June 17 (Bloomberg) -- Toontown Online, loosely based on the 1988 Walt Disney Co. film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” was a multiplayer Internet game for kids and families that drew more than 1 million users after it was introduced in 2003.
Disney shut it down last year amid a shift away from subscription-based games. Now, it’s getting a second life thanks to fans who have created a knockoff version without the company’s permission.
In the original game, animal characters called Toons tried to prevent the takeover of their town by corporate robots called Cogs. After Disney closed Toontown Online in September to focus on other projects, about two dozen developers, many in high school or college, created Toontown Rewritten. The site is flourishing: traffic has grown so fast that users have to wait in line to play, according to the 16-year-old project leader.
“We’re all just a bunch of nostalgic players who think that the game deserves to live a little longer,” said the teenager, Joey Ziolkowski, in a telephone interview from his parents’ home in Princess Anne, Maryland.
Whether to allow Toontown Rewritten to continue is a tricky decision for Disney. If the company lets Ziolkowski and his collaborators keep going, it builds goodwill with fans. On the other hand, Disney may want to sell the content in the future, and the company could suffer reputational damage if something bad happens to players online, according to Scott Landsbaum, a copyright attorney in Los Angeles.
“When does a fan homage that is beneficial to your brand cross the line to infringement that can no longer happen?” Landsbaum said in an interview.
While publishers have allowed gamers to create software modifications that add features to their titles, it’s unusual for fans to redo an entire game without authorization, according to Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Securities Inc. in Los Angeles.
Brian Nelson, a spokesman for Disney, declined to comment.
Toontown Online was billed as the first Internet multiplayer game for kids and families when it was introduced. It cost customers $9.95 a month to access all levels of play.
At one point, the game had more than 1 million free and paying fans, according to Rebecca Metz, a former Disney employee who supervised customer support for the site. More recently the numbers had dwindled. Users could chat with each other, and it became a way of building relationships, Metz said. Some military personnel used Toontown Online as a way to connect with their kids while serving away from home.
“It became a community as much as a game,” Metz said in a telephone interview.
In the past decade, Disney made a big push into online virtual worlds, including the $350 million purchase of Club Penguin in 2007. Recently, it has focused on free-to-play mobile games and Club Penguin, shutting Toontown Online and other Internet worlds that featured characters such as pirates and fairies.
The end of Toontown Online left some fans distraught and prompted a petition to save it on Change.org that drew more than 21,000 signatures.
“Toontown has helped me through so many rough patches of my life,” wrote a fan from Kirkland, Washington, who identified herself as Jasmine A on the Change.org site. “I literally burst into tears when I read that Toontown was closing.”
Ziolkowski and 24 or so others, including programmers, texture artists and composers, began working from around the world on their version of Toontown almost immediately after hearing the game was being discontinued.
The group reengineered the title using publicly available images and information, going live with Toontown Rewritten in a limited capacity in October, Ziolkowski said. He said they don’t intend to charge for access.
The developers have taken steps to distance the game from Disney, including asking players to certify that they understand the site is not affiliated with the company. And while Toontown Rewritten has a similar look and premise as the original game, key Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were deliberately left out of the action. Ziolkowski, who describes himself as a Disney and Pixar fan, said he’s had no contact with the company.
“A lot of people see them as the bad guy because they closed their favorite online game,” he said. “We know they were making a financial decision.”
From a cold start, Toontown Rewritten’s traffic grew to more than 60,000 unique visitors in April, according to the online research firm Compete Inc. By comparison, Disney’s ClubPenguin.com had 2.8 million visitors that month.
Sam Edwards, a 22-year-old software engineer who said he worked 20 hours a week on the game, never expected more than 10,000 players.
“I’m blown away by those numbers,” Edwards said in an interview. “It’s all volunteer work.”
The Toontown Online closure reflects a broader effort by Disney, the world’s biggest entertainment company, to turn around its interactive division, which hasn’t posted an annual profit in the five years it has disclosed results. In March, the unit said it would cut 700 jobs. Disney Infinity, its hybrid action-figure video game, has helped the division generate profit for the past three quarters.
The biggest challenge for Toontown Rewritten lies with Disney’s reaction, said Jesse Schell, the executive who supervised design of the original game for the Burbank, California-based company. Schell, who’s no longer with Disney, is rooting for Ziolkowski and his crew.
“I can’t believe what they’ve been able to achieve,” Schell said. “It’s great that they love the game so much.”
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