“No pets,” your Mom tells you. It’s 2005, and boy is it heartbreaking. You’ve always yearned to play and snuggle your own lovable fur or feather covered pal, but mom’s rules are mom’s rules. So, you end up spending a lot of time on the family computer, downloading JPEG’s of rabbits and snakes to fill the void. You have school friends that have pets and that’s fun and all. Sometimes you all hang out with each other online too, on MMORPGs like Runescape and Neopets. Then, in the computer lab one day during free-time, your best friend shows you a site his older sister showed him called “Webkinz” where stuffed animals come to life and your days immediately begin to fill with precious gems, girlboss cats, and friendly yellow triangle-shaped gremlins. You get your mom to go to Hallmark right after school. You use your $10 allowance to buy your first plush pet, Harold, a turtle.
You rip open the tag on Harold’s foot that reveals a secret code that you quickly enter on Webkinz.com and get to meet your pet for the very first time. You can cuddle and play with your new friend in real life while also going on adventures, playing arcade games, and so much more than what you could do with a normal real life version of your animal. While you’ll still have to feed and make sure your pet gets enough sleep just like in real life in the game, collecting treasures in Arte’s Gem Hunt or spinning a big colorful wheel to earn KinzCash for food and furniture is a lot more fun than mowing a neighbor’s lawn or saving your precious allowance from mom.
The age old question many players always had was: Which came first, the plush or the online world? 18 years later, Webkinz fans are finally about to put many of their playground rumors to rest thanks to Karl Borst, Webkinz lifelong Creative Director, who recently agreed to an extensive interview. “The plush toy came first, in 2003,” explains Borst. “Howard Ganz, the owner of the company, loved the plush product and wanted to do something new to get the message out. The company did not feel that television advertising was a wise investment, and decided to invest that budget in an online site instead. The original concept had more to do with the classic play patterns of toys like Cabbage Patch Kids than any specific site or existing game. When I joined the team in 2004, I brought over 10 years of interactive experience, including children’s products for MSN, AOL Canada and Simon & Schuster. I had also spent a good amount of the previous year analyzing and playing Neopets while designing a kids virtual world for Bayer. So, this experience influenced how I guided the game once I took over as the Creative Director,” Borst states.
“One of the benefits of working for a privately owned company is that if the owner believes in the product, it’s funded. I remember in 2005 asking Howard Ganz what the budget would be for the year. He said ‘Don’t worry about that. Just make it great.’ Having that kind of support in the early days was critical to Webkinz’ success. A lot of companies would have shut Webkinz down by the end of 2005, but Howard gave us the time to grow our audience,” Borst demonstrates.
It didn’t take long since their launch in 2005 for the Ganz team to envision how successful Webkinz could really be, “On Webkinz Day in 2006 – we had over 75% of all players who had accounts show up. I think at that point I realized that we had something special happening,” Borst explains. Borst’s vision and artistic direction led the company to incredible peaks, topping out in 2009, “Our very peak was Easter 2009. We had 3.2 million unique players play the game that day alone,” says Borst.
“Remember that it wasn’t until 2007-2008 that we really went into the stratosphere. The original game when I got there was quite different from what we released. There was a whole other side of the game that had very little to do with caring for pets. In July 2004 we did a focus group with a number of kids to gauge reaction, with the idea that we would be launching in October. To put it simply, the test did not go well. Kids wanted to play with their pets and in the arcade – that was very clear. I told Howard that we needed to make significant changes and he agreed to give us more time. The changes made in those final eight months were massive,” Borst describes.
Work life at Webkinz in 2009 was extremely busy, “We had upwards of 400 people working on multiple projects, including the numerous contractors that we pulled in at times, a huge customer service team and over 30 translators. I can honestly say that was a challenging time – we grew too fast and work suffered,” Borst notes. Still based in Toronto, the team has since become a lot smaller but continues to foster thousands of new pet adoptions everyday. “Our team is much smaller now, but from at least the art and creative side that I manage, it’s the most talented and cohesive team we’ve ever had,” Borst remarks.
The current state of Webkinz looks a lot different than it did in 2005, but at the same time, a lot of what players loved about Webkinz in the beginning hasn’t changed much at all. You no longer need to buy a plush animal to adopt a virtual pet on Webkinz, allowing for everyone to join in on the fun. Webkinz has stopped production of the old classic plushes entirely, focusing on new plushes that are headlining their newest version of the game, Webkinz Next.
