The year is 2000. You change your away message to “Playing Neopets,” peel open some after-school Dunkaroos, and settle in for a long afternoon of Turmac Roll and Meerca Chase. Your Neopian bank account is full and so is your belly. Life is good.
As virtual pets became all the rage in the late ‘90s — often in the form of pocket-sized, handheld devices — neopets.com became the destination to raise a pet on the World Wide Web. The website launched on Nov. 15, 1999, as a place to customize fantasy pets bursting with personality, earn a currency of Neopoints by playing dozens of mini-games, collect inventory from thousands of virtual items, embark on Faerie Quests, and explore the whimsical world of Neopia. Neopets began as a standalone company, later getting purchased by Viacom in 2005, followed by an acquisition from JumpStart Games in 2014. JumpStart finally launched an open beta rollout last year to give the website a mobile-friendly update and make it easier for players to check in on their Neopets, play games, and earn Neopoints anywhere, anytime.
The website revamp will keep the same feel of the original brand, with the addition of new features that make it easier for users to play on their mobile devices. Neopets is also expanding with plans for a world-building, mobile game called Neopets: Island Builders; an animated TV series; a merchandising program; and even live events. The idea is to revive the brand while staying true to Neopets’ core values and catering to all players, whether they first discovered it 20 years ago or they’re discovering it now for the very first time.
“We want to make sure we have something for everyone,” says Executive Vice President of Business Development and Marketing for JumpStart Games, Scott Nocas. “There’s the nostalgia factor for older fans who haven’t played since they were young and there’s the excitement from people who are now playing it.”
The Neopets team keeps a channel of communication open with players to provide updates of what they’re working on and what’s new. “We don’t want to lose those people that have been with Neopets since the beginning,” says Neopets Brand Manager Stephanie Lord. “We want to keep the pieces of the brand that people love, and we want to let fans know that we care about this community by engaging with them more.”
From website development to creating merch, the Neopets brand gives fans an opportunity to have a hand in designing for the company as part of the Fan Artist Partnership Program. “We have generations of artists who grew up around Neopets and who were inspired to create amazing fan art over the years,” Nocas says. “You’ll actually see art from some of our fans themselves who will get paid to create it for our merchandise. Why should we create it when oftentimes these fans actually have amazing ideas that are going to resonate within the community?”
Anthony Conley (@anthonyconleyart on Instagram) designed a lot of the original Neopets art and continues to create fan art today. He was hired as an illustrator for the company in 2000 and in his first week on the job, he designed the classic Neopets characters Blumaroo, Cybunny, and Techo.
“I shared these characters with the creators of the site, Adam Powell and Donna Williams, and they loved them,” Conley says. “Soon I was drawing many character redesigns and creating many new species. A few redesigns that I got to do were Polypup, which became the Gelert, and the original Bruce, who was a human dressed in a tux until I made him into a penguin-like character.”
Conley was responsible for the birth of Scorchio, Yurble, Grundo, Meerca, Koi, Kougra, and many other popular Neopets species, taking inspiration from his love of ‘80s cartoons, such as Masters of the Universe, ThunderCats, Robotech, The Smurfs, and Inspector Gadget. “When creating new characters, our team of artists was often given the freedom to design what we wanted,” Conley says. “We were usually just told which land the Neopet or Petpet would come from as our inspiration and we took it from there.”He also helped create concepts for major storylines, digital comics, mini-games, lands, and thousands of virtual items within the game.
In the early 2000s, Neopets was so popular that the art team would travel to shopping malls across the U.S. for promotional events. “We greeted fans who waited in line for hours to request sketches of their favorite Neopets characters,” Conley says. “The lines would wrap around the outside of the mall and we artists would draw for 8-10 hours just to make sure everyone received a sketch.”
Conley left Neopets in 2014, but was contacted by Lord last year to work on freelance art for the game, as well as some top-secret designs for the Fan Artist Partnership Program — a program that he thinks is a genius idea. “If you know about Neopets, then you know that the fanbase is amazingly talented and creative,” Conley says. “They are notorious for drawing, writing fan fiction, cosplaying, sculpting characters and site items, and sharing it all online. Opening up the channels for these creators to possibly have their work featured on Neopets merchandise is every fan’s dream.”
