On Thursday, October 18th, the world learnt that Lane Merrifield, known as Billybob on Club Penguin, had resigned from working on the game after working on it for roughly seven years. Shortly after news of this spread Billybob made a post on the Club Penguin Blog announcing his departure. I have decided to publish my own personal opinions in a post as well as giving you a big lesson in how Club Penguin started. While Lane, Lance, and Dave are the main founders of Club Penguin, I personally consider both Holly (Happy77) and Chris (Screenhog) to be founders too since they worked on Club Penguin to launch it, they were just added shortly after. You will see this reflected in the article. You’re free to discuss whatever you’d like in the comments below.
History of Club Penguin
But before I jump into my thoughts on Lane leaving I’m going to give you a lot of information on how Club Penguin began. As you are probably aware, Club Penguin has several founders – Billybob, Screenhog, Rsnail, and yes, Happy77. Gizmo was a part of Club Penguin a bit later. Billybob’s name is Lane, Screenhog’s is Chris, Rsnail’s is Lance, and Happy77’s is, contrary to popular belief, Holly and not Rachael. (and Gizmo is not Dave)
We all know bits of the backstory to Club Penguin – they wanted to create a safe, fun, and interactive virtual world for kids. But what led to this? How was it accomplished? It starts with Lance Priebe, known as Rsnail on the Club Penguin world. He was interested in making Flash games for his rocketsnail.com website back in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. At the time chatting clients (instant messaging) were new to the world, and Lance wanted to make a dynamic chat world with penguins being your user. Thus, Experimental Penguins, which precedes Club Penguin, was born. It was a simple world you could move around in as a penguin and speak to others. The background was white, there were no fancy rooms like the Gift Shop, no mini games, stamps, no EPF, etc. It was as basic as possible, hence ‘Experimental’ in the title. Experimental Penguins got popular enough that Lance thought about what more he could do to improve the small virtual world. Believe it or not, at this point Lance wanted to make a massive multiplayer war game. (Maybe that’s part of his current inspiration behind his upcoming Mech Mice game?) It was going to be called Snow Blasters. In fact, going to snowblasters.com redirects you to Rocketsnail’s website. Snow Blasters was going to be a multiplayer game where you launch snowballs and upgrade your snowball launching weapons. As you might have guessed, Snow Blasters never saw the light of day for multiple reasons – server bandwidth at the time was expensive and the game would mostly attract boys only. Experimental Penguins led to Penguin Chat, which ultimately led to Club Penguin.
Now this is where Lane and the other founders of the game come in. Before Disney purchased Club Penguin in August 2007 operations for the game resided in Kelowna, Canada like they do now, however it was under a different company, one called New Horizon Interactive, or New Horizon Productions. Lance was hired at the company to be a Flash Illustrator. Flash is the platform many online games such as Club Penguin use. At New Horizon Lance met Dave Krysko, who as I stated above, many believe to be Gizmo, when in fact he isn’t. (Are you wondering where TAS 1000 came from? That was Dave Krysko’s son’s band)
Anyway, Dave was the head guy of New Horizon. While he was mainly experienced with video production, Dave wanted to expand it all to web development. Shortly after Lance Priebe was hired at New Horizon, Lane Merrifield, known as Billybob, became the CEO of New Horizon Productions. He took over some of the responsibilities Dave Krysko had at the company. While Lance was doing Flash work for New Horizon Productions, (NHP) his virtual world business as it’s been put was starting to pick up. Lance and Dave made an agreement that during the five day work week, he could do four days of NHP work and one day of work on his Penguin Stuff. (although his penguin work was not paid) Penguin Chat continued to grow, and so Lance did less and less work at NHP and more and more work on making a big penguin game. At this time Holly, known as Happy77, also worked at New Horizon.
In early 2005 Lane (Billybob) asked Lance (Rsnail): “If you had the resources of New Horizon behind you, what would you need to launch your virtual world within a year?” Lance responded that he would need a full-time artist, the ability to dedicate all of his time to the virtual world, and $100,000 in funding. That was what really got Club Penguin started.
