Neopets homepage screenshot circa 2016

The Winding Tale of Neopets

Neopets was a massively successful and inclusive digital world, but I think people focus far too much on its advertising model. There’s so much more to the site. The site spawned its own unique economic simulacrum, had a tenuous connection to Scientology, a constantly shifting design, and a dedicated and ambitious fanbase that built it all up brick by brick. And yet if you dig through the archives of the web to learn more about Neopets, you will frequently read about its unique approach to advertising. Neopets even invented a word for what they were doing: immersive advertising  Immersive advertising meant showing users ads without them totally realizing that they were ads. Which at the time (though today less so) was thought particularly egregious considering that Neopets users were mostly kids.

But I really should back up. For the uninitiated, Neopets was, and incredibly still is, a website where users could create and raise virtual pets. Once logged on the site, you could feed your pets, play with them, and even battle them against other Neopets. It’s best to keep in mind, these were no normal pets. There were dragons and penguins and elephants and made up creatures of every kind. The pets even had moods. If you neglected your pet, it would get sad. If you kept up with it, it would be happy.

A lineup of strange neopets

None of that was particularly mind-blowing (though this was all happening on the web. In the early 2000’s). That is, until you step back and take a look at what connected all these pets together. They were all part of the fictional world of Neopia, a series of interconnected webpages with kitschy graphics and embedded Flash games, massive in its scope with a vast and expanding mythos.

Each webpage in Neopia represented a different town for users, or Neopians as they liked to be called, to explore. On their adventures, Neopians could collect “neopoints” by playing the games embedded in each section of the site which could, in turn, be used to feed, clothe, and upgrade their pets. Each user was also given a profile, a point of pride for many Neopians, a place to show off and display one’s victories and lineup of pets.

An example of one Neopets “world”

The site didn’t start out like that of course. It was first created by two college students from the UK, Donna Williams and Adam Powell, in November of 1999. They were really just bored and looking for something to do that could maybe, just maybe, make them some money. Their focus was on creating a site that would be fun and addictive enough to keep people coming back. Veritable pet owners themselves, they figured virtual pets was a great way to start. Williams was studying art at the time and focused on the graphic design, and Powell had dabbled enough in the web world to work on the programming. And that’s basically how the first version of Neopets was born.

It was extremely rough around the edges, but the core of the idea remained the same. Users could create these virtual pets and feed them or play with them. And if you didn’t keep coming back, your pet would get mad or upset. The pets at the beginning were crude and consisted mostly of pop culture references (one of the original pets was famously just a Photoshopped image of Bruce Forsythe), but the mechanics and gameplay were all there. Williams and Powell posted their site up on a few pet message boards, and the idea seriously caught on. Within a couple of months, their traffic was doubling on a weekly basis. Eventually, a friend mentioned the site to Doug Dohring, chairman and CEO of the Dohring company, a market research firm.

Dohring immediately saw the potential of Neopets, and within about a month, offered to invest heavily in it. For a short while after that, he let Powell and Williams dictate the direction of the site, but eventually he stepped in and began to make some changes. So while Powell and Williams toiled away with new engineering and design teams building up the world of Neopia, adding new pets, creating new pages and introducing mini-games throughout the site that would help users earn points that could be converted to items, Dohring got to work on a brand new business model.

Early neopets interface

This, by the way, is where Scientology gets mixed in with Neopets. Dohring learned from his own commitment to and participation in the Church of Scientology how to introduce tiered levels of experience. Out of this came something Dohring called immersive advertising, advertising that didn’t feel like advertising because it was woven into the fabric of the site. So Neopians might play a game featuring a character from their favorite breakfast cereal, or visit a whole world created as an homage to Cartoon Network. The ads occupied a space somewhere between sponsored content and product placement. They were also extremely lucrative.

People rightfully panicked a bit at that whole notion. Sociologists were concerned about the long term effects on kids. The press was fascinated about what it would mean for the future of the web. Corporations rushed to rewrite their digital media playbook in its image. The focal point of Neopets, to the outside world, became its underlying business model.

