Today, when visiting the eighteen-year-old Neopets website, it can feel like entering a digital mausoleum.
The visual style is reminiscent of a Saturday morning cartoon from the early 2000s with characters that sport wide eyes and bright,
dynamic color palettes. Content is placed within town hubs, but some of the accessible areas lead to dead ends or to obtuse
references to past site events. The site itself is still fully functional with users able to create or adopt and raise pets,
But navigation is burdensome. The user is often required to load many pages in succession to accomplish tasks, in now
infrequently-used design. Many current-day users of the Internet harbor a strong
nostalgia for the site, which has remained largely unchanged for over a decade despite its continued existence.
So what brought this stagnation, and how has it survived so long in this state? To help answer this question, video producer Pet Simmer Julie
has agreed to assist. Julie: The museum of digital history that is Neopets.com displays some of the highs and lows of ott’s web design
technology. Thank you for inviting me to shed light on the history of Neopets. On my channel, Pet Simmer Julie,
I cover the gaming niche Neopets defined. My love of browser-based virtual pet simulations began with Neopets and continues today.
Advancements in online gaming eclipse the browser model and mini-games are at risk of disappearing forever.
My channel plays a role in virtually archiving games that could otherwise be lost to time. Anyways, let’s get into the good stuff.
Why did Neopets stop growing?
Fredrik: In the late 1990s, the concept of virtual pets was achieving wide popularity.
Intellectual properties and paraphernalia such as Pokémon, robotic dogs, and Tamagotchi were seeing unprecedented
sales amongst a young audience, especially those in primary schools. Commercial: “If you want your Giga to grow bigga, you gotta figya how to care for your Giga!” [Unintelligible]
At the same time computer literacy for children
increased as desktops were made more and more available to suburban students and video gaming grew more mainstream.
It was during this time that a British university student named Adam Powell
conceptualized a new virtual world, one where users would be able to play as a creature called a “Neopet.”
As the Neopet, the player could explore a fantasy realm and meet with other players from a top-down perspective.
The program would use a coding language called Java, a fairly new creation at the time. Powell’s knowledge,
however, didn’t cover Java, nor did he trust his visual artistic skill,
Pet Simmer Julie: So he shared his idea with girlfriend and digital art Hobbyist, Donna Williams.
They came up with a game design similar to early Zelda games.
Powell and Williams hired a Java developer and began building the website while they waited for the developer to complete the applet.
Williams’ original site art was rudimentary, but served the site’s needs. Working hand in hand,
they were able to bring this site to life within a year and launched on November 15th, 1999.
As for the Java applet, it never came to be. With the Java applet behind them, Neopets’ perspective shifted.
Instead of being a Neopet and interacting with the world of Neopia through that creature, the player is a Neopet owner.
Users could control the Neopet’s fate and interact with them. The website became something between an RPG and an online pet simulator.
Fredrik: Now that the virtual world aspect had been dropped, Powell and Williams could set to work iterating on the site. Quickly, however, over
500 new accounts were being created a day, with news of the site spreading by word of mouth, a number far beyond what the two could sustain.
To solve this problem and to capitalize on the site’s success, Powell and Williams sought an investor
And they found one only a month after the site’s launch. His name was Doug Dohring.
He was the CEO of a market research company
named after him, and he quickly began putting together a company to manage the site which he named, “Neopets Inc.”
The company was launched in February of 2000 and located in Los Angeles, California,
and he invited the site’s creators to move to the city and work on the website there, and offer they accepted.
While Dohring operated the business end of things and prepared to turn Neopets into a profitable venture,
Powell and Williams continued their work. New pets were occasionally created and new features added, which often heavily
incorporated the input of the exponentially growing community. For example, an online trading card game was released with the duo petitioning
the community for card concepts, and guilds were created for players with similar interests to gather. The number of small
attractions such as a wishing well and a soup kitchen were also added,
but it was none of these things that would inevitably place it under the critical eye of the media.
Doug Dohring was a different kind of visionary from Powell or Williams. In his work at his firm
He had trademarked a novel method of advertising which he called “immersive advertising.”
Pet Simmer Julie: Immersive advertising is a way to get a marketing element in front of the user by slipping it into the game environment.
On Neopets, that means integrating brand advertising into the explore map and building brand
experiences for users to interact with. An example would be visiting an on-site McDonalds and feeding your Neopet an item from the McDonald’s menu.
Baking brands into Neopets brought some flak with it.
The game was becoming popular with a young crowd and critics claimed that children wouldn’t be able to discern between
editorial content and aggressive marketing. While the ads didn’t attempt to direct sales, they could build brand awareness or
affinity in an otherwise child-safe space. Despite the criticism for the tactic, the Neopets team didn’t back down from immersive advertising,
meaning it was probably a very efficient way to make money.
This type of digital marketing was wildly ahead of its time. In order to sell an advertiser on the concept of immersive advertising,
the Neopets team would likely have had to report user interaction metrics to the partner,
including click-through rate, pageviews, and time spent on the page. It only makes sense that a new medium would explore new pay models.
Fredrik: As the site changed and grew and new features were added, the user base increased at a rate that took Powell and Williams by surprise.