Webkinz Next is a brand new free to play mobile and desktop experience that launched in December 2020 out of fear that Flash would no longer support the original build of Webkinz. Instead of getting rid of the original Webkinz Classic and focusing on Webkinz Next, a browser workaround was found, and both are here to stay for good. While Webkinz Classic is difficult to update because of how old the codebase is, minor changes are still added and new things are happening in the Classic Webkinz World everyday.
Webkinz Next solves a lot of problems that Webkinz Class simply cannot change due to the game’s age. “Webkinz Next began as an opportunity of necessity. Flash’s end was on the horizon and our conversations with Adobe about the post-browser era weren’t getting anywhere. We really didn’t know if we would be able to keep Webkinz Classic running. But we had a powerful 3D engine that we’d used for Amazing World, and the team who built it needed something to do. So I pitched the idea of building a new version of Webkinz that was 3D, 100% multiplayer, and that was fully cross-platform. When we found the solution to the loss of the browser for Classic, there was never any question about keeping it going,” explains Borst. Players can talk to each other in text all around the world, invite others to their houses, and can even have baby pets. Younger and first-time players are the intended audience for Webkinz Next, while Webkinz Classic is meant for those who have kept up with the game over all of the years.
Interview with Karl Borst, Creative Director of Webkinz
Jackson Weimer: What was the first character in the Webkinz universe that you drew? First location?
Karl Borst: When I joined Ganz, Ms. Birdy and Dr. Quack were already designed, along with an early concept for Quizzy. The first character and location that I personally designed were Arte Fact and the Curio Shop. I really hated how rare items were handled in Neopets and wanted to create something that captured the “chase” without the frustration and endless refreshing. I also wanted to give our characters more personality, which is why I personally did the voice for Arte as well (along with Wacky Zingoz, Sheldon Turtle and Fred Rover, among others).
Weimer: Is there an algorithm or process that the Curio Shop uses to showcase its rare items? Or, is it hand selected or done randomly ‘by Arte’?
Borst: It’s an algorithm that I designed back in 2005 and is still running unchanged after all this time. It’s fully determined by algorithm two days in advance. There is no human interference. I love systems that run dynamically.
Weimer: How did you first market Webkinz to kids? When did you realize what you had at Webkinz was something big?
Borst: The site was seen as the marketing. Buy a pet, get a virtual world – that was the pitch. We never did any classic advertising. As a B2B company, our goal was supporting the retailers, so we created a DVD promoting the game to be played in-store, going so far as to provide TVs with built-in DVD players to stores that needed them. The one piece of outreach that we did was to send Webkinz plush to numerous schools. The results were surprising. We heard stories of schools where every kid had gotten a Webkinz, while a school a mile away hadn’t heard of them.
Weimer: What program did you use to design the art and Flash animations? Is it tough to maintain and update the codebase from 2005 today in the classic iteration of Webkinz?
Borst: Adobe Illustrator and Flash itself. We’ve had some truly amazing artists over the years. It’s exceptionally difficult to update Webkinz Classic. Classic isn’t just ‘Flash’ – it’s Actionscript (AS) 3, AS 2 and even some remaining AS 1 held together with bridges and virtual windows, now wrapped in a custom application that allows the game to continue without browsers. We are very committed to keeping Classic going because the world is so robust and fun, not because it’s easy to do.
Weimer: How did you pitch retailers? Why weren’t plushes sold in bigger commercial chains like Walmart and Target, but instead in Hallmarks and smaller chain stores?
Borst: The key thing to remember here is that Ganz is not a toy company like Hasbro or Spin Master, nor a gaming company. It’s a giftware company. Ganz’ success has always been with having close relationships with the thousands of small, independent gift stores throughout Canada and the USA. Webkinz was always seen as a gift store/specialty toy store product. At our peak some of those gift retailers were reselling the plush to Walmart and Toys R Us, which forced us to reevaluate how we worked with the big box stores, so there was a period where Webkinz were available in the larger chains.
Weimer: What was the design process for picking the art style for the world and pets? Were there any failed prototypes?
