I don’t remember how or why it came up, but not long ago, a discussion I was having with a friend turned toward the subject of Neopets. Fear not, anyone who’s not in their 20s or 30s now; I will attempt to explain what this online phenomenon entailed: Neopets.com is a website where you can raise a virtual pet. Oh, not regular animals, but super cool fantasy creatures! You create them, name them, play with them, train them, and even read books to them, all in a magical world full of fun. Is this not making sense? OK, here – check out this God-knows-how-old Flash demo, which features super loud R&B music for some inexplicable reason.
Yes, I said “Flash.” The site is still chock full of it. See, it hasn’t really been updated much over the years. Oh sure, new graphics for the pets are occasionally uploaded, but the core infrastructure upon which Neopets operates appears to have barely been touched in years. And while a group of users remains loyal – out of nostalgia, perhaps, or simply a reluctance to give up on their many hours spent on amassing Neopoints, the game’s virtual currency – the site’s global ranking has been dropping steadily.
This is in contrast to its best days, when Neopets was the hippest, most happenin’ site on the web. I remember spending countless hours playing the games, trying to earn enough of those sweet Neopoints to get my pets another training session or rare item. Of course, the main things most people sought after were paintbrushes, which transformed your pet from a plain color to something magnificent, like a desert or Halloween theme. These things were priced in the millions, and since I was probably earning about 1,000 Neopoints on average each day, it would’ve taken me years to obtain one… which would, presumably, contribute handsomely to Neopets’ ad revenue.
So, what went wrong? Why is Neopets no longer the goldmine it once was?
First, there’s the fact that ownership of the site has changed hands several times already, with each iteration bringing its own issues. Neopets was originally founded by Adam Powell and Donna Williams (now Powell) in 1999. As Donna Powell explained in an interview on Reddit, the original plan had been to create a 3D world in Java where players would assume control of the pets themselves and interact directly with the game universe. She and Adam had found a programmer to put this together for them, but he was taking longer than expected. So, out of boredom, they started building a website that would act as a companion. Eventually, seeing minimal progress, the Java applet idea was discarded altogether, and the website became the primary focus.
Adam Powell demonstrating how to play the Neopets trading card game (likely circa mid-2000s).
Donna Powell answering questions on Reddit.
The Powell/Williams years are remembered as something of a Golden Age for the site. Pop culture allusions and tongue-in-cheek humor characterized the content, and the combination of the creativity at the helm and the freshness of the concept made Neopets an enormous success. The site grew rapidly under their leadership, which quickly necessitated investment to fund continuing operations.
Enter Doug Dohring. In 2000, he bought a majority share of the company, and the site received a makeover, getting wiped clean of any references to copyrighted material and an influx of new advertising. Rumors spread that the site was now under the control of Scientologists – which, amazingly, Powell confirmed to be true in her interview. She denied that she and Adam had any real comprehension of the group at the time, describing the two of them as being “totally naive.” It’s not clear that the Scientology influx affected the site itself in any way; according to Powell, it mostly influenced the company’s internal structure and hiring processes.
One thing that definitely did change on the site, though, was the advertising. It was needed, after all, to make Neopets profitable, and Dohring had an innovative way of implementing it. Several steps beyond product placement, Neopets introduced “immersive advertising,” wherein sponsored content was seamlessly integrated directly with the site’s primary offerings. The games and shops started including Nabisco and Mattel merchandise – sometimes this was done subtly, other times… less so. And while critics argued that the child users of Neopets lacked the ability to distinguish between what was commercial and what wasn’t, immersive advertising proved very profitable for Neopets, allowing it to continue its rise. They did create an alternative option of sorts in Neopets Premium, where players who paid a monthly fee could access an ad-free version of the site, along with a handful of other perks. By now, though, there was little doubt that the site had reached a level of commercialization that meant it was quite a different animal (or Neopet) than what it had been throughout its humble past.
McDonalds, Disney, Zazzle, and General Mills – examples of immersive advertising in Neopia Central, one of Neopets’ worlds.
The site’s popularity drew the attention of bigger powers in the media world, including Viacom (owner of Comedy Central, MTV, and Nickelodeon), who purchased Neopets in 2005. Adam and Donna had little involvement in the sale, and finally left Neopets altogether in 2007, moving on to other game-related ventures. Donna revealed to Reddit that by the time of her departure, she was so disgusted with what Neopets had become that she deliberately designed and implemented two pets she thought were hideous and poorly-named.
The Xweetok and the Ogrin – Donna’s parting gift to Neopets.
