Neopets is Changing — But What Does That Mean for Users of 20+ Years?
There’s a 30-year-old woman named Jessica in Tennessee, Texas, who has a secret.
After her chores are done for the day, after her two kids are tucked up in bed, she opens her laptop and begins a nightly ritual, one that would baffle her friends, but that has been with her since childhood.
It’s Snot Splatter.
It’s as gross as it sounds — a flash game involving popping bubbles of snot. And it’s just one among hundreds of similar games available on hit-noughties kid’s site, Neopets. Jessica, along with thousands of other adults, is still playing them on the digital pet platform in 2020, twenty-one years after it’s launch.
Started by two university students in Nottingham in 1999, in its heyday, Neopets boasted 3.4 million users. Within six years of its creation, it had been sold to Media behemoth Viacom for $160 million.
Its gradual decline into obscurity went largely unnoticed by the generation that it had once kept glued to their PC screens. Like so many internet staples of that era — Habbo Hotel, Piczo, AOL — many of us simply woke up one day and wondered “what ever happened to Neopets?”
But not all of us. The minority who continued to play had their loyalty tested for over a decade, enduring multiple changes of ownership, technical glitches and outright neglect of the online world.
Notable incidents include an exodus of the original, and much loved, staff, a mass data breach, and a spate of random deactivations that led to users losing accounts of up to twenty years old. There are still angry comments about the latter on the official Facebook page.
Throughout all of this internal chaos, in which a small number of users continued to log in daily, the site appeared much the same as it was in the 2000s. Although interactive events had come to a halt, the Neopian world — known as ‘Neopia’ — continued to turn.
The Neopian Stock market peaked and fluctuated. The shops at Neopia Central re-stocked every eight minutes. The ghosts stole the donations from the Money Tree. From the outside, the site was unchanged, like a childhood bedroom where the kids had long since grown and departed, but that had been kept perfectly preserved. It was a digital monument for lost millennial youth.
“There is definitely still a lot of that depth left from the old days, but it feels like the passion behind the game is gone, which makes me super sad,” said Jess Joy, a New Zealander and member of 7K strong Facebook Community, Neopets Nation. She joined the site when she was 7. She is now 26.
Changes are on the horizon, however. The once static world of Neopets has seen movement in recent months, with some developments welcomed more than others by devoted users.
It started with an announcement from JumpStart, Neopet’s current owners in a long succession. A mobile version of the game called Legends and Letters was launched in January 2019 — news regarded with suspicion by those still waiting for previously-promised but never delivered Neopets mobile app, Key Quest. Nevertheless, it was indicative of increasing activity behind the scenes of the site, which had even seen a small revival of interactive storylines, like the recent Wraith Resurgence plot.
And then, a blow; Google Chrome publicised its intent to stop supporting Adobe Flash Player as of December 2020. The writing has been on the wall for Flash since Steve Jobs declared it obsolete in 2010, but much of Neopet’s graphics are dependent on the software. Even more crucially, it heralds the death of Neopet’s flash games, like Jessica’s beloved Snot Splatter. These are key to the universe’s internal economy, and one of its most addictive and fondly-remembered features.
Even more recent is news from JumpStart that an animated series is in development. It’s to be aimed at kids — a decision greeted with a lukewarm reception in Neopets Nation. While it’s true that Neopia remains extremely child-friendly — with sometimes bizarre restrictions on words on the boards and messaging service — the majority of its users have now grown up. With the recent trend for nostalgia in popular culture, is it indicative of an over-ambitious marketing strategy on the part of the Neopets’ team, to target an entirely new audience, rather than taking advantage of the existing one?
“I’m torn. On one hand, I really love that the community is now mostly adults from my generation, that all remember the old days. On the other hand, with a return to popularity, we may see more site fixes and more resources invested into the site,” said Jani, from Alberta Canada, who joined in 1999.
Whatever the future holds for Neopia, those in charge of its fate should not underestimate the meaning it continues to hold for many people. It has, after all, been a presence in some lives for up to twenty years, and has been responsible for lasting relationships, friendships, and even careers. Like for Tia, from Morristown, Tennessee, who got back into playing after being diagnosed with cancer;
“I would not have gotten my current job if not for Neopets. It started me in HTML and I used Neopets bots and themes in my portfolio to apply for a subcontractor position. The company I’m at now gets small tasks from several other companies like Google, Yahoo, etc to help with HTML coding, and thanks to Neopets, my portfolio was strong enough to get the position.”
Or Jess Joy from New Zealand, who names Neopets the “number one influence” in her becoming a graphic designer and illustrator;
“Neopets was pretty much my life as a kid; I had long term illness that kept me from school, and around when I started Neopets, I also started homeschooling. The game really helped me cope, it was so involved and multifaceted that it truly distracted me from everything and made me feel like I could explore and socialise and adventure as much as the most healthy child. I also learned a lot of real-life skills that I still use today like writing and socialising, making sales, managing money, and possibly the most impactful; web design, illustration, and web coding.”
It’s telling that the commitment of some ‘Neopians’ like Tia, Jani, Jessica and Jess Joy has not wavered in the face of mismanagement, neglect or cultural obscurity. Neither has it been eroded by the hectic nature of life; surviving puberty, marriages, births. It’s an indicator of the impact the site had on the childhoods of many millennials and continues to have on the adults they’ve become.
There’s every hope that the recent changes will usher in a new era of growth and success for Neopets, particularly in a culture obsessed with rehashing the past. But those responsible should take care not to do a disservice to those who joined in 1999, placing as much importance on veteran fans as the new ones they wish to attract in 2020.