasn’t doing well, they were told that they “would have jobs for at least 2 years” in addition to having their projects green lighted. So much so that they celebrated in lieu of the news according to sources at Kotaku.

When searching for Club Penguin Island on the Disney official website, we are short-ended with no results. After only the duration of one year, it’s surprising to find that Disney has completely rescinded any search keywords including the mobile app. At the bottom of the page, is a link to Club Penguin Island that leads to nowhere.

After 11 years (the same run time Club Penguin had), World of Warcraft had already gone through several expansions. It’s audience reached nearly 5.5 million subscribers in 2015.

_______ Rewritten

Yes, there are a few rewritten versions of Disney’s MMOs containing active users to this day including ToonTown Online and Club Penguin. People want to relive the features they were once so familiar with, eliciting a much coveted nostalgia. Though they are not exactly the same, a rewritten version can emulate an experience well with minor flaws.

Screenshot taken on January 23rd, 2019.

Because Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, and EverQuest’s communities are are still around nearly 20 years later, the rewritten versions are simply not the same; even WoW’s community is well prospering. On the other hand, Club Penguin’s intended audience has grown up, there is no substantial fan base though their official wiki page’s forum was last active 5 days ago. Those who have joined are simply in it for the sake of trolling and nostalgia.

Screenshot taken here on February 2nd, 2019.

Will Club Penguin forever live on?

In pursuit of modern technology, we are conflicted with the ambivalence of nostalgia and new innovation. Disney was rightful in deciding to go with a mobile app in attempt to save the game, with the websites user rates declining at a rapid rate. Choosing to do the change was either a hit or miss, and well, they missed.

Games like World of Warcraft and EverQuest will continue to prosper, with the expansion of more worlds and varieties of features. Game creators have the choice to continue with a dedicated fan base.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store