Friday, May 31, 2013

Work vs. Play: The Story Behind Disney's Toontown Online

Written by: Comrade
Featuring Interviews With: Jesse Schell & Jay Friedmann
Based on the Disney MMO: Toontown Online

            Walt Disney. A man whose legend touches the hearts of millions even today, created the empire that is the Disney Corporation. Films, merchandise, theme parks galore! Disney
is a name everyone knows, a name that sparks memories of a lovable red-shorts wearing mouse and his animal pals. With great movies and profitable theme parks, it is obvious there are going to be hundreds upon hundreds tie-ins to further expand the Disney empire. With videos games blasting off in popularity during the 80’s thanks to Nintendo’s NES, which brought families together to jump over some turtles and shoot some ducks, Disney had an obvious opportunity to bring their well-known characters and stories to this now popular form of entertainment. Disney partnered with Capcom to produce high-quality classics throughout the 80’s and 90’s such as DuckTales, Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers, Goof Troop, Aladdin along with many other favorites. Disney proved that they could produce fun and well-made titles to the videogame medium, making effective use of their endless library of unique and original characters. When people saw a Disney game, they could expect quality.
            Now flash to the year of 1997 when a game that popularized a still very new genre of video games, called massive multiplayer online role playing games or MMORPGs for short,
Gameplay screenshot of Ultima Online
titled Ultima Online developed by Origin Systems was released. A once hugely popular fantasy computer game that had roughly 250,000 subscribers in the year 2003, this title created a strong foundation for future online games with its subscription-based model and massive world where you can interact with real people over the Internet throughout the game’s various servers. Spawning many other MMOs to follow such as EverQuest, RuneScape, and of course the incredibly-popular-even-to-this-day World of Warcraft, it was obvious that this particular genre had much potential for huge success for years to come and was definitely here to stay. Not only were MMOs just starting to bloom around the time of the late 90’s, the Internet itself was beginning to expand and change in ways never seen before due to it becoming more accessible and more commercialized by larger companies. Examples include Google launching in 1998, Napster, PayPal, eBay, Hotmail, Yahoo! Groups, among many more and even more to follow. These allowed for more social activities to occur over the Internet making people start spending much longer periods of time surfing the web, emailing and chatting with friends, along with watching flash cartoons pioneered by people like John K of Ren & Stimpy fame with his many original cartoons, along with other popular cartoon shows such as WhirlGirl and JoeCartoon. It was clear to the public that there were big changes coming along with the evolution of the Internet, and the big corporations knew this as they were going to try their best to create the next big thing to lead the Internet ahead.
            During the late 90’s Disney was investing in the Internet with their “go.com” web portal for popular websites such as ESPN.com, ABCNews.com, and of course: Disney.com itself. Disney would go on to use this opportunity to begin selling their products through an online store, appropriately named DisneyStores.com. However, Disney knew much more was able to be done during this time. Given their strong history in the video game department at this time along with a growing market in the MMORPG area, it was obvious there was a good chance for them to reach out even more. But, there is far more to this story than meets the eye, and this is just one piece to a huge puzzle.
            Meet the Disney Virtual Reality Studio or VR Studio for short, a team formed in 1992 by Jon Snoddy responsible for creating virtual reality components for theme park attractions. They constructed various creations such as Aladdin Mark I placed in Epcot Center, and Aladdin Mark II which was installed at Starcade in Disneyland. Later in the 90’s, they began work on a new project known as DisneyQuest which eventually launched 1998. Works from the VR Studio included in DisneyQuest are Aladdin Mark III (which is the one you can currently ride, known officially as Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride), Hercules in the Underworld,
and Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold. Another thing to note is that Disney’s VR Studio was actually a part of Disney’s Research and Development branch (better known simply as Disney R&D), which was also apart of Walt Disney Imagineering itself. Walt Disney Imagineering is a division of the Disney Company founded in 1952 responsible for designing new attractions for Disney’s various resorts, cruise ships and of course, their theme parks. This meant that in addition to creating many new virtual reality attractions for Disneyland, the VR Studio was also responsible to partake in research and development projects as well as their production. Why is this important, you ask? Well it all ties back to Disney itself, Disney’s popularity with their creations in the video game medium, the commercialization of the Internet at the time, and of course the recent popularity in MMORPGs.
Lucasfilm's Habitat, released in 1986.
            For quite some time, there had been a “future of online games” project lingering about in Disney’s R&D team. In 1996, Disney was beginning development on their first foray into the major multiplayer online game genre, tentatively titled “HercWorld” at the time which was going to be based off of the Disney film “Hercules” and would further expand the upcoming franchise. A company by the name of Electric Communications was signed on board to give extensive help on the project, a team who had already been involved in the virtual worlds Lucasfilm’s Habitat and Lucasfilm’s WorldsAway, which were some of the few that actually made a noteworthy profit. They were tasked with the mission of abiding by Disney’s no-buts-about-it policy of making a product that is completely safe with absolutely no danger of children being exposed to cyber bullying, fowl language or being stalked, among many other potential dangers. The team went through many different trials trying to create a safe system where kids could chat freely without being in danger of breaking the Disney policy, and unfortunately this is the exact thing that killed the HercWorld project. Many different attempts were tried, like a sentence constructor and chat filter, but all were unsuccessful in the end. After HercWorld was left behind to fade away, Electric Communications went on to work on another virtual world, this time for Cartoon Network. Though, the project was a tad bit too ambitious and the funds just couldn’t support it, so it was put on the shelf. In a surprisingly turn of events, however, it did actually end up getting revived and released as FusionFall in 2009, about 10 years after it’s original development. Sadly for Disney, though, the Disney R&D team went back to being nothing more than speculation and concepts.
Jesse Schell

