When Adobe Flash dies, so will your childhood memories

Nicole Carpenter
Dec 13, 2018 · 7 min read
Credit: Neopets

SSarah Closson’s Neopets routine starts with breakfast. She visits a massive omelette that’s served free eggs for nearly two decades, then collects interest at the Neopian bank and spins wheels to win prizes in Faerieland, Tyrannia, and the Haunted Woods. After that, she works on her long-term goals: Right now, she feeds the cat-like creatures called Kadoaties at the Kadoatie pound to earn a collectible avatar.

Closson, 23, has been playing Neopets for more than half her life. The site launched in 1999 and quickly became one of the most successful children’s properties online. For a time, millions of people visited the site to collect virtual pets and play online games. Now, only 100,000 or so people still log on every day.

While not much has changed in the world of Neopia over the past two decades, major upheaval is right around the corner. In 2017, Adobe announced it will kill off Flash, an outdated platform used to create interactive games and videos that doubles as Neopets’ lifeblood: Most of the interactive elements on the site require Flash to run.

For Neopets, Flash’s demise is very likely a death knell.

Adobe’s decision has been long overdue. Flash is outdated and unstable. Experts generally recommend uninstalling or disabling it due to its inherent security flaws. (It’s even disabled by default on Google Chrome, the most popular web browser in the world.) There are better alternatives now, like HTML5, an open system that Adobe itself has invested in. Flash has fewer than two years left to live, a grace period designed to ease users into the transition. At the end of 2020, Adobe will stop supporting Flash entirely.

For Neopets, Flash’s demise is very likely a death knell. In the best case, elements of the site could be converted to a new platform, but the company behind Neopets has struggled thus far to bring it past Web 1.0.

The website’s interactive elements — the core of Neopets — were built with Flash when Donna and Adam Powell launched the service in 1999. As the website changed hands, from scientologist Doug Dohring to media conglomerate Viacom and educational software company Knowledge Adventure, Neopets’ core framework remained unchanged. It kept using Flash, and lots of it.

“So much of my childhood was Flash-based — Neopets, Albino Blacksheep, Newgrounds,” Closson said. “It’s hard seeing everything you enjoyed as a kid no longer able to exist.” Closson likened the potential loss of Neopets to the decline of print publishing. “I couldn’t care less about newspapers going away, but my dad reads [them] everyday,” she said. “He’d be losing a huge part of his routine, something I imagine is a rock for him. Neopets is like that for me.”

Unlike, say, the Pokémon franchise, which has consistently released new games on modern hardware, Neopets relies on nostalgia. Multiple generations of owners have been hesitant to do anything new with the site, half-heartedly keeping the service alive as a way to capitalize on fond memories.

Closson likened the potential loss of Neopets to the decline of print publishing.

“When Neopets started, it was cutting edge,” Neopets co-creator Donna Powell said over email. “Believe it or not, but once upon a time, gradient-fills were the bee’s knees. We always wanted to continue pushing the boundaries of what we could do, but this was not a vision that was shared by our upper management.”

Of course, some things have changed since Neopets launched. The site eventually started to monetize stuff, like pet customization and premium accounts. But Neopets 1.0 still shines through.

“Even though [the monetization stuff] might be at the center, around the edges of it is still everything that we grew up with,” Andrew Campana, a media scholar and active Neopets player, said. “The site has changed management over and over in the last few years, so some stuff is just too hard to keep up. It just becomes neglected, and I think we’re going to see a very wide scale example of that soon [with Adobe ending Flash support].”

There’s been a push from JumpStart, the current owner of Neopets, to modernize the property through two standalone mobile games, Ghoul Catchers and Neopets: Legends & Letters. The latter was supposed to be released this year, but is now expected “in early 2019.” There’s little connection between these apps and the main site. Ghoul Catchers, a match-style puzzle game, lets players export Neopoints to their accounts, but that’s about it.

The hesitance to go fully mobile is likely tied to the massive amount of work that would be involved — the entire site would need to be transformed. Because of Neopets’ excessive use of Flash, the site isn’t compatible with iOS devices at all, and it runs poorly elsewhere.

Neopets’ issue with Flash, then, works against the company in another way: It’s a mobile world, and the service is trapped on desktop. In 2016, mobile traffic surpassed desktop traffic, and the number of smartphone reliant people — those who opt out of a home broadband connection — continues to grow. Many sites and platforms are moving toward (or are already using) a mobile-first structure.

JumpStart maintains that it will convert the entire site over to HTML5. But a company representative said the team has “redirected” its efforts recently to working on Neopets: Legends & Letters. The site will eventually be refreshed with “a post-HTML5 version,” but the timing hasn’t been determined yet.

‘CHILL! It’s all good in the Neopian hood! That’s all I’m gonna say!’

Meanwhile, Neopets staffers work to reassure concerned users through The Neopian Times, an in-world newspaper that’s been running since the site’s inception.

“Okay, saying I got an overwhelming amount of comments about the Flash update is an understatement,” a Neopets staffer called Scrappy recently wrote in the paper’s editorial section. “SO, understand I say this is the nicest possible way, but guys…CHILL! It’s all good in the Neopian hood! That’s all I’m gonna say!”

Users like Campana aren’t so sure.

“A full conversion isn’t going to happen. It’s going to be a weird transition wasteland period where two-thirds of the site will be broken,” he predicted.

Portions of the site probably won’t survive once Adobe sunsets Flash. Neopets’ pet customization system is huge, and converting all of it would be a gargantuan effort. There’s also nearly all of Neopets’ games — well over 100 of them — the majority of its maps, and nearly a decade’s worth of Flash-based comics.

Some portions of the site will live on through fan page JellyNeo, where users are working for free to preserve the site’s smaller Flash pieces, stuff that’s unlikely to be moved over to HTML5.

“The main driver is to preserve old Neopets content before it becomes inaccessible to most users,” JellyNeo’s owner, who just goes by “Dave,” said. “We’re converting all the Neopets Flash content we can into modern, digital formats that are hopefully more ‘safe’ for long term consumption.”

TThings that happen on the internet stay on the internet, or so they say. And in most ways, that expression isn’t wrong: If you say something shitty on Twitter, it’s very likely that someone will screenshot it and save it forever. But this doesn’t exactly apply to old tech, especially games or applications.

It’s not nearly as easy to preserve something interactive as it is to save a page of text or an image. This year, game developer Jagex took Runescape Classic offline after 17 years, mirroring the death of a number of online MMOs before it. In 2017, Apple forced developers to upgrade old apps or be shut out of iOS 11’s App Store — hundreds of thousands of apps were at risk and half of them no longer exist.

Flash’s demise has the Neopets community grappling with what it means to lose a space that’s been available for almost two decades. Sure, Neopets may continue to exist in some form or another, whether it’s a mobile app or a revamped site. But an old version of Neopets will die with Flash, further separating the site’s dedicated players from a once-beloved internet space.

“Like a lot of stuff from that time, it’ll be very hard to find just five years down the road,” Campana said. “In order to understand what the internet is now and where it’s going, you really need to know what it was.”

Update: Taylor Lord, community and web development director at Jumpstart, reached out after publication to confirm that a Neopets.com app is in development with a tentative launch date of summer 2019. The mobile app will take the framework and design of the site to create an HTML-5-friendly app optimized for smartphones. Lord said a Neopets sub-team is “100 percent dedicated” to the app’s development.

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