Last year I returned to visit my old Neopian stomping grounds. In the 15 years since I'd left, the bustling Neoboards had devolved into ghost towns. Faerieland had crashed to the ground. I could accessorise my JubJub with faeces. The times, they had a-changed.
In response to my article, Neopets' owner JumpStart reached out and offered an interview with CEO David Lord. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that while there are dreams for Neopets' future, there is little momentum behind them.
David Lord owns two Neopets: An Aisha and an Ogrin, his favourite species. "Aisha’s are one of my favorite pets to customize, but I think the Ogrin is incredibly underrated as a species with those big eyes."
Ogrin were introduced in 2005, nine years before JumpStart acquired the site from Viacom. That year, 79 per cent of players were aged nine to 17, and Neopets Inc. estimated their audience to be over one million in Singapore alone. Singapore's population was 4.2 million.
The current audience is much less robust. "Our community is very strong to this day with 100,000 daily active users," said Lord. "Since 2004, Neopets has become available in many languages including Spanish, French, Portuguese, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, German, Dutch, etc. and is enjoyed by players all over the world. The majority of the Neopet community is 13+."
According to him, the current demographics are "pretty similar" to when JumpStart acquired the site in 2014.
But while the majority of players have moved on since the early '00s, there is clear evidence that some have remained active. You don't have to look far on the Neoboards to find recounts from players who have been on the site since childhood.
"There is a lot on this site to engage players, which is part of its charm – there is something for everyone. But I think overall their love for their pets and the strength of the Neopets community is what keeps them coming back."
On the official Neopets Facebook page, every post has hundreds of replies either complaining about issues with the site or chasing up support tickets that have not yet been answered.
Numerous players have been waiting months or even a year for a response to their support tickets. The official response to all of these remains standard: "A support representative will be in touch soon."
While there are significantly fewer comments on the JumpStart Facebook page, the vast majority here are also complaints -- not only about Neopets, but also about other games and JumpStart itself.
"Beware, this company is a fraud," alleges Heidi Jones. "They have 123 complaints against them with the BBB [Better Business Bureau]. They make unauthorized payments from your bank account long after you have cancelled your account."
Neopets is an aberration in JumpStart's catalogue. Despite its cute, child-friendly aesthetic, when the website was first conceived it was intended for 17 to 25-year-olds. All of JumpStart’s other games are aimed at prechoolers or primary school students, while Neopets is aimed at ages 13 and up.
Jumpstart is also self-described as "the leader in learning-based games for kids"; educating children is its mission. When asked whether Neopets was included in that mission, Lord didn't commit either way.
"Yes and no – Neopets doesn’t target education in the same way our other games do, partially because it wasn’t developed that way and because it targets an older audience. However... there are a lot of different skills that can be learned and developed on Neopets for users of all ages."
One of the reasons JumpStart was attracted to Neopets was due to that older target audience. "Something about Neopets has always attracted an older audience – and especially now 17 years after its beginning, with so many players who have grown up on the site and are still there. They have areas to code, draw, write, play the stock market – you name it. There are a lot of mechanics that I think appeal to an older audience, even if it comes wrapped in a cute package."
In an open letter to Lord published on Neopets subreddit r/neopets nearly a year ago, frustrated Neopian yogurtisalive expressed their concern that Neopets was not evolving with the times, nor was it delivering on promises.
"After a year has passed since we’ve been promised the site would be expanded and improved upon, I hope you can understand why myself and others feel like not enough is being done," they wrote. "While we’re grateful lag has improved across the site, our experience with using Neopets has remained mostly unchanged."
Their concerns were echoed in the comments. "I stopped playing because it doesn't feel the same anymore," said fellow Neopian ChillAuto. "I feel like Neopets is on life support. They are just doing the bare minimum to keep it alive in a vegetative state, and jumpstart is going to pull the plug at any moment."
More recent posts in r/neopets show that since then, neither the website nor sentiments have changed. "Major browsers have come out and said that by March 2017, all Flash anything will be unsupported," said TheCaptainsBeefheart on a recent r/neopets thread voicing fears about the state of the site. Though popular in the early 2000s, Adobe Flash is now widely considered irrelevant and insecure.