Now what about Screenhog? At the beginning of this I mentioned he was one of the founders of Club Penguin, but up until now he hasn’t been mentioned. Screenhog was Club Penguin’s first artist, but him knowing Lance goes back even further. In the early 2000’s he noticed Rocketsnail.com did not have a logo, so he made a snail animation in Flash and sent it to him along with his resume. Lance was impressed with Chris’ work so the two met up and from time to time Chris would do some work for Lance. Eventually this led to Chris being Club Penguin’s first artist. He joined New Horizon in February 2005 when Lance asked Chris if he wanted to join his project. He started working on the penguin project itself in May 2005.
Back to the making of Club Penguin, however. I left off with Lance telling Lane what he needed to make his virtual world see the light of day and Screenhog joining in. The group around this time decided on the name Club Penguin after some brainstorming. At this point Penguin Chat 3 was still gaining popularity with 100 users online at once and 200,000 monthly visitors. It went from Penguin Chat to Penguin Chat 2, to Penguin Chat 2.1, then all the way to Penguin Chat 3 which had some rooms Club Penguin currently has such as the Town, Night Club, and Coffee Shop. Over the Spring and Summer of 2005 they worked on expanding Penguin Chat even more into the game we now know as Club Penguin. Lots had to be done by the group of people working on the project, which was then tested for bugs by employees of New Horizon Interactive. Some things that had to be done for Club Penguin included:
- Create a username and password authentication system
- Designing clothes for penguins
- Designing furniture items for penguins
- Creating a database to store what each penguin has item wise and whatnot
- Create catalogues
- Make more rooms
- Make a whole new website for Club Penguin
- Create mini games (such as Mancala)
- And more!
A lot of work done in a short amount of time, an amazing feat. In August 2005 they launched a beta version of Club Penguin. The project was nearly completed for version 1.0. While they worked to get ready to launch the beta, on the Penguin Chat 3 blog they teased a “big update” that was coming. When the beta of Club Penguin was launched you had to send an email to a certain email address and they emailed back the website link and a password you had to enter to access Club Penguin. Then from August 2005 to October 24th 2005 Club Penguin worked on finishing up the beta for Club Penguin, fixing bugs, improving and adding what needed to be done still, etc.
During the beta, on September 21 2005, Club Penguin held the Beta Test Party for a short while to test how much load the server could take. They managed to reach 160 users online at its peak, the most ever, all without crashing the server.
Then Club Penguin launched to be the game we know and love on October 24, 2005. The game under Lance’s original plan was to launch around 2009. The special date of October 24th is celebrated on Club Penguin each and every year as it is the game’s anniversary. On launch day a total of 27 Club Penguin memberships were sold. Over time Club Penguin continued to add new features, parties, update catalogues, and more each and every month. Disney then purchased the game for $350 million in August 2007 after some fallouts with other potential buyers such as Sony and Dreamworks.
My Personal Opinions of Lane Merrifield Leaving Club Penguin
Alas, all great things must come to an end. It was originally said that Lance could not leave Club Penguin until 2012, but for whatever reason both Lance (Rsnail) and Chris (Screenhog) left in October 2010. Unlike Lane leaving Club Penguin, Lance and Chris kept their leaving on the down low and did not publicly announce it at the time. (I don’t know about Lance, but I know Chris still did some musical work and blog posts for Club Penguin under contract after leaving Disney Online Studios Canada which is what the company behind Club Penguin was after Disney purchased it)
The original brains behind Club Penguin did an absolutely fantastic job at growing it to become the game millions of people enjoy. Everyone has their own purpose, ideas, and thoughts in life. With Lane leaving Club Penguin, just like with Chris and Lance his presence will be missed. I know none of these people on a personal level, but I’m sure they all loved doing the work they’ve done on Club Penguin – otherwise they would not have stayed as long as they did. Have you ever searched ‘Lane Merrifield’ on Google Images? He’s smiling in every single picture. We all know a smile is a positive thing – it goes to show that he loves what he’s been doing. Lane Merrifield wants to change the world and make it a better place – that’s what he strives to do. And as he said in his email to all the Disney Club Penguin employees:
Like many entrepreneurs though, there comes a time when the desire to create something new outweighs the comfort of what’s known and for me that time has come.
