How a Small Group of Devotees Are Saving Neopets From Extinction
25 million people once raised Neopets. A few thousand persevere today, in what has become a virtual ghost town.
If you visit the current website of the virtual pet game, Neopets, you’ll instantly recognize the vestiges of a late 1990s internet world. Its users almost certainly shared their thoughts on Xanga or LiveJournal, and were just beginning to discover other niche online communities through a year-old company called Google.
Clicking through the Neopets world known as Neopia is like going back in an internet time machine. The bright Crayola yellow backdrop, the bubbly space font, and the cute cartoon pets are remnants of the early web—their cheerful style unfazed by time.
Neopets users have now been training and taking care of their pets for 17 years. The game has been passed between several different owners and companies, the developers sometimes beginning a project but never completing it. Today, the site still contains pieces of past quests, lands, and incomplete features that veteran Neopets owners continue to explore unbeknownst to new and returning players.
For those who are unfamiliar with the game, or if it has been a while since you’ve played, Neopets is a social and virtual online world dedicated to raising fantastical creatures like dragons, wolves, and bugs as pets. The game was originally developed for children in 1999 by two undergraduates at Nottingham University, Adam and Donna Powell, who are now married.
Pet owners play mini-games to earn Neopoints to purchase clothes, food, and special items for their Neopets. It’s similar to the mid-1990s digital pet game Tamagotchi, except the pets won’t die if you forget to feed them (they’ll just be disgruntled with you), and users don’t carry their pets around on egg-shaped keychains. It is also sometimes compared to Pokémon, since users can train their pets and, more recently, battle with other Neopets.
Many players have forgotten or abandoned their Neopets over the years. I admit to being one of them. The estimated few thousand users who continue to raise Neopets return to the site for different reasons: the community, the nostalgia, and for the fun of leveling up and raising Neopets.
Players can explore and visit the 19 “lands” officially accessible on the Neopia globe. Each have their own geography, history, and landmarks. However, additional lands and unlisted site components, like parts of past story plots for instance, that were thought to have been long forgotten are still tended by the tight-knit community of Neopets super fans who return to visit around several-dozen still-active links.
“To newer players, these hidden locations are probably unknown to them,” writes Wolf, a current Neopets player who returned to the game nine years ago, and only wants to be identified by his username. “Older players, on the other hand, depending on when they joined/rejoined will know some, but not all of them.”
Longtime players speculate that the shifts and changes with the site and company caused the numerous forgotten features. “I’m assuming that the developers were planning to take [the lands and features] down, but somehow forgot about it,” Wolf explains.
I tried reaching out to the Neopets Team developers and the game’s current company, JumpStart, to learn more about the forgotten features, but received no response. So I turned to Neopets community forums, and was able to chat with fans who knew some details about these lands and their significance.
To re-explore the world of Neopia and find the secret online features, I created a new Neopet, a yellow Shoyru flying dragon named MrSoySauce. From the tips I received from longtime users, I tracked down features in the Lost Desert, Tyrannia’s abandoned Volcano, Jelly World, Lutari Island, and traces of the Neoschools project.
While you can’t find them on the current Neopia globe map, fans have kept tabs on some of the links that remain active. Below is a closer look at some of the secret lands and features.
Lost Desert Calculator
Wolf believes the Lost Desert Calculator, a ‘cool [calculator] to help you do your math homework,’ “was removed from the map because it no longer fit when the maps were overhauled.”
You can also visit the Volcano, part of a temporary story event plot players could follow in the ancient land of Tyrannia. Inside a fiery tunnel of the Volcano, there were once an assortment of games and shops, including Tyran Far’s weapon shop, but they were moved to other areas of Tyrannia. The Volcano was removed, but some links are still active and it remains the backdrop for the Volcano Run games.
Developers always meant to keep the land of Jelly World a secret. The land isn’t anywhere on the Neopia map. When you ask seasoned players about this entire land made out of orange jelly, they’ll pretend like it doesn’t exist.
“It’s meant to be a joke world, the joke being that it exists, yet it’s treated like it doesn’t,” explains another player, whose username is Sir Thundagza. There are a couple characters in Neopets that give hints about Jelly World, but their rambles appear to be nonsense, which encourages most players to ignore, or distrust, what they are saying.
The land contains a shop where you can buy foods made of jelly, a mini-game, free jelly to feed your pet, and some other random features.
Lutari Island is actually listed on the Neopian map as an official land, however the link leads you to a foggy island that you’re told has experienced a terrible storm and you can’t interact with any of the features.
The island used to be accessible through the Neopets Mobile game. When the mobile game was discontinued, users could no longer visit Lutari Island. No one knows what the Neopets developers plan to do with land—if they are planning anything at all.
The Neopets site has an official list of classes and professors, but strangely there are no schools for them to educate the pets. Developers were going to make Neoschools for pets to increase their intelligence and for users to purchase school supplies at another shop, but it was announced that the project had been abandoned.
How the Neopets Empire Became a Ghost Town
Although parts of the game may seem like a virtual ghost town now, when Neopets launched, it was an immediate success. The site and its many self-contained worlds quickly evolved. The Neopian lore became more complex, with occasional story plots that allowed players to explore new lands and features.
Soon, there were more lands, a Neopian alphabet, and a weekly Neopets newspaper called the Neopian Times, where users could write fiction, articles, poetry, and create artwork. But, even as the world grew the core of the game remained the same: raise and take care of your pet.
During its peak years in the early 2000s, the Neopets site was raking in 2.2 billion page views per month and had 25 million members worldwide, according to a 2005 Wired article. Viacom Network purchased Neopets in 2005 and grew the franchise, creating plush dolls, action figures, and trading cards. In 2001, users were spending an average of 117 minutes a week raising their pet, and it was deemed the stickiest children’s entertainment site on the internet.
As years passed and users grew older, site traffic began to dwindle. There’s no official count, but fans on the Neopets subreddit estimated last year that numbers probably average around the thousands (some spotted around 3,000 on the old counter that used to be featured on the Neopets site).
Neopets got a new parent company in 2014, JumpStart, which hopes to reinvigorate the game experience. However, the switch to the JumpStart server caused some issues.
“After the acquisition of Neopets by JumpStart, we took some time to analyze and decide the best course of action for modernizing the technology behind the site,” JumpStart CEO David Lord told Motherboard last year. “Once we made the decision to upgrade the technology, the effort was a bit bumpy at times.”
One Neopets blog has documented the developments that had been made to the site each year. In 2014, when Neopets was bought by JumpStart, the blog wrote: “While everyone’s data made it across okay, at the time of writing TNT [the Neopets Team] are still ironing out a lot of persistent bugs. Hang in there!”
Then in early 2015, a large number of former Neopets Team members were let go, leaving the development and gameplay uncertain.
“Neopets has had its ups and downs throughout the years, and you’ll hear right now Neopets is on a bit of a downswing,” says Sir Thundagza, who has been playing Neopets for 15 years.
But despite these bugs and issues, Neopets users like Sir Thundagza, remain passionate about the game. Sir Thundagza stays active in the community by publishing articles in the Neopian Times, and continues to make friends with pets and users alike.
“It’s one of my places I can temporarily escape from the problems and frustrations of the real world and explore a world of fantasy,” Sir Thundagza wrote to me. “Despite the cartoony art style and the bright colors, I would say the site has an ageless feel to it… I would say it’s a close knit community who grew up playing a site that grew with us.”
Wolf concurs: “The only reason I can think of about going to locations that are no longer available on the maps is probably for the nostalgia,” he says.
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