"Neopets/JS has been saying for like 5 years that theyre transitioning all of their games to HTML5, but I don't see it. I was using Neo on a new computer that didnt have flash, and the site was nearly unplayable...world map, Neopian Central, games, Customizizations, petpages...all not viewable. Neopets is dying and they need more than just a support overhaul—they need a structural overhaul, too."
"[T]hey have HUGE site issues they should fix: Ex. Hackings, filter problems, glitches all over the place, getting spotlights up and running again...," said bunsorcerer. "I think theyre doing the plot to distract ppl from all the issues/bugs w the site and remind them of the good ole days w old tnt + plots ya kno."
Neopets turned 17 recently, having launched 15 November 1999. The most notable expansion of the Neopets brand in recent years was the 2015 release of Ghoul Catchers, a mobile match-3 game.
"We wanted to develop a casual game that users could play to earn Neopoints on the go, and match-3 games are popular with the demographic of Neopets users, there are match-3 games on the site that users love, and it was something we had experience with, so it just seemed like a natural fit," said Lord.
Other than that, Neopets appears relatively stagnant, especially when compared to its heyday of plush toys and console games. When asked about Neopia’s future, Lord answered in strokes so broad as to be rendered meaningless.
On JumpStart's plans for Neopets at the time of acquisition.
On a broader note, we’ve always planned to update the brand to make it more mobile-friendly and open to new audiences.
On adding new features vs improving on old ones:
The goal is for a little of both, but our priority right now is optimizing player experience as a whole while they are on the site and engaging with fellow Neopians.
On the unreleased Neopets app announced in 2014:
The immediate plans for that project were put on hold with the transition from Viacom [in 2014] but it’s definitely something we aren’t forgetting about, so for further details fans will have to stay tuned.
On his previously stated desire to bring Neopets to “every platform and every device”, including VR:
It’s something we’ve talked about, there are no plans in place right now, but we think there are some really interesting options with VR or AR. Imagine being able to walk around Neopia and interact with your Neopets.
On Jelly World and adding more lands:
I don’t know – there are so many other projects we’re focused on tackling first that it’s not something we’re thinking about, but there is some undeveloped land on the map that could see a land one… As for Jelly World – I have no clue what you’re talking about there, of course there is no such thing as Jelly World.
On the future of Neopets:
We want to continue to develop and release new site content for our loyal users, while focusing on updating the site to reach every platform and every device.
Neopets is infamous for its strict, sometimes incomprehensible moderation. The words "cucumber", "skill", "basement" and "uncle" are banned. Links to certified fansites are blocked. The sidebar of /r/neopets warns: "Do NOT mention reddit in any way, shape, or form on Neopets itself; reddit is not an official fansite." Doing so can reportedly result in your Neopets account being frozen.
Despite the not insignificant adult Neopian population, JumpStart's nebulous plans for Neopets do not include loosening up their moderation or implementing an adults-only board.
“[W]hile we have an older audience it’s still a child-friendly site, and we have to keep that in mind for things like chatting," said Lord. "Not to mention, we want to keep the forums focused on the game itself and our players experiences with Neopia, which to a certain extent are limited in their own right."
Meanwhile, other features that JumpStart does plan to implement have been held up by technical limitations.
"There are definitely some features we’d love to add in and that fans have requested – for example name changes and things like that – but with the way the site was built it just isn’t really possible to do. A lot of the time people forget that there can be larger technical considerations and feature updates and releases aren’t just as simple as turning a switch on and off."
The tentative thread of positivity amongst players is slightly stronger on the Neoboards. But even the most dedicated players are still desperate for a change.
"Maybe it's name to scrap Neopets and remake it completely," writes anthropologicalworld. "A new site with the same idea, keeping the essential features- pets, customization, items in an economy, shops, galleries, guilds, quests, avvie collecting, etc.- but making it fit contemporary tech and contemporary gaming."
To me, Neopets is a relic from a childhood of dial-up internet and voluntarily playing Flash games. In comparison to its glory days, its following is small, and plans for the future appear vague at best. But even so, those few, dedicated Neopians continue to wander the desert over a decade later, hoping that one day soon they will be brought into the promised land. They just need to wait for it.