AGDC 2008: Putting players first

Walt Disney Internet Group VP and Club Penguin founder Lane Merrifield extols the virtues of focusing on great customer service in online worlds during Austin keynote.


AUSTIN, Texas--"If we can truly learn to put the player first, we will build better games, build stronger teams, and thus, build better businesses."

Those words were how Lane Merrifield began his keynote address for the online-gaming track at this year's Austin Game Developers Conference. Merrifield, who is an executive vice president and general manager at the Walt Disney Internet Group, heads up Club Penguin, an online social game aimed at kids that has proven to be highly lucrative despite its roots as a part-time project.

So what does Merrifield mean when he says that putting the player first leads to a solid business? Putting it into language even the participants in his game can understand, he noted that excellent customer service in an online game is what has contributed in a large way to the success of Club Penguin. Merrifield noted that this starts by hiring people who are genuinely passionate about their community.

He said that this can cause conflict when companies come across highly qualified applicants who could create great systems but who wouldn't have the player in mind at all times, which would in effect remove the soul of the project. Merrifield noted that once a hire is settled on, he or she must then have their ego checked in a process called Crushing the Joy. "We need to work together, we need to serve our audience, and we need to let go of that ego," he noted.

According to Merrifield, the second part of putting the players first is to emphasize personal communication. "We don't use automated responses, which means that the team personally responds to between 5,000 to 7,000 e-mails a day," he said. Complicating matters, Merrifield noted that these e-mails are typically from the kids themselves, and their contents are often along the lines of, "Hello, I was unable to log in. Also, my penguin's name is Stinky, and he says hello." Merrifield noted that it's great when the customer service reps respond in kind, briefly referencing their own penguins in an effort to connect with the player.

"It takes a lot of work, and sometimes we get a day or two behind, but the personal aspect is vital," he continued. "But people feel heard, and this is a great way to get great ideas from the kids, which we can then implement." Merrifield then related a story about the introduction of white fur to the penguin society, which created a good deal of mystery surrounding its origins. Calling it an ingenious design choice by his team, he said "We didn't do what the kids said would be lame, and did do what they said would be cool."

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