Here walks in Jesse Schell, a man who had been a part of the Disney VR Studio since 1995, who decided to take a new approach to this stagnant project by actually creating a real product and prove that such an idea could not only be possible, but successful with the public as well. He developed a rather simple yet effective game based around the real-life game of tag, featuring beloved Disney characters like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Minnie. Initially, this game was meant to be nothing more than a proof-of-concept for the project made to show that families could enjoy playing online together and not just the
older demographic who were content with playing games like Quake, Doom, and Unreal Tournament. However, the demo that Mr. Schell created caught the attention of a fellow Imagineer, Bob Zalk. Bob Zalk was responsible for putting a new exhibit called Disney’s Internet Zone into Innoventions in Epcot Center. He really like what Schell had created, and even ended up installing it into said exhibit as "Toontag" where it stayed for nearly 10 years. The President of Disney Online at the time, Ken Goldstein, was very happy with how the Internet Zone exhibit turned out. Jesse Schell even got the chance to play his own creation with Roy Disney Jr. himself, who also complimented Schell’s work on the game!
Disney's Internet Zone & Bob Zalk
                        
            Around this same time, Jesse Schell and fellow VR Studio team member Mike Goslin were becoming concerned that due to their recent completion of the DisneyQuest project, their days of creating more attractions for Disney theme parks may be limited and that the studio may be shut down. This influenced them to start focusing more on the idea of family online games as they were starting to be convinced this may be detrimental for their future as a group, and began creating new concepts and pitching them to Disney executives in hope to gain the funding to create an actual game. Worried that simply requesting funding for a single game may not convince Disney, they instead decided to pitch what they called “The Massively Multiplayer Online Theme Park” which encompassed a total of around 20 different MMOs. They requested $100 million dollars, which obviously is a huge stack of cash, however Schell and Goslin never actually expected to ever get this amount and instead decided to ask for a large chunk of change to help increase the chances of the idea ever getting picked up. After months and months of pitching to many different groups along with a lot of controversy relating to whether or not it was a viable idea, the concept was finally picked up by Disney with development being led by the VR Studio itself. Luckily for the VR Studio, Ken Goldstein of Disney Online was a huge supporter in the project and firmly believed something great would come out of the idea, pushing to put a good amount of money into the project to get it made. Even still, though, this does not mean it was a completely smooth route from there...
            When the initial idea of “The Massively Multiplayer Online Theme Park” was being pitched, the team soon realized they would need to actually build a prototype of at least one of the MMOs out of the 20 total, so they decided to create one based off the still-in-production Disney film “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” being appropriately titled “Atlantis: The Online Empire.” While the choice for creating an Atlantis MMO first may puzzle some people nowadays, it’s important to remember that Disney believed the movie would be a huge hit with audiences despite eventually only having a moderate success in the box office. Not only that, but the ideas and themes in the Atlantis film also suited the action gameplay the team was aiming for making it a good starting place for the initial MMO production. Some early ideas for this MMO include early players in the game being Atlanteans and then once you’ve progressed more into the game, you would become one of the explorers coming to Atlantis. However, this idea did not last long. The marketing team behind Atlantis were not too happy with the whole MMO idea mainly because they believed that the audience that Disney Online was attempting to bring in, which were mainly 7-12 year olds, simply did not fit in with the audience the movie was sought after. In order to avoid mixed marketing messages for the film, the early-in-production MMO was soon shut down. Despite this seeming rather discouraging at first glance, the decision to close the Atlantis MMO may have been a very smart one in the end as due to Atlantis not being the hit Disney was hoping for and failing to generate any future iterations, one can only assume an MMO based off of it would not have lasted long. In fact, it just may have opened a door to a much grander and everlasting theme to base an MMO off of, one that could maybe even last a whole decade.
            After the Atlantis MMO was canned, the second idea the group had for an MMO was chosen instead. This idea was to base an MMO around a world where cartoon characters lived in harmony with one another, a world not only located in Disneyland as a “themed land” but also featured prominently throughout the movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” This idea was none other than the wonderfully cartoony world of Toontown. A major plus to basing it off of a property such as Toontown is that the development team did not need to worry too much about getting approval for everything and had a lot of a creative freedom when it came to adding things to the game, since for the most part it was a property very few at the company actually cared about. With a budget of roughly 5-6 million and a team ranging from about 15 to even 50 in total at certain times ready to begin development, the Toontown MMO project was officially set a-sail in the year of 2000.
The oldest known picture of Toontown.
            To begin, the main premise behind the newly in-development Toontown game was to create a whimsical world with many nods to classic Disney cartoons dating back to the 1940’s. It would feature many well-known Disney faces as well, such as Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. By creating such a vastly different world from our own, it would give a sense of escapism during play sessions, which in turn also gave more incentive to play the game more often. Not only that, but it made the game completely family-friendly for the casual audience, opting for colors and a cheery atmosphere rather than an endless arsenal of guns or gigantic evil monsters to slay. The people that would populate this land are “toons” which are also based off the designs of classic Disney animal characters like dogs, mice, and horses. Toons have a simple life and love nothing more than making others laugh with tons of jokes and gags to pull.
            However, there could be no game if there was no conflict to endure. This is where the evil robotic businessmen named “Cogs” come in. With a goal of taking over the vibrant, happy-go-lucky streets of Toontown and instead replacing it with a black-and-white metropolis covered all over with gigantic skyscrapers lurking over the sidewalks. The cogs are split up into 4 types: Sellbot, Cashbot, Lawbot, and Bossbot with 8 cogs of each type, meaning there are 32 different cogs in total and can range from level 1 to level 12. The true origin of these cogs is mostly unknown, however there was once a flash-animated downloading screen created for Toontown that featured Scrooge McDuck visiting his friend and inventor Gyro Gearloose. Scrooge McDuck was checking up on the inventions Gyro was creating for Toontown when he suddenly stumbled upon an evil robot with a note on it stating, “DO NOT TOUCH.” Scrooge, being the money grubber he is, realized such a machine could make a ton of money and because he had made investments in Gyro’s work, he felt he had the right to activate the robot despite the warning note. This causes the gigantic robot to use Gyro’s technology to build evil robots to take over Toontown. It is not known if this story is canon or not since the movie has since been taken off of the Toontown website, however. One neat fact, though, is that this intro actually shares a lot
Toontown Download Screen vs. Carl Bark's DuckTales
 - note the similarities?
of artistic similarities to Carl Barks’ DuckTales comics with the entire video being done in a sort of “animated comic book” style. In fact, there actually was a bit more to the Toontown story than actually seen in the game. There was once an actual ending to the game, of which Jesse Schell describes, “Originally, yes, there was an ending! I still have (horribly crude) sketches of it, somewhere – there was a notion that when you defeated all four Cog Headquarters, there was a final challenge. But, we all decided that this didn’t work well with the game being ongoing, so the final battle was never developed.”
These cogs, being the bland, boring ol’ nuisances they are, attack toons that get in their way trying to make the toon’s laff meter go down and go sad, with their moves being based off business terms such as “Paradigm Shift” or “Eviction Notice” and even the names of the cogs themselves are based off real-life work positions like “Legal Eagle” being a lawyer or “Big Cheese” being a boss. But what could possibly stop evil robot businessmen? Well, that’s where gags come in! Toons can choose from a wide variety of gags such as a cream pie or seltzer bottle to use to make the cogs laugh, which in turn causes them to malfunction and explode. Gags are essential to Toontown, and are one of its many
distinctive qualities as you will find very few if any games where your goal is to actually try entertain the enemy until they are defeated, rather than simply beating them up. There are many, many different gags in Toontown and the process for selecting which ones were going to be included in the game wasn’t easy. During development, the team had written a huge list of possible gags and they needed to select only a certain amount that could actually make it into gameplay. Bruce Woodside, who had worked with Disney animation as a character animator, story supervisor, and storyboard artist, was the animation director of Toontown and was an essential part of the gag creation as his large experience with Disney helped with thinking of fresh ideas based on classic cartoon elements. This theme of “work vs. play” has allowed for greater appeal to a larger audience, as parents could enjoy the little pokes at the business world with the cog’s appearances and their titles, while kids could enjoy the pastel colors and cartoony characters and worlds. The inspiration for this overarching theme came from finding the opposites to everything toony and loony, which of course is boring and drab. Jesse Schell says “We needed some kind of enemy. And early design involved
'everything kids hate' – so, there was an evil school teacher, evil dentist, things like that. At some point, though, the notion of the evil corporation seemed to be the strongest, simplest, and most defensible, and ‘work vs. play’ sort of bubbled out of that.” However, it would be untrue to say the development of the cogs was a completely smooth road. In the Alpha version of the game, cogs were nothing more than regular businessmen - not robots. Also, they were not called cogs: they were called “suits.” After these “suits” were defeated by toons, they would transform in little clowns and run away. Roy Disney Junior, the same gentleman who complimented Schell’s efforts on Toontag, found this disrespectful to the great businessmen who helped make Disney the company it is today. Obviously an understandable complaint considering his father was a very successful senior executive for The Walt Disney Company, the VR Studio’s Vice President told the Toontown team to either remove the “suits” or the game would be canceled. In response to the VP’s concerns, the Toontown team told them that they would replace the “suits” with evil robots which satisfied the concerns brought up by their executives. However, it was never mention that these new evil robots would actually be evil business robots. Thankfully, by the time the game was actually released no one minded the cogs and in the end actually allowed for more creative enemies than simply regular businessmen.

