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Farewell, VMK

Rating: 11 votes, 5.00 average.
A few hours ago I read the news that Disney has decided to close the Virtual Magic Kingdom game, a FREE! (and that word will become important later) online multiplayer game created around the time of Disneyland's 50th Anniversary and "designed for 8-14 year olds."

Thinking this must be a late April Fool's joke, I quickly checked the VMK home page and yes, there it was, the official word right from Yavn's mouth. (Yavn is the screen name for one of the VMK producers, a nice guy I've had the pleasure of meeting in real life a few times)

My next stop was the VMKForums Web site, a fan site devoted to all things VMK. Sure enough, the site was in an uproar about the announcements, with the members planning everything from "dress your character in all black" protests to a massive phone and e-mail blitz begging Disney to change their corporate mind.

For a split second, I considered adding my voice to the fray by making my own phone call when the Disney Internet Group offices open tomorrow, but then that little censor in my head overrode any such childish impulse. I suddenly had visions of exactly what such a phone call would sound like...

"Hello, Disney Internet Group? I'm calling to protest the announced closure of Virtual Magic Kingdom."

"No, I'm not calling for my kids - I don't even have kids."

"Yes, I realize it's a child's game, but don't you know adults play too?"

and so on, and so on, and so on.

Seriously - how embarassing to have to try to explain why an adult cares about the fate of a child's video game!

But then the part of me that is actually somewhat upset by this started fighting back. Exactly how is playing VMK any more mock-worthy than spending hours battling crazed rabbids as my husband and friends do with their Wiis, or forming guilds to battle evil wizards as a colleague does on World of Warcraft?

Why is being a hockey or baseball fan somehow more "real" if you're not the one on the ice or running the bases?

And why exactly do I feel defensive about this anyway? Heck, I've spent a good chunk of my life being mocked by "Muggles" for my obsession with all things Disney, but that hasn't prompted me to hide my 5' Sorcerer Mickey plush or stop wearing my extensive collection of Disney Reyn Spooner shirts. Yet even among some of my Disney friends, trying to explain VMK - and admitting that I actually *gasp* play! - is enough to start them down the road to an intervention.

Sure it's a little odd chatting online with another player when you're not sure if the person behind the avatar is 7, 27 or 70, but that's why VMK doesn't let you give out personal information. Don't ask, don't tell. I frequently complain to my husband that "the nine-year-olds" are beating me at the VMK Fireworks or Pirates of the Caribbean game, but I know that a great number of the players are adults.

There's also the whole "professional detachment" thing. It is unseemly to come off as a geeky fan girl when asking for interviews with the people responsible for Disney's online initiatives - even if the first question I now want to ask them is "why, WHY did you do this!?!?" (And on the off chance the person I recently requested an interview with is reading this, I promise not to lead with that question.)

But this is ridiculous. I'm a grown, college-educated adult! I own businesses, create jobs, pay taxes! And I'm not the only adult who spends entirely too many hours hanging out on a virtual Main Street. I guess it's time to come clean, air my dirty secret, stand before my fellow Disney fans and say:

"My name is Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix, I'm a responsible adult, and I like VMK."

By way of explaination, Yavn said "VMK was created and launched as part of a promotion to celebrate Disneyland's 50th Anniversary. The game/promotion has ran well beyond the original time it was intended to," and encouraged players to check out Disney's other games like "Pirates of the Caribbean Online, Disney's ToonTown Online, Club Penguin and the upcoming Fairies and Cars online virtual worlds."

What's do all of these things have that VMK doesn't? A registration fee. Sure, there are free, low-feature versions of some of these games, but each of the existing games comes with the option of paying for enhanced access and features. VMK was really just a "proof of concept" for these newer games, and since it isn't generating any cash flow for the company, has probably served its purpose.

What does VMK have that those other games don't? In my opinion, heart. I tried Pirates online during the Beta phase. Not only did the game's graphics make me dizzy and slightly ill, I couldn't figure out if there was EVER anything to do but fight or be fought. Toontown Online is just a little... too... placid?

VMK is built to look like a Disney theme park - you can wander through New Orleans Square, ride the Peter Pan attraction, hop aboard the Monorail. None of the other games offer anything like that atmosphere, a way for people to step "foot" onto Main Street when they are hundreds and thousands of miles away. That has always been the most compelling part of the game to me, and the thing I most wish to see preserved.

I've also been impressed by the sheer amount of creativity that players have demonstrated in the game. VMKers don't just hang out and chat, they build things - personal rooms, rides, quests and games. You would not believe what some of these players can do with just the pixels they are given - and VMK players aren't even allowed to create their own items like some other games allow.

VMK isn't just a game, it's a community of people, and it's truly unfortunate to see that community go away. There are people who met during the "Beta" phase three years ago who are still good online friends today - and don't even know how to contact each outside of VMK due to the "no personal information" policy. I imagine we'll see a lot of players quietly try to circumvent those policies in an effort to stay in touch with their friends.

Several of the "nine-year-olds" on the VMK fan site I mentioned have offered to pay for the game if only Disney would consider allowing it to stick around. I would cheerfully, gladly do the same - so long as there was a reasonable expectation that the Kingdom could be moved onto more powerful servers to solve the lag issues inherent in the current game. I'd even welcome a "new and improved" VMK, where everyone starts fresh in a shiny new Kingdom if that's what Disney felt was the business model they needed to persue.

Whatever happens, I wish I could be there for the final day of VMK. (Instead I'll be on the Disney Magic sailing towards California) I imagine it will be like the last night of the ISP who's name I have long since forgotten, with thousands of people logged on at 9:59:59 PDT to see if they really pull the plug.