Borst: The pets were actually originally created in 3D, with the intention of having the pets appear in the games. While they captured the look of the original plush, they took weeks to produce a single pet, and as every pet had to then be rendered out as 2D animations; they were massive in size. It was unworkable for the original 12 pets, let alone the over 1000 pets we have now. Our first 2D pets didn’t work out that well either. The artist couldn’t get the isometric look correct and they were animating each one by hand. So we hired our first art director who brought in some very talented artists who built the 2D skeleton system that we still use in Webkinz Classic. Personally, I think the virtual pets we’re making for Classic now are looking better than they ever have. The concept of Kinzville was something that I brought to the table later in development. There was very little cohesion – conceptually or visually – to the world at the start. I’ve always pitched Kinzville as Niagara-on-the-Lake set in a valley.
Weimer: What were the team’s thoughts on other MMORPGs like Club Penguin and Neopets? Did you view them as competitors or friends all pushing for fun in the online kids internet space?
Borst: I played a ton of Neopets before I arrived at Webkinz. I didn’t just analyze it for work, I got seriously into it. But I didn’t think “I need to copy this” – I thought “I got excited about these aspects, but didn’t like these other aspects. How do I improve on this?” Another point about Neopets was that I knew it took them three years to become established. It showed that staying committed to your brand could pay off. The fact Webkinz took only two years to really catch fire was a nice surprise for me. Club Penguin came after us. They actually pitched “Penguin Chat” as it was called at the time to us for our KinzChat system (we didn’t go with it obviously). I always respected Club Penguin and it really taught me two things: 1) the importance of having chat features throughout your game, not just in specific sections and 2) that the subscription model worked. Players often told us that they came to Webkinz to play games and went to Club Penguin to chat and socialize.
Weimer: What were some failed ideas for pets/locations that never made it to the world?
Borst: I wouldn’t say that there were any ‘failed ideas’ but definitely some that never made it into the game. Two key ones were a Bank for investing KinzCash and a Donation Center for new players to pick up items that long-time players didn’t want anymore. I will say that some of our released features didn’t always hit the mark. DiceKinz – one of my earliest designs – proved to be too complicated for most players and MyPage got massively bogged down with customization features that players didn’t use. And don’t get me started about the T-Shirt Maker.
Weimer: What catalyzed the decision to delete inactive accounts in 2019?
Borst: Legal requirements. Companies just can’t hold onto player data indefinitely in today’s world. Early on we put into our User Agreement that we would hold onto archived accounts for seven years, which was the maximum legal amount at the time. In 2019 we realized that we had a backlog of accounts that had reached the seven year threshold. Going free-to-play also created a mass of accounts that had been played a few times and then abandoned (a reality of every F2P game). We took the time to clean up the inactive accounts. Of course we wanted to make doubly sure that no one who wanted to come back lost their account, so we announced it early, which got picked up by some in the press.
Weimer: What is the staff’s thoughts on the infamous rumors and copy pastas, including the Webkinz Killer? Funny or annoying?
Borst: Really really annoying. I mean I should have seen it coming. As kids age up into their tween/early teen years, scary and gross humor becomes more popular. But we had worked so hard to keep the game kid-friendly and non-violent that hearing about kids honestly being scared that a virtual killer would kill their pets ticked me off. Writing those articles acknowledging the rumor was something I didn’t want to do, but had to.
Weimer: ROBLOX just went public and is positioning itself as the future for the metaverse. I think that sites like Webkinz and Club Penguin and now video games like Fortnite really pioneered this space and really showcased the idea of what the metaverse could look like in some capacity. Is this a conversation that’s been had in the company, or do you not view Webkinz in that way?
Borst: Having worked on Webkinz for 17 years now, it is very rewarding to see the success of Roblox and Animal Crossing, and the normalcy of games like Fortnite being as much for concerts and hanging out as it is for duking it out. I’ve had to push back against “triple A” game designers and producers telling me that I wasn’t making a proper game and that I wasn’t a “real” game designer (this honestly happened after Webkinz went huge). I’ve always said that virtual worlds exist in a space between true games and social communities like Discord. They provide a shared experience between players that while guided by their creators, is largely created in the minds of the players themselves. I have huge respect for Roblox. They really tapped into something amazing by opening up their tools to outside developers and creating a financial system that rewards those developers. How close this brings us to the promise of the metaverse remains to be seen, but I do think that there is no doubt that we as people are happy to spend a significant amount of our lives in virtual spaces.
Weimer: If Webkinz Classic was to be marketed to only adults, would you consider making rare items and other things into NFTs as a new way of monetization?