Changes came swiftly under Viacom’s leadership. They discarded the immersive advertising policy, excising most of its content and returning to a more conventional program that relied mainly on banners. Viacom’s enormous influence and wealth pushed Neopets further with an influx of technical improvements and sophisticated new site features. At the same time, the new perception of Neopets being a sister property to Nickelodeon was slightly alarming to older players, as was the release of Petpet Park, a new standalone game that had a stark resemblance to Webkinz.
The most revolutionary update, however, came with the advent of the Neocash Mall. Until this point, all items in the game could be purchased only with Neopoints, and the only way to alter your pet’s appearance was through the use of exorbitant paintbrushes or magical items. Neocash drastically changed both of these. It was a brand new form of tender in the Neopian world, which could only be obtained by buying it with real money. It offered players the ability to buy dozens of new clothing and accessory items for their pets, far beyond what was ever possible with paintbrushes. To accommodate this, pets would no longer be represented by static images, but small flash applets, each one slightly redesigned to be able to wear the garments on sale in the Neocash Mall.
Some basic-colored pets before and after conversion.
The reception to Neocash was mixed, to put it lightly. While some users loved the idea of being able to customize their pets to an unprecedented degree, all without having to spend hours playing games or selling items, those who had gone through all of that time and effort were less than thrilled. Pets who’d previously been painted remained so, and their owners were given the option to convert them, generating clothing items derived from the paintbrushes’ effects, or else leave them as images. This offer was not extended to every painted pet, however; the majority were automatically converted without prompting players for their agreement.
Some painted pets before and after conversion.
Among those who disliked the new look for the pets, complaints were also leveled at the standardized pose that had been employed – a necessity to ensure that the pets were able to wear the Neocash Mall fashions. But beyond talking about it (which people did, a lot, on the Neoboard forums), there was little else anyone could do. Some begged for the chance to de-convert their pets, while others bitterly suggested that all pets should be instantly converted. Neither ever materialized.
In 2014, nine years after purchasing it, Viacom sold Neopets off. The icy reception toward the introduction of microtransactions and madeover pets probably played a part in the decision, but the site had already been in something of a decline for a while. The older users who had been busy bees during the Dohring era were steadily abandoning their accounts and moving on to the newer things the Internet had to offer. Neopets just looked outdated and felt ancient by comparison. The site still relied heavily on Flash with no transition to HTML5 in sight, and the content was utterly stale – the clever humor Adam and Donna had dreamed up a decade and a half ago was practically absent in any form. It seemed that the site never regained its image as something that could be engaging and worthwhile for grown-ups.
After the sale, administration of Neopia was handed over to JumpStart, a company best known for its educational software for kids. One of their first moves as owners was to dismiss the team who had worked on Neopets under Viacom. Their second was to create an iPhone app. Not for the site as a whole, mind you; instead, it was a match-three game called “Ghoul Catchers,” but it seemed like a step in the right direction, and besides that, playing it would supposedly earn you Neopoints. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the process ended up being rife with glitches, with many players complaining about errors in connecting their Neopets accounts to their Ghoul Catchers game profiles and receiving the points or items they were supposed to.
While Neopets has long since ceased to be relevant on the wider internet, perhaps it’s not too late for a recovery… but it would require some drastic action. In an ideal world, Jumpstart would offer the reigns back to Adam and Donna Powell, or at least hire them on as consultants, though I can’t really see this happening. Moving the site in a more adult-friendly direction might help, though; for example, relaxing the famously bizarre moderation policies on the forums would be a good step, and bringing back the sardonic humor that characterized Neopets culture long ago would be an even better one. Considering Jumpstart’s super-young target market for all its other software, though, I doubt this could ever take place. Allowing people to unconvert their pets at will would also be a nice touch and maybe draw back those who had spent so long saving up for paintbrushes back in the day.
In January 2017, the CEO of Jumpstart, David Lord, gave an interview with Kotaku to talk about Neopets. He had little to tell about its future, only making some vague references to nonspecific plans. Mere months later, Jumpstart itself was sold to a Chinese company, NetDragon Websoft. As far as I know, they have yet to make any kind of announcement regarding Neopets.
This brings us to today. The site continues to receive perfunctory maintenance, with updates to the pet/user/whatever of the week and the seasonal events continuing to trigger at the right time. Yet another game app was released this year, and I don’t know anyone who plays it. Little else seems to be happening, though. If Neopets continues down this trajectory, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it shut down within 10 years – after all, support for Flash will end in 2020.
If nothing else, at least our memories will always live on happily ever after in Neopia as images of childhood nostalgia and dreams of everything the internet could be.