The Poptropica Puzzle

The one question I ask most often about the internet is the following: why do people make such great stuff and then give it away for free?

The website Poptropica is a perfect example. Poptropica is a virtual online world in which children take part in adventures that require creativity, persistence, logic, and coordination to solve. If you have kids aged 6 to 12, it is definitely worth taking a look.

Not only is it fun for kids, but it is fun for adults too (at least this adult), and it is a great learning tool.

The unfortunate downside of the website is that addiction is a probable outcome. The last time I saw my son Nicholas so lost to the world was right before the intervention that culminated in us sending him to Club Penguin Anonymous.

I have been contributing to his downward spiral this time. Yesterday I was lying in bed half-awake, when I suddenly came up with a hypothesis as to how to beat Sir Rebral, who had confounded Nick for days on Poptropica. I woke Nick up to tell him. Happily, my conjecture proved correct.

The thing that I simply cannot understand about Poptropica is why it exists. Webkinz and Club Penguin both have revenue-generating business models. Poptropica is simply free — no subscription fees, no ads, no nothing that generates any money. On the Poptrica F.A.Q., it says that it was created by Family Education Network, a division of Pearson. That seems like a group of folks who might like to get paid for their hard work. So can anyone explain to me why Poptropica exists?

Just today, my daughter Amanda became the first kid in the family to finish all the available adventures. Her sense of triumph was powerful, but short-lived. Just seconds after putting the final jewel into the statue of Nabooti, she turned to me forlorn and asked, “Now that I finished Poptropica, what am I going to do?”

I didn’t have a good answer for her.

marie nancionnette..

Maybe the question is why are you taking it for free?


this is kind of a weird post- it goes on explaining why poptropica exists, but then at the end asks why it exists- the iterative irony would be to ask why this blog exists- sure, the naive cynic would answer money makes the world go round, but there's plenty o blogs that serve their function irregardless of monetary transaction


I think they make money in the educational market, publishing market, or plan to hit those markets hard in the next couple of years...

Fred T.

I have a locally-focused web site that gets approximately 500 unique visitors a day. I have often been asked why I don't have ads or other revenue-generating mechanisms on the site and my response is that I do the web site as my version of community service.

Also, that copyright notice with "Pearson Education" is nice branding. Those people using Poptropica who later hear any reference to Pearson Education will (I'm sure Pearson hopes) remember a good experience with the site and think of them favorably.


And even Sears is getting into the act:

"-- - Developed a custom Sears game for and a Sears building within, a virtual world."

Of all the b-m businesses- this is the last I would have though of doing this.


It's that same horrible feeling when you finish a great book and realize, oh my, I've got nothing to do anymore.


though it feels like I'm channelling my mother from all those years ago... she could always go outside and play.


Building a brand name is expensive by any account, and generally involves giving away something for free - for example product samples.

It's probable that the Poptropica brand gets put to use in the near future to generate revenues. Having an existing relationship (and seemingly a genuinely positive one) with parents and children can do nothing but good for the creators.

Also, the developer FableVision is a non-profit organisation so perhaps they're not desparate to monetize; just the success of Poptropica might lead to more funding for them.

Anyway, the company press release is here:

We thank the web for providing all answers.


How soon we forget the DotCom boom? The boilerplate internet business plan:

Create a site. Offer something for free. Gain market share, or create a market. Sell your company to Google for a huge amount.

Joe Smith

"I woke Nick up to tell him. Happily, my conjecture proved correct."

So he is an addict and you are an enabler - that's nice.

Turn off his computer and kick him outdoors.


My mistake, FableVision is not a non-profit. So they probably are going to want to get moneys.


I would assume the site builds up a familiarity among users that would channel them into the revenue-generating ventures--at least in theory.

In practice, who knows... maybe they received a grant from some organization to build an education video game.


Is this really such a difficult question? They give it away because they can and they want to.

Perhaps the entire motivation was never to make money, but to educate? Perhaps they thought of it as art? Both of these are things that are best shared, and all too often money does nothing but get in the way of that. How many people would go to that site if they had to pay for it?


I've seen ads for both Wall-E and Trix on Poptropica.


Could you ask Amanda how she got inside the pyramid at Giza on Nabooti Island? Thanks.


"why do people make such great stuff and then give it away for free?" - because people act not only on monetary incentives.

A good example is the music. Prior to the introduction of the copyright (which is something very new in human history) people still created great music and most of them were not paid for that and some were paid peanuts.

If you ask such a question then you should ask how much Isaak Newton was paid for discovering the theory of gravity. Or how much money did Charles Darwin get for his evolution theory. And the list goes on...

Kevin H

Maybe this should signal that there are certainly big holes in the basic economic theory of incentives that needs a different approach. It is quite clear that in small groups individuals are willing to make large sacrifices in order for betterment of the group. It has generally be accepted that if this group gets too large however, that this form of behavior breaks down and people become more selfish, requiring personal incentives to do right by the whole.

Maybe, the internet provides a kind of psychological trick to make the brain act as if it were in a small group situation, providing goods for nothing more than the general good. I could come up with a bunch of crackpot theories as to why this is true, but I'm sure some good experiments could start to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Douglas F.

They don't charge because there must be n websites on the internet who does it for free. Some a little better, some a little worse, but certainly not worse enough to be worth paying for. Maybe, in a environment of truly free competition, the only price of equilibrium is zero.


In early 2009, Poptropica will begin to charge for premium services - early access to new islands, for example. This will provide an additional revenue source while keeping the core of the site free, assuring that Poptropica will publish to even more kids while also strengthening its brand and licensing value.


Many online games start as free and build interest within its community. After the game's popularity hits a certain point, opportunities to build in extra features and heightened gameplay become economically viable. Then you get the subscription fees and in-game ads.

This sequence can be seen all the time in MMORPGs and puzzle games - games with the largest markets.