Hey Poptropicans! It’s… Captain Crawfish?? Or, as he’s known in the real world: the one and only Mitch Krpata, Poptropica Creator extraordinaire!
You may have heard of him: Poptropica writer of island scripts, dialogue, graphic novels, and more. The PHB even had an interview with him a while back where he shared with us about working for Poptropica. You’ve probably heard his voice if you’ve watched any of the Poptropica video walkthroughs, which he voices as Captain Crawfish.
And now, you can hear his familiar voice in a new video! As a recent special guest in a podcast called The Oddball Show, here Mitch talks at length about writing for Poptropica, including, among other things, the story of how a fear of Nickelodeon informed Poptropica’s core identity as we know it.
This episode is almost an hour and a half long, and worth a listen if you want to hear a Creator talk about Poptropica. However, below the video on this post, I’ve also summarized the flow of conversation – so you could listen, read, or do both! It’ll be long but insightful, so enjoy the ride!
On this edition of the podcast, the Oddballs welcome Mitch Krpata, Senior Story Developer and Narrative Designer for StoryArc Media, the company behind the popular kids’ game series, ‘Poptropica’. He is also the author of the ‘Poptropica’ graphic novel series, the third installment of which is due this September. We are excited to discuss the unique joys and challenges of writing for children’s media, what’s next for the worldwide ‘Poptropica Worlds’ game series, and his beginnings as a video game reviewer for the Boston Phoenix.
The Oddball Show, co-hosted by Prof of JP Lime Productions and Oddball Magazine editor Jason Wright, welcome in the guest of honor who’s “one part Oliver, one part Octavian”: Mitch Krpata. (Great intro, guys.) And so the show begins!
An intro to Poptropica: inspired by Monkey Island, best for pre-teens, made of world-building elements and more
The hosts jumpstart the conversation with some reminiscing of an old-school video game series: Monkey Island, by LucasArts. Mitch agrees that Poptropica is quite inspired by Monkey Island, considering it a children’s version of the older game. He goes on to describe Poptropica as a game with unique stories and puzzles, making up long-form experiences that require time and effort to experience, which players are willing to put in.
When asked about the age range of Poptropica players, Mitch remarks that a kindergartener could probably play the game but might not get much out of it. The sweet spot, he says, is around ages 8–12, when kids can both read the dialogue and understand the larger story. After that, you may still enjoy it, but – he laughs – you may want to “move on to your PlayStation 4.” (That may be true for some kids, but a large amount of the Poptropica community are also teenagers – and not all of us have PlayStations!)
Next, the guys compare Poptropica to The Sims games by Electronic Arts, commenting on the world-building aspect of games and how there’s no age limit for wanting some of that. Mitch notes that Poptropica Worlds is a little like that, where you get to build your own house and avatar. For almost ten years, this was the most requested feature for Poptropica: a way to build their own space, which finally came as houses on Worlds. Such a feature, of having a thing that is one’s own, transcends age and gender.
Then Mitch brings up the seamless gameplay that Worlds offers – as in, the ability to pick up where you left off from one device to another. He comments on how this kind of thing has been available for things like movies (Netflix) but not so much for games, so it’s pretty neat that Poptropica has finally done it. He gives shout-outs to Poptropica’s in-house developers, as well as the outsourced devs from Tricky Fast Studios.
Development of Worlds would start and stop quite a bit, and Mitch estimates that it took about a year and a half (18 months) to finish the project. At first, the conversation makes it sound as though there are 50 islands in Worlds (which would make the timeframe more impressive if that were the case) – but the 50 islands are actually on Poptropica Original.
Mitch Krpata: script shifter, sarcastic shadower
Mitch’s main responsibility within Poptropica is writing the original scripts for islands. It’s mostly him, although he sometimes also works with freelance writers, and works a lot with Jeff Kinney (Poptropica’s founder) for ideas as well, trying to figure out the answer to “What story do we want to tell?” The script changes a lot during development for various reasons: sometimes it’s too difficult from a programming perspective, or things that seem funny on the page don’t work well in the game.
