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Postmortem: Disney Online's Toontown
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Postmortem: Disney Online's Toontown

January 28, 2004 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

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 arcade games.

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.


Although the term "fight" is used to describe the meetings of the Toons and Cogs, the violence is quite tame--this pie-throwing mob is about as rough as it gets.

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.


In Toontown, the fight rules are a bit different than in other games. In this universe, any player that sees a battle through to the end gets credit for it--no "kill stealing" here.

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 setting.

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.

Speedchat provides a quick way for Toons to talk to each other--and one that prevents kids from sharing personal information of any kind.

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 quickly.

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 28Kb/s.

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.

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