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What’s the future of Neopets?

The Neopets Team responds to black market pet drama

Simone de Rochefort has been producing & hosting YouTube videos for Polygon since 2016. She co-directed the upcoming documentary The Great Game: The Making of Spycraft.

On March 12, a post appeared on the Neopets forum and sent the community spiraling: It was from a disgruntled user who claimed that black market vendors had been creating fake versions of rare Neopets and selling them for cold, hard cash.

What’s more, there were over 3,000 of these fake pets in circulation in the game.

The post was the latest in a years-long struggle over what to do about Neopets’ unconverted pets, or UCs. In 2007, most of Neopets’ static pet images were replaced with more flexible, layered images so that users could customize their pets. Only, some of the old art was allowed to stay. There are 227 pet species and color combos that were optional to convert. Since no more could ever be created — so everyone thought — those pets became a hot commodity.

Whether because of nostalgia, a love for the art, or simply the desire to have something rare, many Neopets users thirst for UCs. Meanwhile, in Q&As on Neopets’ fictional newspaper, The Neopian Times, The Neopets Team reps explain in excruciating detail why bringing them back would tax an already small and over-worked team. The only people who win, apparently, are the black market sellers who could, in fact, create more UCs through an exploit.

But this latest dust-up has been the last straw for The Neopets Team, who have announced that they will look into bringing back unconverted pets. The decision was the right one for the time, Neopets brand manager Stephanie Lord told me, but the team wants to remain flexible.

“I think one of the biggest things we’ve really learned is [...] a decision we made in 2002, 2007, even 2015, might not be the same decision we’d make today,” Lord told me. “Tech has changed, our users have changed, we’ve grown up a little bit.”

blue scorchio Neopets

For Lord and the rest of the team, the hubbub over black market pets wasn’t surprising.

“People want this thing. And there’s no other way to attain it right now. Except if you trade for it, which is gonna be super rare,” Lord said. “Or if you’re this person who — you’re obviously breaking the rules, but it’s the only way that you can get it. There’s a rare item, people want it, someone’s gonna find a way to exploit the game to get it, and then sell it to these people outside.”

Buying pets — and items and Neopoints— is a bannable offense on Neopets, but that hasn’t stopped black market sites from flourishing. The only way to keep players from going down the rabbit hole of crime may be to make unconverted pets more readily available.

Fourteen years might seem like a long time to hold onto the idea of old game art. But the Neopets community is uniquely resilient and intense. Long-timers grew up on the site, making friends, learning CSS to customize their pet pages, and roleplaying their pets on the forums. At its peak, there were tens of millions of users on Neopets. Even now, as I was researching the video above, I stumbled across Neopets guilds that were still running weekly events, and creating cookbooks with recipes to make Neopets food in real life. Users turn their fully customizable user profiles and pet pages into hubs for guilds, or portfolios showcasing their art. The pages are inaccessible without a Neopets account, and so clicking around onto profiles on the forums feels like accessing a pastel dark web — a beautiful hidden garden, where so many online communities are porous and public.

“It’s really cool to see like the art side, the writing side, the dev side,” Lord said. “We have some really cool users.”

With that intensely committed user base comes a lot of pressure to get things right.

“Everything you do is so important to people,” Lord told me. “Someone Neomailed me when I was just starting out, and they were like, ‘You posted my story in the Neopian Times, thank you so much.’” The user told her that Neopets had brought them through “dark times” in their life. “It was one of the best things that happened to me,” Lord said. “It puts everything in perspective.”

Which isn’t to say the relationship between the Neopets Team and the players has been an easy one. The 2007 conversion is perhaps just the most dramatic example of players’ wants and developers’ needs clashing. This renewed outcry over unconverted pets comes at a time when The Neopets Team’s efforts were focused on revamping the site for mobile, and trying to eliminate its reliance on Flash. Flash support ended at the end of 2020, and by July platforms like Windows 10 will completely remove it. And yet, bopping around the Neopets website, one still bumps into plenty of dead Flash-based features that are on TNT’s endless to-do list.

“It’s hard, because we want to just go full force on it,” Lord said. “But we also have our events and stuff that we don’t want to stop completely.” The team made a list of everything that needed to happen to convert the enormous website to mobile.

“Literally, we printed this list that was like 200 pages long. We were like, okay, that’s not gonna work,” Lord said, laughing. They broke the list up based on the features they wanted to prioritize — things like the Battledome, the forums, pet customization, the NC Mall, and the minigames.

“When you look back to actually see how much is done, you feel like you’re not making any progress, because the site is so huge,” Lord told me. “But we actually have done a lot of different pages.”

The development team currently numbers “10 to 15 people,” Lord said. Simultaneous with the site conversion, the developers also need to continue creating site content and running events. With that in mind, I felt like I understood why no one was jumping to bring back UCs, even though users had been asking about it for 14 years. There’s so much that still needs to be done.

Red robots with upside down text on them walk towards the screen Image: Neopets, Inc. via JellyNeo

This fall, a new Neopets cartoon is coming out. JumpStart CEO Jim Czulewicz says it’s part of “the next major phase for the Neopets universe,” alongside a new release of plushes, trading cards, and toys. Kids who might start playing Neopets now weren’t even alive in 2007, when the conversion happened. Where the site fits into that equation is fuzzy to me. Today’s children are growing up on Minecraft and Roblox, two games that share Neopets’ creativity, but are much more technically sophisticated. But Lord says that team doesn’t want to shift the site’s focus from the players who’ve been using it all along.

“It’s what they grew up with, they’re so loyal to it that we don’t want to take that away from them,” Lord said. “I’m not sure if the classic site is ever going to be mainly kids again, as just the nature of gaming has changed. [...] It’ll always be a welcoming place for kids, for sure.”

The team is looking into different projects that could be more tailored to a modern gaming audience. It’s yet another item on the task list.