By May 10th of 2000 the number of accounts registered to the site surpassed
500,000 a number especially
impressive, given the limited scope of the Internet at the time and that the site, so far, was produced so informally.
A small team of visual designers and coders were assembled to sprawl the world out,
adding new Villages to the user interface to house new content. Powell
continued to act as a lead coder, while Williams held a creative direction position. Dohring’s lawyers also
assisted in guiding the team around legal issues. Pet Simmer Julie: The site’s rocketing popularity put a spotlight on protecting the increasingly valuable
intellectual property. To increase internal consistency,
original Neopets designs were assessed and redesigned to fit the game image. The beloved Bruce Forsyth and the Macy Gray
Transformed into legally defensible, unique species.
Neopets’ original designs and species differentiation were a unique sight offering. To bring out the distinguishing aspects of species, new illustrations were tested for Neopets on an ongoing
basis. If you are interested in seeing some of the abandoned art designs,
I made a video about that. Check it out in the card in the top right corner of the video.
For example, the previously similar Flotsam and Jetsam were redesigned with polarizing creative direction.
Updating artwork and testing poses with a strategy that created Neopets species super-fans.
However, there was one aspect of Dohring’s business model that surprised and concerned the original Neopets team.
Fredrik: What Powell and Williams hadn’t known when they sold Neopets was that Doug Dohring was a Scientologist,
and this manifested in minor ways. Williams would later state that quote, “The company was structured like a scientology org.
“It didn’t really change anything that I noticed apart from some odd tests that interviewees had to take,
“Consisting of questions like, ‘Which straight line seemed friendlier?’ and stuff like that. We also had a lot of obscure
“celebrities coming around the office for tours. Perhaps most concerning to them was when Dohring strongly proposed adding
“Scientology education to the site itself.” According to Williams,
She and Powell fought hard against these measures.
Vehement arguments would take place with Dohring standing by his religious practices and Powell and Williams standing by their
commitment to keep religion and politics out of their creation. Only after multiple heated meetings did Dohring relent.
Pet Simmer Julie: The site’s natural audience revealed itself to be school-aged children.
During an era when Flash games spread by word of mouth in an open computer class time,
Neopets’ easy-to-use interface and cartoon style made the game easy to pick up and share. Summer break
incubated a massive growth in Neopets’ popularity. From May to June, usership doubled to hit 1 million accounts.
Fredrik: Powell and Williams had a grand vision for their website. As time went on, they wanted to grow it by increasing the number of available activities,
Neopets, and items, as well as introducing new industry innovations as they were created.
But this was only part of their plan. To promote these additions and improvements, the team wanted to hold site-wide events,
rewarding players for participating with exclusive items, and for consistently returning to the site. These events however would require
significant upkeep, with unique art, design, and coding for each one,
but they would be necessary to maintain the audience that they have prodigiously gained. Their first event
introduced a recurring evil character named Dr. Sloth who sought to mutate everyone’s Neopets.
Though it would eventually prove abnormal in many ways, the event did set the trend for introducing new
additions, in this case, a new area to explore, and a new Neopet. The event lasted a total of nine days. Other
events involving the dozen or so staff members would occasionally occur, with the staffers consistently dying in some gruesome yet comedic fashion,
accentuating the connection between the development team and the players. The website saw continued
exponential growth as the years went by, with millions more people making accounts and an abnormally high user retention rate. By May of
2001, the userbase had increased from 1 million unique accounts to 10 million.
Two months later the number had increased to 15 million, and in April of 2002, it had reached 30 million. In
2003, they even managed a deal with Wizards of the Coast to make the online trading card game into a physical one,
following the trend of other popular youth-oriented intellectual properties.
But with this attention came the inevitable negative press.
Pet Simmer Julie: The internet was a vast and confusing playground for parents to navigate. The same parent who didn’t want their kids to talk to strangers at the mall
now saw their kids spend hours on the Neopets forums. Neopets came into popularity when the field of child safety online was just developing.
Online predator fears were at an all-time high and the legal system had yet to catch up with technology.
Additionally, Neopets’ international reach meant dabbling with conflicting cultural values and taboos. In April
2004, an Australian show called Today Tonight ran a segment claiming that Neopets players could only win Neopoints through poker, blackjack,
and other forms of gambling. The mother of the child featured in this segment was afraid that
Neopets was trying to get her son addicted to gambling.
This story broke during a Neopets promotional partnership with McDonald’s. The scandal strained the
relationship between the companies, and Neopets rolled out a ban on gambling games for all of Australia. Fredrik: The Neopets team, undeterred,
continued to explore controversial methods of monetization. Their first major change came in
2004 when the company began to run Banner ads in conjunction with their native
advertising. To remove these banner ads, Neopets, Inc. offered a premium membership. With the company becoming more and more
profitable, it began to attract more attention from corporations.
In 2005 Neopets Inc was bought by Viacom for 160 million dollars.
Viacom was one of the most massive media conglomerates. With ownership over MTV, Comedy Central and
Nickelodeon, seeing the popularity of Neopets with their young demographic, they considered the opportunity to utilize
Neopets’ branding in numerous other locations. They began to use the IP with seemingly little discretion.
