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Suzie Ford: Animal Jam - A Wild & Crazy Game

Interviews By Suzie Ford on February 20, 2017

Animal Jam - A Wild & Crazy Game

With the recent announcement that Club Penguin would be closing, the number of child-friendly MMOs reduced by one. However, Animal Jam, one of the oldest and most respected kid-oriented MMOs keeps plugging away. We had the privilege to talk with WildWorks CEO Clark Stacey about Animal Jam, its past, future and everything in between.

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MMORPG: Tell us a bit about Animal Jam, its history and about the game itself.

Clark Stacey: Every child has a favorite animal, and if you visit any playground in the world, you’ll find kids pretending to be those animals. It’s a primal fantasy and one of the oldest human play instincts. Our Studio Director, Kris Johnson, recognized this in 2008 and began planning what would eventually become Animal Jam.

The game is a mix of playground roleplaying infused with life sciences content. Players (who we call Jammers) are able to create and customize their animal avatars, chat and play games with friends, and customize their own dens. Jammers also collect animal facts in journey books and watch educational videos, including our own original content in addition to videos from National Geographic Explorers.

We launched the game in 2010 and reached 1 million users in its first year. Unlike many other online games for kids, we didn’t experience a sudden and meteoric rise in user growth; Animal Jam has instead grown steadily at a gradually accelerating clip year after year, and continues that pattern today. We’ve now reached over 70 million registered users around the world, across 5 languages. The features and content have grown steadily as well, keeping the experience fresh for our audience.

MMORPG: Was the game originally developed in partnership with National Geographic or did that come later?

CS: As we were developing Animal Jam and starting to think about how we would launch it, we realized that bringing a new children’s IP to market without the promotional muscle of big players like Disney and Viacom was a Sisyphean task. Not only do they have their own cable channels and cross-promotional media catalogs, they have trusted brands that kids and parents both gravitate towards. It seemed logical for us to look for a partnership with an established kids brand that shared the values we brought to the project.

Things just clicked with National Geographic. They were excited about all of the resources they had that could help us build a property for generations of kids. They’ve been around for over 125 years; it’s not surprising that they think on a longer time scale. And their mission of exploring and sharing the wonders of the world is very much in keeping with ours.

MMORPG: What does the partnership bring to WildWorks, National Geographic and to its players (i.e. charitable shop items, etc.)?

CS: Both organizations have done very well in the relationship—we tap into a lot of National Geographic's content and scientific expertise, and they benefit from the association with a very popular digital entertainment platform. I like to think National Geographic is caching away a lot of positive Jammer experiences for future years. I firmly believe many of them are future scientists, conservationists, and National Geographic Society members.

The main benefits for us are access to high quality content, and the association with a brand that is highly regarded by parents and educators. We are able to work with real National Geographic explorers and scientists, like marine biologist Tierney Thys and conservation scientist Gabby Wild, and bring our players into their real-life adventures in very compelling ways. They interact directly with Jammers by answering their questions in short videos, and they also film regularly from the field when they’re working, providing some fascinating behind-the-scenes insight into the lives of real working scientists.

We’ve also been able to work together with National Geographic to raise funds for specific conservation projects. One example is the Big Cats Initiative. We offer packages in our online store that include in-game currency and some Animal Jam merchandise, with 40% of proceeds going to the Big Cats Initiative.  

MMORPG: Animal Jam is available on both desktop and mobile. Are there any differences between the two versions? Is cross-platform play allowed?

CS: Play Wild (our mobile game) initially launched in August 2015, and it has been growing steadily since. It’s been the #1 top grossing app on iOS for Kids 9-11 for over a year now. It’s developed in Unity and available on iOS, Android and Amazon devices, while Animal Jam is Flash-based and runs in desktop and laptop browsers.

Cross-platform play isn’t available yet, but we do have a single sign on for accounts created on either platform (so players maintain the same username in both worlds) and Animal Jam members receive benefits in Play Wild.  We’re working on additional cross-platform functionality, with major updates coming later this year.

The two games are similar in features, gameplay, and social functionality; players familiar with one platform will feel very comfortable on the other.

Our main concern in bringing Animal Jam to mobile has been ethical monetization. Most top-grossing mobile games are dependent on creating “whales;” they’re designed to enable big spenders to spend big. Kids are particularly susceptible to the psychological pressures those games employ. That’s why we use a subscription model for the web-based game, but until recently that hasn’t been available to games in some app marketplaces. So we’ve employed a light in-app purchase business model in the Animal Jam mobile app to date, although the game is completely playable and full-featured without making any purchases at all.

MMORPG: How do you keep the game going after so long?

CS: Staying relevant is definitely a challenge. For us, the mindset of providing a digital entertainment platform, not just an app or game, is extremely important. We are not just a game developer—under the WildWorks umbrella we see ourselves as educators, advocates, and entertainers. We teach players how to be behave online, how to recognize and combat bullying, and how to understand and develop passions for science and the natural world.

Storytelling and lore are important to the game experience. I have a creative writing background, so this is a lot of fun for me personally to think about. Jamaa is never going to be a static world—we take cues from some very successful, grown-up MMORPGs and introduce story evolutions, new areas, and new experiences on a regular basis.  We have an aggressive content calendar with new deploys every two weeks.

