Poptropica released a brilliant, clever parody of itself and larger forces in game design and management with Mocktropica Island in 2013.
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!).
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
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.
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
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.
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,Poem by Walt Whitman (as featured in Mocktropica Island)
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won…
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)
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!”
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.
Let’s play it forward. 💙