There’s a lot of diplomatic, back-and-forth collaboration when the Poptropica team works together. Everyone speaks different “languages,” says Mitch – he himself doesn’t understand code, whereas programmers didn’t study English like he did, and then there are the artists (whose skill is amazing) who need to work towards a shared vision.
When asked if his personality comes through in the characters of Poptropica, Mitch laughs that it does. He recalls a tweet he saw of a screenshot from Poptropica, of dumpster boxes labeled “hopes and dreams,” captioned “same old Poptropica.” Mitch says he sees the Poptropica community/fandom as somewhat sarcastic, but not exactly negative – he considers Poptropica a positive place, but at the same time, it’s not like other kids’ media he sees where it’s cheerful all the time.
Mitch talks about how his favorite books and movies as a kid all had an edge of darkness in them, recalling the classic storybook Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. This feels true of Poptropica as well, he says: it looks cartoonish, but it’s not a superficial experience – there is depth there for the kids who are paying attention to it.
The part about how Nickelodeon second-handedly changed the course of Poptropica’s identity
The Oddball hosts then speculate how the name “Poptropica” came to be: is it about pop culture and a tropical setting? Mitch says “kind of” – actually, they were originally going to call it Poptropolis, with pop being just a fun-sounding word and, although not mentioned, the –tropolis ending is probably city-inspired, as in the word metropolis.
Anyway, just as they were on the verge of releasing Poptropica, Nickelodeon came out with their virtual world… Nicktropolis. (The Creators talked a bit about this before, but didn’t mention their competitor’s name, although we did! And as you may know, Poptropica did release a Poptropolis Games Island back in 2012.)
Well, with Poptropica worrying that Nickelodeon might come after them if they tried to release their own virtual world with a similar-sounding name, they decided their project needed a new name. Mitch and the other Creators who were brainstorming from the beginning threw out other ideas, and eventually “Poptropica” came out.
And that was how a fear of Nickelodeon ended up informing Poptropica’s core identity as we know it today: it was because of the “tropic” part of the name that they came up with the idea of separate island adventures. If it hadn’t been for that, Poptropica would probably have been one continuous adventure, as they would’ve been if they had been Poptropolis. It just goes to show, Mitch says, how much this kind of a project is not a master plan – it’s more like spinning plates to get to the next thing.
Jeff Kinney: bestselling author, lesser-known programmer
We know Jeff Kinney created Poptropica, but more know him as the author behind the wildly successful Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and movie series. So, how did he end up doing both a big gig and a smaller one?
Well, Mitch explains, before Jeff had published any books, he was an employee of the company along with Mitch, then called Family Education Network. Jeff was a Shockwave programmer (this was pre-Flash, in the early 2000s). (Flash is considered outdated now, which is why Worlds was developed!) Anyway, Jeff made educational games for Funbrain.com, some of which are still there, like Penguin Drop, even though they’ve been re-developed in HTML5.
One day, Jeff went to the editor of the company and brought up a project he’d been working on: a cartoon-novel hybrid, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which he suggested would be good for Funbrain. The editor liked it, so they published the series daily in 2004-2005. Jeff didn’t get extra money for this.
It was decided at some point that Funbrain – the educational games – was getting a bit “long in its tooth,” and so the company started thinking of doing a Funbrain 2: something that would be educational but also fun, maybe with your own avatar. As this happened, Jeff got a publishing deal for Wimpy Kid, and in fact, the first Wimpy Kid book came out the same year Poptropica did.
Jeff retained the rights to Wimpy Kid and became wealthy overnight, but continued his day job on Poptropica, which Mitch says is more than you’d expect for someone who’d built this empire. Poptropica and Wimpy Kid are both very important to him, but at this point, he’s finally much more focused on Wimpy Kid than Poptropica.