Pet Simmer Julie: What’s a better way to get a brand in front of a bunch of kids than making a feature film?
Warner Brothers entered talks for staffing up and producing an animated Neopets film.
This was the heyday of pumping out Neopets merchandise and brand paraphernalia.
Limited Too was brought into the distribution mix for selling plushies, the branded magazine, and the paperback
Neopets puzzles and games book. In 2006, Neopians ahead of their time was a cell phone could pay
$2.99 a month to connect to Neopets Mobile, an early game application.
If you are like me and somehow convinced your parents to buy the Islandberry Crunch cereal,
you know how truly awful that experience was, but it came with a special promotional Neopets trading card.
Viacom tested how far they could push the success of Neopets by using it as a jump-off point for other virtual worlds.
Petpet Park was a virtual world that featured a more junior web experience like Club Penguin or Webkinz.
Pet pet Park launched in 2008. Key Quest, a multiplayer digital board game, launched in 2008.
Treasure Keepers tested the water of Facebook gaming. The Neopets Habitarium game rolled out in 2011.
Other attempts to throw everything at the wall to see what would stick included a trifecta of
console games. The Playstation Portable got Petpet Adventures: The Wand of Wishing. The Neopets Darkest Faerie launched for PlayStation 2. The DS, Wii, and PC
Got Neopets Puzzle Adventure. Fredrik: But many of these ventures failed. The Facebook game Treasure Keepers,
which was launched in August of 2011, was closed only four months later in December of the same year.
The trading card game which had been started before Viacom’s purchase was dropped in
2006, only three years after its creation, and while there are no available sales figures for the console games,
it’s likely that they were middling based on mediocre reviews and the limited number produced. As for the feature-length animated
movie, Viacom had been suspiciously silent. After a general site revamp in
2007, progress on the site slowed with gradually decreasing
content additions and with it fewer interactive plots. No new Neopets PCs had been added since
2006. One area, Lutari Island, was left as a vestigial remnant, having only been accessible through Neopets mobile, which was
discontinued in 2009. Perhaps one of the larger blows to the Company was when the original founders left Neopets, Inc. in June of
2007. Though on relatively amicable terms Donna would later say that quote, “We really didn’t feel like they were at all
“interested in what we had planned for the site.
“They didn’t actually try to stop us leaving,
“or even contact us at any time after we left to get our feedback on anything. That seemed really strange for us. we didn’t
“leave on bad terms or anything. We just said we wanted to leave and they said okay.”
Eventually, with profits from the intellectual property slowing,
Viacom sold off Neopets to a company called Jumpstart for an undisclosed amount in
2014. The purchase was puzzling since jumpstart was a software developer known for their games such as Jumpstart First Grade, Second Grade, etc.
and what precisely they wanted to do with Neopets was unclear.
Upon acquisition, Petpet Park, Habitarium, and Keyquest were taken offline,
likely due to the lack of infrastructure to maintain them and their limited profitability. Almost immediately, things began to break down.
In September, Jumpstart began the arduous process of migrating Neopets servers,
but while this was occurring, the word filter system went offline. With the software unavailable,
moderators were unable to effectively control the once strictly managed message boards. As soon as this was discovered by some
foul-mouthed users, word spread and people began posting purposely provocative threats such as
This day became known to the player base as the Neopocalypse, or perhaps more affectionately, the Day of Sin.
Pet Simmer Julie: After this incident, other small site features fell into disrepair.
While many of these problems were fixable, some were just removed. Of the most visible was the “active users feature” on the home page which
was simply left as a blank white spot. The pervasive Neofriends online box
consistently showed a snapshot of the users online at the time the server migrated.
Other elements like Punchbag Sid haven’t made an appearance since the migration. Fredrik: Not quite a year after the acquisition, in March of
2015, a majority of the Neopets, Inc. staff was laid off. In a public post by David Lord,
CEO of Jumpstart, he stated that quote,
“Unfortunately, a recent restructuring of our resources means a number of respected employees working on Neopets are no longer with the company.”
He clarified that quote, “Neopets is not closing in any way. To the contrary, we plan to produce new content,
“update the site, and dedicate valuable resources towards improving site functionality.”
After this point, months would go by with no meaningful updates while minor features
continued to break down. With a now severely limited team, the site remained in a nearly defunct state. Pet Simmer Julie: Things have been slow through
2017. Then in July of this year, NetDragon Websoft acquired Jumpstart, and therefore Neopets.
While it’s still too early to know what this will mean long-term, things are already looking up.
Since the news of the acquisition, Neofriends’ online feature was pushed out of beta and is now a
functioning feature. This represented the first major update to the site in three years. This could eventually mean a relaunch of Keyquest, which Jumpstart had stated was their intention after taking it offline.
NetDragon has a long history of launching and supporting MMOs in China and abroad.
Fredrik: Today, the site remains in a state of limbo. It is a representation of the possibilities of new technologies and
interactive experiences that are so easily left behind or exploited beyond their capacities.
Soon, however, it could come to represent something more.
[Captioned by: Cressie Cres]