To be honest with you I haven’t been visiting much lately. Maybe a couple of times a month. Sometimes I’ll get into a pattern of visits whenever they’re giving away something nifty or whenever I get to missing Disneyland more than usual.
On those occasions, Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom – a free, Second Life-style online community based on Disney’s theme park properties – is a godsend. It’s a fishbowl and a toybox and a ViewMaster reel and all other manner of good things, and looking at it calms me down.
Many times I’ve been content to simply stare at VMK, marveling at its friendly, colorful design and observing how players related to the environment. Some are consumed with the acquisition of in-game prizes, while too many others try to form meaningless boy-girl matchups (I had to turn off friend requests after a while to avoid them.) But I found that most players were like me – they weren’t there to win prizes or make connections, but simply to get the feeling of a Disney park. Players sat on benches and took in the scenery or danced in front of the “Castle” at closing time, delighted simply to be “in Kingdom.”
Disney’s decision to shut down VMK down permanently on May 21 illustrates perfectly why the entertainment giant can’t get a Google-sized fire started on the web. Disney Online spokesman Seth “Yavn” Mendelsohn claims that VMK was created only to promote Disneyland’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2005 – the single-most successful promotion the Park has ever seen, an event that really didn’t need the help.
“VMK was a valuable part of the Disneyland 50th Celebration, but it was never meant to live on forever,” Mendelson wrote. “It’s now time to focus our resources on our new virtual worlds.”
Meaning: We don’t have the time or the resources to support a game that doesn’t have a paid membership structure. Or our contract with Sulake ran out. Or we’re tired of chasing down hackers and people who put their VMK prizes on eBay – to say nothing of policing the developing hormones of thousands of tweens.
The real reason for the shutdown probably isn’t important; the company has made up its mind, and once that happens it’s only a matter of time the Peoplemover becomes the Rocket Rods. Besides, we’ll never know what forced Disney’s hand; the Mouse has mastered the art of non-transparent “transparency,” in which they justify their unpopular decisions by citing a valid reason that ultimately doesn’t matter in the final analysis. It’s like blaming a house fire on the existence of matchbooks.
Disney was likely unprepared for the outpouring of protest that followed Mendelson’s announcement. Message boards and bl-gs have exploded with anger and disappointment; a petition has sprung up; and even Motley Fool columnist Rick Munarriz, one of the fondest friends the Mouse has got in the investment world, has tasked Disney over the decision.
(By comparison, the recent debut of Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean”-themed online world has made scarcely any impact at all. Game reviewer Alice Liang damned the game with faint praise: “If you’re looking for a hardcore experience, you’ll be sorely disappointed … Outside of finishing the story-quests and general tomfoolery, there isn’t much to do.” Curiously, the same could be said of VMK, but users don’t seem to mind.)
It’s logical that Disney should want to roll its VMK audience into “Pirates” or “Faeries” or “Toontown,” but they need to understand a couple of important things. The audience can’t be rolled from one property to another, and more importantly, they have only themselves to blame for that failing. It would be one thing if Disney had presented VMK as a simple trivia game or community site, but they did more than that: They offered up VMK as another Disney theme park. They didn’t close Disneyland Paris when it was struggling, and it just made a profit, like, last week.
The free play doesn’t matter to players as much as the ability to visit a Disney theme park from their home, study hall or office. As of today you’ve got just under a month to shrink yourself into the Inner Space shop, launch fireworks over the Castle, photograph animals from the Jungle Cruise, capture ghosts at the Haunted Mansion or simply sit on a Main Street bench at the end of a long day in the real world.
I’m no corporate strategist – but I don’t think you need to be one to know when you’re going against the will of your customer base. In creating VMK, Disney re-created the Disneyland experience in a new and wholly engaging way, and engendered brand loyalty. In killing it, they’re telling an entire segment of their online audience that their wants never mattered. Welcome aboard the Rocket Rods.