Home Tech How Neopets’ Nostalgic Resurgence Tripled Users in Six Months

How Neopets’ Nostalgic Resurgence Tripled Users in Six Months

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YoIn the early 2000s, Olivia Packenham would come home from school, hear the familiar sound of the dial-up tone as her family’s computer connected to the Internet, and navigate her AOL browser to the virtual gaming world of Neopets. .

Starting at age eight, Packenham played for years before losing interest when he was in high school. But in December 2023, after a hiatus of almost 15 years, she logged back into neopets.com and found the pets she had raised as a child waiting for her. Her favorite, a “Bruce” (the Neopets version of a penguin) is now over 21 years old.

Opening Neopets today is like going back to that time in his life, Packenham says, this time without his mother yelling at him for jamming the family phone line.

“It was like walking into an early 2000s Internet museum,” said Packenham, 32, one of thousands of players who returned to Neopets last year.

It was no coincidence that Packenham returned. Neopets, which announced a bold rebrand in 2023, has been consciously courting its former fans with promises of reuniting with old digital companions that have remained largely unchanged.

Returning Neopians (the users’ community name) cite a number of reasons for their returns. A person with the username Solabee said that she had started playing at age nine and that after returning, he had started playing almost daily. The Neopets revival felt very specific to millennials, she said. In fact, 40% of users are between 25 and 34 years old, and the next largest demographic (18-24 years old) is 26%. Revisiting the site is reminiscent of a more hopeful time in Internet history: when logging online was still unknown and exciting. Many of the Neopians interviewed for this story asked to be quoted by username, preferring to keep their online personas separate from their real lives.

“We are the most nostalgic generation, so when big world events and crises happen, we all want to go back to the safest time of our lives: our childhood,” Solabee said.

Olivia Packenham’s Neopet, a ‘Bruce’ variety that resembles a penguin. Photography: Courtesy of Olivia Packenham

Neopets’ strong start and long decline

Neopets launched in 1999 as one of the first Internet universes where users could care for a variety of virtual pets and play mini-games. A crude social network before Facebook, the site allowed users to add friends, message each other, exchange resources or virtual currency, and battle. It peaked with over 25 million active users in the mid-2000s before seeing a sharp drop in popularity as competing gaming and social sites exploded onto the Internet.

The platform has changed hands several times since its inception and, amid acquisitions, languished, reporting just 100,000 users when it was bought by Chinese firm NetDragon in 2017. The decline of Adobe Flash Player, the software used to power much of the site , that Browsers began to disappear around 2017 before the company officially removed it in 2020. Neopets fell by the wayside and received little attention or updates to its interface.

That was until entrepreneur and investment consultant Dominic Law, who joined NetDragon in 2020 as director of new markets, launched an internal campaign to revive the Neopets brand, which he called “a huge leap of faith.” Law, 36, recalled using Neopets to stay in touch with friends in Canada after moving to Hong Kong when he was a child. When NetDragon closed a handful of underperforming sites he had acquired, he saw that Neopets was at risk.

“Even during the last decade of its decline (the lack of updates, the death of flash, which left half the site unplayable), a quarter of the remaining users log in every day,” he said. “I saw how united the remaining community was and, as a player, I resonated with the emotional connection that led these core users to support Neopets. I realized that this is probably the toughest customer base you can find.”

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Law convinced NetDragon’s superiors to give him “one last chance” to save NeoPets, orchestrating a management buyout deal that turned Neopets into an independently owned company of which he is now CEO. The move was backed by an undisclosed amount of outside investment. Under a group known as Neopets Team (TNT), the company has begun restoring the site’s functionality, updating its design and improving its best-known classic games. Next, TNT hopes to enable greater mobile capacity. Although much of the site is still broken and buggy, Law said that, ironically, its inability to change with the times had become an advantage.

“Due to the lack of updates, we basically preserved early Internet culture in its purest form,” he said. “When people log in, the game still looks 99% the same and their pets are still there. It’s like meeting an old friend again. “There aren’t many experiences in life where you can relive your childhood exactly as it was.”

The difficulty of reviving Neopia

With increasing efforts to resurrect Neopets, monthly users have nearly tripled to 300,000 in the past six months, and the company is on track to be profitable by the end of 2024, Law said.

“I think this is the beginning of the resurgence. But there is a lot more work to do,” Law said.

In addition to prioritizing attracting inactive users to the site, Neopets is flirting with the possibility of licensing its intellectual property for a collectible card game and a branded Monopoly board.

“We’re already on track to be profitable, but we want to make sure it’s sustainable, future-proof the intellectual property and make sure we can survive for many years to come,” Law said.

Amid constant pressure to make Neopets financially viable in the real world, the company’s new leadership also has to deal with the digital financial components of the site, which is powered by the “Neopoints” virtual currency. With few updates to the site over time, a vast black market for certain pets has emerged and the site’s virtual economy has struggled with hyperinflation.

Original Neopets logo and creatures. Photography: Neopets

Neopets works with a complex economy made up of two main components: items and Neopoints. Throughout its years of decline, Neopets has continued to issue neopoints into the virtual economy, causing the value of individual neopoints to fall. Resellers have taken advantage of the volatility, selling rare items at inflated prices that few users can afford.

Some inactive users who returned to Neopets found that some of their assets had become extremely valuable. Others have not been so lucky. Since long-time Neopians have precious reserves of resources, new players are at a huge disadvantage. The company has tried to remedy inflation by offering random rewards to all players and is developing other ways to level the playing field.

“It’s like totally free capitalism, with no restrictions or laws,” Packenham said. “It kind of reflects some of the divisions in the real world. I feel like I’m a middle-class Neopian and I’ll never be able to achieve what people who have Neopoints reserves can achieve.”

Law said rebalancing Neopets’ economy was one of the company’s top priorities and acknowledged that many Hackers and black market traders. had arisen because the site had been abandoned for so long. In 2022, Neopets revealed that it had discovered that hackers had gained access to its databases for 18 months, exposing the personal information of more than 69 million members. The violation was discovered when a A hacker tried to sell a Neopets database for bitcoins.

Healing the rift with Neopets fans

Lacking maintenance on the official Neopets site, fans have created their own offshoots over the past decade, including fan fiction, puzzles, and minigames. Law said that instead of cracking down on fan-made components, the company is embracing them. He launched a “Neopass” login system that allows users to access games across the Neopets system, including third-party and fan-made games.

“We’re probably one of the first gaming companies to open our system to community projects,” he said. “There are so many fans who have poured their love and passion into creating these sites and we wanted to build a path for them to co-create with Neopets.”

Those projects are part of an “ongoing dialogue” with Neopets users that Law has tried to foster since taking the helm of the company. He hosts a monthly “Ask Me Anything” thread on Reddit, where there is a very active Neopian community, answering questions and suggestions about the future of the site.

Neopets also created an ambassador program, which chose a handful of accounts from dozens of apps to work directly with Neopets teams to improve the site and user experience. Like Reddit’s volunteer moderator system, the ambassador program is an unpaid opportunity for super users to have more of a say in how the site runs.

These efforts to connect with Neopians have given many users hope that their experiences will be considered, particularly after the the parent company experienced a huge backlash during a 2021 attempt to dive into NFTs and cryptocurrencies. A user who calls himself evilfaerie said that dialogue with fans had corrected that debacle.

“The new owners appear to be actively engaging with the community,” they said. “As they are millennials who grew up on the site, you can see that their efforts are a labor of love – it makes it more meaningful.”

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