This case study follows the format established as part of my research into virtual pet design, which will culminate in the design of my own virtual pet.

Neopets is an online community website and micro-game platform that centres around the raising and customising of virtual pets. Players can own a number of pets from 54 possible species, take care of them by feeding them special items, and customise them by changing their colour or giving them special equipment.  Pets are seen as status symbols by users, who take part in a lively community, with rare breeds, colours and equipment being highly desirable.

Neopets was originally conceived by British student Adam Powell and partner Donna Williams in 1999, with the site being incorporated as Neopets, Inc. by American businessmen Doug Dohring in 2000 following the initial success of the site. Neopets has since been owned by Viacom (2005 – 2014) and JumpStart (2014 – present). The nature of the site changed dramatically under its various ownerships, prioritising advertising and commercial content in its later iterations.

neopets-6What makes Neopets interesting as a case study is that it’s the only piece of software examined in this project that has been in continuous operation from the dawn of the virtual pet until today. In that time it has adapted to the prevailing business models of the time – with a premium membership model introduced in 2004, sponsored games and advertising content gaining prevalence through the late 2000s, and a premium currency being introduced alongside the game’s traditional purely virtual Neopoints currency in recent years.

In this sense, Neopets bridges the gap between the original, boxed-product virtual pets of the late 90s and the modern, mobile based, free-to-play virtual pet games available on today’s app stores. 

Illusion of life.

Neopets is less concerned with presenting each individual pet as a unique virtual agent than it is with creating an overall world – Neopia – in which the player and their pet are situated, with player-to-player interaction being key. Player customisation is the centre of user engagement in Neopets, with players owning a ‘Neoohome’ that can be customised with various items of furniture, and the pets themselves can be customised with a range of colours and equipment. All of this is tied to the game’s economy, with rare species, colours and equipment all worth numerous points which players have to work to earn. Owning rare pets and items is a key part of the competitive aspect of player-to-player interaction; wealthy players like to show off their desirable pets and homes.

An advanced player's Neohome, customised with all sorts of different items.

An advanced player’s Neohome, customised with all sorts of different items.

The pets themselves follow a Pokemon-style model, with 54 creatures belonging to different species for players to collect and raise. Some of these pets can be picked at the start of the game; others are only available at specific times, through special events, or by hatching rare eggs found in the game. The rarer pets are considered highly desirable, and some players are willing to spend large amounts of in-game currency to acquire them.

Interaction with the pets themselves is fairly rudimentary; players do need to keep their pet fed and healthy to keep them happy, but there are minimal consequences for failing to do so. An unhealthy or unhappy pet has less ‘energy’, making them able to play fewer games than a happy pet, but the situation can quickly be reversed by feeding the pet or giving it medicine. Players can also improve their pets’ statistics by giving them special items like books, which then make them more effective in competitions against other players or battles against NPCs.

The idea of the pets as living creatures is more developed in Neopets than in a pure creature-collection game like Pokemon, but is less emphasised here than in even the most basic of traditional virtual pets, such as a Tamagotchi. The focus of Neopets is much more on player-to-player interactions and interaction with the various themed worlds of Neopia.

The primary species of pet available in Neopets. All of them are available in numerous different colours.

The primary species of pet available in Neopets. All of them are available in numerous different colours.

Interaction design.

Launched as an HTML website in the late 90s, the Neopets site itself has been through many changes and upgrades to keep it up to date with modern web standards. Outside of licensed spin-offs, however, it remains a browser-based experience, navigated as any other website.

The site itself is represented as a world which operates in real time, with a working economy based on Neopoints that is influenced by the actions of its players. Players can spend their Neopoints in various ways, primarily to buy new accessories for their pets of their virtual homes. The game also has a working model of a stock market, called the Neodaq, through which players can buy and sell shares in fictional companies. In the current iteration, players can also spend real-life money to purchase Neocash, which can be spent of exclusive items in a separate store.

The original 1999 map of Neopia.

The original 1999 map of Neopia.

The modern map of Neopia as of 2016.

The modern map of Neopia as of 2016.

The primary interaction in Neopets is playing the numerous mini-games present on the site. The games are numerous, varying from skill-based exercises to games of chance, and are frequently swapped and changed on the site to keep the overall experience feeling fresh. Playing these games is the primary way that players earn Neopoints, and healthy, well-developed pets are better able to take part. There are also larger ‘meta-games’ that are frequently run across the site, often to coincide with real-life holidays, and large-scale tournaments and monthly competitions offer chances to win rare or unique prizes.

