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Art & Music Of Club Penguin: A Look Behind The Scenes

The first Club Penguin Artist Chris Hendricks told us about the history behind its art style and soundtrack, his YouTube career, and the reaction to the once-popular game's discontinuation.

80.lv: Please introduce yourself to those who might not know you. What got you into the industry? Where did you study game development and music? How did you get the skills you have?

My name is Chris Hendricks, and I've been in the video game industry since 2005 when I was hired to help with illustrations and animations on a virtual world named Club Penguin. While I've been involved with other video games since then, that's still the one that I'm best known for.

I didn't study game development anywhere, really. Everything I learned about making games was on-the-job training, although I did experiment as a teenager with modding games like Commander Keen or making my own game prototypes with tools like The Games Factory. As for music, I started piano lessons when I was 5, and found that I loved making my own songs more than I liked playing existing ones (although I never expected it to become part of my career).

80.lv: Could you please tell us about your early days at New Horizon Interactive? How did you join the team? What were your responsibilities?

I first met Lance Priebe, the original mind behind Club Penguin, in the year 2000. He knew that I did Flash work, and would send me occasional pieces of contract work to help with his own Flash studio, Rocketsnail Games. By 2005 he had been hired at New Horizon, and that company had decided to take his Penguin Chat game to greater heights, so he contacted me and asked if I'd like to be hired on to the project. 

The studio itself wasn't even a games studio at the time, it was a web design and video production studio with around a dozen people on staff. My original responsibilities were to take over some of New Horizon's other Flash work so that Lance would have more time to get Club Penguin ready. Then, in May of 2005, I started working on Club Penguin as well. My first responsibility was to determine how the penguin avatar itself would work (wearing clothes, how it would animate, etc.). Then, I moved on to actually producing clothing items for the penguin and furniture for the igloos, as well as participating in early testing of the game itself to see if it was stable.

80.lv: You were among the first Club Penguin's developers and artists, can you tell us more about working on the game's art style and animations? What inspired them? What software did you use?

The game's art style, at first, was just my own personal art style. I was inspired by many sources for my own art style (including Warner Bros. cartoons, Commander Keen, and Veggietales), and just adapted that into the game. I went into the project not really knowing the "proper way" to do most of the things I was asked to do, so some of the early art in the game was relatively crude or quickly drawn, but we realized that it wasn't really an issue for the game, as it also tended to make the game more approachable for fans (especially when they started drawing their own fan art for it).

The app used for the 3D penguin was an obscure piece of software called Swift 3D, which was chosen because it was good at rendering out 3D models into Flash vector format. The 2D art was pretty much all drawn in Flash, although Photoshop was occasionally used, especially when it came to certain parts of the Club Penguin Times (the in-game newspaper).

80.lv: Some of our readers have never heard about Swift 3D before your video, could you please tell us more about the software and why it was chosen? What were its main advantages? In your opinion, are there any use cases, besides the one described in the breakdown, that Swift 3D could be used for nowadays?

Swift 3D's only advantage was its ability to render to Flash vector. That's it. There were superior pieces of 3D software in 2005, even cheap ones, but rendering to vector was an absolute necessity, so that's why we used it. It can still be purchased nowadays if you search hard enough, though I absolutely wouldn't. If you want to learn 3D for cheap, get Blender. Seriously. It's what I'm using now for 3D, and it's phenomenal. It's the first place I would go if I was making a 3D avatar today (if I was making a 2D avatar, I'd use Esoteric Software's Spine tool, which is very powerful for bone-based 2D video game animation.)

80.lv: Besides the visual style, you also contributed greatly to Club Penguin's soundtrack. What can you tell us about the process of writing and composing music for the game? What inspired you? How did you make sure that each track perfectly represented what's on the screen?

The fact that I composed music for Club Penguin at all started as a move of desperation! In late 2006, we needed music for the upcoming minigame called "Thin Ice". Up until then, we were mostly choosing music for the game from royalty-free music sites, but those sites didn't really have music that sounded like it came from 80s arcade machines. I finally decided that I could compose something quicker than it would take to actually find an appropriate song, so I did! And I enjoyed it! A few months later, when Pizzatron 3000 was getting ready for launch, I asked if I could contribute another song to that, and it ended up becoming one of the most iconic songs of the game, so I just kept on making music after that point.

