Beloved by many, hated by few, Club Penguin was a gem of the 2000’s era of internet. It was well built, well moderated, and didn’t feature ads at all due to its child-friendly nature. Club Penguin started when the founders realized how few internet safe-spaces there were for children: spaces with no ads, no adult content, and no suspicious cookie tracking were basically non-existent.Thus, they set out to make a site that could fill that void. The website was fantastic! Unfortunately, it didn’t earn much revenue by itself, and it ultimately shut down just a few years ago in Disney’s hands.
But the original isn’t why we’re here.
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: spinoff websites are almost always a bad idea. It shows a lack of understanding for why the original site is shutting down or cutting features. If it worked as-is, it wouldn’t be doing that. Salvage can still happen – TikTok is a lot like Musically, which was a lot like Vine – but it takes a lot of innovation and analytical work to figure out how to successfully salvage a failed model instead of just repeating the mistakes made by the first group.
Club Penguin’s issues could have been solved – but the founders (and then later, Disney) simply decided not to solve them for the sake of the website’s community. Solving the issue of ‘low revenue’ would have rendered the website less child-friendly, thus completely defeating the purpose. The site itself was fundamentally a money-sucker.
Spinoffs are where Club Penguin went wrong, and it started with the official spin-off post-shutdown.
Club Penguin took a lot of resources, but it brought a lot of joy. When Disney bought it back in 2007, it seemed like a match made in heaven – a big company funding a website that was exactly their target audience, what could go wrong?
For a while, things were great! The website peaked at about 200 million registered accounts, with about 30 million active at the time. Unlike many other properties, it was entirely funded by Disney. That became a problem once the original developers left, one by one – Disney had total control.
Disney soon wanted more out of the game than it could provide, and once the userbase started declining, they began siphoning resources away: furloughed workers, reducing resources, and an overall gutting of the game so that revenue could be directed elsewhere. Finally, the day of its death was announced, and the game ended with one final mass-hurrah as users waved their goodbyes on each digital chat room. It was truly bittersweet. The website was a gathering place, and although each user was anonymous, they were all united in their love of Club Penguin.
It died a respectable death. Surely, nobody would take its corpse and abuse it for profit, right? Nobody would be so hell-bent on recreating something magical that they’d attempt necromancy? Turns out, the answer is yes.
No matter what blogs you follow, know this: Not every person goes into creating a child-friendly website because they want to protect children. Know that. Know that Disney didn’t have an issue with many of the private servers running old Club Penguin assets until they were using said assets to put children into potentially dangerous positions. Disney swings it’s ban-hammer a lot, and some of it’s overly aggressive, sure – many of these were not over-aggressive copyright strikes.
The New Club Penguins
The “first” new Club Penguin, Club Penguin Island, started out fine. It also died two years after launch due to a lack of users, but it started out fine. Club Penguin Island was Disney’s subscriber-model substitute for the original Club Penguin, which upset much of the target audience. It was also the last official version of Club Penguin to come out of Disney’s studios.
Even folks who were originally optimistic didn’t like it as much as they’d liked the original Club Penguin. There is something to be said about nostalgia’s clouding effects on judgement, and maybe if Club Penguin 1 had never existed, Club Penguin Island would have performed better. But the first Club Penguin didn’t need a sequel, and if they thought this app was going to be good, they wouldn’t have branded it as Club Penguin 2. It would have been its own thing – Disney’s clearly capable of creativity. They knew the idea of the mobile game wasn’t going to survive by itself without some serious help from branding.
Users called it for what it was, a cynical cash grab based on a well-loved franchise. The format was different. The art was 3-dimensional. It was originally phone-only, and the app was so huge that some older phones couldn’t handle it. It had a subscription service that was basically essential to make the game playable. The only thing in common between the two was the penguins. Even the chat feature was different due to the 3-D modeling.
Soon, Club Penguin Island shut down too.
Next, there was Club Penguin Rewritten. As you could probably tell with all the outrage over Club Penguin Island, there were still quite a few folks who wanted the old Club Penguin back. And where there’s demand, sometimes somebody comes along with a website to fill it! Club Penguin Rewritten was the next iteration of the Club Penguin format, although it was a bootleg. Assets and the format from the original game were used, but the project was totally unaffiliated with Disney in any other way. Fans got together and decided they’d recreate a multi-million user website.
As such, it was shut down for using the domain name ‘ClubPenguinRewritten.Ca’. The founders changed the domain name, and it bounced right back to continue growing. It’s good to note that copyright’s not automatically enforced: the original creator has to file a takedown notice when they see their work being used unofficially. Copyright exists to protect the money one could make off of the work. If Disney didn’t want to make more money off of Club Penguin, and if they were worried that getting it removed would just anger the fans even more, they’d quietly look the other way and pretend not to notice that the site’s not actually under fair use.
