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Jesse Schell and the Closing of Toontown

on Sat, 08/24/2013 - 00:00

On August 20, 2013—just a little over ten years after it initially launched—the Walt Disney Company announced that it was shutting down Toontown on September 19th. Based on the animated world contained in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Toontown is an Internet-based “massively multiplayer online role-playing game” featuring classic Disney characters with whom real-world subscribers can interact. While most MMORPGs are designed for adult-oriented gamers, Toontown was the first virtual world created for children and contained a more family-friendly aspect that made it a popular gathering place amongst parents and their off springs alike.

Although its registered users are not as strong as many other online virtual worlds, the news that Disney was closing Toontown caused an immediate uproar on the World Wide Web nonetheless, with numerous petitions requesting the media giant to change its decision. Aware that such efforts are not always successful, fans of Toontown became more optimistic when word began to spread that Jesse Schell of Schell Games, located on the South Side of Pittsburgh, was interested in purchasing the website. Schell is a strong advocate of educational and family-oriented video games and—more importantly—he was the Creative Director at Walt Disney Imagineering who oversaw the construction of Toontown back in the early days of the Twenty First Century.

“First, let me say that I’m super sad about Disney’s decision to shut Toontown,” Schell posted on the Toontown Central forums less than two weeks after the announcement. “Toontown has been a big part of my life since 1998, when we first started working on it. To see it close is extremely depressing, when it means so much to so many people.”

In terms of Toontown being transported to the Steel City, Jesse Schell was non-specific in regards to the possibility. “I know that there are rumors going around about Schell Games buying Toontown,” he said. “I can’t really talk about this, but I will say that there are discussions going on about the future of Toontown, and whether companies external to Disney will be a part of that. Unfortunately, these conversations are likely to be slow, so we should all anticipate Toontown closing on the date that has been announced.” In the meantime, Schell encouraged fans of the online virtual world to sign petitions, write letters to the Walt Disney Company and come up with their own creative ways to keep the spirit of Toontown alive.

According to a “written documentary” posted on ToontownNation, Jesse Schell was initially hired in 1995 by the Walt Disney Company to design theme park rides but turned his attention to the World Wide Web when the media giant was having difficulty constructing an effective Internet strategy. He and fellow Virtual Reality Studio team members first pitched an online theme park based around the 2001 animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which was in development at the time, but the Disney marketing department was against the idea. Schell and his colleagues then decided to build a more family-friendly MMORPG centered on the animated community from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The concept not only worked, but an entire generation has basically been raised within the virtual online community of Toontown.

“I think Toontown is unique in that its long-time users literally grew up with the game,” virtual worlds researcher Nick Yee told CNN. “It’s a little like me telling someone that they’re tearing down Sesame Street. Or that they’re tearing down the neighborhood playground where you used to play.” The family-friendly aspects of Toontown, meanwhile, have enabled families separated geographically to interact and stay in touch. “Most people know eight-year-old boys don’t want to talk on the phone,” Mike Kahn likewise explained to CNN after a divorce separated him from his young son. “Toontown has become the solution for us to spend time together. We can log in—my son in Florida and my daughter and I in Idaho—and all play together while talking, laughing and spending quality family time together.”

Odds are that the Walt Disney Company will indeed shut down Toontown on September 19, 2013, despite the best efforts of Jesse Schell and the thousands of online supporters of the virtual community. Disney is still keeping its popular Club Penguin operational, and hopes that subscribers to Toontown will migrate to that virtual world when Toontown itself inevitably closes its doors. That does not mean, however, that Schell considers September 19th to be the end of the online community he once helped create.

“Think of Star Trek,” he wrote on the Toontown Central forums. “It was cancelled after being on the air for three years, and there was no new Star Trek for TEN YEARS. Why did it come back? Because the fans loved it so much, they had conventions, they wrote fan fiction, they did everything they could to keep the show alive in their hearts. All that love paid off, and ten years later, Star Trek came back—first as movies, but then as a new show. And now, forty years later, the Star Trek community is still going strong. I hope you don’t have to wait ten years, but if Toontown really means something to you, and you aren’t just a fair-weather fan, then do what you can to keep it alive.”

Despite whatever the future might hold for Toontown, Jesse Schell can still take pride in not only his initial efforts but the ten years’ worth of memories the online community has provided its real-world residents—as well as his ongoing commitment to those fans as well.

Anthony Letizia (August 24, 2013)

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