Creators, Mocktropica Island, Social Media

Poptropica’s Mocktropica story: how new management undercut its own game

Poptropica released a brilliant, clever parody of itself and larger forces in game design and management with Mocktropica Island in 2013.

Idea Generator: Spin to win. Try your luck.

But then, as players have witnessed, it became Mocktropica in many ways. This week, former Poptropica publisher Jess Brallier revealed some of the details surrounding the game’s paradigm shifts in a blog post titled “The end of the Poptropica I knew.”

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been following along as Jess shared his perspectives on building Poptropica on the premise of storytelling with gaming, making it the biggest kids’ website, until challenges cropped up in later years that his team was not given the opportunity to face (but they did get close to airing an animated series!).

Operating System: When technology meets talent, anything is possible.

The saga picks up with the Pearson CEO’s sale of Poptropica. Specifics aren’t mentioned, but we know that Poptropica was sold to Sandbox, a London-based “edutainment” company, in 2015. (Sandbox still owns Poptropica, along with other brands like Coolmath Games.) But it was more than the sale itself that changed things for Jess.

With Poptropica, sure, I was not always going to see eye-to-eye with the new owner regarding priorities, investments, staffing, technology, growth strategy, and so on and so on.  Yet decisions had to be made and they were no longer mine to make. Those were up to the new owner.  I got that.  Such is life.

But what I could not stand, and what I refused to further witness, was the dismissal of the team who smartly and lovingly built Poptropica.

Jess Brallier
Usual Suspects: This is where you line up for your turn.

Now, who was this new management who undermined the very people who had created so many Poptropica masterpieces? We’re not entirely sure, but we can piece together some details…

We know it was the then-new Pearson CEO, John Fallon, who didn’t see value in Poptropica and decided to sell it. He retired from Pearson in 2020. But Jess previously wrote that they only ever had one meeting about Pop, so it seems unlikely that Fallon would have been managing it.

New management invades Mocktropica. And Poptropica.

And Poptropica was sold in 2015, so current Pop CEO Abhi Arya would not have been involved, as he only began heading up Poptropica in 2016, according to his LinkedIn profile. Perhaps in between Fallon’s arrival as Pearson CEO and the sale, new management was assigned to Poptropica whom we don’t know about.

Whoever they were (or are?), they were allegedly undervaluing the rest of the Poptropica team as early as 2013, the year Fallon became CEO of Pearson, and the same year Mocktropica was created and released. This revelation sure brings a new light to this classic island — it wasn’t just a mockery or a prediction, it was already unfolding.

From the team pic (left), we recognize Jeff Kinney (top center) and artist Abe Tena (bottom center).

They developed content and an experience that kids actually loved. For the user/reader/viewer it was an emotional connection unlike I had ever, or since, witnessed. Yet I wasn’t surprised, because the team’s hearts were deep into the work.

They were ready to address the challenges and make Poptropica bigger and better than ever. If only they had been allowed to.

It was an ugly thing to watch.

Jess Brallier

Again, specifics aren’t given here, but we can gather that Jess had a lot of respect for his team that the new management didn’t. So he made the difficult decision to resign on July 14, 2015, right around when Timmy Failure Island was in the works. And he never looked back — literally, he never clicked on Poptropica.com or its apps ever again.

For me, personally, it was over when its remarkable team was torn apart. They built Poptropica out of heart and smarts. They resolved every business challenge. When they were gone, Poptropica was like a treasured childhood house with a loving family no longer in it.

Jess Brallier
In Pop We Trust: The genuine article. Accept no substitutions.

Jess concludes the saga with a final hope that all the pain and pleasure of creating Poptropica was worth it:

I just hope, as we imagined from the beginning, that we inspired kids to care deeply about art and design, and storytelling. 

And that as they grow older, they’ll play it forward, making a difference in the lives of a next generation of good and curious kids. That would somehow make it all worthwhile.

Fingers crossed.

