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. 💙

Mocktropica Island, PHB Specials

Is Poptropica turning into Mocktropica Island?

Now there’s a question. Is Poptropica now fulfilling the prophecy about itself it set out in its own self-parody in the 36th island—and not in a good way?

I’m Slanted Fish, here to examine just how much Poptropica is falling into the traps it once warned about. Let’s take a look at the evidence.

For those who need a refresher, Mocktropica Island is a bit of a self-parody of Poptropica, imagining what things would be like when development of the game world goes haywire. It’s a fictional tale, but like many good stories, it does contain some truth.

And lately, it seems like Poptropica’s development is in crisis: we don’t hear as much from the Creators as we used to, and when we do, they’re tinkling with visual updates here and there, rather than the meat of the game: the story quests. In fact, it’s been a whole year since the latest island, Greek Sea Odyssey, was released on Poptropica Worlds, and Poptropica Original hasn’t had a new island since 2016’s Monkey Wrench. So, robot boss battles aside, has Mocktropica predicted the fate of the game?

Pets: the focus on aesthetics

photo credit: Maroon

One feature Mocktropica played with was the idea of pets for Poptropicans. Back when the island first came out in 2013, there weren’t exactly pets in Poptropica, though we did have “Followers” available from ads or in the store (such as the dragon in the picture above). But the Creators knew when they were making this island that pets were a popular requested feature for the game, so in the story, we have kids cheering for the introduction of pets.

And don’t get me wrong, Poptropica pets are great! This year the Pet Barn on Home Island finally opened, offering cute critters for players to adopt.

Pet lizards introduced to the Pet Barn in 2019.

But that’s just the thing, too: while the Creators focused on aesthetic updates like pets (not to mention the redesign of Home Island and various features like the Arcade, Clubhouses, Friends profiles, the upheaval of the store into a rotational system, and more), they neglected the heart of Poptropica itself… the island quests.

Coins: the allure of membership

Pop Coin currency is suggested on Mocktropica Island.

While Poptropica hasn’t gotten quite as extreme as Mocktropica when it comes to currency, the Pop Coin system does hint at something sinister: charging players to pay real-life money for basic features of the game. In Poptropica, we know it as membership.

Membership wasn’t always like it is now. These days, every update seems to come with a significant portion exclusive to members only: store updates, pets, the new friends profiles, and so on. But back when we saw new islands every once in a while, each update wasn’t so member-focused, in part because membership already had a big draw: early access to new islands. With no new islands, the Creators have to find more ways to make membership attractive for the sake of profits, but it’s only causing players—many without the means of purchasing power—to resent them for it.

Read more in this 2017 PHB article: Is Poptropica becoming pay-to-play?

Pop-ups: Achievements and Ad Units

Achievements? Well, Poptropica has had ways of marking a player’s achievements with features like island medallions and album photos, and fortunately, they’re not annoying pop-ups like on Mocktropica—in fact, they’re pretty creative.

But not so fast. Remember the ad sales lady on Mocktropica and the obnoxious pop-up ads she made float around on your screen? While Poptropica hasn’t quite reached that level of distaste, it has since introduced a pretty off-putting pop-up ad at the bottom of the screen that re-appears whenever you change scenes. Sadly, it’s been there for a while and looks like it intends to stay. As if the banner wrapper ads weren’t enough!

Advertising your own game on your own game? Not exactly effective, either.

Developers: Where have they gone?

On Mocktropica Island, Poptropica developers were fired by new management.

A year ago, Poptropica inexplicably let go of some valuable senior-level employees who had contributed to the game for about a whole decade. A former Creator, Jessica (aka Skinny Moon), even confirmed in March 2018 that “most of the company is gone,” referring to employees she’d worked with prior to that point. Since then, we haven’t had names—not even aliases!—to connect us with the Poptropica team.

On this front, Mocktropica definitely predicted a bleak turn for Poptropica. These days, Poptropica rarely updates their official blog, on time if it all—even for bigger releases—and as outlined above, game updates are not only fewer and farther between, but when they do occur, they’re not what anybody really asked for. Sure, releasing some new items and redecorating some interfaces is mildly interesting, but they’re not going to keep anybody’s attention for long. But you know what will, Poptropica Creators?

Stories—specifically, islands!

Former president of Poptropica, Jess Brallier, says it best in this video from 2013, recently discovered by Osmium and re-posted from “Future Think” by idk:

Right out of this publisher’s mouth: “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.

Does that sound like the Poptropica of the present to you? Well, I’ve been following Poptropica through the years, and let me tell you: the success is in the stories it tells. The most anticipated updates have always been the islands—those quirky quests were what made Poptropica “Poptropica.” Pets, member perks, fun items—those are best left as secondary.