It helped that my musical inspirations were pretty varied. I was never one to be that interested in the popular music of the day. I was more interested in orchestral pieces or the soundtracks of cartoons (Warner Bros. was particularly awesome for this) and preferred to immerse myself in music without lyrics because I liked the orchestrations more than whatever was being sung. So Club Penguin ended up being an ideal game for me to help compose a soundtrack for... the game was different every month! The game had very eclectic needs, so I got to try composing in all kinds of styles during my time working on it.

80.lv: What have you been up to after leaving New Horizon? What new projects have you been working on during the early-to-mid 2010s?

In 2011, I moved back to Rocketsnail Games, as Lance had also left and was starting up his old game studio again. This studio became Hyper Hippo Games. We made a number of games – including Mech Mice Tactics, which is still one of my favorite soundtracks I've ever composed – but the big game that the studio's known for is an idle game called "AdVenture Capitalist". I composed two songs for that, including the main theme.

I was laid off from Hyper Hippo Games in 2017, and have been doing freelance contract work ever since (music composing, video editing, game design, animation, etc). It's been for a variety of companies, although one of the most unexpected delights has been that people who were previously fans of Club Penguin have now grown up and started their own video game studios, which means that I've had the pleasure of composing music for people who grew up listening to my music. It's a nice full-circle experience.

80.lv: How did you get started with your YouTube career and launch the channel? What motivated you?

Being laid off in 2017 meant that I suddenly had more time on my hands. Contract work is feast-and-famine, and during a particularly non-busy time of my life, it occurred to me that there just might be people out there who'd like to see behind the scenes of some Club Penguin stuff. So I made a very quick video just to gauge interest, and I had almost 1000 views in the first month. So I figured there was an audience there, and created some more videos focusing on how Club Penguin music was made. Over time, this got the attention of some big YouTubers (who were themselves Club Penguin fans), and suddenly I had enough followers that I could make money from the channel! And when you don't have a lot of contract work, passive income sounds pretty nice, so I kept making videos (and used that process to help teach myself better practices of video editing and After Effects).

80.lv: I realize that you may have been asked this question numerous times, but I'd like to know your thoughts on Club Penguin's discontinuation. How did you personally react when the game was shut down?

It was a gut punch. On one hand, there was some amazement that it lasted as long as it did, but it still felt weird to think that there would be a world where it would be gone. I already realized that Flash Player support in web browsers was fading and that Club Penguin would have had to have adapted somehow, but still, it was tough. There's a quote in "The Last Battle" of the Chronicles of Narnia where Professor Kirke witnesses the destruction of Narnia and says "I saw it begin... I did not think I would live to see it die." It felt very much like that.

80.lv: You recently celebrated Club Penguin's birthday by sharing an insightful breakdown regarding the game's iconic avatar, why did you decide to explain the production process behind it so many years later? How did it feel to revisit it?

Since pretty early in starting the YouTube channel, there were a few video ideas that I had in mind, and this was one of them. But it needed to wait until the right timing; I needed to have enough free time to create it, I needed to have enough video editing skills and I had to find a way to arrange everything I wanted to talk about so that it flowed like a story. It was the most ambitious video I'd ever created for the channel, but it's been received incredibly well! It's blown past my expectations.

It felt great to revisit it, but the most surprising thing was rediscovering things I'd forgotten. There were certain files that I had from a CD backup back in 2006 that hadn't been opened in 17 years. At one point in the video, I have the Penguin Chat 3 penguin doing a few little hops forward... I had no idea that I even still had that test until I made the video.

80.lv: What are your plans going forward? Do you plan to share any other Club Penguin insights on your YouTube channel in the future? Where can people learn more about you and follow your projects?

I have many, many plans and not enough time (or budget) for all of them. The next video I make on YouTube will likely not be Club Penguin-related (as I want to have an audience for other content as well, if possible), but there are still Club Penguin stories to tell. I have ideas for videos on Astro-Barrier and Cart Surfer, and I'd also like to figure out a way to interview some of the other Club Penguin creative team so that they can tell their stories too. (For instance, I'd love to do a video on the PSA missions, but I was barely involved with them after Mission #2, so I wouldn't be the right person to spearhead that story.)

People can learn more from me on my aforementioned YouTube channel, which does contain other things that aren't Club Penguin (for instance, there are two videos about how I was born without a sense of smell). I have a homepage, which is the primary way people get in touch with me to hire me for contract work. And I'm still on Twitter – you know, that site that's currently having an identity crisis and has forgotten its own name.

Chris Hendricks, Artist & Composer

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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