Jess Brallier

On that front, all of us at the PHB can affirm that Poptropica did inspire us, and likely all of you Poptropicans reading this too. We see it all the time in this community! And as we grow older, we definitely hope to keep building that blessing, whether here on the PHB or onwards.

Captains Courageous: Learning to appreciate poetry, one explication at a time.

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won…

Poem by Walt Whitman (as featured in Mocktropica Island)

Jess’s blog post has attracted a few comments, including one from PHB guest writer Dangerous Dragon, who wrote that “Poptropica isn’t fun anymore.” Another comment from Kory (probably Kory Merritt, illustrator of the Poptropica comics and graphic novels) brought up how #Poptropica was trending on Twitter earlier.

“Poptropica” was trending a few weeks ago on Twitter. It was a bunch of twenty-somethings reminiscing about how much they loved Poptropica when they were in elementary school. I remember it being very popular with 4-6th graders when I first started teaching (2008-09). It was especially cool to see one amazing artist who posted art of a character she’d created, and then Tweet about how the character actually started as her Poptropica alter-ego.

It definitely made an impact.

Kory (probably Kory Merritt)
Scene from Poptropica comic illustrated by Kory Merritt

The PHB also sent a couple of tweets to Jess in response to his post, firstly to thank him for sharing and to let him know that all the heart that went into making Poptropica did in fact have the impact he’d hoped for. He responded: “WONDERFUL!”

We also asked if he’d be interested in doing another interview with the PHB, to which he declined, saying he was done with Poptropica. But he did appreciate our Poptropica Yearbook!


That wraps up this post, and perhaps all of what Jess Brallier will be saying on record about the universe of Poptropica that he and his team lovingly built for over a decade. It’s been good to hear from him. Catch up on the saga here, here, here, and of course, here in this post.

Jess Brallier was first a publisher (book and online), a role he held at Funbrain, Poptropica, Planet Dexter, and Family Education Network. He has also served on the executive team at Harcourt, Little Brown, and Abrams, and has written 40 books for kids and adults. You can read more about Jess on his website and his insights on his personal blog.

Fun fact: In Shrink Ray Island, the book in CJ’s bedroom which you push down to create a ramp for the toy car is Tess’s Tree, an actual book by Jess M. Brallier.

Let’s play it forward. 💙

Creators

Poptropica’s production problems and almost an animated series

Hey Poptropicans, we’ve got more insights on our favorite game from former Poptropica head Jess Brallier! Previously, we shared the publisher’s reflections on Poptropica as the biggest kids’ site and how storytelling with games made it so.

Last Friday, Jess Brallier released another blog post, asking a big question: “What about today’s Poptropica?

I’ve been asked that many times.  But I truly don’t know today’s product. I don’t look at it.  It’s history to me.

Yet there was a time when I cared about Poptropica with nearly all (I do have a family) my heart.  It was my life.

Jess Brallier

The post goes on to share more about what changed within and outside of Poptropica: all the challenges it faced in its later years, which Jess himself did not have the opportunity to face.

Poptropica was owned by Pearson, and in 2012, their CEO Marjorie Scardino stepped down and the education company was taken over by John Fallon. Jess does not name the new guy in his blog, but he quotes the new Pearson head as having told him in their only meeting:

Children do not like animation, the learning that happens on Poptropica is not worthy, and I’m going to sell it.

Pearson CEO (possibly John Fallon)

Oof.

To add to the troubles, Poptropica was built on Adobe Flash, a dying technology, and needed a million-dollar investment to rebuild the game. According to Jess, “that meant pausing Poptropica’s generous P&L (profit & loss) for 18 to 24 months.” He laments that of all the millions that are thrown around, none of it landed on Poptropica.

And there was another issue: “Poptropica’s audience was rapidly moving over to mobile apps.” So make it an app, right? Poptropica did eventually do that, but Jess wasn’t a fan. Turns out, it’s expensive: you make it per Apple’s or Google’s requirements, then pretty soon the requirements change, and you have to hire more hands to re-build your app. On and on it goes, draining your resources — to say nothing of the issues of discoverability in the app stores.