Community interaction is a major part of the Neopets experience, with a substantial portion of the site dedicated to message boards and personal mail services that allow users to communicate with one another. As a site aimed primarily at children, these discussion features are strictly moderated, and children under 13 cannot take part without written parental consent.

Through these community services players are able to create profiles and avatars, form or join guilds, exchange items and show off their pets. These community features turn the site into something resembling a chat room especially moderated for children, and likely go a long way to explaining the site’s enduring success.

Social factors.

Neopets makes for an interesting case study for the way it has endured seventeen years of technological development, changing both its service and its business model as the times required. The current iteration, with its separate ‘in game only’ and ‘pay to play’ currencies, closely resembled the ‘free to play’ business model employed by a majority of popular mobile apps.

The changing business models, and the perceived commercialisation of the Neopets service, is a bone of contention for fans of the original site. Under Viacom, the site relied more and more on sponsored content, with a prevalence of banner ads and brand-specific mini-games drawing focus away from the community-centric aspects of the service. Concerns were raised at the time about the ethics of targeted marketing for children; indeed, Neopets remains contentious for its heavy reliance on advertising for revenue.

The popular Neopets merchandise, which includes a dead with McDonalds, goes some way to demonstrating the strength of the brand.

The popular Neopets merchandise, which includes a dead with McDonalds, goes some way to demonstrating the strength of the brand.

In an interview about the history of Neopets, super-fan and lifelong player Josh splits the history of the site into three ‘eras’; the ‘Stone Age’, the ‘New Age’ and the ‘Borg Age’. If the Stone Age resents the idyllic early years, when the site was still largely an independent project and staffed primarily by community members, then the Borg Age represents Neopets as it is today, a commercial enterprise with a heavy reliance on sponsorship and advertising money to remain afloat. But while these lifelong super fans lament the state of the service today, the fact that they still log in after 17 years shows that on some level Neopets is still able to engage with its core audience, a fact Josh willingly admits in his interview.

The rise and continuation of Neopets also showcases some of the pitfalls encountered by every long-running massively multiplayer gaming service. Inflation driven by the number of players earning daily Neopoints has remained a major problem for the service, with insanely inflated item prices presenting a disconcerting barrier for new players. Numerous attempts have been made by Neopets staff to remove currency from the game’s market, but inflation remains a problem in the Neopian marketplace.

The game's stores feature items with wildly varying prices, often affected by market inflation.

The game’s stores feature items with wildly varying prices, often affected by market inflation.

The community, too, has been marred by numerous rifts, malpractices, abuses of power and systemic failures through its long lifetime. Some of the earliest of these are documented by Josh in his interview; one of the latest came in 2015, when the service changed ownership to JumpStart, which saw a complete breakdown of the community moderation services, which saw the usually PG-13 message boards flooded with obscene content.

The Kernel article by Olivia Coy outlines the case against Neopets in its current form, detailing a bloated, broken, over-commercialised service which dedicates far more resources to staying afloat financially than it does to providing genuinely engaging content for its users. However, it’s undeniable that the service has engaged many users, often for a period of years; it’s longevity means that some players who grew up playing the game in school are still playing as adults today.

This journal paper by Stephanie Louise Lu – a personal case study of many years spent playing Neopets, published in 2010 – makes for interesting deeper reading of the effects of playing Neopets on young people. It provides a more in-depth overview of the service than I have done here, and it also investigates the specific techniques employed by Neopets to foster engagement with its users, primarily children, and the ethical implications of targeting under-13s with these marketing strategies. To briefly summarise her conclusion; it is the community aspect of Neopets that truly engrosses its players, and provides the game’s emotional value, rather than the systemic aspects like caring for a pet or playing micro-games.

Neopets makes an interesting case study for its uniqueness in the virtual pet market. It’s easy enough to draw a line from the design of Tamagotchi to modern virtual pet apps like MyBoo; it’s more difficult to work out where Neopets should sit along that line. Barely a virtual pet application at all, Neopets sits in the middle of a Venn diagram consisting of Pokemon, Animal Crossing, and an early-2000s online visual chat room. Nonetheless it remains a game ostensibly still about the acquisition of an subsequent care for virtual pets, and its unique blend of virtual pet, social media, online marketplace and Flash game portal has sustained an audience for longer than any other piece of software in this study.