I had the opportunity to sit down with Lane Merrifield at Engage Expo 2010. Best known as Club Penguin co-founder, Lane currently serves as the Executive Vice President for Disney Interactive Media Group, overseeing all of the Disney virtual world properties. Lane and I chatted about his creative childhood, the early days of Club Penguin and the transition from independent venture to Disney brand.
*Note: This was a live interview and has been edited slightly for clarity.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
What did I want to be when I grew up? Well, I always wanted to be so many different things… I wanted to be a pilot for a long time; I wanted to be a fighter pilot. Actually got into ground school and did some training there. I wanted to be an inventor of some sort, so as a kid, me and my best friend built this crazy elaborate tree house in his backyard. Literally, it had elevators and zip lines. And it was something just like out of the movie Hook with rope swings and we had this big bucket…
I wish I had you to hang out with when I was little!
Well, yeah but we were kind of the nerds at the time because everyone's like, "Why aren't you out skateboarding?" We're like, "Because we've got to build an elevator for our tree house." So we had these bricks, and thankfully we weighed about the same, and literally it was about a brick difference and you would drop the brick and you'd go up and go down based on the weight in the bucket. I also worked at Disneyland in high school and so becoming an Imagineer, working in the creative side of that, was something that I wanted to do at some point.
I wanted to be an Imagineer, too.
Yeah? It's pretty amazing. I feel pretty privileged I've gotten to know a few of them and they are just creative and amazing. There are a few that are, like anything, a little more technical or whatever. But the imaginary-kind-of-imagination, creative types are fascinating. I mean, we'll just send emails back and forth discussing the nature of the universe and it's probably more intellectually inspiring than University ever was.
That's generally the way. So when did you know with Club Penguin… that you had hit on something big?
Well, I'm not sure if we ever knew it was going to be as big as it ended up becoming. But we knew we hit on something about a month in when, just by word of mouth, I think we went from about four or 5,000 users to 25,000 users just from them inviting their friends. We saw at that point, okay, there's something here and from there on in, it was kind of a roller coaster ride. Just holding on to, it was kind of like… the tiger by the tail in terms of us - I mean there are all of these stories that are never told about us being up all night and working until two or three in morning to keep the servers online because they were crashing. And for us, we probably had this over-exaggerated sense of responsibility because it was kids. It was our kids, it was friend's kids who were playing in this experience and we didn't want them to have a bad experience.
And so when the servers would go down, there was no element of, "Ah, we'll just fix it in the morning. It's 3 a.m., how many kids are waiting to use it right now?" When the servers went down, we were on it. It was almost like it would if half the hotel disappeared. You kind of need to be on there, you need to figure out how to fix it. So it was exhausting. It was a fun roller coaster ride; I'm glad I got to experience it. I'm not sure if I'd want to do it that way ever again because it was crazy stressful.
And what did your family think as you were going through this sort of crazy -
Yeah, it was pretty tough on them, which is probably the -
Sort of ironic?
Yeah, that's exactly it. I mean it's part of why even now we travel together a lot. In fact they're here now with me in New York. Today is my work day and tomorrow's my fun day with them. And yeah, it would be pretty awful if the very thing that I was trying to create, meaning a safe fun place for kids, ended up taking me away from my own kids. Which it kind of did for a season. It's actually kind of the reason behind the acquisition… we knew we wanted to take it farther creatively, but we were exhausted under the weight of trying to build an infrastructure. And so that's part of why we stepped out to ask, who's someone who exemplifies what we stand for in terms of safe, fun storytelling? And it was - it's been - great. I mean, it's been a process. Obviously joining Disney didn't instantly resolve all those things, but it did over time.
I'm in a place now where if I take a week off with my family…Well, first of all, it's possible to take a week off with my family, where before it was not. I mean, I probably went two and a half years without a day off, let alone a week off, because it was just evolving and changing and no one had done it before, there was no user manual on it. So we couldn't just refer back to the manual to try to figure out… like when you have 20,000 concurrents [users on at once], all sorts of different things are happening. And when you have 5,000 concurrents or 10,000 concurrents, then the servers are acting in strange ways and you're not sure why it's booting every fifth person - it was crazy.