The battles between the cogs and the toons work in a turn-based combat system, with each gag track going in different orders and affecting the other gag tracks’ outcomes. Each round of fighting requires a lot of strategy if you plan to get out alive, especially considering using some gags tracks alongside other certain gag tracks, you just may end up undoing the effect of the other gag. In order to get better and more powerful gags, toons will need to constantly be using their current gags against the appropriately leveled cogs, gaining them a boost in experience points until they have reached the correct amount of points to earn a brand new and improved gag. Of course, the usually lengthy and tedious nature of this gag-training process can be alleviated by participating in cog battles during cog invasions, which is where an endless amount of a certain cog invade the streets for an allotted amount of time. This makes gag experience count for double of its original amount, making gag-training much quicker and more manageable. Jesse Schell has stated the reason for the team choosing this type of battle system is because “we thought it might have have cross-gender appeal, that is, the boys would like the action, while the girls would feel more comfortable with the fact that you can take your time to make a decision, compared to playing DOOM, for example. We (foolishly) thought it would be less work than creating a real-time combat system.” However, after reflecting on the amount of work it actually took balancing the battling system, Jesse Schell now says “Looking back, real-time combat would actually have been easier!” One thing that is also vital to the combat is how the battles will happen right in plain sight so that newer players will be able to play the role of an audience member and watch a battle play out right before their eyes without actually having a risk of losing. This allows them to pick up on the strategies to have a successful battle early on in the game.
              Like most MMOs everywhere, Toontown features a task system where toons can go to Toon Headquarters and select from a wide variety of different tasks. There are tons and tons of possibilities of the exact tasks toons can choose from with only a handful that every single toon will get making each individual experience a bit more unique and makes creating a new toon and going through the game again even more satisfying. Of course, in the end the ToonTasks follow the same structure throughout. There are 7 different types of Toontasks toons will end up getting: Defeating a certain amount of any type of cog, defeating a certain amount of a specific type of cog, defeating an amount of a certain cog, recovering an item from a cog, going fishing for an item, taking over a set amount of cog buildings, and finally taking over a set amount of a certain type of cog buildings. As you progress through the game, as one would expect, ToonTasks gradually begin to ramp up difficult and length. Some ToonTasks will really make you work for your reward, but in the end are actually benefitting you as it helps prevent grinding for better gags since you get a lot of experience just by doing what the ToonTasks requires you to do. Rewards for these tasks are things like being able to hold more gags, training for a new gag track, larger jellybean jars (jellybeans being the currency of Toontown), being able to teleport to a certain area in the game, and increasing your health. ToonTasks also do keep things simple enough to accommodate for players who simply do not have a lot of time on their hands. Even when the ToonTasks begin to become a bit longer, it’s still very easy to get a lot done with your ToonTasks only by playing about an hour or two. Mark Mine, Joe Shochet and Roger Hughston of the Toontown team have said, “Since casual gamers typically have less time available for playing games, it was important to design Toontown to support short-term play. We included activities such as fishing and minigames that can be accomplished in just a few minutes. We included a ToonTask system to give players explicit and measurable goals such as Defeat 3 Cogs. This makes it easier for the player to always know what to do and gives them satisfaction when they accomplish short-term goals.”
Panda3D's Level Editor
            In Toontown’s beginnings, it was a difficult decision deciding on which game engine would be the best to build an MMO on. They were not completely sure on whether to build their own engine or to simply use one of the many commercial engines out there. Back when the VR Studio was still developing digital attractions for Disney amusement parks, they had already created various engines for said attractions that were built off of other commercial toolkits. Despite this, the studio still thought it was important that they create a brand new engine entirely from scratch. One of the reasons of this was because they realized the importance of keeping an MMO running and constantly adding content to it and how much work it take to keep it going smoothly. Sure, it may have been a cheaper alternative to go with a licensed engine, but there are also plenty of problems that come along with that with MMOs. If the owner of the engine were to, say, go out of business soon after the game was released, it could create a great deal of problems for the future of the game possibly even cause it to be closed entirely. Another reason for creating an original engine is that it allowed the team to have not only full access to all the source code of the engine, but it also allowed them to create a more original and unique look to the
game’s graphics. The end result was an engine called Panda3D, an acronym for Platform Agnostic Networked Display Architecture, which was coded in C++ and was made open source. Some of the features that were essential to Toontown’s look and feel were the soft-skin animation, which was necessary for squash-and-stretch style animation, and the particle systems which were used in the explosions during battles and the snow falling from the sky. All sound for the game was handled by a company called Soundelux Music Design Group with known composers of the songs being Jamie Christopherson and Cody Westheimer. The Toontown team also licensed the Miles sound library which is owned by RAD Game Tools.

