Created in 1999, Neopets is proudly one of the first online games that ever existed on the Internet. It may also be the first online game, which has been commercially operated and marketed on a large scale. It was first an indie fad, and then it quickly developed into a trend. All these happened when most Internet users at the time were still struggling with the use of Google and Yahoo. At its peak, it was hugely successful, releasing various game console titles, and even scoring a Happy Meals deal with McDonald’s. It was a phenomenon, which will not be replicated.
However, its short success was followed by a quick decline. Since 2004, ownership of the game has twice changed. Ultimately then, what factors precipitated this failure and how should current and future MMOs learn from these?
ANOTHER MATTER OF TIME
Time, which provided the grounds for the success of Neopets, has also arguably precipitated its inevitable decline. Times change, and Neopets had simply become outdated. The fad of virtual pets finished as fast as it raised. Soon after the release of many modern MMORPGs, it went into progressive decline. Moreover, even old, veteran players of Neopets eventually grew out of the game. Notwithstanding these, it was Neopets’ other internal issues, which hugely accelerated its collapse.
VOLATILE CHANGE OF OWNERSHIP
Due to one reason or another, Neopets went through a series of changes in ownership throughout the early 2000s. Neopets has undeniably soared under the original TNT (The Neopets Team), led by Adam Powell. However, it was later sold off to the media giant Viacom in 2005. Under Viacom, Neopets quickly became exploited for commercialization wherever and whenever possible. To many players, this acquisition marks the darkest age of Neopets. Then, after all moneymaking potentials have been exhausted; the game was timely sold to Knowledge Adventure.
The more specific effects of the aforesaid over-commercialization will be explored in detail below. However, the unique impacts of this constant change in ownership itself need to be recognised. It leaves the impression to the players that the game is undesirable and unwanted. Also, more importantly, every change in ownership inevitably brings about changes with regards to the game’s direction. Surely, general M&As can go either direction. Yet, unfortunately for Neopets, it went to the worst.
COMMERCIALIZATION AND SELLOUTS
Viacom is admittedly one of the most successful media conglomerates out there. And in contrary to popular player complaint, Viacom had actually managed Neopets with the right approach. The popularity of Neopets was only temporary; it would not last beyond the short period of the ‘MMO Vacuum’. Accordingly, the only viable strategy was to maximize short-term profits by milking as much out of Neopets as possible. Once this cash cow has no more to offer, it was to be then sold off. This decision makes perfect business sense, albeit it was much hated by players.
The majority, if not all, of these sellouts and sponsorships were done through the medium of Neopets’ flash games. It all started with 7up and then slowly became worse and worse, until a point where almost all new games were sponsored.
Originally, the flash games were designed and created by TNT itself, following consistent themes and difficulty levels. These are innovative and fun, keeping the player within the wonderful world of Neopets. Conversely, these games are either the works of the sponsorship team, or awkward ad-hoc designs by TNT. Their mechanics and difficulty levels are highly inconsistent. Some are extremely hard, yet others so easy that they could be hardly be qualified as games. Discouragingly, Neopets even eventually released Adver-Video, a ‘game’ which rewards players with free Neopoints just for watching ads.
This inconsistency is with regards to both gameplay and the in-built Neopoints conversion multiplier. These games are often too easy, yet offering too high a conversion factor. Consequently, old classic ‘proper’ games became marginalized and rarely played.
Funding and Reinvestment
Incontrovertibly, sponsorship is also endorsed by all games and franchises alike, and can produce good outcomes. However, it is a double-edged sword – it all depends how the funds received from sponsorships are being used. Yet, in the case of Neopets, it is highly unclear how the funds received from sponsorships are used to better the game. As opposed to being reinvested into the game, Viacom chose to diversify and invest in its other projects. Effectively then, in the eyes of Neopians, the goodwill of Neopets is sacrificed without justification.
Instead of reinvesting funding to generate new content, new content is largely reliant upon player-generated material. For example, contests, competitions, and question answering sessions.
BAD COMMUNITY MANAGEMENT
The second major contributor to the downfall of Neopets was the way of how the player community was regulated and managed. True, community management was limited for Neopets even from the start, from the golden days under the original Neopets team. Despite this, in the rare instances that player support is provided, it is provided with sincerity. They were helpful when they tried to help – their judgments were reasonable and fair. Whilst they kept the rules strict, this can be explained through being inline with keeping the game children-friendly.
Undeniably, the whole player community began to crack following the Viacom acquisition. Most players would say that that the management under this period was especially bad. All senses of transparency disappeared, and players had no idea as to the things happening behind scenes. It was unstable, erratic, and decisions were mostly unjust. Bans and decisions on appeals were often made without reasonable rationale. Explanations were short and bluntly unhelpful.
Censorship was surely taken to new heights, with players’ freedom of speech being strongly restricted. This monitoring went beyond just the discussion boards, but extreme and almost Draconian regulation of the game world as a whole. This was done to prevent scamming and RWT-ing. However, the checking system Neopets used for detecting suspicious player activity turned out to be especially prone to error. On many occasions, accounts were automatically frozen when the transactions in question were entirely legitimate.
It is very unfortunate that due to all these, the player community was much damaged. The community can only be summarized into three words – caution, caution and caution. The things Neopets originally represented once upon a time were long gone.
The last major factor, which decided the downfall of Neopets, is the introduction of the NC Mall by Viacom. No, it was not unreasonable for Viacom to bring in microtransactions at this time. For, Neopets could not survive only on ad revenue alone. Moreover, this was the trend in the industry at the time. Instead, it was the specific way in how the cash shop was implemented which ruined the gameplay of Neopets. This can be summarized into the following:
The Neocash currency was simply too expensive. The conversion rate between US Dollars and Neocash was much lower than that within any other online games at the time. In other titles, 10 dollars is capable of purchasing a reasonable amount of equipment and accessories. In contrast, it is only sufficient to obtain, for example, a background and a small accessory in the NC Mall. Add that players have not one, but four pets to dress up, and this entail a minimum threshold of 40-50 dollars, an unthinkable dent in the small pocket of a child.
Redefinition of Pet Customization
The NC Mall turned the game upside down by redefining the pet customization system. It made paintbrushes, arguably the biggest component of Neopets gameplay, obsolete. Paintbrushes and its variants (e.g. morphing potions) were the only way that the appearance of pets can be altered, and for this reason they were the ultimate goal for many Neopians. Hence, the Store shocked both the foundation of Neopets and the Neopian economy. Furthermore, the Mall regularly received updates, and offers more consistent themes and better graphics. Slowly, the status of the Paintbrush deteriorated, and today its appeal mainly comes from its nostalgic value.
Unconverted Pets and the Economy
The NC Mall unintentionally and indirectly introduced another group of rare pets, the ‘unconverteds’, into the game. There were a group of pets with specific colors which would face too large of a change if ‘converted’ into the new customizable system. Hence Neopets very considerately gave players the options to keep their old looks. Yet, unexpectedly, more business-minded players exploited the situation and introduced the Unconverteds into the Neopian ‘pet trading’ system, running the previous system primarily dominated by Driaks and Krawks. To many, this was simply another reason to quit.
What Neopets represents to our generation of gamers is both unparalleled and irreplaceable. Surely, for one reason or another, its decline was as fast as its success. However, it mainly erred in its implementation of new game features. At face value, these features were mostly novel and even revolutionary. Current and future game developers are encouraged to further look into Neopets’ failure, and derive how the implementation obstacles showcased through Neopets may be overcome.
For the rest of us, let’s have a minute of silence for both Neopets, and our childhood.
By Wilson Zhang