Farewell, VMK. It's been fun.

I'm sorry that we never got to do the VMK Virtual MouseAdventure I had planned - that would have been great.

But Yavn - if they do change their mind... you know where to find me.


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Updated 04-08-2008 at 12:40 PM by AVP

Disneyland , Featured


  1. olegc's Avatar
    hmm - sounds like VMK became just like Second Life - without even knowing it. However, second life went ahead and allowed people to do things with real money - even online banking. Of course, they now also had their first bank closure - and all the funds are gone - and the guy basically said "it's just a game, right? " second life never had anything to truly protect itself or others against this - and the US courts are not prepared for it.

    Damn - should have been an Internet attorney :-D
  2. stan4d_steph's Avatar
    Oh great, just when I introduced my nephew to this game. He plays ToonTown Online, but there's really a limited amount of stuff you can do with the free version, and $80/year seems like too much to spend to me.
  3. AVP's Avatar
    Oh great, just when I introduced my nephew to this game. He plays ToonTown Online, but there's really a limited amount of stuff you can do with the free version, and $80/year seems like too much to spend to me.
    Especially when there is no reason to believe that the game will continue for any set period of time. By closing VMK, Disney is setting a very unfortunate example. I look at all of the people who bought specific Disney merchandise *just* to get the VMK code that was offered with it, who opted to stay in a Disney-owned hotel at WDW so they would get the special codes that came with such a stay, who made multiple trips to Disneyland to complete quests offered there, who bought specific Disney movies (like Herbie) to get the VMK codes packaged inside, or who bought specific brands of Kellogg's cereal, or who redeemed Disney Movie Rewards points for VMK items, and I really feel for them. Though the announcement said that VMK was a promotional game designed for the 50th anniversary, and has gone on much longer than Disney intended, none of that ever quite made it into the game's marketing message.

    Now Disney is essentially saying that none of that matters - it was a promotion, it's over, it's all virtual anyway, time to "graduate" to a new game. Yet their actions have to make players seriously question how much time to devote any time to these new games. Why spend time - or especially money - building a new character in a new community when they could just as easily pull the plug there when the game no longer serves their corporate purpose?

    Closing VMK in this manner devalues everything that VMK players have done for the past three years, dismisses the very real community that has been built, puts the lie to all of Disney's marketing about this project and calls into question their long-term commitment to any of their other games. This may sound extreme, but having been once burned by a Disney game, I think players are really going to have to think again about investing so much again.

    It's been suggested to me that Disney has no choice but to close VMK. Sulake, the company behind Habbo's Virtual World that actually built VMK for Disney, issued a press release in February announcing their new partnership with the William Morris Agency (link). According to an article in the Hollywood Reporter, Sulake signed a deal with Paramount Digital Entertainment sell licensed "virtual" souvenirs for "The Spiderwick Chronicles," "Beowulf" and "Mean Girls" (link). A day or two before the VMK announcement, Sulake announced a advertising partnership with Double Fusion to provide targeted marketing to consumers within the Habbo worlds (link).

    Sulake also created the original online CokeStudios environment, which Coke later rebuilt and now operates independently of Sulake. One rumor floating about is that Sulake is not willing to extend the license of the game they created for Disney. (The timing fits - the game is scheduled to close two days shy of the 3rd anniversary of the Beta launch in 2005, so there may be something to this theory.)

    All of this is rumor, and so far Disney isn't talking.

    I've been somewhat surprised by the effort many VMK players are making to save this game. I've personally been contacted by three different players asking if MousePlanet would write about the closure, and apparently one of the players actually got CNN to consider running a blurb. (That story was reportedly spiked when Disney would not provide comment.) There are surely more important issues on the world stage, but it's intersting just how committed some of the players really are. There have even been reports that the in-game hosts, presumably Disney employees, have been encouraging players to contact Disney to protest the closure. You can't walk into a public room in VMK right now without seeing a "Save VMK" chant or signature file.

    I don't think this is over yet.

  4. ForeverWDW's Avatar
    Virtual World News - Business news, Strategy, Insight, and Analysis is currently running a story about the closing of VMK. Several people have already shared their stories there in the hopes it will reach the right people. Many more have yet to find this place to voice out against the closing. Please take a moment and read (bring tissues). If you can please leave a comment or share your story.

    If the real life stories there dont break your heart, nothing will. Disney is doing more then just simply shutting down a project. They are destroying childrens hopes and dreams. They are taking away the one place where children of all ages can be free to explore, learn, commincate, grow, imagine, heal, florish, and DREAM.

    I know "Yavn" is watching out there somewhere in cyber space. Please fight for us Yavn. I find it difficult to believe that your sitting back watching your own project go down the drain while thousands of children are crying out in despair and your doing nothing to stop it. Please help bring the magic you once believed in back to life. Please help dry the eyes of the children you have touched worldwide.
  5. Mr.Abominable's Avatar
    My name is Michael Shearin, I am a responsible adult and I love VMK!
    Though I have been too busy at work to play much VMK the last few weeks, I am very sad that this little Disneyland is closing. It has always been a little Disney oasis in my real life that I could steal away to at any time to get my disney fix. I have met a ton of other responsible adults who love to play it, many of whom don't get to go to a Disney Park as often as I do so it has become very important to them. I am sure that the "virtual" friendships that we have made will find some way of keeping contact, weather it is on the VMK fansites like VMKMagic or VMKforums or on other games like POTC is still to be determined. For now I will try to play as much as I can the next 17 days even though the lag is horrible and there is so much cool stuff being released that it is not even fun to buy any of it. I fully support a pay to play version and I hope some form of the Kingdom makes a return, until then, thanks for the memories and the magic VMK.