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VMK: Saving Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom

This is the story of how Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom (VMK) came to its end and how and why it doesn’t have to be that way.

The year is 1959. Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom of Disneyland is just about to enter its third year of operations. Disneyland has been very successful not just in attendance, but in creating a new type of community; a remaking of Main Street America in Walt’s image. Walt calls Disneyland his great experiment. He uses it to cross-promote his movies, television shows, and his growing interest in urban planning.

However, something is not quite right. The surrounding area has penned his magical kingdom in with cheap looking motels and tourist traps. Disneyland really needs to grow, add new attractions, even remake whole parts of the theme park that just aren’t working. Walt has got grand ideas, add a steel roller coaster hidden inside the Matterhorn, bring online a monorail system (even extending to Downtown Los Angeles), remake parts of Fantasyland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland and even Main Street. Perhaps to open even a whole new city where urban blight will be a thing of the past.

All that will cost money, take time, and talent. Those are resources Walt could use elsewhere in his growing company. So he decides that his ‘experiment’ in 360 degree themed entertainment has been a success. But he wants those customers go enjoy one of his other projects where there is a higher margin so he can afford his future plans.

So, shocking everyone who has come to love and enjoy Disneyland, worked there, made friends there, even come to regard its wide avenues and wondrous attractions as part of Americana itself, Walt Disney decides to end his experiment and set up shop elsewhere (perhaps Florida, where he’ll have more room).

In retrospect, we know that Walt Disney would have been crazy to make that move. Spending the money in the years between 1959 and 1967 was a great investment in Disneyland and in the Disney company brand. But at the time, it probably seemed like a reasonable option when faced with plenty of other opportunities to spend that cash.

Plus, by 1959, just a scant four years after opening, Disneyland really did belong to America. Walt’s tie-ins with his other properties (Mickey Mouse Club, True Life Adventures, the animated films) and his great sense of knowing what Americans wanted in their entertainment diet, even if they didn’t, made sure that Disneyland and America were inextricably tied.

Now, I’m not trying to equate the Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom (VMK) with present day Disneyland. But isn’t it a lot like Disneyland was in 1959?

Ironically, Disneyland plays a part in the killing of VMK, or rather, the way the Walt Disney Company does its internal accounting played a role. You see while you and I may see The Walt Disney Company as one behemoth organization with just a few brands — Disney, ESPN, Pixar (?) — that’s even how it presents itself in the annual report, the company sees itself as hundreds of little businesses (or divisions) each operating on two levels of sales.

The first level is with the general public. Each division is required to maximize its sales to the public. Eisner and crew saw this as a short term thing with 20% profits required from nearly every business unit (down to each individual churro cart at the theme parks) in order to justify its continued existence. Was that magic margin not reached, then cuts were required. Luckily it seems as if the current management team is a little more broad and long-term in its thinking. But they still want to maximize profit.

The second level is internal sales. As it turns out when Disneyland wants something built by Imagineering, they have to “pay” WDI to do it for them. Yes, it’s still the same company, but internal accounting rules require it. Those Pirates Of The Caribbean premieres at Disneyland the last five years? All paid for by Walt Disney Pictures, even the extra cast member hours required to staff the event.

When Disney Parks (I still hate that name for the division — could it be any less magical) wanted an online promotion as part of the world wide celebration of Disneyland’s 50th Anniversary, they paid Disney Online to set it up for them. Disney Online then went and licensed the software from Sulake Corporation to build the Virtual Magic Kingdom. I understand that Disney Online also did some additional programming work on top of what Sulake provided.

There have been some discussions recently that VMK is closing due to the original licensing agreement with Sulake coming to an end. Sulake did just sign an ‘exclusive’ agreement with Paramount Studios to provide virtual worlds for their film properties. That may have had something to do with it, but I haven’t been able to confirm that one way or another.

What I am hearing is that Disney Parks considers the 50th Anniversary promotion all wrapped up. They cut off funding for the project to Disney Online many months ago and that Disney Online has been looking at ways to continue VMK since then despite the loss of internal funding.

