Sunday, September 1, 2013

Holocluck Henly on Disney's "Toontown" Closing

By Bixyl Shuftan


On August 20, the players of Disney's multiplayer online game "Toontown" got some unwelcome news. The game would be closing in a month. One of the more well-known Toontown players in Second Life is Holocluck Henly. I met up with him and asked him a few questions about the game.

So how was the game played? Holocluck told me, "You're a happy go lucky cartoon animal in Toontown, but humanoid robots called Cogs are trying to take over. They are based on corporate stereotypes and they are turning shops into office buildings etc. The toons fight back using silly slapstick gags. The cogs retaliate with corporate clich├ęs and office supplies. It,s intended for all ages, and like a classic cartoon people of all generations each get something out of it. … There are things you can do beside fighting cogs. You can socialize, you can play golf, race autos, fish, and more."

"An account comes with 6 characters sharing an estate where each of their homes are." The various toon types "are more preference and what you like to look and sound like in game. When you type to friends or use the vast library of pre-written phrases, your character makes animal gibberish to word balloons, different sounds based on questions, exclamations, one or several words etc. Originally only friends who traded special codes received outside the game could text chat. Everyone else was via the phrases and you could purchase phrases. But a few years ago they opened it up to parental permission and you just had to verify on the site and the inworld accounts could talk to each other. Still some words are not in the vocabulary and become animal gibberish. That's the other thing. if you were to read it, you saw 'arf arf ruff' in the word balloon for a dog for instance."

Of the toon types, "Originally there were cats, dogs, ducks, rabbits, horses, and mice. They aded monkeys and bears eventually, and then pigs."

"The amusing thing about the game was that so many adults played. many of them were parents whose kid may have started and then the parent got addicted while the kid moved on to something else." Ads at Nickelodian and Nick at Night attracted both kids and adults, "This was the ad: ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XCUTFd-ZRqM )."

Holocluck admitted he was "a great fan of the 30s-40s Warner Brothers" cartoons, "I'm a traditionalist." He stated he had learned animation "a few decades back. … I learned at a college owned by Disney called california institute of the arts. A few Disney veterans ran a character animation program. Toontown is 3D, I believe it utilizes Python. But it's the feel of a traditional cartoon, and some of the animation is just great. Going to Goofy's Speedway and watching Goofy walk around... to an animator it's very rewarding (laughter)."

"Being a Disney game, is that when you build your toon (when you first join the game) it can come in a combination of proportions. And each one moves differently. Same as the cogs, who have about three different basic physiques. they move different from one another in everything they do. That sounds a bit technical but I'm an adult and an adult cartoonist. I look at it a little differently. He smiled, "And then I drop a piano on the head of some lawyer robot."

I asked him about the attacks, and he answered you start with small ones and work your way up, "you start with a squirting lapel flower and a cupcake. These can be worked up to a geyser and a wedding cake." Attacks like the dropped piano need the help of another toon to distract the target first.

"Walking around Toontown is just great. there are several neighborhoods with themes. Obviously in the game you work your way in tasks and challenges from neighborhood to neighborhood. But the meticulous attention made to these, the names of the shops, the styles... and the last few years some things like hydrants and mailboxes have personalities and animate."

I asked Holocluck about the tasks, "They start off simple enough, a cog, fish something out of the pond. there is a narrative which flows through the neighborhood of some shopkeeper or other who was harassed by cogs or something was stolen etc. And as you achieve these you can carry more gags at a time, jellybeans at a time, get bigger, maybe handle many tasks at once. And eventually you fight the source of the cogs. Not for the faint of heart."

"There are four categories of cogs: the lawyers, the salesmen, the financiers and the bosses. Each has a headquarters and there's someone making them. (It's) Usually a behemoth of a robot in charge and up to 8 toons go in together to defeat them. There is usually a battle not unlike the ones in the streets or in buildings, a stream of four cogs at a time versus up to four toons at a time for about ten minutes. Then the special, direct fight with the one in charge."