Next he pivots to Funbrain, “a vital traffic feeder to Poptropica.” Funbrain was aging like Poptropica and needed re-building too. But while Funbrain successfully got its upgrades, Poptropica didn’t quite get all the resources it needed to keep flourishing (as we can see from the trajectory of the game then and now).

With Poptropica’s global audience being much larger than Funbrain’s and bringing in more money, Jess writes that the investments should have gone more to the “fresh” Poptropica, “not its older and not so cool sister.” Alas.

The post wraps up with a quick summary of how the biggest kids’ site fell from its peak:

We had a product built upon Flash, a dying technology. 

An ownership that thought ten million kids from around the world were idiots. 

No viable mobile model to move to.

And a diminishing feeder.

Great.

Jess Brallier

In another post titled “Sales!,” Jess writes about his experiences in commercial publishing. Poptropica gets a small mention when he talks about the benefits of having non-sales staff collaborate together with sales staff:

I encouraged the same at Family Education Network (Funbrain and Poptropica), sending designers and editors out with the advertising sales staff.  That made for a team of good people intent on publishing great stories AND figuring out how to pay for it (including that team’s own salaries and any additional staff they may hope to hire).

Jess Brallier
Office Space: Another day, another dollar.

There’s more! Jess continues the Poptropica saga in yet another post on “Poptropica comics, books, and an animated series.”

Picking up from the dismal summary of Poptropica’s woes, Jess moves on with an upbeat note about the fun of Poptropica comics and the success of the subsequent graphic novel series.

The comics caused us, for the first time, to create real characters (beyond the millions of random avatars created for our stories and by our users).  Which was essential because brand extensions, including merchandise and other media, ride on the back of characters.  Our two protagonists, Jorge and Oliver, were a classic and funny duo. And it was such a delight to see them hilariously hopping around the Poptropica Islands.

Jess Brallier

But that didn’t erase their other troubles. So Jeff Kinney, Mitch Krpata (Poptropica’s lead writer, whom we’ve interviewed on the PHB), and Jess spent two days in a conference room to hash out Poptropica’s mythology… and out of that came their pitch for an animated TV series.

In other words, just what is Poptropica?  Why does it exist?  What’s the REAL story behind all these islands?  Where is Poptropica?  How do you get there?  How do you get away from it?  Is there an evil genius behind all of it?  Good grief, are we talking time travel and wormholes? 

Jess Brallier

We’ve seen hints of these plans before. Back in 2015, Poptropica tweeted a pic from a script read session with the graphic novel characters (Jorge had orange hair here, too). But the cartoon never materialized, and we never found out much about it (though Jess did share the secret screenplay with Thinknoodles when they met in New York City).

Anyway, Jess shares that he, Jeff Kinney, and a film/TV agent spent a week pitching Poptropica: The Animated Series in Hollywood. They got good responses, but didn’t land a broadcast deal. Jess writes that if it had been today, they definitely could have gotten one, considering all the demand in streaming. So… maybe the current creators could follow up on that? 👉 👈 In our 2020 interview with the current CEO of Poptropica, they did say it was something they’re “always considering”!

So we now had a Poptropica mythology and cast of characters.

With Poptropica comics we had a proven and simple form of storytelling that could fly around social media without reliance on our own app. And we could do the same with short form animation.

We had a bestselling book series.

And we had a passionate global audience ready to welcome an animated TV series.

Ironically, at that moment, Poptropica was in its most perfect position ever.

Jess Brallier

From here, things seem to be looking up from where that other post ended! But Jess ends his post with an ominous hint for the next one: “Tomorrow: The end of the Poptropica I knew.” Stay tuned with us!

~🐠

Big Nate Island, Creators, Fan Art Features, Social Media

Coming out with fan art and Fiona’s song 🎻

Hey Poptropicans! In this post: a TikTok video and fan art features with sweet jams. Plus, a hint at something big to come. Let’s pop right to it!

