Neopets: Boulevard of Broken Childhood Dreams
In 2002, when @lilwolfstreams was nine-years old, a classmate told her about Neopets. Her parents wouldn’t let her have a real pet, so the idea of an adorable digital creature that needed her care was appealing. She created an Uni Alacorn, a Lupe, a Gelert and a Peophin, and started logging 2-4 hours a week playing games within the site, especially Destruct-O-Match and Pterrattack. These were the days of Angelfire and LiveJournal, when the Apple iMac came in 13 colors as bright as Jolly Ranchers, and mice were round. At its mid-2000s peak, 25 million Neopets users were online at the same time as @lilwolfstreams, navigating the browser-based cyber world known as Neopia.
If there was ever a brand to revive itself in Web3 form, it seems like Neopets would be a runaway success. Just consider the recent Nickelodeon NFT drop, but more importantly, the fact that Neopets’ cornerstones are immersion, community and positivity: all polestars of Web3. “Neopets is the nicest community I’ve ever been in,” @lilwolfstreams says via Zoom, who has logged 5,000 hours on the site to date. But today, her community of OG Neopets users are pissed off: They don’t want NFTs and don’t want a metaverse, despite the fact there is now a 30-person team devoted to both ventures. Jellyneo, the foremost Neopets fan site since 2004, declined to be interviewed but offered one comment via Twitter: “NFTs are dumb, and are a tragic mistake,” along with a link to what has become their de facto manifesto on this new direction. In it, they reference another blockchain bungle from 2018 called “CryptoQuest,” quoting dismal sales and an out-of-business marketplace that erased the collectibles along with it, along with inadequate response to the use of slurs in the Neopets Metaverse Discord.
Regardless, the Neopets metaverse expects to launch in the first quarter of this year; a trailer, a gameplay demo, and a litepaper already exist. Players like @lilwolfstreams continue to take to Reddit, Twitter, the Neoboards, and now Discord to shout: We just want our original browser game to work. They’re tired of the missteps and controversies over the years, and there have been many.
Burned Fans, and NFTs
Like childhood, memory lane can be simultaneously wonderful and harrowing to travel down. The road of Neopets was paved in 1999 by two college students in the UK named Adam Powell and Donna Williams and built for dorm-lifers who, like @lilwolfstreams, were in the market for a pet that they could love and feed (and in Neopets, clothe). The site grew so meteorically that a group of investors bought it two years later: One of them was Doug Dohring, a Scientologist who used L. Ron Hubbard’s Org Board business model to run the notoriously “kid-safe” entertainment site (to this day, Adam and Donna maintain that they did not know this, and never let Scientology education infiltrate the site.) Viacom purchased Neopets in 2005 for $160 million, JumpStart Games purchased it from Viacom in 2014 for an undisclosed amount, and Chinese company NetDragon acquired JumpStart in 2017.
From Reddit boards to the New York Times, the controversies along the way are well-documented: predatory advertising practices, being a “training ground for children gamblers,” hacking (the site was actually in the middle of a security breach at the time of this writing), illegal trading, and questionable customer service. By 2018, usership had dwindled to 100,000 daily users.
And then there was COVID. Usership spiked 30-40 percent in the months after March 2020, fueled by stay-at-home orders, more time online, and a desire to return to the simpler days: in our childhood rooms, chatting on AOL Instant Messenger with a copy of Green Day’s “American Idiot” blasting from the boombox. “Nostalgia is a refuge, as people turn to the feelings of comfort, security, and love they enjoyed in their past,” psychologist and nostalgia expert Krystine Batcho recently told Business Insider.
Bilge Dice Under Construction
The death of Adobe Flash Player on December 30, 2020, nearly broke the entire site for good: Many portions were rendered unusable, and plots and games were lost. “There are 14 games now,” says @lilwolfstreams, verifying it on her computer as we speak. “There used to be hundreds.” And yet, the game chugged on as users found workarounds; @lilwolfstreams uses a browser called Cent that mimics the old Flash experience; others use one called Pale Moon.
It was 2021, 23 years since its inception, and the Neopets brand was still alive. Right around then, Dominic Law started working on blockchain opportunities at Netdragon. “We wanted to test the waters,” he says of the 2021 NFT drop, a run of 20,500 algorithmically-generated Neopets living on the Solana blockchain. But even that project was bedeviled. The hashtag #NoNeoNFTs proliferated on Twitter, Neopets cut the genesis drop from 20,500 to 10,500 (seemingly from a lack of interest), and only 4,225 sold; the rest burned. Fans criticized the artwork, and accused Neopets of stealing from the fan art website, Dress To Impress. After all of this, they also persisted with a plan – previously announced in September 2021 – to build a metaverse.
Dress to Impress Twitter Statement
A Fucked Up Family
“I agree with peoples’ problems with NFTs,” says Tree, an NFT collector and a Neopets player since day one (disclaimer: Tree is a Neopets Metaverse ambassador, an unpaid position that offers priority access to game modes and whitelisting opportunities for future NFT and token drops). “Most of [the space] is opportunists.” But when it comes to scams, he says that technology is not to blame: it’s people. “Before this, we had phone and email scams, and we didn’t say these needed to be shut down.” Regarding the Dress To Impress scandal, he points out that the site has an open source license and that anyone is allowed to use their art. Of course, why not just make original art?
