Neopets was huge. At 21 million users during its peak, the website was a behemoth of the early 2000s. It’s still going today! Neopets is a free-to-play digital pet game, where the user can interact with digital pets, the Neopets. Games, chatrooms, and all the usual fixings of 2000’s era children’s sites were available to users.
It was also the subject of a couple of scandals, although nothing quite as dark as Club Penguin Re-Written’s issues.
The Avatar Swap
Firstly, the biggest one: the black market surrounding rare avatars.
Like many children’s games, Neopets self-funded with website ads sprinkled here and there, right up until it was purchased by a larger company, Viacom, with some big ambitions for the franchise: everything from console games to real-life toys was supposedly on the table. They’d need more money to execute these plans, however. Additional funding snuck in, and certain items became purchasable with Neocash, which players could buy with real money!
Now pets with certain upgrades are more valuable than others because they have money invested in them – the market begins to form as soon as an update allows for pet trading. Trades weren’t an official thing by any means prior to that, all a player can do is drop off the Neopet in the Neopet pound and hope the other guy managed to snag the ‘abandoned’ pet. This feature of the game actually held back the flood for a while – no guarantee of pet? No guarantee of pay, and so trades were rarer in the early days. Still, trades happened, and finally Neopets admins allowed trading to happen officially. It allowed them to monitor the action, and the feature was very much requested anyway.
Trades were about to become an issue, however. Neopets was constantly bandaging over or changing things, which left items in the lurch. New features and decorations for pets were steadily coming and going, but the old versions weren’t always taken out of the equation.
Once such change converted the formerly-unclothable pets into new, exciting, dressable ones. Most of the Neopet avatars were changed overnight with little warning. Players were disgruntled, as some pets got swapped into new categories: ‘sponge’ pets, brightly colored pets made of dish sponge material, turned into ‘mutant’ pets, a collection of tentacled and fanged creatures with a muted gray/green color palette. This is understandably upsetting! Pets that were cute became cuter, pets that were weird became weirder. The visuals on the ones that didn’t change category were still tweaked – the update added eye-shine, fur texture, and new poses to flattened original arts. However, not all of the avatars were converted! Some were allowed to keep their old art, although new art had been made for the species.
Neopets allowed players in this final category to choose whether or not to convert, and essentially created a black market for unconverted pets with unconverted art. Only a few species were allowed to stay as-is in their player’s dashboard, and any new players who created a pet of that species would be using the new art. As a result, these unconverted pets became legacy items, and their value exploded. People began trading real money for these pets, with deals set up in forums and private chat rooms. It was against the rules, of course, but when did that ever stop anyone? A tiered system that ranked pets popped up, which turned the pets into a sort of stock market! Pets had value based on what the community perceived their value to be.
Admins did their best. Club Penguin had an enormous team covering a smaller userbase, while Neopets’ team was too small to focus on anything but the biggest fires.
Nowadays, the end of Flash Support means the game is frequently buggy and uncooperative with player inputs. Staff is working to move to HTML5, but the age and size of the website makes that a Herculean task. Even before then, though, it had issues. It’s initial transfer from Viacom to Jumpstart Games in 2015-ish came with a lot of lag and glitches all by itself during the move to new servers. Glitches that only made the situation with that black market worse! Now certain items could be ‘accidentally’ duplicated or deleted, and minigames were harder to play, encouraging the purchase of Neocash with real cash over grinding for points day in and day out. This is understandably frustrating for younger users.
Admins could reverse trades. But, doing so could reset an entire train of transactions if that pet was obtained illegitimately. This is obviously very annoying to players who just wanted a new shiny pet and had nothing to do with the initial theft. Responses to the issue from admins were mixed, and no one solution was universally applied. That sounds great, but every custom solution left people questioning the admins’ decisions. They seemed uncoordinated.
Even worse, hacking the website itself became a problem, and some guy created a bunch of unconverted pets via admin tools. The next few hours of gameplay for everyone were strange as the admins worked to remove the new unconverted pets from the game again, some of which were already traded far down the line. Since black-marketeering was against the rules, the community could only police itself by banning issue players or thieves from their forums, but their work was in-demand and theft would happen anyway.
Surprisingly, big external hacks seem to be pretty rare – all the hacking going on for the black market are done from inside the site, which needed the site to keep going to be worth it. Rare doesn’t mean non-existent: one very big hack got several million assorted accounts in varying levels of completeness… the database was too old to be of much use, and many passwords were missing corresponding emails. Which brings up the next point!
The site never purges old, inactive users. This is a problem when the pet’s name is essentially it’s ID number – once a Neopet is named Spot, there can’t be another named Spot. Pets don’t disappear when they’re voluntarily discarded, either, they go to the Neopets pound where another player can adopt them. As such, the pet’s name adds value to the pet! Pronounceable names with no underscores, dashes, or numbers are significantly more valuable than keysmashed names in the black market.
This favors the early users who got first pick of the names, many of who then abandoned their pets as they outgrew the game. Which encourages hacking! It’s not exactly malicious, as the hackers have no idea if the original user is ever going to come back to their pet, but it’s not exactly white hat, either, because of the personal information tied to the account and all that. Rather than treating abandoned accounts like accounts, they’re being treated like a mine. This is a non-renewable resource, so when the old accounts inevitably run out, what happens next? Where does the next supply of market-fodder come from? Not to mention that it’s difficult to actually gauge inactivity from the outside– the age of the account doesn’t necessarily mean it’s abandoned!
The admins could prevent the issues all of this causes by purging the accounts, so why not do that?
Purging users means that the unconverted pets in these inactive accounts would either A) flood the market, if the team releases them to the pound, or B) disappear forever, thereby destroying the new supply of unconverted and well-named pets. The adult users have more voice than the kid users do, so they’d be flooded with complaints and negative feedback on every channel.
Yes, Neopets did, at some point, have connections to Scientology. However, the impact on the site seems pretty overstated even knowing how brutal Scientology can be. The original founders needed help with the site’s management, and one of their investors stepped in as CEO – they didn’t realize he was involved in Scientology until much later. Upper management was nearly entirely composed of Scientologists, which wasn’t great for the work culture since the original founders weren’t, and new employees would be interviewed using Scientology-based material, but it didn’t bleed further downwards than that, if The Outline can be trusted. The organization began using Scientology’s classic 7-step program for success, but it wasn’t outright pushing the religion. This wasn’t so much a scandal as a five-year long managerial mistake – it was an open secret among actual employees, not some scheme to get kids involved via Neopets.