Once upon a time, when the internet was still new and shiny, Neopets was extremely popular. One source claims over 5 billion page views per month back in 2005. But now, the site has mostly faded into obscurity, with modern estimates in the region of 10-30k active users.
This article seeks to explore the reasons for the site's decline, take a look at the current state of the site, and speculate as to what could have been done to keep it alive.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Neopets is a kids' game. Certainly it has become more childish with time, and its target market seems to have shifted deliberately in that direction, but it actually has a lot of surprisingly complex features, and finds its origins in much darker, grittier roots.
In many aspects, Neopets was ahead of its time, and remains unique, even to this day. It combines games, competitions, a stock market, and even a primitive form of social networking, all linked together by a rich and diverse economy. New content is added daily. Think about that for a second. How many other games are updated that frequently?
Neopets has a really strong premise, and maybe that's what brought it such popularity, and what keeps some loyal users playing today, twenty years later.
Let's explore some of these different facets in more detail.
Neopets has literally hundreds of games. For the most part, these are simplistic, gimmicky or downright tedious, but some of them are pretty fun. Like everything else on the site, these tie into the economy, as playing games earns the player Neopoints, the site-wide currency. The higher your score, the more Neopoints you earn - neat!
Many of these "games" can be played daily for a chance to win prizes, which goes a long way to entice players to return to the site on a regular basis. Neopets is - or perhaps, was - renowned for this addictive quality.
There are dozens of competitions on Neopets, most of them weekly. Some of these, such as Better Than You, involve achieving certain scores in the aforementioned games, while others involve physically creating, writing or drawing something according to some criteria. The Neopets Team (TNT) review hundreds of submissions and reward the best entries.
I believe this to be a very unique and compelling feature of the site. I am not sure I have seen any other game that encourages and rewards hands-on creativity in this manner.
Neopets had (in fact, still has) a fantastic community. Players can communicate via the Neoboards (forums) or Neomail (private messaging), and were often encouraged to do so, as regular site-wide events such as wars and plots naturally invited teamwork and collaboration.
What's more, every player has their own public "lookup" page, which showcases their pets, trophies and other achievements. These pages can even be customised via HTML, not unlike the Myspace of the same era.
The significance of this feature cannot be overstated. Being able to publicly display your achievements inspires a great deal of competition, and even led to the phenomenon of "Neopian fame", where some players became extremely well-known throughout the site for their accomplishments.
The Neopian economy fascinates me to this day.
The economy underpins everything, and neatly ties together what would otherwise be a handful of disparate, unconnected features. I am no economist, but as a casual observer I find it uncanny how closely the Neopian economy reflects real life; the value of items and currency is dictated by the ever-changing flow of supply and demand, and even inflation.
Neopoints are the basic currency, and can be used to buy items. There are at least 58,216 known item varieties in the game, although many are extremely rare, one-of-a-kind, or in some cases, completely unobtainable.
While TNT have put some mechanisms in place to try to control the economy, needless to say it is a complex beast with a life of its own.
I want to dedicate some time to talking about some of the worldbuilding that has gone into creating the Neopets universe.
At first glance Neopets, with its animal-esque pets and fantasy locations, may look simple, shallow, even clichéd. But this couldn't be further from the truth. A closer look reveals that Neopets is absolutely chock-full of lore, recurring themes, and astonishing creativity.
There are countless characters in Neopian lore, many with their own backstories, motives and personalities delivered through stories, site events, Neopian Times articles, and Neopedia entries.
Various themes also become evident as you browse the site; Omelette, Jelly, Plushies, Neggs, Paint Brushes, Pirates, Rainbows, Faeries, Codestones… to name just a few. But what I find particularly clever is the way these themes are combined. For example, players can obtain a Jelly Negg, a Black Cherry Jelly Omelette, a Giant Omelette Plushie, even a Plushie Bruce Plushie - that is, a plushie depicting a pet that's been painted to look like a plushie!
Many of these items also have surprisingly witty names and descriptions. For example, the Depressing Potato: This potato just doesnt want to be boiled, mashed, or stuck in a stew, and The Two Ring: A slight upgrade.
Last but not least, I want to mention Petpets. That's right - your pets can have pets! I found this to be a nice touch. In fact, the game takes it one step further. You guessed it: Petpetpets!
This article barely scratches the surface of all there is to do on Neopets. It is a vast, interconnected world packed with creativity and whimsy, and the range of activities available to players is extremely diverse.
So where did it all go wrong?Click here for Part 2