On the subject of graphical engines, it’s time to talk about Toontown’s art style. The initial direction of the art style was headed by Felipe Lara, Bruce Woodside and Diane Lu with Felipe Lara being the Art Director of the game. The game is obviously heavily influenced and based upon the classic Disney look especially in the toon and environment designs which borrow many elements from classic Mickey Mouse cartoons. Also, you will see many similarities to areas in Mickey’s Toontown Fair, an area in Disneyland, like Donald’s boat, the trolley, Toon Hall, the Bank, and many more. The cogs, whose art style was headed by Disney veteran Bruce Woodside, were given a very unique look which did not resemble Disney’s usual style however, which only helped contrast the differences between toons and cogs even more effectively. I had the pleasure of speaking with Jay Friedmann, who joined the art team in 2002 after previously living in San Francisco where he worked with companies Electronic Arts, Rocket Science Games, The 3DO Company and SegaSoft. He was tasked by the VR Studio to design and create the many different locales featured in Toontown. In response to his experience doing art for Toontown, he said “As the game expanded the majority of my contribution was developing the look and constructing the world of the Cogs. I was the primary concept artist in this area working under the supervision and Art Direction of Felipe Lara.” Some of Friedmann’s personal favorite works include most of his cog stuff, more specifically being the Cog Train Station featured in the game.
Some of Jay Friedmann's art for Toontown.

            One of the main problems caused by an always-online game that the team knew they were going to deal was the concern of safety for children. No one back at Disney though the game could ever be safe, which is primarily why the idea of a children’s MMO was so shunned upon in the beginning. The team had to deal with children inevitably meeting a stranger on the Internet and making it so there was no way for them to invade their privacy. The solution to this? A little invention known as SpeedChat. What this system does is allow players to chat with their friends by selecting from various categories of pre-written dialogue they can use to create conversations. This makes it completely impossible for there to be any inappropriate words or innuendo used within the game, successfully abiding to the aforementioned Disney policy. When asked about Disney’s strict stance of safety for children, Jesse Schell stated, “Initially, everyone rejected the idea out of hand, because they couldn’t imagine it could be safe. I took that as the message, ‘Make it safe, and maybe it can happen.’ So, we focused a lot of thought on how to make it safe, and that is where the ‘SpeedChat’ system came from. Once they believed that maybe it could be safe, people started taking it more seriously. The most important champion for us was Ken Goldstein, President of Disney Online. He believed in the game, and in our team enough to put forth the money to get it made.” Now, you may be thinking that only being able to communicate with just sentences and words written out for you and would make it very difficult for players to communicate with their real-life friends, but a solution was added to work around that. Players are given the ability to exchange “Secret Friend” codes to each other by generating a code, writing it down on a piece of paper, and giving it to their real life friend whom will log on and enter the code himself. This makes it so you can chat mostly unrestricted, and have more in-depth conversations with your good friends. Although, this may sound very familiar to another idea mentioned earlier, the same one that made “HercWorld” get canned. Electric Communications had been trying similar solutions to the whole “chatting safely” predicament by using a similar method of selecting phrases, but were not successful in the end. So, why exactly did Toontown succeed in this regard? There’s no definitive answer, but personally I believe it had to do with the HercWorld team trying to make more of a sentence constructor which, while it had clean G-Rated words, could be easily manipulated to say something inappropriate simply by using certain words together that could be misinterpreted into something completely different and not safe for kids. Toontown’s focus on already created phrases got rid of nearly any potential innuendo to be used, making it about as safe as you could possibly get. Toontown’s SpeedChat system has been highly successful as it has actually shown its influence in family MMOs that have followed, such as Club Penguin, Wizard 101, and FreeRealms. Also, a system similar to
SpeedChat's influence on other family MMOs.
SpeedChat is used when you are naming your toon at the beginning of the game as you are given two different choices of naming: “Type-A-Name” or selecting from a pre-written list of various names and combining different ones together to create a very silly and unique name. The “Type-A-Name” feature allows players to write any name they wish, however it must be approved by the Support staff in order for you to be given that title. This prevents any mean or offensive names to be written, and this feature (just like SpeedChat) has also been used in many other family MMOs following Toontown’s release.
            A big part of Toontown’s appeal is that it keeps things very simple overall, but never so simple where it feels “dumbed-down” to keep children interested. Toontown is very much an RPG, though not quite as complex as most others that usually contain many different values and statistics to keep up with in order to fully master the combat system. The team’s major job concerning combat in Toontown was to keep the same fun, addictive nature of most RPG games while also simplifying it to make it far more accessible to a broad audience. An example of this is the Laff meter in place of a usual life meter, which is represented more with visuals than simple numbers. Toontown also features an in-game economy with the money being represented with jellybeans. The game keeps it simple by making gags only cost a single jellybean and there is no trading between players at all. The tutorial, humorously referred to as the Toontorial, of the game is also kept short and sweet yet also very effective, and players are introduced to the controls of the game which are very effective yet simple, with just the arrow keys and the mouse necessary to get through Toontown. The tutorial takes place in an area completely separate from the rest of the online world, making it far less scary for new players coming into a huge multiplayer world all of the sudden.
Toontown Trinity