But it was undeniably effective. Viacom was quick to recognize this and bought the site in 2005. This eventually led to some integration with Nickelodeon, a planned Neopets television series, and more marketing dollars than anyone could have hoped for. Powell and Williams left Neopets to pursue other ventures, but the site became a lot more popular before, over the years, it kind of faded away. It still exists, and was recently purchased by the children’s education company Jumpstart. But it’s nowhere near what it once was.

And all the while, a whole bunch of people, mostly kids and more than half women, flocked to the site to make it their own. It was like a generational secret that all the kids knew about and parents struggled to understand. A whole world was constructed, one that was magical and unique and almost incomprehensibly vast in its scope. This world wasn’t created by the content of the site, or even by the shifting teams of people that maintained it over the years as it passed from one parent company to the next. It was created by Neopians through the connections that they forged. And that right there, to me, is the true story of Neopets.

Neopets surged with creative energy on the early web. But because things were constantly in flux up at the top, Neopians were actually more or less left to their own devices. And in that environment, they thrived.

There are so many great stories from the Neopets community. If you do enough research, you’ll come across stories of wars long gone, guilds that have come and gone, petty theft and even lasting friendship. A lot of these stories were compiled in the Neopian Times, a weekly newspaper written and edited by the community. It covered all the happenings of the wide-reaching world of Neopia, ranging from comics and short stories to heavily researched dissertations outlining the strengths and weakness’ of the Neopian economy (that one’s worth a read).

Users even formed their own alliances, creating Neopets guilds to join

That economy, by the way, is the stuff of legends. It has been subject to periods of massive inflation when developers running the site flooded its users with Neopoints and special items, only to recede in value once again causing mass hysteria and crashing markets (yes, fictional markets built up and maintained by Neopians). There was wealth disparity and a barter economy and any number of theories about how and why it all works.

What’s fascinating about all this is that none of this had to happen. The developers simply asked their users to raise pets and play some branded games. For some reason, Neopets attracted a particular type of individual, again many of them teenagers or younger, that took that concept and just ran with it. Off-site Neopians formed guilds and alliances to group their pets together, or chronicled exhaustively a fictional history and mythology of the Neopian universe. Amateur cartographers have even gone to great lengths to map out and explore all of the hidden worlds that Neopia has to offer. A few “lost worlds,” abandoned webpages that even the developers of the site have forgotten about, are lovingly cared for and kept alive by a dedicated base of users.

What I mean to say is, there is no such a thing as a half-measure in Neopia. These are users that always go big, and leave no stone unturned. And for a lot of users, it was their very first introduction to the web. It was a safe and inventive place where they were at least partially shielded from the harsh realties and vastness of the World Wide Web at large. And like Geocities, Neopets allowed users to create their own profiles to put their pets and achievements on display. People could even edit their profile’s HTML. Which is where a whole lot of developers first learned to code.

Because the site engaged with the creativity of its users, and offered some user-friendly tools for editing HTML, there are plenty of people that first picked up some HTML skills while tweaking their Neopets profiles. Some that even began to rent out their services, learning more advanced HTML tricks to edit other people’s profiles in exchange for some rare items or Neopoints. It was an incredible introduction to what can often be a dry and repetitive language, and offered a built-in motivation for its users. And it was all part of the magic of Neopets. A place that, and I think this is my main point, let users express who they were, digitally and creatively.

At the end of the day, it was all about the users

That kind of thing happened all the time on Neopets. It’s where a whole lot of young people discovered their identity and figured out who they wanted to be. Users that wrote in the Neopian times went on to become journalists. Those that spent a lot of time tinkering with their profiles became web developers. I bet there’s even an economist or two that came up through Neopets. It shone a light on what the web could be like when we give up some control, when we let the people take over and create something truly unique. Turns out, they can build something pretty magnificent.


Added to the Timeline

November 15, 1999 - Neopets Donna Williams and Adam Powell launch Neopets, a side project of theirs that lets users raise virtual pets. Over time, Neopets would gain a bit of a life of its own, adding a fictional universe for users to explore and games for users to play, before being purchased first by Viacom and then by Jumpstart.
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Sources