Petz: A lost community of mostly female coders/gamers
I was about 15 in the early 2000s when I started playing Petz. I’d always loved animals and computers, so when I saw the games at Circuit City, I convinced my mom to buy them for me. They changed my life.
At the time were a series of situations I was in — going to school for the first time after being homeschooled and my family moving to a new state, so I was fairly bored and isolated. So when I found there was a whole online community for the games, that became one of my primary hobbies.
The games themselves were nothing special. There was Catz and Dogz and if you had both you could play with them together. There were different breeds of each and you could breed them together to create mixed breeds. You could also dress them up and play with them in various scenes like a backyard.
While the games were fairly simple, they had their own complex subculture, mainly populated by a mixture of teenage girls with a few older women, including the legendary Carolyn — her bio said “I’m female, British, in my mid ’50s, have a passion for cats.” Carolyn’s Creations was the first website where I found out you could extensively modify the game to turn the base breed files into such wonders as dragons and ponies. Of course once I knew this I had to do it too, because I wanted to be able to play with dogz that looked like my own family’s dog.
Modding this was called “hexing” in the community. This was because you did it with a hex editor, reading through the numbers in the files to find the “ballz” and “linez” that made up the Petz and the variables that determined their size, position, and color. The game developers never made any documentation for doing this editing, so it was a lot of trial and error, through there was some great amateur documentation out there too. I learned the tedious process of debugging through this, often changing variables and then loading the game to see what they did. Later on some smart people made some IDE-like tools that made it much faster.
You could also modify the base files of individual Dogz and Catz, but you needed a hex calculator to do that because the end checksum had to be the same or the games would consider the file corrupt. This was also a pretty interesting process because you had to figure out what parts of the file were unimportant enough to substract or add to in order to make up for the changes you did. All this to give my Dogz pink eyes.
Then there were some weird reactionary movements in the online community, like people who only wanted “hex-free” Petz with no bloodline contamination from Petz who had been hexed. You could still do some cool stuff with this – I ended up creating my own bloodlines of hex-free selectively bred Dogz, which bred true due to extensive inbreeding. Oh but yes there were people in the community who were also anti-inbreeding. It was a gloriously weird place.
There were also strange trends like “tamsins,” which were selectively bred crosses between Dalmatians and Mutts (that was a specific Dogz breed). And “floppies” which were Great Danes with Dalmatian ears. Or one summer when hexers figured out you could put spots on top of spots to create leopard-like markings and that became extremely popular.
You could also enter your Petz in various shows and contests of all kinds. Later on I got into hexing and showing with the Petz Kennel Club, a forum of hexers dedicated to realistic-looking custom breeds.
Then there were the websites themselves where all this stuff took place. I’m sure I’m not the only one who learned CSS and HTML to host their Petz stuff. A lot of it took place on sites hosted on Geocities or Angelfire. At one point my mom let me use her credit card to buy my first domain and “good” hosting, which meant hosting that let you run basic web scripting.
Of course I had to learn HTML forms so I could host adoption forms on my website. A lot of those were pretty absurd and required you to say what a great virtual Petz owner you’d be. I also admittedly went to Warez (the z at the end is just a coincidence, they were shady places) sites to get my first copy of Photoshop, which I eagerly learned to create silly images for my websites (I really honed my skills in that by making Livejournal icons, but that’s another story).
Ubisoft pretty much abandoned these games, but for many years amateurs carried on their development, making them much more than they originally were. But their legacy lives on.
At least in my own life, I learned so much about software and web development, that they are probably at least one of the reasons I ended up in the profession. Most importantly though is I had a lot of fun. People often think their kids playing video games is a waste of time, but for me it certainly wasn’t.
And while gaming culture is stereotypically male and elements of gaming culture that have been embedded in pop culture like World of Warcraft are the same way, Petz was a thriving female-dominated world of coding and gaming before people even thought much about that.
Another great post from a dev who was part of the community here