The backbone of Toontown’s gameplay structure is the idea of teamwork. It’s completely impossible to make it through Toontown all by yourself, and very early on in the game you’ll find yourself working with other players to get ahead in your ranking. The development team purposefully made it especially easy for people to group up and attack cogs together to try and form more friendships between toons. And when toons want to go take over buildings together, they may do so in groups of up to four toons. Outside of cog battles themselves, there are plenty of mini-games in Toontown that were also added to encourage more social interaction. Toons can go to the playground and jump upon the Trolley, where they can compete in four player games with most of these games being cooperative. There’s also other fun things toons can do together like fishing in the playground while having a nice chat. This gameplay structure was all built around, what the team called, the “Toontown Trinity.” This was made to try and divide up how the players time would be spent in the game, with the main ones being battling, playing mini-games and also participating in social activities in the playground. In the paper titled “Building a Massively Multiplayer Game for the Milion” written by Toontown staff members Mark Mine, Joe Shochet and Roger Hughston, it is said that “The activities were designed to be interdependent. To fight Cogs, Toons need gags. To buy gags, Toons need jellybeans. To earn jellybeans, Toons play minigames. To play minigames, Toons need friends. To meet friends, Toons head to the playground. In the playground, Toons heal up for battle, and the cycle continues.” A lot of the design choices in Toontown were all based around online to really put a huge focus on the fact that it is indeed an online game. Jesse Schell says the reason this is the case is because “It was almost a religious thing with us – if this is going to be an online game, everything about it should be about playing with other people.”
            Now, as great as trying to influence strong social spirit within the community of Toontown is, it’s not an easy task. The most important part to making this work and a huge part of the team’s job was making sure the game itself is friendly. A lot of other online games at the time (and a problem still today) is the large amount of “griefing” that goes on between players. This is where other players will go out of their way to bother and harass other avatar, whether it be by purposefully making another player die or simply verbally abusing another person. Most MMOs will have plenty of players that join the game for the sole purpose of wreaking havoc upon other players, therefore making the game sometimes just plain enjoyable for those who are victims of such things. Because Toontown was first and foremost always meant to maintain a good, clean environment for kids, nearly all of Toontown’s various gameplay aspects were built with “griefers” in mind and made to make it very difficult for others to “grief” fellow toons. Obvious now you already know about SpeedChat which already prevent verbal abuse from other players, but there are far more design choices highlighting this aspect. For instance, in many other MMOs you’ll find feature where you can participate in “Player Vs. Player” battles or PVP for short, as well as being able to steal items from other players. The team knew they needed to keep the in-game economy simple to avoid frustrations like people robbing other players of their goods. It was vital that everything in the game would fight against “griefing” which was achieved by shedding a majority of the light of the game on fun and simple experiences rather than aggravated and anger-inducing types of gameplay seen in other MMOs. The team wanted to make it fast and simple to get to your friends and contact them, so they added a “Teleport” button to meet up with toon buddies through a system of portable holes, even if they are in different districts. Also, toons in Toontown never actually die and simply go sad without permanently losing any items and remain in the playground until they are all “tooned” up and ready for battle, making even dying a bit more manageable.
Toontown Central Forums

            During Toontown’s second beta, a true Toontown fandom was starting to actually form. In mid-2002, the Toontown fansite Toontown Central was created by Nick Fritzkowski. It features multiples of forums to discuss the various aspects of the game and areas to organize events to participate in the game itself. It became a very popular website for early adopters of the game as it let them meet and chat with other players without the in-game communication restrictions. Not only that, but toons soon began to create their own clans. In response to this growing fandom, Jesse Schell said “We were hoping, hoping, hoping for those kinds of fan sites, and we were thrilled when it started to happen!” The purpose of these were to hone in on various features like gag training or ToonTask completing to make them not only easier to complete, but also make them more enjoyable as well. The site is very significant because it helped spread word about Toontown across the Internet and show people that Toontown was beginning to develop it’s own following.
Toontown is given an official launch date: June 2nd, 2003. Plenty of promotion is given to hype up the game like plenty of television commercials and an appearance at the Electronic Entertainment Expo or E3 for short. There are also lots of coverage being given by sites like GameSpot and IGN with developer diaries and hands-on impressions. When the game is finally released, it is showered with awards such as Computer Gaming World’s 2003 MMORPG Game of the Year, Webby Awards’ 2003 People's Voice Award, Parents' Choice Foundation’s 2003 Silver Honor and Children's Software Review’s 2003 All Star Software Award. Membership is now required to access all areas and quests of the game, with it costing $9.95 per month.  Toontown began expanding when it started to go across the globe. Toontown had game servers running all over the world in Brazil, Japan, United Kingdom, Germany, and France. Not only that, but along came a new website, some merchandise, and a much larger fanbase than the game had seen before.
Toontown's E3 Booth at E3 2003

In a very surprising turn of events, despite Disney executive’s originally interpreting the only aim of the game being to simply appeal to children and have a safe environment for them to play in, a lot of players ended up actually being adults. Adults would often be introduced to the game by their children and try it out themselves, when they would soon find out that there was much more to the game than meets the eye. This let adults create their own account and toon to be able to spend more time with their kids and create great memories in the process. In fact, what ended up is that there were plenty of adults without any kids at all and teenagers too that played the game frequently and were usually some of the best players in the game. This was actually intentionally put into the design of the game, and Jesse Schell responded to this, saying “It was a very hard battle – many execs we had to deal with could not comprehend this point of view. There was a lot of pressure, for example, to take out the “office humor” of the Cogs, because ‘kids will never get that.’ But we knew that if this game were to succeed, it would be as a collaboration between kids and parents. In recent years, I’ve had Disney execs come to me and say, ‘You won’t believe this, but a huge percentage of Toontown and Pixie Hollow players are adults!’ Which, of course, was our plan all along. Keep in mind, the creative team that developed Toontown came from Disney Imagineering – we just used the same design principles that make the theme parks work, and brought them online.” 
Just a tiny amount of fan creations based on Toontown.