Borst: We are naturally following the growth of NFTs and I have studied how others have tried integrating them into their games. All that I can say is that at the moment we have no immediate plans to use NFTs in Webkinz.
Weimer: What Webkinz do you own? Favorite one you’ve designed?
Borst: I don’t actually design the plush. We have a very talented product team that does that. I do work closely with them though and help pick the line and details like the Pet Patches on the new plush. My personal favorite plushies that I own are: my very first pet, a St. Bernard named Big Stompy, my Signature Golden Retriever, and my Narwhal, which was the last plush released of the ‘Generation 1’ pets.
Weimer: Why does Ganz the corporation focusing on furniture and décor not mention Webkinz anywhere on their site even though it’s the same company?
Borst: We’re a gift company with thousands of SKUs. Even when Webkinz was at its peak the ganz.com site just directed viewers to webkinz.com. Currently we’re only selling our new Webkinz plush toys direct-to-consumer as well.
Weimer: Does Webkinz hire interns and if so how should someone apply?
Borst: We don’t hire interns. The line between full-hires and interns have been blurred by recent legal changes, so we would rather just hire someone on contract if we like their work.
MirBirdie2002: What’s the process for choosing animals to put into Webkinz?
Borst: The virtual pets added to Webkinz Classic are largely selected by our eStore team based on what players are asking for and what has been popular in the past. Every so often we do like to ask our players to vote on a new pet.
Joy3111: Are we ever going to be able to delete rooms? Are you going to bring back house invites?
Borst: Sadly no. As stated above, developing in Flash just isn’t something that we can do. Having house invitations in Webkinz Next was very important to me because of this.
Indy1999: What is your personal favorite thing about Webkinz?
Borst: That’s a difficult question. As a Classic feature, I’d have to say Gem Hunt. It took me two years to get my first Crown of Wonder, while the rest of my creative team was already done finding their second. I also love the Art Class at the Academy, Atomicolicious in the Tournament Arena and Jumbleberry Fields. But overall, my favorite thing about Webkinz is that I met my wife working here.
Seals5meme: How have pet designs changed over the years? Have you seen a shift in the type of pets people are drawn to the most?
Borst: We’ve definitely been pushing to design cuter, younger, more detailed pets, and the response has been good. Originally we used very simple, flat shading on our virtual pets but we decided to move beyond that a few years ago. I feel that it was a good decision.
Plainity: What was the decision process of still updating and offering new events for Webkinz Classic despite Next’s release?
Borst: It wasn’t a difficult decision at all. We already had a team dedicated to producing Classic content, so they just kept at it. The team that was creating Webkinz content in 2019 is exactly the same as is creating it in 2021.
Meebas4343: There’s been many promotional items given for movies and other pieces of media, but only once was a pet ever given (a Hopping Bunny for the movie Hop in 2011). Was there a reason for this?
Borst: I was very against offering virtual pets as 3rd-party promotional items, but I got convinced to try it for the Hopping Bunny. Let’s just say that the experience reinforced my original stance.
Vickyliu: Is the change in demographics (such as age) of core players something you keep track of, and does it impact how you market Webkinz?
Borst: I still design Webkinz with its core demographics in mind, but we all realize that Webkinz is like Lego in that it offers something for players of all ages to enjoy. Our eStore team does consider our older players more, as they are naturally more able to purchase premium currency.
Chricket99: Why hasn’t Webkinz gotten on TikTok yet?
Borst: Is this something that players really want us to do? What would you want to see us do on TikTok?
Bobthebuilder23: What’s the teams thoughts on the Webkinz Picture Guide Wiki fansite and the Webkinz Discord?
Borst: I love them. I use the Picture Guide Wiki all of the time. Really. While I’m not a Discord guy myself, we have a number of people in-house that are part of the Webkinz Discord community.
Future of Webkinz
As games continue to evolve and question what it means to be a video game and what types of experiences and social environments come with the territory, it’s important to look back on the shoulders of giants that you are standing on. Without history like Webkinz, Club Penguin, and ROBLOX, experiences like VR Chat for example, might have not ever been fathomable. Some might say that Webkinz was 10 years too early, but innovation isn’t scheduled; it’s simply a result of minds coming together to create a product that solves a team’s solution or objective. Everyone online could do with a scholar’s return to Arte’s Gem Hunt to finish their legendary Crown of Wonder and pay digital respects to a trailblazer in online community development. You’ll find what you’re looking for.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.