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Inside the Neopets ‘black market’

‘Black market’ players want you to know they’re not boogeymen

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

The Neopets “black market” is not a scary place — there are no poorly lit alleyways to walk through, no strangers shrouded in dark clothing. In fact, the black market looks a lot like the other parts of the community; players on forums and Discord servers who are passionate about the mostly broken Neopets website. The people who occupy these places just happen to be bending the site’s rules to suit their needs.

Neopets, the create-a-pet website that’s been around since 1999, still has dedicated players, new and old. A lot of them have invested a lot of time and energy into the game, which keeps them coming back, despite how frustrating the site is to use. Others keep coming back because they’ve made lifelong friends on the website, and they find the community fun. Then there are the Neopets players who have taken it upon themselves to “fix” Neopets, to make it more fun or easier to play. Though they likely have the same motivations for continuing to stay active on the website, these players are technically breaking the site’s rules. It’s created a divide between legitimate players and so-called cheaters, and that’s creating lots of drama for the community.

a water faerie Image: Neopets/JumpStart

Some of these “black market” players told Polygon they want the rest of the community to know they’re not scary hackers. It’s just that when they want something fixed, they do it themselves. Many of these players said they are frustrated with Neopets leadership, just like users on the rest of the site. They’ve just taken an alternative approach to playing the game. These players pass around scripts that make “quality-of-life” changes — like adding a 24-hour clock, optimizing the forum for better posting and viewing, and collating quick links to Neopets’ daily activities. None of these are against the Neopets rules, because they don’t necessarily automate any action, like refreshing a page or auto-playing games.

“Some of these alterations are things which the Neopets team themselves could, and should, consider implementing themselves,” one user told Polygon.

Of course, there are more illicit scripts, too, ones that technically break the rules but are designed to streamline the experience of grinding out neopoints (the Neopets currency). Black market players justify this in plenty of different ways, but in talking to Neopets players over the past week, the consensus seems to be that it’s not hurting anyone to use these tools. There’s a huge spectrum of Neopets players who choose to break the site’s rules, from players who use scripts to improve forum reading, to players who hack accounts to steal valuable pets from active players. Many of the players we spoke to ended up somewhere in the middle, telling Polygon that they’ve got strict rules and personal morals against stealing items and pets from active Neopets accounts. As for abandoned accounts? That’s a different story; hackers justify this by saying that the redistribution of unused but valuable pets keeps the game’s economy running. Arguably, the entire spectrum of players tweaking Neopets have an advantage over players who don’t, but black market players want the community to know they aren’t boogeymen.

Even though all Neopets players are united in their frustrations with the Neopets website, the rift between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” players has continued to widen. That tension came to a head over the weekend, following the community’s reckoning with black market pet trading, when one Neopets whistleblower exposed a website exploit that gave regular Neopets users access to administrator tools — including one that could transform regular pets into unconverted pets, which are some of Neopets’ most valuable commodities. Another user then published “proof” that the tool worked by unconverting a few pets and showing off the results on the Pound Chat forum, an official spot for Neopets players to chat about their pets. Soon after that, other unconverted pets were reportedly up for grabs in a free-for-all at the Neopian Pound, a digital shelter where players drop unwanted pets.

“I just wanted to prove to everyone that, one, this was a real backdoor in the website,” the user on the Pound Chat forum told Polygon. “Two, this website is not secure. Three, [The Neopets Team] has no clue how to fix anything.”

Hours later, the Neopets team responded on the staff message board, acknowledging the existence of the unconverted pet exploit. Eventually, it was brought offline.

doors that say adopt, transfer, and abandon Image: Neopets

“A reminder, there are no official channels for the creation of new unconverted pets,” a member of the Neopets staff wrote. “Any pets directly tied to this recent issue that have been illegally unconverted will be returned to their original states once the issue is resolved. Additionally, any user found to be tampering with pet conversion in their own or other users’ accounts will be banned and frozen.”

In the next few chaotic hours, information and opinions about the situation swirled on Neopets’ forums. “Selling pets is cringe,” one user wrote. “Giving pets to the masses is praxis.” Posts were quickly added and then deleted, with multiple users banned and warned on the message boards.

In a statement to Polygon, a Neopets representative said it was first made aware of a “third-party hacking tool that was being used to create items and create unconverted pets.”

“Our dev team quickly addressed the issue and implemented a fix as soon as we were notified about the vulnerability, and we’re continuing to monitor the situation and patch the situation this week,” the representative added. “Personal account and payment information were unaffected by this hack, and remain secure.”

blue scorchio Neopets

The Neopets representative also said that the team will take “strict action” on incidents that “compromise the fairness of the game for well-meaning users.” The representative then confirmed that the Neopets team is looking into ways for unconverted pets to be brought back to the site “safely and fairly.”

Alongside the tool, the whistleblower also published a list of Neopets that were reportedly created using that tool, which sent the Pound Chat into further chaos. Players who had unknowingly traded for and with the pets on that list now fear another mass reversal, where hundreds of trades are undone by the Neopets staff, an act that is supposed to punish black market traders, but ends up affecting the larger community, too.

“A lot of loyal and innocent players are now left wondering what is going to happen — myself included,” longtime Neopets user Tasha Muise told Polygon. “I have a tier 10 pet from that list, who I had no idea wasn’t real. I worked for years for him, but now I’m sitting here in the dark waiting for a group of people around a desk to decide what to do.”

The rarity of these pets, ranked in tiers from one to 10, helped jumpstart the player-created economy on the website.

In an earlier statement to Polygon, the Neopets team acknowledged the popularity of unconverted pets: “They are desirable for many reasons with their rarity being the primary one,” it said. “For some, they’re seen as a status symbol. For others, it’s the unique artwork they love.”

The Neopets team also said on the forum that it’s been “looking into solutions” to reimplement unconverted (UC) pets into the game “while keeping things fair for the existing community.” The company will reveal more information on that “later this year,” it said. UC pet trading has continued in light of this information, but there has been a noticeable shift. All created Neopets need to have unique names. Because the site has existed for so long without a dormant player purge, it’s rare to have a pet with a name that doesn’t have underscores or numbers. Some players are now prioritizing well-named Neopets, like ones with pronounceable names, in trading deals — even if they’re converted. Should unconverted pets become more accessible, the economy is likely to shift to how good a pet’s name is, something that’s already part of the complex UC tier list.

Neopets fan communities seem largely excited about the potential for more unconverted pets, but nervous to hear how the Neopets team will implement the feature. Some are worried about the rarity and value of their hard-earned pets, while others feel like the Neopets team has pointed fingers at the “black market” community that loves the game but hates the website. And so the divide between Neopets players keeps widening, with the only string holding the two sides together being a lack of distrust for leadership and support staff.

“The community’s reactions to it show that we are really done with the Neopets team putting Band-Aids over the problem,” Muise said. “There are so many valid and possible solutions, but it seems like a never-ending cycle of scamming and freezing, never a real solution.”

Update (March 17): A Neopets representative shared a follow-up statement with Polygon after this story was published.

Generally, we do not disclose the inner workings of our admin system and certain support issues for user confidentiality and safety. However, we are able to confirm no admin tools were accessed or compromised in the hack.

We are constantly evaluating how we can provide better customer support to our community. This includes adding tools to make it easier to identify and solve problems and adjusting communication based on user feedback.