Planting Poptropica seeds: the game, the books, and pop culture
As far as numbers go, Mitch reports that there are well over 500 million avatars created, and over 100 million players. However, he also says the game is “definitely not as cool now as it was before.” If you go to a school now and ask, “who knows Poptropica?” you might get about a dozen or so hands raised. But at the peak of Poptropica’s popularity, in 2010, every kid would be raising their hand – it was, for that while, the biggest site in the world for kids.
Then Mitch discusses the Poptropica graphic novels, which are related but separate. They share the same basic idea for what Poptropica is: an area of the ocean where these different islands are. But, he says, the difference is like planting two seeds: one is Poptropica the game, one is Poptropica the graphic novels. While the first book, Mystery of the Map (which he did not write), is also an island, there’s nothing in the game for what’s in the other books.
The books have also been published in other languages, like Spanish – but he remarks that it’s “funny how they don’t tell me any of that.” He doesn’t know how many languages they’ve made it in, but has observed that it’s in most European countries and some Asian countries – “way more than I thought.” Mitch had the opportunity to pick up the book series when the person who wrote the first one (Jack Chabert, aka Max Brallier) wasn’t available, but he says he “did not foresee seeing a Greek version of the book!”
Mitch admits there may be some humorous elements in the books that kids read and would not necessarily get. The Oddball hosts bring up a few they really like: in The Lost Expedition, there’s a reference to the R. Kelly song “I Believe I Can Fly,” as well as Rodney King’s “Can’t We All Just Get Along?”, and on the ship, Mya imagines singing the sea shanty “Barrett’s Privateers.”
This all lends to the style being crafted – it’s more than just the story at face value, but there’s more with the connections to pop culture. Part of the reason he does this, Mitch says, is that if he pretended to know what kids were into today, “they’d see right through me.” He’s also hoping to broaden his audience, as maybe parents will get something out of it.
Mitch likens it to his own “Simpsons moments,” which is when he sees something later on in life that he had seen as a kid watching The Simpsons, and realizes, “that’s what it was!” He wants kids to have these moments with Poptropica – maybe later in life you’ll hear that song that Mya is wanting to sing on that ship. He describes it as “cross-disciplinary thinking that is not really in vogue these days.”
The hosts ask if there are any Star Wars references in the Poptropica books, to which Mitch points to Galactic Hot Dogs, where Max Brallier “tries to write Star Wars for kids.” GHD is also owned by StoryArc Media, whose biggest mistake, he says, is probably letting Jeff Kinney keep the rights to Wimpy Kid, which is worth far more than the entire company now.
Then the conversation shifts to discuss Kory Merritt, the sole illustrator of the Poptropica graphic novels, although he has worked on other stuff too. Kory has his own drawing style which differs from the game. Mitch says that Kory has bailed him out many times in the creative process: if he didn’t know whether something he wrote would work, Mitch would write “need space!”, send it off, and get it back – and Kory would somehow make the joke work on the page. Although making the books is a collaborative effort, Kory decides how to do the illustrations, and it’s always better than he imagined.
Next Mitch is asked if he gets a lot of crossover with fans and the target audience who are interested in other quirky concepts, like those of Harry Potter. Mitch says he hopes so, and talks about having the chance to meet many kids at school visits who liked the Poptropica books, and how it’s weird that they look at him as a star. He also hopes they are kids interested in big ideas: the nature of existence, why we read and write books, and so on – he says we’re never too young for that.
Writing for Poptropica: big growth, big ideas
Mitch is then asked how he got into writing for Poptropica. He answers that he’s always been interested in writing; in fact, his college degree is in writing. His career path led him to writing for the company that included Family Education Network and TeacherVision, which he says was not too exciting, but they also owned Funbrain.
As he got to know people in the company, and because at the time he also reviewed video games, the company needed someone who could write about video games and he was asked since they didn’t have the budget to hire someone new. Mitch was in the windowless conference room where they first discussed what Poptropica would be. The game took off immediately, so they did have to hire more people, and he went back to his regular job. However, they later needed more people again, and he found himself back on the project by 2010.
