Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Poptropica

I've mentioned a few times that one of the webcomics I like reading is Lost Side of Suburbia, by Kory Merritt. A few months ago, Kory finished the epic illustrated story that he'd been writing for close to 2 years, The Bogey, and he announced that he'd picked up work illustrating something written by an award-winning author. So, he was going on hiatus, and wasn't in a position to provide any additional details beyond that. Then in May, he came back with a little short-story entitled The Epic Doodle-Off, which riffed on The Great Smoke-Off by Shel Silverstein, with an apparent co-starring role by the famed Terry Gilliam. This was soon followed by another illustrated story, Cork. What we weren't getting was further information regarding the thing involving that "award-winning writer".

After a few days, some of the readers on GoComics started talking about a comic on the advertising website Poptropica as showing the signature elements of Kory's background designs. A week later, GoComics announced that they were carrying a new webcomic by Paul Gilligan (creator of Pooch Cafe and Kory Merritt, called Poptropica, thus confirming the earlier rumors. Since I don't have an account on poptropica.com, I wasn't able to track down the webcomic on their site, and could only find the weekly compilations run in the creator's blog.

One of the first complaints by at least one of the GoComics commenters is that Paul and Kory are working to promote an advertising site. This is true, but it kind of misses the point. Webcomics pay very poorly, and it's becoming harder than ever to get carried in the newspapers. Professional cartoonists generally need to take on outside contract work to pay the bills. It doesn't matter if the outside work is illustrating for a catalog of some kind, or promoting an advertising site. Money has to come from somewhere, and as long as the job pays well, fine. That just means that the less-commercial works, like Pooch Cafe and Lost Side can keep running as well.

But...
If you're not familiar with Poptropica, it's paid for by the conglomerate that owns Caprisun. Half of the advertising is directly aimed at selling sugar drinks to children, the other half is for things like the upcoming Legos and Dragons movies. So, in that sense, it's one big commercial. The primary hook is that "Poptropica" is a collection of islands with various adventure games on each one. To get a feel for the site, I decided to tackle the first island as an unregistered user. You get to create your own avatar and customize it to some extent. Then, the story is that you have to get a key to allow a movie director to unlock a submersible on a boat to film deep-water fish for a documentary he's making. After that, you operate the sub to solve puzzles that lead to snapping "pictures" of five rare fish. It's a very simple role-playing adventure game that took me a couple hours to solve. When I finished, the game told me that to unlock additional islands, I'd have to pay money.

Paying to play on a site that is one big commercial doesn't appeal to me, so I closed the page without creating an account. A few days later, I had a little time to kill, and I wondered what would happen if I randomly clicked on a different island without logging in. Surprisingly, the game loaded and started running without protest. This one had a greek mythology theme, and you have to run around solving puzzles before facing off against Zeus. While the game arena is fairly large, the designers basically created something that is exactly WRONG as a game. Every new screen requires several minutes to load (or reload) the graphics. Every other screen is an ad for something that also takes a minute or two to load, without contributing to the game itself. There's a lot of backtracking between screens, requiring more reloading of the graphics. And then there's a lot of dead space on the screens; you can jump on almost anything (statues, trees, buildings) but there's little point to it half of the time. It took me close to 4 hours to solve the puzzles and get to the final battle with Zeus, when it could have been as little as 30 minutes without all of the screen load time.

And that's when the game locked up. I was able to create a free account, but when I log back in to the game, it takes me to the screen with Zeus, says that it's loading the graphics, and then just sits there. I've waited for 20 minutes, and still nothing. I've tried using Firefox and Chrome, with identical results.  Overall, very disappointing.

Bottom line, if a company is going to go to the effort to make a gaming site to promote its products, they really should use gamers to test whether the site achieves its objectives. Which, first, should be to create an environment where people want to keep coming back. Second, that it doesn't crash. And third, that it doesn't take forever just to go from one screen to the next.

Bottom line, part 2 - If you don't like poptropica.com, you're probably not really going to relate to the webcomic by Gilligan and Merritt. Which is a shame, because they could do beautiful things together under better circumstances. As things stand, though, I'm not going to bother following this one.

2 comments:

Poptropican said...

Hmm... not exactly. As an experienced Poptropica player myself, I figured I'd clear up some of the misconceptions you posted about:

Poptropica is not (primarily) an advertising site; it's a children's game. It is owned by Pearson Education, which has nothing to do with Caprisun. Poptropica does run ads in their game's virtual world, but that is hardly their focus. The point, which you partially experienced for yourself, are the "islands", each with their own storyline and adventure to go through.

You do not have to pay money to unlock islands; anyone can play any of the currently existing islands out there, with this exception - Poptropica does have a subscription option, where paying members get benefits like exclusive items and a chance to play the newest islands earlier than everyone else. But Poptropica is fair - after a period of time (typically a month or less), everyone will get to play the new island. Try it for yourself if you like, just travel on the yellow blimp and you can go from island to island without paying anything.

Poptropica did recently start converting some islands to a different format (bigger screen, music, sound effects), Mythology and Mission Atlantis (which you played) being a couple of them, and unfortunately these tend to be glitchier. You might find that some of the older islands (the ones not colored on the map) are less prone to crashing, that is, if you still want to give it a shot. :P

As for the Poptropica webcomic, so far it has little to do with the actual game world other than the way the characters are drawn. However, I quite enjoyed it anyway, so if 'the adventures of two lost boys trying to find their way home' appeals to you, you could give it a read. :)

TSOTE said...

Thanks for the comment clearing things up.

After posting this blog entry, I got a reply from Poptropica support saying that they'd reset my account so everything should be better now. But, the game still locks up at the same point before the Zeus battle, so they hadn't actually fixed anything.

Thanks for the offer of returning to the game for the other islands. But, it just takes so long to load each screen. I'd rather play something that runs faster.

I am still following the webcomic on GoComics, as long as it appears as one of the top 3 announcements for the GoComics blog. It's not added to my subscribe list, yet, though.