The Pop Creators finally made their second TikTok video after opening their account back in April. The new clip showcases the Pride costumes released this week in the store, with Diana Ross’s ’80s banger “I’m Coming Out” playing in the background. 🏳️‍🌈✨

Also on their Instagram story, Poptropica shared tons of fan art! One particularly noteworthy post is happyclonetrooper’s sheet music for Fiona’s violin song from Ghost Story Island. Although she acknowledges it’s been done before, this is one melodious masterpiece that’ll never get old! 🎻 (Click to enlarge the pics below.)


In other news, Jess Brallier’s blog isn’t done with Poptropica just yet! His most recent post shares the story of selling the Big Nate series to book publishers, citing the success of Poptropica’s Big Nate Island.

Opening Nate’s locker on Big Nate Island.

At one point, Big Nate, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Poptropica’s Mystery of the Map held down three of the top five slots on the New York Times bestseller list.  I was the happiest publisher in the world.

Jess Brallier

Hold on for tomorrow’s post from the former Poptropica CEO, which will tackle the big topic on our minds: “What about today’s Poptropica?”


Tomorrow brings one more big event we have to mention before we wrap up: the PHB’s Pride Palooza! Join us Friday, June 18 at 8 pm Eastern in Poptropica’s Arcade and wear the colors of the rainbow. 🌈

We’ll also hang out on the PHC and in the PHB comments. See you there, loud and proud Poptropicans! 💖

~🐠

Advertisements, Big Nate Island, Creators

The biggest kids’ site hosts Big Nate and more greats, as told by Jess Brallier

Hey Poptropicans, we’re back with more reflections on what made Poptropica successful from longtime publisher Jess Brallier.

Previously, we shared the former Pop CEO’s insights on “storytelling, games, and Poptropica.” This week he released two more blog posts about the subject: “The Internet’s largest kids site!” and “Big Nate!

So we’re having a blast with Poptropica.  Telling unexpected stories via a gaming literacy, exceeding budget targets, employing good people, having fun. We started our storytelling with Early Poptropica and Shark Tooth Island in 2007.

Jess Brallier

In that first post, Jess recounts how Time magazine listed Poptropica as one of the “50 Websites that Make the Web Great” (this was in 2011).

Jess goes on to share about Poptropica’s carefully planned and well executed business strategy, “conceived to serve both kids and advertisers” before a line of code was ever written for the game.

As I’ve said before—and I’m often the lone voice on this—having the right advertisers fund the delivery of great content to kids is a good thing.  I had zilch interest in a publishing strategy that was purposely confined to kids with parents wealthy enough to afford a subscription.

Jess Brallier

Next, Jess quotes generously from a 2020 article written by Arian Tomar titled “Why Poptropica Mattered,” posted on a site called Voices of Gen-Z. Here’s a snippet from that reflective piece:

Poptropica changed my life. If I’m being honest, I think it influenced many young people more than we acknowledge… To me, Poptropica represents an internet full of stories, exploration, connection, and advertising, a microcosm of the essential parts of the internet.

Arian Tomar

Anyway, on with the main point of Jess’s post: for a time, Poptropica was the largest kids’ site on the internet!

The news was nervously given to him one morning in late 2008 by Poptropica’s marketing director, Kim Regan. They didn’t blast the news right away as they wanted to make sure it was true. But sure enough, Poptropica’s numbers had grown bigger than Disney’s Club Penguin and Nickelodeon’s Nicktropolis, two other hugely popular virtual worlds at the time. (And Poptropica outlived them, too!)

It was all so incredibly satisfying.  This quiet, caring, hard-working, respectful, unknown group of talented and good people went up against Nickelodeon and Disney and kicked their butts. 

And they did it by telling stories—great writing, great art, great design—when all the experts confidently screamed that kids wanted nothing to do with stories on their computer screens.  By 2012, story-based Poptropica had 500+ million registered users from around the world.

A good story, once again, won the day.

Jess Brallier

Now let’s turn to Big Nate, which began as a comic strip and now has a pretty popular narrative-and-art hybrid book series. But before the book series, there was the Poptropica island.