That’s true, he is one of many who work on something for a while, then move on. The easiest example would be Chris and Lance leaving Club Penguin to create their Mech Mice game. Both I and Tech163 from CheatsWhiz, while still involved on Club Penguin, are branching out to other non-Club Penguin things too. We have ideas, and in order to get to them and dedicate time to them so they can see the light of day for the world to enjoy, we have to make sacrifices. Some of those sacrifices have more pros than cons, but in the end, it all depends to what you want to do. With Lane Merrifield working on his FreshGrade project with the team there, he wants to be able to dedicate all his time to improve classrooms with the internet by providing mobile cloud-based assessment software for teachers and students. Club Penguin is in safe hands, believe me. If you feel that Club Penguin’s November 2012 Clothing Catalogue is lame, or dislike the upcoming new Gift Shop design, don’t blame it on Lane leaving. (Kind of like how people think Disney ruined Club Penguin – See this post from last year about that) Club Penguin plans months ahead, and Lane would definitely not just pass along his job to some randomer from the company who has no idea what to do with the game. Chris Heatherly will be taking over his position. From what I’ve heard Lane and Chris have been friends for a while, so I’m sure Lane felt good enough to give Chris his position.
While I’m not 100% sure of this, I doubt Lane makes all the decisions on what to put in Club Penguin from clothing items to igloo designs to party decorations. I’m sure he has a say in big things, corporate decisions, and whatnot, but a lot of it is down to the Club Penguin team making the content to collaborate with others and take in suggestions from fans/players of the game, too. They can’t take every suggestions and implement it, but Club Penguin does have meetings where they suggest suggestions given in by players.
So with that said, Lane has done a fantastic job with Club Penguin. I bet he had been planning his resignation for some time now, or maybe when he joined Disney in August 2007 his contract said he could work with the company until 2012 where he then could decide to continue working via renewing his contract or leave the company. Who knows? At the very least I doubt it was an overnight decision, huge things like this take plenty of time to think over. And besides, while his leave is immediate, he plans to be around some until February 2013. We’ll still get to hear from him on Twitter, he can still log on Club Penguin as he pleases, and Polo Field even said he is working on a documentary on this history of Club Penguin with the founders, Lane included.
So with all of that said, thank you very much to Lane and the rest of the Club Penguin team, past and present. You have done a terrific job at making the game what it is today that tons of people from around the world enjoy, and at the same time you have been able to change the world with Coins For Change and donating a percentage of membership profits. Back when I joined on August 4th, 2006, I didn’t expect my life to be how it is today, majorly focused on computers and blogging about Club Penguin and other topics. Back when I joined Club Penguin I was using an old clunky Windows 98 desktop computer with a dial up connection. (although a month and a half later my family upgraded to high speed internet and a Windows XP desktop computer)
Lane Merrifield announcing his departure definitely made me realise just how long I’ve been with Club Penguin, since I joined a year after the beta. In a year, I’ll have been with Club Penguin about as long as he has, minus the pre-beta work. I don’t plan to go anywhere yet, as I have no reason to. I enjoy writing, (hence the 2,500 word post) running Club Penguin Memories, helping others, and coding. Had I not joined Club Penguin, I doubt I’d be much of a writer/blogger, one to help people, and most of all I doubt I’d be as interested in computers. Club Penguin is a wonderful outlet for me, and I’m so glad it has let to more and more. I’ve met many, many people, learnt several coding languages, wrote millions of words, and who knows what the future holds for all of us? I personally hope to be a member of Club Penguin’s Support team at some point in the future. After all, I do meet the age criteria of 18 in June 2013!
I wish you the best of luck with your FreshGrade project, Lane. Once again, I thank you and the rest of Club Penguin for everything you have done for the world so far. Best of luck on your future endeavours, I know you and everybody else has the best of intentions on making the world a better place and we all know you’re going to succeed with that just like you succeeded with Club Penguin.
-Trainman1405 (and the rest of the Club Penguin Community)