They said ‘don’t put our name on this’ and let it be with deniable plausibility.
Rewritten was great at first, and everything seemed to be going well now that they were past that silly ‘copyright’ thing. However, the team behind Rewritten soon began to run into problems. Their website was hacked: the hash they were using to protect passwords was well-known and easily reversable. Okay, accounts got hacked, that sucks, but surely it stops there, right?
Well, because Rewritten was a fan project, a large number of the people on their team were volunteers. Some were anonymous. When organizing a project, it’s very nice and convenient to structure as a club rather than a company, but a company offers a lot more accountability. Secondly, since this wasn’t a company, it meant that the programming experience among members varied wildly – how do you establish security protocol when everyone’s A) anonymous or B) doesn’t know what to look for, in a security system?
Establish a protocol with volunteers, and they could just vanish with the master key; eEstablish a protocol with one of the main members of the club, and risk that they wouldn’t know what they were doing – see that hashing incident; establish a security protocol as the head of operations, and there’s a solid chance the volunteers just decide not to follow it because it would be inconvenient. Everyone knows 2FA’s a great idea, but does everyone follow it? No, not even for their own good. Imagine being anonymous and deciding to just not use 2FA, so when the account gets hacked the original user can just wash their hands of it and disappear without consequence.
As a result, 3 more major attacks were carried out on the primary Rewritten site, compromising the data of millions of users. The website flickered on and off-line, and the team was pushed to its limits. Users still loved Rewritten, but it lacked the polish of a team of experts. Some users began seeking other options.
Some people saw the hacks, the website going down, and the overall lack of management experience in the team as a good reason to jump ship. The good news was that many of these bootlegged servers existed! Many were started before Club Penguin had even shut down and existed as a more ‘grown-up’ option where rules were looser.
Servers want more people, because more people meant more ads, and therefore more money. Other teams began trying to siphon away users from big servers like Rewritten by advertising fun features like not censoring language, or not banning explicit content in messages. They’d be the ‘cool’ server where 8 year olds could swear at other players with no rules.
Many of the issues seen in Rewritten only got worse with less accountability. Having a lot of fans means having a lot of angry voices should anything happen, but since the creators of these smaller private servers were often anonymous even to each other, problems with the sites couldn’t be solved by tracking them down and demanding answers, like they were for Rewritten. Rewritten had an official Twitter account, for example. All that some of the other servers had was a Discord channel.
Eventually, the mainstream news began to get involved, and they noticed that these private servers weren’t particularly child-friendly – on some of the servers with uncensored language, conversations were turning to sexual content as soon as they were started. Distinctly not child friendly. Many of these servers maintained the original spirit of the game, but it was difficult-to-impossible to tell which ones were un-moderated or explicit. Suddenly, this innocent game once sponsored by Disney was a regular minefield.
One server known as Club Penguin Online had ‘18+’ zones alongside regular child-friendly zones, but enforcement was nearly impossible – of course kids are just going to say they’re 18 or above when signing up. Children and grown adults were co-mingling in a chat that wasn’t moderated or censored. One mod allegedly offered moderator roles to underaged teenagers within the community in exchange for explicit pictures; allegedly, more than one took him up on the offer, which crossed the line from ‘creepy’ into ‘criminal’.
The server did eventually oust the guy, but not before drawing Disney’s attention. Disney, for it’s faults, is determined to be child-friendly no matter what. The kids come first! The moderator team on the original Club Penguin was one of the last things to get cut. Disney is very unhappy to hear that a private server filled with explicit content is drawing in children with Disney’s intellectual property (alongside the news of hacks and personal data leaks).
Both Rewritten and Online were issued with take-downs, and a bunch of other private servers simply closed up shop before Disney could send them a warning.
Disney let a lot slide. Maybe they were hoping to one day re-launch Club Penguin, and were letting the servers maintain interest. Maybe Disney really didn’t have a problem with other people using their discarded IP. Disney didn’t intervene until it started getting complaints, either way. Unfortunately, unmoderated websites targeting children can’t just be left to their own devices. Who knows how much further bad actors could have gotten without Disney’s intervention?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5B1NZQgKwVk (note – this is a video by a former moderator for the person running Virtual Club Penguin. As the head of their operations was eventually scrubbed from the site’s wiki history, alongside many others coming forward to corroborate his story, I’ve included it as a source.)