"As an example, the cashbot CFO (chief financial officer) looks like a cash register for a head, a large body with dollar signs for the suit pattern, and the bottom half of him looks like tank treads. There are some toons who take to cranes (I do that) where we work with the other toons who disabled these special sentinels coming out from between the treads,. and we take large magnets and fling the things into the CFO in the middle. Then when he periodically gets dizzy we grab large safes and smack him." Holocluck laughed, "then we win! And we get some special perk. The fight itself may be different each type of cog."

I asked Holocluck what kind of perks did toons get for beating boses. He answered,  "Well for the CFO fights we get special phrases we can say which can endow anyone within range with jellybeans, more gags, or more laff. (Toons) don't die but our levels called laff can diminish in a fight."

For the lawyer cog boss battle, "in the case of the lawbot CJ aka Chief Justice, the CJ is blindfolded, love that one. After the cog battle there is a sequence where for a limited time the cogs are landing into the jury seats and we use cannons to shoot toons to replace them. When time is up the more toons means the scale in the center of the large room may be in our favor. There comes a sequence where once side of the room the cogs are lined up throwing evidence aka books at their side of the scale, and we throw on our side and run to restock etc from the witness. They occasionally skid their evidence on the ground to trip us. we gotta know to jump (grin). Oh and the giant gavels. gotta be careful where to stand." Holockuck laughed, "We win when the scale reaches down on our side."

One element of character advancement was deciding on what new skills to have, "as they advanced and added other types of gags … you had to leave one off. One gag was not for the cogs but for fellow tons: the toon-up." This move ranged, "from a tickle feather to a high dive act into a glass of water, making friends laugh during battle to being their numbers up."

"We had pets called Doodles which look like a 'Lil Abner' 'Schmoo,' and we could train them to do tricks and come out during battle for that. The animatons on those are marvelous and the personalities are very complex. That alone makes it a shame (Toontown) is leaving."

There were some special happenings during holidays. For instance, one could make a black cat character around Halloween. Besides those, "there are invasions, when a particular cog is everywhere at once. regardless of the type of building etc. when that happens everything is double value in your efforts."

That a major corporation like Disney  would make a game in which the characters spent much of their time fighting corporate stereotypes, Holocluck commented, "Well, there was an inevitable irony waiting to happen." Toontown would soon be closing.

"Last month, Toontown was hit by teen hackers and they closed it and the test servers, for about a week, to patch the game up. The test server never came back but they made up for things with free beans (money) and other perks to celebrate returning and for our patience." Holocluck sighed, "But face it, that's a resource. If they have to work on that, and if they're scaling down guess what leaves."

An article on CNN stated Toontown had experienced a "significant drop in user numbers." Holocluck admitted after ten years, things were not looking as rosy for the game as in the past, "Times have since changed. things have gone mobile, they lost many players in the past to sophisticated MMORPG like star wars or WoW." Although Disney promoted the game in the past with commercials on television, they weren't doing so now. With the public " looking to apps, etc., they just launched Inifinity and pushing that." Holocluck concluded that Disney felt, "Disney online is just in the way."

Holocluck stated Toontown wasn't the only game closing, "A friend in Second Life goes to 'Pixie Hollow,' another game. The third is 'Pirates of the Caribean.' All three are closing Sept 19.  I believe … Disney pulled the plug on the Disney Online project. There was news this morning of major layoffs at ABC as part of their downsizing plan."

So where might the players go after the game closed, Holocluck didn't have an answer, "Nothing will take the place of Toontown. It was a nice game for people who wanted light hearted entertainment and challenges, some funny mixed with getting back at the corporate world, and beautiful Disney animation."

When not playing Toontown for the next few weeks, Holocluck Henly manages the Starship Diner at Hydrangea (77, 173, 72). He also DJs for Relay for Life events.

One can check out Holocluck's Youtube stream for more Toontown videos, and his Flickr page for pictures.

Image credit: Holocluck Henly

Bixyl Shuftan

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