More fundamentally, Merrifield encouraged the Pirates team to depart from the game's linear storytelling to adopt Club Penguin's open-ended approach, in which the players have more say in the narrative and provide direction on the types of weapons, battles or quests they experience online.
That represents a fundamental shift in Disney's philosophy. Previously, whenever players sent e-mails suggesting ways to improve online games like Pirates or Toontown, they got an automated response saying the entertainment company did not accept unsolicited ideas.
"We retooled it. The foundation is where it needs to be. . . . We're hearing a lot of stories now about kids playing," Merrifield said.
Allowing players to determine the action on screen, Merrifield said, provides "a limitless supply of new content" and allows kids to become the storytellers. He credits 8-year-olds with some of Club Penguin's most popular ideas -- like the addition of ninjas.
Merrifield is applying the same approach to World of Cars. Players start by designing their own car, picking from among body types (stock car, say, or sleek, aerodynamic Porsche), colors and race-car numbers. As they roll down the main drag of Radiator Springs, they can choose to interact with characters from the movie, or head to Fillmore Fields to race through a hay bale maze with friends playing online.
"My goal is to make sure that Disney, from a virtual world standpoint, has the same tradition that Pixar does in 3-D computer animation," Merrifield said