Another key is constantly listening to player feedback and implementing suggestions into the gameplay. We have a very engaged community management team, and we observe and research as best we can to understand the Jammer community and know what their developing interests are.

For example, we saw how popular some Animal Jam art channels on Instagram were becoming, and how passionate many young artists were about showing off their skills with Animal Jam characters. So we created a Masterpieces feature in the game, which enables players to use our in-game art tool to create pictures they can hang in their AJ den or give to friends. Now we see tens of thousands of these artworks created, traded, and gifted in the game every day.

MMORPG: What have been the most satisfying moments in AJ's history? What challenges have you and your team overcome?

CS: Releasing the mobile game and watching it blow up has definitely been a highlight. Our hope has always been to create a children’s property that could last for decades and live on lots of different platforms; succeeding on mobile was an indication that this will be possible.

Watching the creativity of the Animal jam community develop in and out of the game is still one of my favorite things. I’ve seen amazing music videos on YouTube that kids choreographed and recorded in Animal Jam, and the artwork that we’ve seen hanging in player dens since we released the Masterpiece feature is just incredible. Over 2 million submissions of original art in just a few months!

Kids are drawn to Animal Jam because of their love for animals, so another satisfying part of my job has been seeing how eager they are to learn about different habitat conservation and research projects, and participate in them. Right now we’re pushing Jammers to participate in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count through our partnership with the Cornell Ornithology Lab, and the response is really inspiring.

Our biggest challenges have all centered around scaling. We have all of the scaling challenges of a traditional MMO, coupled with the additional need to provide parental accounts to oversee each child account, maintain COPPA compliance and our own stricter safety standards across all of our platforms, and moderate a community that has all of the exuberance, chaos, and personality challenges of a real-world playground.

There was a point in 2012, which we now refer to as Jamaacalypse, where we had some significant server issues that brought the game down for over a day, and made us think the player database had been irretrievably scrambled. We quickly got past that, though, and actually inducted it into the lore of the game world. There are always incremental challenges, but we’ve got a strong, expanding user-base, a worldwide mod team that can handle anything, and we have COPPA compliance and safety practices down to a science at this point.

MMORPG: Can you tell us about some of your plans for AJ in its near future?

CS: Last Summer we launched the first Animal Jam toys with retailers worldwide, and they exceeded our highest hopes.. Animal Jam is now one of the top brands for girls collectible toys, and we have a lot more coming over the next couple of years -- both in terms of toys and other licensed products that make sense for the brand. Not to mention an animated television series that’s looking really, really cool.

The licensing and merchandising is great as long as it actually provides kids and parents with meaningful new experiences, but we’re cautious about crossing a line into stuff that feels hokey or exploitative. Every product has to have SOME educational component, and contribute in some way to our mission to inculcate curiosity about science and nature. As a company, our main focus is and will remain the digital, interactive roots of Animal Jam and other games in development.

In the near future we will be unifying the Animal Jam subscription offering across all platforms. Parents shouldn’t have to pay for an AJ membership on the web, then have to pay again when their child wants premium content in the Play Wild mobile app. We will offer a unified subscription at the same cost that opens up both Animal Jam worlds, so kids can move between platforms without spending additional money.

We have some pretty incredible features coming to both games later in the year too, including cross-platform support that will be unlike anything kids have seen or played.  

MMORPG: Does WildWorks have any other games currently in development?

CS: We always have new games and projects on the drawing board. We’re having fun with some VR and AR experiments, and at least one prototype for a new property that will go into full production this year.

The cadence of content updates to Animal Jam and Play Wild keeps us pretty busy, though; we add significant new content to both games every two weeks.   

MMORPG: What are your thoughts about the recent announcement that Club Penguin is closing its desktop version to move to a mobile iteration?

CS: The Club Penguin team created a community that touched millions of kids and became a landmark in millions of childhoods. It’s something those children will remember for the rest of their lives, as you can see from the reactions to the shutdown on social media.. It throws into sharp relief the privilege and responsibility we enjoy too -- being part of someone’s childhood that will stay with them and have some small part in shaping them.

Disney obviously wants to concentrate their efforts where their audience is, and for all of us in the kids space that’s increasingly on mobile devices. They also recognized that they needed to update the look of the game, which is now over 10 years old. We’re approaching that transition a little differently, though. We see in our community the potential for the desktop and mobile AJ environments to complement and enhance one another. Adult-oriented properties like Roblox and Minecraft have succeeded in this, and we see Animal Jam  succeeding there as well.

I’ve never seen our success as a zero-sum game. There is room for a lot of online communities for kids that adhere to high production values and safety standards. I hope the relaunched Club Penguin has another ten years of success, and continues pushing us to innovate.

MMORPG: Please add anything else you would like our readers to know.

CS: Well, we hope we’re building the next generation of online citizens, and they’re going to eventually play and build the games your readers follow. Perhaps the next generation of MOBA and MMO players will be a little kinder to one another as a result of their time in our world!  :)

Suzie Ford / Suzie is the Associate Editor and News Manager at MMORPG.com. An avid gamer, Suzie lives in the desert Southwestern US with her own personal minion.