The Toontown fanbase proved their dedication to the game with some really creative and fun ideas based off ideas presented in Toontown. For example, there's a fan-created website that keeps track of all the cog invasions happening within the game, and there's also a new website coming out created by Toontown fans based off of Facebook, but specifically for Toontown players called ToonBook. Players have also created tons and tons of fan art, stories, and homemade creations. In the realm of YouTube, there are many different Toontown channels that regularly produce high quality content for their viewers. An example of this is a player known by the name of Random Toon who creates humorous videos about the game, usually focusing on one experience or aspect of the game and exaggerating it to create a comedic effect. However, that's not the only type of Toontown videos. There is a wide variety of videos stretching from simply videos meant to entertain like jokingly pranking other players, music videos, or even full-length films with a real story to them, to more serious, gameplay focused videos like walkthroughs, let's plays, tips, and more. The top Toontown channels have managed to get from about 5,000-10,000 views on each of their videos regularly, with some managing to get far beyond that on certain videos. There's on average about 50 Toontown videos posted per every 24 hours, now that's quite an accomplishment!
One of the more prominent and defining features that happened after the game launched was the addition of real-life newsletters and trading cards that members could have mailed to their homes if they chose to. These newsletters would have fun little games like crossword puzzles and mazes for players to enjoy. Jesse Schell was very passionate about this aspect of the game as he really liked the idea of Toontown feeling like a club. This took some smart marketing thinking to get through to the executives and go from idea to actual product, and it was up to Schell and fellow developer Joe Shochet to get it going. After doing the math, it was figured out that it was cost one dollar per member to ship these out which is obviously quite a lot of dough to spend. The executives immediately declined it as it was nothing but loss with nothing coming in as a return. However, this was not the case for Mr. Schell. Schell made the point that, well, I’ll just let him explain it himself: “It’s late at night, and Dad is paying bills. He’s reviewing the credit card… and he sees the $5.95 a month Toontown charge, and wonders, ‘Does my kid still play this game? I’m not even sure.’ And maybe he cancels it. How can we prevent that moment? Well, who controls the mail? The parents. Dad comes home from work, and gets the mail, and brings it in. There’s a Toontown letter for Billy. ‘Hey, Billy, mail for you.’ And how does Billy react? Well, how do all kids react when they get free stuff in the mail? ‘Oh! Great! Cool! Awesome!’ So… basically, we argued that by spending an extra $1 per month, if you could get just one or two extra months of subscription out of it, it would totally pay for itself.” The newsletters were very popular with toons everywhere, but unfortunately (in a most likely cost-cutting move) were discontinued in 2010 and replaced with an in-game newspaper.
In an attempt to not only raise some awareness for the game but also to benefit the less fortunate, Disney created a Toontown charity event with the Starlight Starbright Children’s Foundation in July of 2004. The event had many teen celebrities, mostly Disney Channel stars, and lots of different activities for kids to enjoy. On the in-game side of things, people could recover cog buildings and for each one taken over a dollar was donated to the foundation. It got television coverage on the Disney Channel and proved to be very beneficial for not only the Starlight Starbright foundation, but also for increasing awareness of Toontown.


Some of the post-launch updates.

