Disney's Toontown Online is a massively
multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) created for kids of
all ages. Toontown is under siege from an evil band of business
robots called the Cogs. An unsuspecting Scrooge McDuck accidentally
unleashed the evil robots and they are attempting to turn the colorful
world of Toontown into a black and white metropolis of skyscrapers
and businesses. The player's job, as a Toon, is to join forces with
other Toons and use gags such as cream pies and squirting flowers
to defeat the Cogs and rescue Toontown.
Toontown is published by Disney Online
and was developed by the VR Studio, which is a group of animators,
modeler-painters, and programmers that were originally brought together
to develop virtual reality attractions for the Disney theme parks.
Our first project was Aladdin's Magic Carpet VR Adventure,
which was deployed at Epcot in 1994, and then two years later at
Disneyland. Between 1996 and 2001 the VR Studio developed three
attractions for DisneyQuest, which was a business created to build
themed arcades filled with virtual reality attractions and modified
While we were working on Pirates of the Caribbean:
Battle for Buccaneer Gold, our third attraction for DisneyQuest,
the first 3D massively multiplayer online games started to emerge,
and this really caught our attention. We realized that massively
multiplayer online games represented a tremendous opportunity for
a company like Disney, and believed that our experience in creating
interactive spaces for theme parks could be used to create compelling
entertainment for the home. We also believed that the tools and
techniques that we had created for developing theme park attractions
could also be used to build games for PCs.
Our objective was to create an MMORPG for the
Disney audience of kids and families. We decided to use our own
software engine and development environment, called Panda3D, and
began work designing a server infrastructure that could support
tens of thousands of simultaneous players.
What Went Right
1. We got kids, but we also picked up adults
along the way. We also hit both males and females. This is always
a goal when building theme park attractions, because usually you
end up with family groups riding together. We tried to take the
same approach when designing Toontown Online.
One way to appeal on multiple levels is to use
humor. Generally speaking, visual or slapstick comedy works well
with kids, while verbal humor and puns tend to appeal more to adults.
Toontown has plenty of each, because it features all the
classic cartoon gags such as hitting bad-guys in the face with pies,
but also includes references to office humor, such as the enemy
attack that literally wraps a Toon up in "red tape". Interestingly,
many adults report that they really enjoy the silliness of role-playing
as a Toon, and kids seem to appreciate being "in" on some
of the grown-up humor.
Another way to have broader appeal is to make
the game easy to learn but difficult to master. In order to achieve
this, we spent a great deal of time on the first 30 minutes of the
game experience and on refining the in-game tutorial. The ease of
the initial experience is critical for attracting and keeping both
younger children and non-gamer adults. The game must become challenging
relatively quickly in order to engage older children and adults
who are gamers, however.
Battling the Cogs, for example, is very easy
to learn but difficult to master. The combat system is turn-based,
and the player is initially presented with only two possible attacks:
throwing a cupcake at the enemy or spraying them with a squirting
flower, both of which are similar in terms of the strategy of their
use, accuracy, and resulting damage. Battles become much more complicated
as players advance in the game because they gain access to other
gags and learn that much of the strategy involves coordinating attacks
with other players. For example, damage bonuses are awarded when
multiple Toons hit the same Cog with pies in the same round. Another
example is that dropping an anvil on a Cog's head is more likely
to hit when the Cog is stunned from being hit by a pie in that same
round. To win some of the more challenging confrontations in the
game, a player will need to communicate with team-mates, know their
strengths and weaknesses, watch what they do, and make choices accordingly.
Another result worth mentioning is that not
only does the game appeal to kids and adults alike, but we also
ended up with an audience that is at least 50 percent female. We
believe this is fairly unique for an MMORPG. We think Toontown
appeals to females because of the cooperative nature of the game
play, the social interactions that come from being online, the turn-based
combat system, and the colorful palette and Toon themes of the game
2. The game is safe. A vexing problem
for us was how to build an MMORPG that was safe for children, without
giving up the essential communication features that are required
to support a community. We focused much of our energy on safe communication.