To switch to a pay-for-play system would require re-coding the entire game nearly from the ground up. It’s not even clear that Sulake would license them to do so. VMK has not attracted the kinds of numbers that would sustain an advertising supported system, and it’s not clear that Disney would want to do that anyway. Plus Disney does have other virtual worlds that these players can migrate too, so it’s not as if they’re totally cut off. Without any funds coming from the promotional budget of another department, it was time to turn out the virtual lights at the Virtual Magic Kingdom.

So, I guess the real villain of this story is Disney Parks who paid for the creation of such a wonderful place like VMK; fostered an online community of die-hard brand loyalists; and then cut off funding for the project without a care for the world they created and the people that inhabit it.

Of course, none of this internal accounting matters to fans of Disney’s VMK. They just know that their virtual Disneyland is going away.

Many of them are fighting mad. They’re doing what they can with websites, letters, petitions, comments to this blog and every other story they can find, in order to saveVMK.

The effort is getting some play in industry websites and in the news media as well. The WKMG story was picked up by briefly by

As of this writing has over 11,000 signatures on its petition and has over 7800. While there is probably some overlap there, that’s fairly large numbers. But in Disney’s world of accounting, it’s probably not enough to save VMK.

Game operators at VMK have responded to the player’s outcry:

Please know that the decision to close VMK was not made without a great deal of thought and discussion – because we loved creating VMK just as much as you loved playing it. We considered many options prior to closing but ultimately determined that VMK had accomplished its goal and then some. VMK was a valuable part of the Disneyland 50th Celebration, but it was never meant to live on forever. It’s now time to focus our resources on our new virtual worlds.

If you read between the lines you see the fingerprints of internal accounting everywhere in this statement. You also see a decision to abandon the game. I’m sure it was not made lightly. But it was made nonetheless and they don’t appear likely to reverse it.

So what can Disney do to relieve some of the pain being felt by their players?

Having been actively involved in various internet communities since the early 90s, I’ve gone through a few of these situations myself. Of the two that stand out, one was a Listserv (automated email list) and the other a MUD (a text based virtual world). In both cases they were shuttered by the owner, but rescued by a sympathetic system admin who had access to a recent subscriber list. Listservs and MUDs are fairly easy to set up assuming you have access to server resources required to run them. Both communities survive to this day, different from the original, but close enough that friends were able to stay in contact, etc.

The situation with Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom is a bit different. First, its not a bunch of college students playing hookie from class to complete that last quest before they level. Second, VMK has a lot of children. There are restrictions on chatting and what-not that restrict the dynamic of the game, but also made it a relatively safe place to play online. Along the same lines privacy is taken seriously, Disney isn’t just going to hand over the subscriber list to anyone. Third, Disney has internal goals. Those include directing existing players to other products.

That does not excuse Disney from setting up some sort of safe place where the community can still function while it transitions. This not only provides a win for the community, but a channel to direct these players to other properties, perhaps even as focus group members or other special status. It could be a discussion group (similar to Google groups) or a special sub-area of one of the new games where VMK handles and logins will still work. There are no doubt a few technical and privacy challenges to overcome here, but certainly fewer than recreating VMK from the ground up.

One of the lessons of Web 2.0, Social Media, whatever you want to call, it is that there is a responsibility to the community you foster. The information superhighway is now a two way street with content being created by brands and by consumers of those brands. There is co-ownership of that content. You have to respect the bonds that creates.

The decision to terminate VMK would be different if it was a buy-out or the Walt Disney Company was in financial trouble of some sort. Fans and players expect some change in those instances. However, neither are the case here. Instead this is abandonment of loyal brand loving consumers, pure and simple.

The game itself may die, but Disney’s responsibility to the community does not. I’m hoping that Disney will make some sort of effort to do the right thing and create a transitional space for VMK’s community until it is able to find a home in one of the other nooks and crannies of the net. It may not be the easiest thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do. Your fans will thank you for it instead of hate you as is happening now.

Previously: News of VMK Closing brings protests, Disney closing VMK in May 2008.

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