            After Toontown’s launch, the game was kept updated consistently with new features such as the fishing mechanic mentioned before. New fish species and animations were added, as well as a brand new style of play. Fishing started off being nothing more than putting a bobber in water and waiting for a catch, then when you got a nibble you would mash the arrow keys back and forth. This proved to be quite tedious and simply not a very fun style of play, so it was then replaced with a more “shoot-the-target” type of game. It became much more interactive because you actually had to aim for the fish, and also made it a much faster process therefore making it far less boring. Another big addition was the toon housing system, which let toons roam around an isolated, quiet neighborhood area. Toons could also design the interior of their own home with a huge selection of furniture, wallpaper, and more that they can purchase from a catalog run by classic Disney cartoon character Clarabelle. Other things toons could do is putting their jellybeans into a bank to save for later and fishing in a private pond. One can definitely note a similarity to the style of house designing as seen in the popular Sims series of games created by Maxis, albeit much simpler and easier to quickly put things together in a matter of seconds. The best part about the estates is that they give toons a nice relaxing break from the hectic, always-online world of Toontown and give a peaceful location that only friends of that particular toon can access. And finally, another major addition were Doodles, virtual pets of the toons. Toons can go to pets shops in each neighborhood to adopt a doodle that they will then be able to keep in their estate as long as they want. Toons can also train their doodles with various tricks which in turn will be able to give them health if they are in a tough spot during battle. Toons will need to take care of their doodle to make sure it doesn’t get lonely, hungry or angry. However, as great as these updates are, they are only extra content and not exactly building off of the basic combat. It would take a much greater update to truly bring Toontown up a whole new step, one larger than anything seen in the game so far: The Cog Headquarters.
            At Toontown’s launch, the biggest cog-related areas were simply cog buildings that were located in Toontown areas. However, the next project for the Toontown team was to develop an actual cog area on the outskirts of Toontown itself, a place where cogs actually live and are in complete ownership of. This project would become known as the Cog Headquarters, an ambitious update for Toontown to create brand new types of gameplay.
Early concepts and models for the Cog HQ.
Instead of just a normal cog building, the cog headquarters was to be an actual, full neighborhood. It also was to feature an actual storyline about shopkeepers in Toontown being captured by the cogs and need to be rescued by toons. It featured factories, which were very large and intricate areas that featured tons of cog battles, focus on more precise timing to avoid damage, platforming challenges, and a much grander landscape than ever seen in the game before. The whole idea of the cog headquarters was to bring a brand new challenge to keep the game fresh for advanced players who had already finish all the main story ToonTasks. The Cog Headquarters seemed to be originally planned to be a single neighborhood featuring all types of different cogs, but in the final version ended up being split into different cog HQs all based on different types of cogs in each one. This may have been the case because the team underestimated how difficult it would have been to create a single, gigantic headquarters and decided to divvy it up in order to save time and resources. Another reason may have been that they didn’t want to release such a massive update into the game all at once and then have nothing to add later, so they decided to stagger the release over the course of a couple years with many improvements and changes being added to each addition.
The average sight of the V. P. lobby.
The first of these cog headquarters was Sellbot HQ, with the major aspect of it being the Senior V. P. who is the boss of all Sellbot cogs. In a way to infiltrate inside the Sellbot Towers and face the V. P. himself, toons would need to wear cog suit disguises and form groups of seven other toons. Going back to the Toontown fansite, Toontown Central, a member of the forum named AJthebluehorse became very frustrated with the difficulty of getting a successful V. P. run. AJ was very annoyed with how some toons could act selfishly and would often shuffle in and out of the elevator causing most runs to not contain a full group of 8 toons. Unfortunately, it seems that not as much time was put into preventing griefing between toons in the cog HQ as with other areas of game, making many people not enjoy the new cog headquarters update as anticipating. This was turned around, however, by that same member from before. AJ created a thread on the site where he pleaded for other players to come and join him on a V. P. run where no one would be turned away even if they didn’t have the best gags or laff. After a lot of member liked the idea and the run turned out successful, AJ decided to continue doing these events. This eventually became known as the Cold Callers Guild, a group that allowed toons of all different levels of experience to come and work together to make it through the V. P. unscathed. This mostly fixed the somewhat-broken nature of the boss battling system, and made it far more enjoyable for most toons. Over the course of the years, more cog HQs came out for each of the cog types. Cog headquarters have now become some of the most popular activities in Toontown and favorites among players, ending up as a hugely successful update.
Toontown’s population was booming through it’s next two years in 2005 and 2006. So much so that an official real-life gathering with the Toontown community was held, named ToonFest. Steve Parkis, VP of Premium Products for Disney Online, stated “ToonFest is a great way for us to celebrate the more than 15 million Toon characters that have been created since the game launched three years ago.” This event was held in Burbank, California at Walt Disney Studios and sold out in only a single week. It was decorated with tons and tons of Toontown-related decorations to really bring Toontown out of the web and into reality. Things like gags, cogs, and pictures of the game’s landscapes were all over the place really bring it to life. There were even Toon HQs where attendees could get ToonTasks, a costume contest, and small games to play like mini golf, Squirt-the-Cog, and Pin the Tail on the Doodle. It also featured developers from the game participating in a Q&A sessions where players could get a sneak peek at future additions in the game as well as suggest ideas for new content. On the in-game side of things, there was a scavenger hunt and a grand prix to take part in. After a year following the first ToonFest, Steve Parkis announced another event for 2007, saying ““Last year’s California-hosted ToonFest was such a huge success, it convinced us to bring the event to Walt Disney World for the first time.” This time the gathering was in the Walt Disney World Resort in Fantasia Gardens. The event yet again sold out almost instantly with a price of ten dollars per ticket, proving to be another successful get together.

Coming back to Jesse Schell, he decided to leave the VR Studio back in August 2002 before the game officially launched. He left mainly for family reasons as his family wanted to move back to the east, but a major plus was that he was able to teach at Carnegie Mellon University. He had actually already told the group in advance that he was planning to leave back in February of 2002, and decided to wait until later to completely leave as he wanted to make sure everything was running smooth as butter beforehand. Jesse Schell said in response, “By 2002, the team was amazing, and the game was in great shape, so I felt like I could leave, and everything would be okay. And I guess it was!” However, this would not be the end up Schell’s involvement in the game as in 2004 he decided to found his own game company, Schell Games. Schell Games began as just Jesse Schell himself, and the VR Studio actually outsourced a part of the Toontown trading card development to him. He was responsible for all the different stories and jokes on the cards, which Schell actually wrote during his Lunch hours at work. This is only one instance of Schell Games’ work with the Walt Disney Internet Group, and as Schell Games began to grow more and more of their work was put into Toontown. For instance, they were in charge of developing a kart racing activity called Goofy Speedway based on the classic gameplay of games like Mario Kart.
Other things they developed were later updates in the game that came out in 2009 and 2011 which were the Toon Parties and Cog Field Offices. Based on research, it seems that the art and game design were done primarily with the core Toontown team itself, but the graphics and programming were done at Schell Games. Not all outsourcing was done with Schell Games, however, as some was also done with company Frogchildren Studios who helped with the art of the dancing street props, an update released in 2010.
After many years of Toontown still running, it was obvious that things would end up slowing down in terms of updates being made to the game. After the release of the final cog headquarters, Bossbot HQ, most years following would only feature about one major update per year compared to the much larger amount of updates seen in the past. This is unfortunately just the course of life most MMOs inevitably face after 10 years of running, but despite this there is still a strong population of people still playing and discussing this interesting, fantastical experience of an online game. Even 10 years of the same game running, people still find new and fun things to do in the game. You’ll still find new people joining Toontown message boards, creating Toontown YouTube videos, and families still coming together and playing the game together. It’s always offering up something new that a next generation of kids will be able to grow up with and enjoy all the fun times longtime players have. Jesse Schell, looking back on his experience with Toontown, said, “I am so glad to have had the privilege of working on Toontown – I learned so very, very much, and got to work with so many fabulous people.” In response to Toontown’s future, he said “The world of MMOs is changing. If Toontown can manage to change with the times, and find its way to tablets, and find a way to thrive in the modern app store marketplace, it will be in great shape. I feel certain that, no matter what happens, Toontown will find some way to live on – it’s too fun a place not to!” It’s difficult to predict a clear future for Toontown, mainly because there is no access to subscription numbers or amount of profit made from the game. Recently, however, I was came in contact with an inside source over at the Disney Interactive Media Group that told me that Toontown was actually far profitable than it may seem. 
           The reason Toontown was never seen as a huge money maker of a game was because of unreasonably high server charges billed towards Toontown from an internal DIMG team, and in order to keep this team profitable Toontown was constantly over billed. Looking forward today, it is very promising to see that the game is still running now as it is highly unlikely that Disney would still be keeping the game running if it was no longer making any money. Obviously Disney still sees potential in creating a revenue from the game, which should give hope to those who are skeptical about the game’s future. For me, however, no matter what future may lie for Toontown I will always be able look back on the tons of fond memories I've had playing the game. Each day of playtime is a new door opened to meeting brand new smiling faces all over Toontown and creating fun times. While Toontown is obviously no replacement for the real world as it is still important to have actual face-to-face relationships, that doesn't change the fact that what Toontown offers up is a world where one can escape from the usual routine of life. It allows players to go to a world where the only thing that matters is play, with not only not only no work at all but work actually being completely banned in this world. It allows for people of all backgrounds to come together and share in this universal theme that all of us can relate to. There is a time for Work and there is definitely time for Play, and it's figuring out this balance that we as growing people need to eventually learn to live a successful, fulfilling life. Disney's Toontown Online, congratulations on a great 10 year run that has created many friendships in it's path, and here's to all the memories.

