Neopets: A Retrospective (Part 1)

Neopets. Whether we want to admit it or not, almost all of us have played this little gem when we were kids. It has a unique value within the world of online games. Neopets had simply set both the benchmark and the standard for today’s online games. The question, which needs to be answered, is straightforward –what made Neopets so great, yet simultaneously also led to its eventual collapse? In this two part mini-series, we will dissect Neopets in hoping to answer this question.

Neopets- A Retrospective
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(I) The Dark Age of Online Games

Needless to say, it can be argued that it is time, alone, which defined and shaped the success. During the late 1990s and the early 2000s, Neopets was virtually one of the very few online games which even existed back then. Within this small number of competitors, Neopets further differentiated itself through its pioneer use of many modern online game elements.

This is a time when many internet users have never even heard of the concept of a multiplayer game. Rather, their concept of player-player interaction is limited to that of using multiple controller pads on their console devices whilst their friends come over for a sleepover. The concept of a dynamic, forever evolving database with multiple profiles is even more foreign for most, if not all, of these users. Frankly, this was a time defined by the usage of dial-up Internet.

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(II) The Fad of Virtual Pets

Admittedly, this aspect of time alone cannot precipitate the success of Neopets. Instead, there are another individual characteristics of this period of the time –the popularity of Tamagochi, pocket Digimon devices and virtual pets as a whole amongst children and teenagers. This fad, and its subsequent trend, was due to many reasons, such as the breakdown of the nuclear of family, and increasing urbanization and apartment use. Yet, this is beyond the scope of this article. It may be discussed in future editorials.

Having said this, it was only expected and yet ingenious for someone to develop an online virtual pet game. That was the expected ‘natural’ progression. Neopets was highly loyal to the fad, and adopted the basic traditional elements of feeding, bathing, grooming, and playing. However, the Neopets team also took an adventurous take on the game and elaborated upon this foundation. Its team truly took the pet raising game and single-handedly started the online virtual pets phenomenon.

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Encouragingly, the biggest contributors towards the success of Neopets still come down to its extensive gameplay, at least for its time. It was the first to introduce an elaborate and extensive system of pet battles. This system contained elements such as PvP wars, campaigns, battle quests, trophies for beating specific challengers, and more. These designs are surely sub-standard in comparison with games today, but they were highly innovative at the time.

Likewise, players were also given a plethora of interesting foods to be fed to their loyal companions. Some of these foods provide special effects, such as transforming your pet’s appearance into quirky fruits.

Even more so is in the case of playing and interacting with your pets. There are plenty of toys and other accessories in the system. Players are able to virtually see the result of their time together with their lovely companions – the mood meter reflects this. The great database and selection of toys and playable models are never the same and they keep the game interesting for the player.

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(I) Customization and Paintbrushes

The most distinctive feature about Neopets is perhaps the dress-up pet customization system. More conventional models would be either to follow a tiered, fixed system, following the evolutions in Digimon devices. Alternatively, allowing players absolute freedom in their customization choices, which essentially becomes a dress-up game. Yet, Neopets followed neither of these systems. Prior to the implementation of the cash shop, Neopets could only be customized through the use of specific items called ‘Paintbrushes’. A Paintbrush of a particular colour, upon use, would transform the appearance of a pet into that colour. These items are one-time use only, and they expectedly became the core of gameplay and the Neopian economy. Morphing potions follow the same logic, but can transform the species of the pet also.

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(II) Opt-Out Option

The Neopet Team has further made these features more player friendly by implementing the options for each of them to be opt out. Players can, for example, put their pets in the Neopet Lodge, to prevent daily feeding. By giving these options, players no longer feel that the game becomes an obligation and a grind.

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Numerous features entirely unique to Neopets alone further couples the previous spins on the conventional virtual pet features. These makes Neopets not just to stand out as a pet raising simulator, but rather as an online game as a whole.

(I) The Vast Neopian World

The most important of these features is that of the Neopian world itself –a highly consistent world for players to explore. This world is dynamic, constantly changing and follows interesting storylines. This world contains daily activities, which players can only perform once a day, keeping he or she attached to the game, and can even play when the schedule is packed. The consistency of the Neopian world is the core of its gameplay –it is compelling and holistic. Each location presents different themes, with different residents, cultures, Neopets, shops, and attractions. Notwithstanding this, they go hand-in-hand with the larger world and they also complement each other.

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(II) Flash Games and Neopoints

Another essential, super innovative integral of Neopets is its flash games system. The Neopets Team came up with the ingenious concept of whereby players earn Neopoints, the currency of the game not through grinding or repetitive mundane activities, but rather through playing casual flash games. Admittedly, this system of exchange is ingenious on three levels:

  1. At the time of the late 1990s and the early 2000s, flash games were a big hit. Students around the world can be spotted playing football games or snake on their school library computers. Neopets furthered this and attached an element of achievement to it. Players, whilst having fun playing these small games, are also able to receive a practical benefit of it – they can use their Neopoints to better their pets and main-game experience. This currency earning significantly differentiates itself from that of the norm of grinding.
  2. It is also cardinal that these flash titles were far from boring and repetitive. The interesting and diverse nature of the Neopets games is what retains players and keeps them from losing interest in Neopets. Many genres are offered here – some challenging and mind-consuming, others chance-based; some action and arcade, and others puzzle and even ‘academic’. The preferences of players are largely accommodated for. Additionally, the selection of games is regularly updated, and new titles are introduced on a daily basis. This keeps players coming back.
  3. Neopets’ currency conversion system surely is made sophisticated to strike a factor of equality between the games. Expectedly, players should be awarded more Neopoints for attempting a more difficult game. This is accommodated for through different conversion factors assigned to different games. Furthermore, irrespective of game choice, players are limited to converting their game scores 3 times a day, and the max Neopoints receivable from a single session is capped at 1000. First, this encourages players to try out new titles, again adding to the diversity. More importantly, it prevents players from exploiting easier titles and ruining the economy. Last, this limitation effectively turns the easier games into ‘dailies’, which helps with player retention.

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Neopets would not be a massively multiplayer online game without the facilitation of interaction between its players. Encouragingly, Neopets is once again strong with regards to this. Interactive elements include the pound, pet battles, the boards, Neomail, Neofriends, and even guilds and play-owned shops. All these render the game into a huge community.


To the surprise of many players, the children-oriented Neopets has a highly developed economy, even in comparison with online games of today. A multitude of mediums are provided for the sale and exchange of items –NPC shops, player-owned shops, the trading post, gifts and even auctions.

Perhaps the most absurd, yet outstanding thing about Neopets is that it has a share market. This is a highly distinctive feature, almost unparalleled in any other game. It is not a game of chance or a simple simulation. Rather, it is a complex and realistic model mimicking real life stock exchanges. It encompasses share statistics, price history, upper and lower price boundaries, company profiles and descriptions, and more. Personally, it was Neopets which exposed me to the world of shares and finance for the first time. The Neopian share market most effectively showcases the depth that Neopets offers. Of course, more than anything else, it also makes Neopets appealing to adult audiences.

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Neopets was, by far, one of the most successful online games ever made. It was more than a highly profitable and popular game. Rather, at its peak, it has become a cultural phenomenon, defining an entire generation. However, whilst it is one of the earliest multiplayer games ever to hit the web, its success, whilst unprecedented, is explained through its many innovative and well-developed features. Surprisingly, even 10 years later, today, many of these features are yet to be adopted by popular MMOs. This may represent a significant opportunity for today’s developers.

By Wilson Zhang

PART 2 >


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