Poptropica’s official tour page for Big Nate Island when it first released in 2009.

Poptropica Creator Jeff Kinney knew Lincoln Peirce, the creator of Big Nate, and figured it would be a good match, as he and Jess were looking for brilliant content outside of Poptropica to add to the game.

One of Jeff’s and my notions was to introduce content on Poptropica that did not first originate on Poptropica.  Why limit all those kids to discovering only what our writers came up with? …Wow, doing that would make Poptropica all the more powerful, inclusive, and all-serving.

Jess Brallier
The first Big Nate comic strip

Jess loved the idea (and the brilliance of comic strip creators), and they met with Lincoln and decided to give it a try.

Two months later, late morning on a Friday, we launched “Big Nate Island.” By midnight, two million different kids had played it.  Seriously!

Jess Brallier

Two million is impressive, but what else stands out is the fact that it took just two months to dream of and create an island! A far cry from the snail’s pace of island releases these days…

Anyway, the success of the island confirms Jess’s hunch that there’s a unique kind of book for all those comics. But that’s another story!

~🐠

Creators, Social Media

Pop Creator Jess Brallier spills on “storytelling, games, and Poptropica”

Hey Poptropicans, we’re getting right to the heart of Poptropica with OG Poptropica CEO/publisher Jess Brallier! We’ve shared his vision for Pop and even interviewed him here on the PHB before, but there’s more…

Jess recently shared a personal blog post titled “Storytelling, games, and Poptropica,” discussing how it all began with our favorite virtual world—and it’s well worth the read. (Thanks to Brave Tomato, former PHB staffer, for bringing it to our attention!)

The post starts off affirming the success of Poptropica co-creator Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Jess ponders further potential…

What I really wanted (as I always did) was to publish stories for kids.  What was different this time, was that those kids were now intensely engaged in games.

Hmm.  There’s gotta be a gaming literacy with which to tell stories.

…considering that print, film, and theater all have their ways to tell stories. Jess goes on to share how, throughout his career, people didn’t take seriously his ideas for using gaming to tell stories to kids. That is, until he began collaborating with Jeff Kinney to create Poptropica.

Jess captions this photo: “Top row, second one in, is actually me. Makes sense, the old guy, with a worried look on his face, “How am I going to sell this up to ownership?””

The characters in the stories would be avatars.  The user would be the story’s protagonist.  So this avatar had to be human-like.  Able to fashionably dress in any historical or imagined time or place (just like stories!).  They would move—jump, slide, flip.  And express—facial emotions.  Just like humans.  This would not be a virtual world of cute little animals moving stiffly around getting rewards of bananas and apples. The art and design would be second to none.

Jess Brallier

Jess even quotes from an old PHB post, though without naming us. The commentary from “one critic,” about the scene of bubbles in Realms, comes from our post Pop 5: Most Beautiful Scenes in Poptropica, by Happy Lobster. Jess writes, “Good stuff! Our fans “got it.””

The PHB described this scene: “Based on Yggdrasil from Norse mythology, the tree containing all worlds, this scene may seem simple, but really, it is quite captivating. The minimal sky background, the way the colossal tree’s branches twist, and the shining bubbles containing enigmatic pinpricks of light all add up to its enthralling aesthetic.”

Jess continues his story of how Poptropica got started by describing the scramble to find room in the budget for two positions, a front-end and a back-end developer. They eventually track down Pearson’s CEO, Marjorie Scardino, who gives them ten minutes of her valuable time—and the green light to hire the people they need.

That wraps up Jess’s post, which you can read in full on his blog! The PHB reached out on Twitter to ask if he’d be sharing his thoughts on where Poptropica is at today, and he wrote back that he would. Considering how much the game has changed since his days as CEO, we’re definitely keen to hear what he has to say. Stay tuned with us!

The cool thing about all of this, which we thought about from day one, is if we did it right, we’d also be developing a next generation of storytellers, artists, and designers. Cool!

Jess Brallier

~🐠