"Have regular hours for work and play; make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well. Then youth will be delightful, old age will bring few regrets, and life will become a beautiful success. "

-Louisa May Alcott



----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------






Jesse Schell has written a book titled "The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses" where he goes into great detail  the same principles that work for board games, card games and athletic games also are what makes great video games and also talks about the fundamentals of good game design. Jesse Schell, after leaving Disney, founded his own company, Schell Games. Schell Games has not only created new updates for Disney products like Toontown, Pirates of the Carribean Online, and Pixie Hollow, but has also created its own original games like Puzzle Clubhouse, which gained its funding through the site Kickstarter. He has also become very well-known in recent years for his speech at DICE 2010 where he talked about the "Gamepocalypse" and how everything is beginning to follow the same game-like business model. He is currently a Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and regularly gives presentations about game design at conferences and schools.


Jay Friedmann attended the Art Center College of Design Pasadena where he got a Bachelor of Arts degree in Illustration. He has worked for the companies Electronic Arts, The 3DO Company, Segasoft, Sierra, and of course Disney. Friedmann left the Toontown team due to the major layoffs that unfortunately hit the Disney Interactive Media Group, but you can still view his incredible artwork on his Krop Creative Database page.


How on earth did you manage to think of so many puns for the toon buildings, shopkeeper names, megaphone toon-up jokes, Knock-Knock doors, etc. Also, there’s lots of dialogue with all of the Toontasks in the game and shopkeepers with unique personalities. Overall, there is a LOT of unique writing in the game. Did you have to hire a writer for the game?

“Ha, no, we didn’t hire outside writers – it was just us! Comedy writing has always been a passion of mine, and myself and Jan Wallace took charge of writing the building names and knock knock jokes and all that. Joe Shochet and Mike Goslin did a lot of the initial dialog for the shopkeepers. Lil Oldman, for instance, you can totally blame on Mike! I’m sure I’m forgetting some others who wrote things, but it was all internal. You can spot some inside jokes we hid in there… for example, two shops I did were “Jesse’s Joke Repair”, was there because I had a little bit of a reputation of being able to fix unfunny jokes, and the “Laughter Hours Café” was based on a college radio show I used to do with Jeff McGinley that was called “Laughter Hours.” Oh! And another shout out to Jeff can be found on a trading card – “Jeff and Jesse’s Juggling Cubes,” because the two of us are avid jugglers.”

What’s your favorite part about Toontown?

“Kids and parents playing together.”

What’s your favorite cog?

“The Micromanager is always the one who makes me giggle the most.”

What’s your favorite area in the game?

“Daisy’s Garden. I like the jokes, and it’s so pretty!”

What was your most memorable moment from working on the game?

“There are so many… but one that stays with me – early, early on in the beta, someone posted a picture of a cross stitch they did of their character with Mickey, and Mickey is saying ‘Toontastic,’ which is a word I made up when I was coding up the battle celebration. At that moment, I felt, ‘Wow… this game really means something to someone.’”






What was the toughest part about creating the game?

"Balancing everything! There were so many competing factors!"

What is the most important part of Toontown for you?

"For me, it was gags like pies and anvils. I grew up with Bugs Bunny as a constant companion, and being able to enter into the crazy cartoon world of Looney Toons was really my primary inspiration."


Special Thanks to:


  • Jay Friedmann and Jesse Schell for agreeing to interview for the documentary, and for the support throughout the entire process.
  • The entire Toontown team for all the work they have done over the years.
  • The community of Toontown for always surprising me with just how cool some of them can be.
  • Toontown itself, for all the unforgettable memories.




8 comments:

  1. Great work Comrade! Toons of the World Unite!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Sad that Toontown has closed. Keep strong, fans!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I absolutely loved this. I could not stop reading. It must have been such a slap in the face that they closed toontown only a few months after publishing the article. May Toontown Rewritten live on the legacy.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hey comrade, I am making a youtube video on my channel in which I want to tell the deep backstory of Toontown, I was just wondering if it would be alright if I used the resources here on your blog in order to help in making the video. I'll credit you in the video as well as in the description, thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I love your blog. This is a cool site and I wanted to post a little note to tell you, good job! Best wishes!!!
    Online Strategy Games

    ReplyDelete
  6. I really like the content of this blog the idea your it inspire me more to visit your site more often. Thanks for sharing.

    Virtual reality Disney

    ReplyDelete