Then he’s asked what it’s like to watch something like that grow. And he answers, “When you don’t have a frame of reference, it just seems normal – it was so popular so fast. Not that we weren’t amazed.” Mitch says their best day was when there were 1.5 million unique kids on the site in one day.
However, he says, kids are fickle, and they will move on to the next thing. There have been so many competing games in the past ten years, so the Poptropica team used to worry about competing with Neopets, then Club Penguin, and now Animal Jam. Still, if you keep giving them something to come back to, they might stick around.
He’s also asked if he ever beat the game, but to that he replies, “There’s no point where it ends and the credits roll.” He does confirm that “I have played every island to completion.”
Mitch contends that there are many challenges to writing children’s media, as well as joys that make it easier. Although he’s writing for a child audience, he doesn’t feel like he’s “writing down” to them, affirming that kids are earnest and open to big ideas. Teens, meanwhile, would be suspicious if you try to communicate something big. Kids are still critical, though – “they’ll let you know if you didn’t do a good job.”
Mitch says it’d be fun to be a player, and fun if the audience buys into the story. He also says there’s adult-style stuff in the game that “I’m trusting on the kids to get.” (Perhaps he’s referring to “big ideas” like life, death, love, crime, etc. – he doesn’t explicitly say.)
Mitch’s background as a writer: video games and The Phoenix
Then there’s a break in the conversation as the Oddball hosts promote their own work, and the show resumes around the 58:45 mark.
The discussion next moves to Mitch’s background as a writer and his first writing job at a paper called The Boston Phoenix. Mitch says he’s always loved video games, but he also needed to find a job. Despite his expensive private education, the only job he could find after graduation was through a friend doing customer service at a personalized company – “a terrible job.” Somewhere down this frustrating road, he checked for job postings and found The Boston Phoenix desperate to fill a position, so he applied, interviewed, and got the job. The job was to take the content from the newspaper and put it on their website, which in 2003 was quite the cumbersome process.
One day, Mitch’s boss asked him if he knew anything about video games, to which, of course, he said yes. His boss figured they could start doing video game reviews on the website, and before Mitch knew it, it became his responsibility. A year or so later, the reviews went on the print version of the paper, which gave more exposure and Mitch started getting paid standard rates for his reviews.
He left The Phoenix in 2005 but kept writing video game reviews for them as a freelancer for the next 8 years until they closed, while simultaneously being employed at Family Education Network. His dream job at the time was writing game reviews on IGN, but this gradually faded.
Mitch raises an important question to consider about writing: Why write about something if you’re just going to say what everybody else is saying? So, he says, “for a 600-word review in the paper, I’d rather dig into one element of a game and really explore it.”
What’s next for Poptropica Worlds?
When it comes to Poptropica Worlds, the goal is absolutely working on more content, says Mitch – more new islands, remastered versions of classic Poptropica islands, more customization and costumes, and more decorations for your home.
He’s asked if there is a movie on the way, and replies with, “I hope so! We still have a dream to get an animated series on the way, so we’ll see what happens.”
This episode of the Oddball Show is finally brought to a close with links given to read more about Poptropica and Mitch. You can read more about Pop at Poptropica.com (of course), with Mitch joking that their biggest mistake was in making a name that’s hard to spell. Mitch says he’s not terribly active online, but you can follow him on Twitter @mkrpata, and his personal website is WriteMitchWrite.com.
Well, that concludes this super long post of over 3200 words (or about 83 minutes’ worth of audio for those who listened to the podcast)! You made it through, and hopefully you learned some interesting things about Poptropica from a Creator’s perspective.
What did you think about Mitch Krpata’s commentary on The Oddball Show? Share your thoughts in the comments below – he may even read them!
Keep on popping on, Poptropicans!