Hey Poptropicans, let’s throw it back a bit…
In honor of Poptropica’s birthday month and the #ThanksKinney campaign going on, we thought we’d take a look back at past posts and interviews with some OG Poptropica Creators sharing about the process behind the making of Poptropica. In some ways, this is a bit of an open letter for Jeff Kinney and the Poptropica Creators past and present.
Turns out the words of some of these original Pop Creators reveal some interesting ideas worth comparing and contrasting with how the game has been going in the past few years. We’re going be taking a look at our beloved Poptropica from the eyes of earlier masterminds Jeff Kinney, Jess Brallier, James Lema, and Mitch Krpata.
Let’s see what they had to say about how they envisioned Poptropica while they were building it in its earlier years…
Jeff Kinney: no player homes; experiencing different things
In 2014, Poptropica founder Jeff Kinney did a 10-minute interview with the media company BellyFeel, where he discusses some of the thought processes behind Poptropica. Check out the interview below, or read the transcript from BellyFeel, and excerpts below the video.
My first idea for Poptropica was that you would be a person who would live in an apartment and that you could collect things and bring them back to your apartment, and we’ve seen that model in lots of games like Animal Crossing and there are many virtual worlds that follow that model but this was right around the time that kids started to carry around iPods and there was that feeling that a kid carries their content with them. So we took that central mechanic of the game, that your character doesn’t actually have a home. Your character travels and brings everything with them.
That’s very liberating because then you don’t have a geographic challenge. If you had to keep going back to your house or apartment, you would be limited in a way as far as how far you could go. The idea now is that the character just island hops…
I think that each island has its own, its own set of rules, its own universe and by not being overly thematic or by not creating one set of rules for the universe, I think it gives our kids a chance to experience all sorts of different things and that’s fun and freeing.
Some of the stories we’ve told, I can’t believe we’ve gotten away with, I think the most exotic story or esoteric story we’ve told is we have an island called Mystery Train where you’re travelling in the late 1800’s on a train from Washington DC to the Chicago Worlds Fair and you meet Nikola Tesla and Gustave Eiffel and all these luminaries from that time, and I kind of held my breath, I didn’t think kids would like it. But it’s one of our most popular islands because I think it’s authentic and rich.Jeff Kinney
Interestingly, Poptropica did end up making player homes a feature, which another Creator we’ll mention later in this post says was the most requested feature for the game. However, with the arrival of Paradise Island, Poptropica has recently been criticized by fans for trying to be too much like Animal Crossing. Can they go back to their roots?
Jess Brallier: staying around like Disney; not just another game
In 2013, the learning company Future Think filmed a video of then-president of Poptropica, Jess Brallier, talking about his vision for the game, which resurfaced in 2019 thanks to idk and Osmium. Check it out:
When we shared the video here on the PHB last year, we highlighted the following quote right from this publisher’s mouth that still resonates today with players hoping for new islands more than anything else:
“We’re not doing a virtual world to create a social networking opportunity, not to house games, not to host a virtual economy, but to tell stories… the point of Poptropica is to tell kids stories in the literacy of their choosing.“Jess Brallier
This sentiment also echoes an interview the PHB hosted in 2015 with Mr. Brallier with questions asked by our readers. Here are a couple highlights about his dreams for Poptropica:
When asked, “Are there certain things that you think that Poptropica should achieve? What are they?” Mr. Brallier talked about expanding the franchise to different media, comparing it to the Disney empire.
Like Disney, we want to stay around for generations. We like to imagine our grandchildren smiling because of something Poptropica. We’d like to have a best-selling book series, a top ten iOS app, a record-breaking film, a wildly popular TV series, and a much-loved YouTube channel… But most of all, we hope that through our storytelling, art, animation, and programming to inspire a next generation of creators.Jess Brallier
Since then, Poptropica has achieved that best-selling book series with the four graphic novels and briefly made it to #1 on the iOS App Store in August 2020 (while disparaging competitor Animal Jam in a victory post). Maybe more will lie ahead?
To another question, “What kind of skills do you look for when hiring Poptropica Creators?”, Mr. Brallier answered:
A love for storytelling and a desire to do what nobody else is doing. Many can illustrate or program, but do they do what they do because of a love and appreciation for storytelling. And our success is about doing what others don’t do. We’re not a book publisher, we’re not just another game, we’re not just another world with weird penguins or monsters or dolls running around in it. We seek not to copy, but to be the first to show up with something unexpected.Jess Brallier
That sounds about right. 🙂
James Lema: we are not Facebook for kids
In 2013, Poptropica’s director of product development, James Lema (aka Director D), wrote on the blog of a kids brand agency called Dubit titled “Five things learned from five years of Poptropica,” which the PHB covered soon after. Another 5+ years later, let’s see how it stacks up…
The five points he gives focus on being different in the following ways: 1) focusing on narrative quests; 2) simplifying the start process; 3) using 2D art; 4) pre-scripted chat; and 5) not trying to be “Facebook for kids.” You can read more in the blog post he wrote here.
Here’s a closer look at point #5, last but certainly not least:
Since the magnificent rise of Facebook, there have been numerous companies that have tried to create a social offering for kids that follows the Facebook model. Poptropica actively decided to not go down that path.
As Poptropica grows, we want to engage kids in ways they have never experienced. From that, we created Poptropica Friends – a 100 percent safe, social experience that allows the user to tell the story about themselves.
Everyday, we ask the user a question (ex. What’s your favourite sport? Have you ever tried sushi? Do you like dogs or cats?). The answer is a visual tile that becomes part of their profile. The more questions the user answers, the more visual their personality becomes. It’s a rich tapestry that tells the personality of the user in a way that has never been done.James Lema
Players certainly appreciate Poptropica’s intentionally different approach to the social experience, with many reports of features to love about the original Friends profiles (the 2019 reboot left some things to be desired). Let’s bring back pop quizzes (the question tiles mentioned earlier), adding friends by username, Multiverse, and more!
Mitch Krpata: world-building; not a superficial experience
Okay, last one! It’s been a long post, but thanks for sticking with it this far. This last one is plentiful, but offers a lot of insight into the inner workings of Poptropica. Here’s Mitch Krpata (aka Captain Crawfish)!
In 2017, this Poptropica senior story developer did two significant interviews about his work: one directly with the PHB about his job and more, and another with a podcast called The Oddball Show. Among the many insights from the latter, here are a few excerpts worth highlighting about the design of the game experience:
Poptropica is quite inspired by Monkey Island, [with Mitch] 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…
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…
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.From the PHB’s summary of Mitch Krpata’s appearance on The Oddball Show podcast
You can also hear the podcast interview in the video below, or read our summary in this PHB post. It’s lengthy, but quite insightful!
It’s interesting to see how Poptropica has evolved in some ways from some of these original Creators’ imaginations, yet has stayed the same in other ways. What resonated with you? What features do you think Poptropica should keep, bring back, or do away with? Share your thoughts in the comments and on our PHC Discord server!
And #ThanksKinney for making this strange yet wonderful adventure for us all. Happy 13th birthday, Poptropica! 🎈🎉
~Slanted Fish 🐠