I think it’s pretty clear that Poptropica has, in not all, but some ways, followed right into the footsteps of Mocktropica Island. An island created as a cautionary tale is unfolding right before us, and the Poptropica Creators of the present would do well to pay attention and revisit what the Creators of the past have tried to warn us all about when they created Mocktropica.

What does Poptropica need right now? Well…

I think I speak for many Poptropicans when I say that I truly hope to see Poptropica return to what made it successful: the stories, or in other words, the islands. Oh Poptropica, where will your yellow blimp take us next?

—Slanted Fish 🐠

Back Lot Island, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Island, Game Show Island, Ghost Story Island, Legendary Swords, Mocktropica Island, Monster Carnival Island, PHB Sneak Peeks, PHB Specials, Poptropica Portfolio, PoptropiCon Island, Survival Island, Twisted Thicket Island, Virus Hunter Island

Poptropica Portfolio: Chris Goodwin

Nate Greenwall isn’t the only one posting his Poptropica illustrations – I recently stumbled upon the site of Chris Goodwin, an illustrator/designer working for Poptropica, whose online portfolio can be found here. This post comes in three parts. As always, click to enlarge the pics!

Perhaps the most interesting section is character design: designs for E. Vile’s robots from Legendary Swords (as well as some props seen in P-Con: Ep. 2), a huge collection of characters (including several unreleased ones – some possibly for Ep. 3 of PoptropiCon!), unused flying ace designs (the corner suggests they were for the Virus Hunter minigame, Nano-Combat Training), ideas for Max McGullicutty’s look in Survival: Ep. 5, and finally, rough drafts of robots for Game Show Island.

The next section is concept art – ideas for various parts of the game. Here we see color plans for areas inside Joe’s body on Virus Hunter Island, shape ideas for “air creatures” in his lungs, a look at an extravagant (though unused) virus bug, several sketches of dark scenes, racer cars we’ve seen before as a scrapped idea, a Legendary Swords doodle, the Monster Carnival common room, and a sketch from Charlie & the Chocolate Factory Island.

Lastly, there’s a section devoted to scene illustrations – most of these are already in the game, though the one of the cabin is not (but it seems to belong to the unnamed geological park island).

The rest are: the tutorial island in the Poptropica app, Ephraim University (both exterior and interior) from Mocktropica, Soundstage #1 on Back Lot, the Hemlock Herald newspaper room on Ghost Story, a hallway door and post office common room on Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, and the bonus quest on Twisted Thicket. Seeing them each as one big scene makes it all the more awesome. ❤

Poptropica sure is beautiful, and Chris has made some really creative contributions to the game we know and love. Enjoy the Chris Goodwin collection, and stay popping, Poptropicans! 😀

Mocktropica Island, Monster Carnival Island

It’s time to ride the monstrous roller coaster rid- Okay, so I’m not good at song parodies. Why are you reading this anyway? ON WITH THE POST!

Um, “what’s popping, Poptropicans…?” Blake’s out running errands, so he asked me, Timmy, to cover 2 new pieces of Poptropica news. So let’s move on with the post!

So anyway, first off, the Mocktropica guide is now up for the Poptropica walkthrough iOS app thing (I don’t know what it’s called, Blake never lets me use his iPhone… Hmm, he left it behind. Let me try something I’ve been wondering about..)

*TWO HOURS LATER*

Timmy: *playing Flappy Bird* this is so fascinating and addictive I don’t think I’ll eat or sleep in a week. Oh, right. So yeah, according to this app, the Mocktropica walkthrough is now up! Let’s hope there aren’t any bugs in the walkthrough… but if you can’t be bothered to open the app, just use the PHB’s Mocktropica Island Guide!

And in other news, if you check out Jeff Heim’s Poptropica Soundcloud, you may have heard… *puts on reading glasses* …what sounds like it’ll be a track for Monster Carnival. Thanks for that, Jeff Heim. Your tracks are always wonderful. *gives thumbs-up, tries to gain publicity like HP did because I’m a fame-hungry type of guy* You can listen to this wonderful track at his Soundcloud.

So it seems like that’s it for now in Poptropica. As always, stay popping, Poptropicans.

“TIMMY, I’M BACK! Wait, why are you doing the post for this week? I specifically told you NOT TO!”

SORRY!

Mocktropica Island

I Declare Mocktropica Free to Play!

Hi Gs,

It snuck up on all of us, but nonetheless Mocktropica is now free to play! Head over to Poptropica to play now — and tell me what you guys think of this one of a kind quest. If you’re in need of some help, be sure to check out our Mocktropica guide (with pictures 😀 )!

mocktropica here

mocktropica free copy

You are very right, Bucket Bot. Kudos to you.  😛 You can also see what I thought of the island in my review.  I think you may agree. 😉

-HP