In Toontown, there are two ways to communicate
with other players. "Speedchat" is a hierarchical, menu-based
chat system that allows a player to say everything they need to
say to be able to play the game, but since there is a finite set
of possible sentences, it is impossible to communicate any personal
information. Alternately, the "Secret Friends" system
allows players to exchange a secret code outside of the game that
will allow two friends to chat with each other inside the game.
Another safety issue that we worked hard to
solve was making it difficult for one player to "grief",
or ruin, the experience for another player. The worst thing a Toon
can say to another Toon using Speedchat is "You stink!"
and because Toons can teleport freely between different "districts",
or copies of the world, it is easy to avoid another player who is
trying to bother you.
A common practice in other online games, often
referred to as "kill-stealing", is for a more powerful
player to be able to join a battle that is underway and finish off
the enemy, thereby earning experience and even treasure at the expense
of the players who started the battle. In Toontown, anyone
who participates in a battle that is still there when it concludes
is awarded experience and quest items independently, so weaker Toons
are usually happy to have a more powerful Toon join their battle
because everyone benefits.
3. Cooperation made easy. Cooperative
game play is essential to maintaining a thriving in-game community.
Toontown facilitates cooperation by making it very easy to
form groups. To join a battle on the street, simply walk up and
"bump" into it. To join a group playing mini-games, just
join them on the mini-game trolley. To take on a building, join
a group by walking into the elevator with them. In our recently
released Cog Headquarters building, up to eight Toons can join together
to take on one of the boss Cogs.
Additionally, a Toon may always teleport to
another Toon on his or her friends list. This creates a social space
that emphasizes friendship and teamwork rather than walking around
looking for other people. The ability to teleport to a friend extends
to all copies of the world, so there is no concept of being isolated
on a particular game server. In the cartoon world of Toontown,
it feels natural for a Toon to pull a portable hole out of its pocket,
toss it on the ground, and jump into it as a way of getting around
4. Online distribution. Toontown
is downloadable. The entire client is currently less than 30 MB
compressed, and uses a staged download so you can start playing
the game after the first couple of megabytes reach your PC. We originally
designed the download this way so that kids would not have to wait
long before they could start playing. It is possible to download
and play the game on a narrowband Internet connection as slow as
Making the game easy to download and install
also allowed us to pursue a viral marketing strategy. Even a skeptical
player can check out our game without making a major time or financial
commitment. This feature is particularly valuable to us because
Disney is new to the MMORPG genre and we would like as many people
as possible to be able to try the game easily
5. Inexpensive to operate. When we began
development, we were unsure how much a kid would be willing to pay
for an MMORPG, so we designed Toontown to be as low cost
to operate as possible. No in-game support is required, which eliminates
a significant component of traditional customer service costs for
this genre of game. In addition, we consume a fraction of the bandwidth
of other MMORPGs. Both of these costs scale with the number of players,
so they are important ones to minimize.
We also spent a considerable amount of effort
on the in-game tutorial system. Since many of our players are new
to the MMORPG genre, and possibly even new to 3D games, there is
a lot to learn just to get started. We have had people contact us
whose only other game experience was playing "Minesweeper".
A well-designed tutorial really helps our players begin enjoying
the game sooner, and results in fewer customer service calls about
how to play the game.
We discovered that another large expense for
us was customer service contacts related to graphics driver issues.
Many of our customers are unable to identify a driver problem and
simply assume that something is wrong with the game. This confusion
is magnified in the common case where someone has a brand new PC,
since consumer PCs often ship with beta drivers for the graphics
hardware that need to be updated by the time the PC is powered up
on someone's desktop. We eventually developed a comprehensive system
to proactively detect driver problems and to provide the latest
information and even actual links to the approved drivers. Providing
this service is logistically difficult because of the frequency
with which various manufacturers update their drivers, but to us
the effort has more than paid for itself.