He has a counter-argument to most of the controversies: that bringing Neopets.com up to date might not be possible – “it’s built on 23 years of spaghetti code” – that to remake something is more time intensive and more challenging than making something new. “I don’t know how many people are playing Neopets and how much money they make, but I know it’s less than 1% of Netdragon’s earnings. It’s a possibility they’re even losing money on that site.” And regarding the “cash grab” argument usually hurled at NFTs, he explains that the Neopets community is “already very used to micro-transactions. A year of Premium [on Neopets.com] is $70; an NFT could be $50.” And then there’s the deluge of online hate, which irks him. “The thing is that all of this is what makes Neopets so special. It’s like a big fucked up family, but it’s my distant family and all of our family in a way,” he says.
And when Tree discovered Neopets NFTs in September 2021, he described it as a Eureka moment. “They’re the OG of generative art,” he says; he spent months figuring out which Neopets NFTs to buy: He ended up with 100.
Stacys, an early digital artist with three of her own sold-out NFT collections (and also a Neopets Metaverse ambassador), also sees Neopets NFTs and metaverse as an opportunity, not a failure. She got her first taste of digital ownership as a 13-year-old living in Calgary, Alberta, playing untold hours of Destruct-O-Match and Cheat!. She received early entrepreneurial training, a commonly shared experience, particularly for young girls who learned how to code and start businesses. Today, she owns an NFT of a Lupe “with a Woodland Paint Brush.” She is excited about digital ownership moving to the blockchain instead of a server that could go away (anyone remember Netscape Navigator?).
Customization is also a big deal to her. She wants her Neopets to have homes and see the creators build on the IP. “I imagine there will be even better opportunities for us to interact together in the metaverse,” she says.
Neopets Metaverse Collection
From 2D Flash Games to a 3D Metaverse
“Web3 is inevitable,” says Neopets’ chief metaverse officer Dominic Law, who still has the turtle he had as a child when he first delved into the digital menagerie. Speaking from his home in Hong Kong, he told me over Zoom that Neopets were his first “furry” companions. Today, he focuses on captivating Neopets’ past user base, which is still strong. There are currently 1 million monthly active users to the classic site, and Law estimates that about 80% of those in the Neopets Metaverse Discord community are OG users and people familiar with the brand.
The Neopets metaverse will be free-to-play (and eventually have play-to-earn components). Its blockchain is yet to be determined. Law says he is inspired by “Animal Crossing” and “Roblox,” though eventually, they will decentralize the game. At NFT NYC (where Neopets was a sponsor), a staff member told SuperRare editor Oli Scialdone that the team plans to port many of the classic games over.
Scialdone stopped by the Neopets booth and reported that its visitors were mostly “younger millennials, women, and visibly queer. It was a stark contrast from the sea of presumably cishet men at the conference and a welcome break from all the booths shilling ‘synergetic crypto marketing solutions.’” It seems like a foreshadowing of who will be in the metaverse.
Walking a Lonely Road?
Herdy lives in the UK and has been playing Neopets since 2001. He is best known for maintaining the most comprehensive lore resource for the game and has the most publications in The Neopian Times, recently passing 400. He says that even though Neopets has had its controversies, he expects it from a game with updates five days a week for over twenty years. “The Neopets Metaverse is another matter entirely, though,” he says.
“Realistically, what might have been acceptable would have been some sort of NFT trading card game, like “Hearthstone,” with high-quality art to compliment the existing game. But Netdragon has gone in a completely different direction.” He would like to see Netdragon give a full and comprehensive apology, and stipulate that Neopets Metaverse proceeds will in part be plowed back into Neopets.com. Meanwhile, @lilwolfstreams tells me she will write a letter to Neopets about her feelings.
“I love Neopets, but I don’t know if they’ll bring it up to modern standards,” says the more optimistic Tree. He says he hopes they’re around forever, adding: “I’ve never seen any existing franchise announce crypto or NFTs to gaming that didn’t have a backlash – because the people supporting it aren’t vocal. They’re like, ‘Okay, we’ll see where this goes.’ Whereas the people who are completely against it will be vocal because in their minds, there’s always a chance that it may get them what they want, you know?”
With so much of Web1 gone or going the way of the floppy disk, I wonder if Neopets will ever give its OG players what they want or if they’ll have to let go. After all, what right do they have to hold on to something forever? Maintaining a website costs money, and the owners get to decide where their money goes. But on the other hand, it seems the metaverse wants the OGs to be nostalgic, while simultaneously forcing them to move on. Will Neopets even have a fan base if they don’t bring the old guard along? And will their metaverse be enticing enough for its early adopters and new fans, or become a no man’s land of 3D proportions? We’ll have to see who shows up.
*Since this writing, Neopets launched its Metaverse Alpha and raised $4M in funding from Polygon Ventures, Blizzard Avalanche Ecosystem Fund, Hashkey Capital, IDG Capital, and NetDragon Websoft.
Neopets Metaverse Visuals
SuperRare editor Oli Scialdone considers the social experience of provenance and its relationship with community in the Web3 space.