There are hundreds of thousands of wacky inventory items in the game — including colorful paint brushes to change the look of the Neopets, endless slushie flavors to feed them, and magical Codestones to train them — that provide fun merch opportunities, such as Geekify’s collectible pins. Geekify was one of the first licensees to start releasing Neopets products last fall, creating enamel pins in the shape of various Neopian items, as well as advent calendars, fleece blankets, and embroidered patches.
“We had to start somewhere and some of the more popular items, such as the Neggs, paint brushes, and Petpets, seemed a good fit to break down into manageable sets for collectors,” says Geekify CEO John Taylor. “Each Neopian gravitates toward something different about the site, so finding things that have more universal appeal for our initial sets made the most sense while we build up some steam and start hitting the more obscure or subtle references.” Taylor says that there are plans in place to create pins of the individual Neopets species at some point, too.
“New in-game items are produced constantly for events and occasions, so there’s tons of reference work and in-game culture to draw from,” Taylor says. Longtime Neopets fans know that the in-game Advent Calendar is a big event each holiday season, doling out daily prizes of Neopoints, seasonal decor, and rare virtual items all December long. Geekify created a real-life version of the Advent Calendar filled with 24 chocolate shapes inspired by the world of Neopia. “We’re always looking for creative ways to help augment the feel of the game or celebrate it in the real world in ways that aren’t just standard fare for licensed merch,” Taylor says.
Most of the Neopets merchandise from the past 20 years focused on the pet species rather than alternative characters, such as Faeires. Geekify’s fleece blankets put the Faeries front and center. “The Faeries make for more consistent, standalone, iconic characters with a huge following and an easy way to work in known Neopet sidekicks,” Taylor says. “Many of the standalone characters never got merch of their own, so we wanted to create something special for fans who had been waiting their whole lives to have their Faerie get some attention.”
Geekify is hard at work in the product lab with Negg squishies, Dubloons and Neopoint coins, keychains, a Tarot deck, a wallet, and more pin sets in the pipeline. Other new additions to Neopets’ licensing program include T-shirts and sweatshirts printed with character graphics from Hot Topic and a collection of jewelry and pins featuring different Neopets species in sterling silver and 14k gold from What’s Your Passion Jewelry. Some of the products, such as the Geekify pins and the What’s Your Passion Jewelry items, include in-game codes that players can use to redeem special items on their online accounts, tying the real-life merch experience into the virtual gameplay.
“There will be different styles of merch and homages to what’s popular and new, but we do want to make sure we’re recognizing what people loved about Neopets over the years,” Nocas says.
Neopets recently launched its own e-commerce website for the first time on neopetsshop.com, featuring exclusive items from the Neopets brand, including apparel, face masks, stickers, and more. The new store offers fans the opportunity to customize their merch with specific Neopets species and personalized text on T-shirts and mugs. Fans can also expect to see long-awaited plush Neopets and Petpet characters, Petpet keychains, and original designs created by artists from the Neopets community.
“We definitely have a unique audience since we’ve been around for 20 years,” Lord says. “You see a good amount of people who are growing up and they say ‘I want my kids to play Neopets so I can play with them.’ We want to create stuff that the whole family can enjoy together without targeting just one section of them.”
Nocas says that the brand also plans to scale up its efforts on social media, creating more content that celebrates Neopets and the quirky in-game culture that the community loves. For example, Nocas hints at videos that show fans how to make a real-life version of the iconic Neopets omelettes — funky-flavored egg portions, such as a Tangy Tigersquash Omelette or a Rotten Omelette, that players can feed their pets after grabbing a daily chunk from the Giant Omelette that sits atop the Tyrannian Plateau.
This is just the beginning of a new life for Neopets, but there’s no need to be afraid of change. “We don’t want to lose any part of Neopets that the fans do love — the characters, the games, the lore,” Lord says. “It’s making sure we keep that balance of keeping it fun and fresh with new content, but not forgetting the existing appeal of Neopets that we all love.”
Diehard Neopians of all ages can show their love for the game in new ways, whether that means wearing their Blumaroo on a T-shirt or logging on to feed their Chia some asparagus, which should cost 5,121,970 Neopoints per kilogram according to current market trends. And for those of you who haven’t logged in since the ‘90s, go figure out your password ASAP because your Neopet is starving.
This article was original published in Issue No. 10 of the Pop Insider. Click here to read the full issue!