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Neopets

Neopets is a browser game and a franchise, the core part of which is based around having and taking care of virtual pets. It was founded in 1999 by Adam Powell & Donna Williams, and grew rapidly to become one of the most-visited sites on the internet.

Neopets was a pretty major part of my childhood (late primary school years) and with the sheer amount of stuff the site offered, it gave me the chance to get started with a number of hobbies that I still have today, like web design, writing, and games. This page is divided into two sections: a short history of Neopets itself and a reflection on my own experience of Neopets.

A Short History

Very early in the game’s history – in early 2000 – Neopets came to be owned by a consortium of Scien­to­lo­gist investors, even though Adam & Donna (and employees) retained creative control. They were not aware of the Scien­to­lo­gist element until some time after the investment. While they came under pressure to introduce Scien­to­lo­gy “educational” content to the site, they refused.

The creative team (known as “TNT") grew quickly, as did the sheer amount of content and stuff to do on the site. A fan effort to recapture the feel of the site in these early years exists at Neopets Classic(external link). One source of content that was rather contentious was their pioneering use of “immersive advertisement”; that is, rather than just running banner ads, they would have Flash games and that kind of content where the game itself is the sponsored content.

In 2005, Neopets was on-sold to Viacom (and got integrated with Nick­el­o­de­on) for $160 million. Adam & Donna left shortly afterwards, due to “creative differences”. Around this time there was definitely a lot of cross-promotion with Nick­el­o­de­on shows and franchises, as well as stuff like Neopets toys coming in McDonald’s Happy Meals. There were also other off-shoots, like a couple of video games and a TCG.

Neopets peaked in popularity in about 2006 with at least 35 million unique users a month; after that, it began to slowly decline. In 2007 they revamped the site layout and introduced “customisation”, basically changing all the pet art to make the poses less unique or character-filled, and making them more generic so they could sell clothing items (for real money) to dress up your pets. They didn’t convert every existing pet, and the “unconverted” pets with original art came to be a huge status symbol, such that there’s now a huge black market and an issue with old accounts getting hacked and their unconverted pets stolen (as they can be sold for hundreds of dollars!). It doesn’t help that Neopets seems to have had extremely poor data security, with users’ passwords leaked years ago and openly available on hackers forums.

In 2008 they released Key Quest, and in 2010 Habitarium – two big, ambitious games (within the main site) that had to be produced by outside teams, that a lot of people remember fondly. After about 2010, it seems like the production of new content (plots, games, etc.) slowed down to a trickle, probably as Viacom shifted its resources to more popular and profitable franchises (which, of course, hastened Neopets’ decline). In 2014, Neopets was sold to educational game company JumpStart, which shut down Key Quest and Habitarium and shortly afterwards laid off everyone who remained from the Viacom-era TNT. In 2017, JumpStart was acquired by NetDragon. As of June 2020, Neopets was said to have about 1.5 million monthly active users.

Neopets’ decline can be pinned on a few contributing factors, but the biggest one would probably be Neopets’ failure to “keep up with the times”. At one point, according to former TNT members(external link), they were close to releasing a mobile app that would’ve allowed users to play Neopets from their smartphones (you can see a description of it here(external link)), but it was unceremoniously axed when JumpStart acquired them and let go of everyone. (At one earlier point they were also working on an MMORPG called World of Neopia(external link) but Viacom shut that down(external link).) Neopets have released mobile games using their IP, but only small ones, and they haven’t kept supporting them over time (because production of them was outsourced in the first place). They have a new “responsive” layout now, but haven’t converted the vast majority of site pages to it. They haven’t converted many of the old Flash games, or even their world maps, to HTML5. They continue to be criticised for their poor security and customer service practices, and for most of the remaining user base – who are all basically adults keeping on playing out of nostalgia – the overzealousness of the chat filters they use to try to maintain a “child-friendly atmosphere” – a chat filter that means you can’t use words like skill, grape or even the URL of the letitsnow.gif avatar – is a recurring source of frustration.

While it does seem like there are, or have in recent times been, employees at Neopets who still want to add fun content for members (like in 2017 they did a new plot for the first time in many years), overall they’re up against the constraints of a convoluted legacy codebase, minimal resourcing, and indifferent upper management. A lot of people are speculating that by this point, Neopets’ owners are just trying to wring every last cent of profit they can from the property before dumping it – dodgy deals like their current NFT partnership(external link) being emblematic of this.

My Own Memories

Neopets was a huge thing for me in my childhood, and was enormously popular with my classmates in the latter half of primary school, too. The lore behind the game was really extensive, with a wide range of themed “worlds” and characters and storylines associated with each. Throughout the 2000s, they regularly came out with big site events, or “plots”, that involved Flash comics or animations telling stories about their worlds, with various ways for players to participate in the event (like choosing a side, and fighting opponents in the Battledome).

But they also offered a lot of ways for players to use their own creativity. It’s sometimes quipped that Neopets inspired a generation of young girls to get into web design, as it assigned each pet a “petpage”, or basically a webpage that you could code as you saw fit, and had HTML tutorials to teach you how. I also started learning CSS through Neopets, to be able to customise my petpages even better along with things like my user lookup and my guild homepage.

Something else that I remember fondly is the Neopian Times, a weekly publication of user-submitted content (stories, articles and comics). I looooved reading the weekly serials, and one-off stories, published by my favourite writers in there, and when I got a couple of serials of my own published there, I was super proud.

They also offered a wide range of games. I think they’re best-known for their Flash games, but they had many others. They had some turn-based games written in PHP, like solitaire. They had this whole section where you could write your own Choose Your Own Adventure, and find and play other people’s. They also had two entire turn-based RPGs, NeoQuest and NeoQuest II, that I looooooved – not because they’re like, the best-ever exemplars of the genre (they’re pretty grindy) but because they were my first exposure to a whole genre of game that I turned out to love.

My “original era” on Neopets was 2002–2005. I came back to check it out a couple of times over the years, and played it regularly between 2016–2019 as a nostalgic thing (although honestly, after a certain point I was only still there for my guild and not cos I was still enjoying the game, haha). I still think that the Neopets IP has a ton of potential, and that if Neopets Mobile and this World of Neopia MMORPG had gone ahead they could have kept the franchise properly alive. I think the website is basically too big, too legacy, too hacked-together, to be salvageable at this point, even though there’s a ton of stuff on it I remember fondly (as described in the last few paragraphs).