Neopets

Celeste showed me Neopets first. All her friends called her Cessy and when we were friends, I did too. At the time she showed me this game on the internet, Cessy and I were best friends except when we despised each other and snubbed each other for our secondary friends which sometimes went on for months until we pretended none of it ever happened. When she showed me Neopets it was summer and she was at my house because we’d already spent three days at her house and needed a change of scene. It was around eleven PM, but this was fourteen years ago now and I could be remembering this wrong because time reduces memory to a watery haze of impression and nostalgia.

Cessy pointed at the screen. “You pick a pet to take care of and you have to earn money to get them food and stuff.”

As there was a Tamagotchi sized hole in my person, I eagerly created an account and selected an aisha for my pet because aishas looked the most like cats if cats had massive alien stalks protruding from their heads.

I think I made my first aisha blue. You were allowed four pets, but owning four at once seemed ostentatious to me. A proper owner would only own one pet to start off with. How could you properly love four? Someone was going to fall through the cracks. Reckless virtual pet ownership.

When Cessy showed me Neopets they had no ties to Cartoon Network and whoever else ended up sponsoring them or advertising with them. The art was rough and there were only a few areas to visit. A town square area hosted various shops that catered to the needs of your pet. A couple of other worlds existed where you played games to earn neopoints, the currency of neopets. A market place crammed with user created shopfronts provided a secondary market, run by players not developers, for items unobtainable in the understocked town square shops.

All these areas were crudely drawn image maps. The unpolished look of the game took nothing away from the experience. It was like playing a game your friend next door slapped on the net for the hell of it. There were no ulterior motives underlying the joy. The game existed to entertain and it was fun.

And addictive.

This was how you purchased anything for your pet in the town square shops: Every twenty minutes, the shops restocked with random items. The items restocked in limited quantities (17 or so) and for a set price. You payed the set price or you haggled to score a deal. If you haggled, however, you risked pissing off the shop owner and getting booted out of the transaction empty e-handed. Haggling also wasted valuable time. Supplies were limited and hundreds (thousands?) of other people competed with you for those supplies.

In June, 2001 at three AM, freshly restocked shops sold out in five minutes or less. Once all the shops emptied, you waited twenty minutes for the next frenzied state of click-clickety-clicking of that left mouse button along with all the other pet obsessed insomniacs (or those in other countries) hunched over their keyboards, gritty eyes glued to the screen, compulsively lurking the vacant shops and hitting F5 for a chance at digital rendering of a milk carton until our index fingers locked up.

During these twenty minute periods of consumer purgatory, you ventured to the other world areas to play games and earn those sweet neopoints. Various simple games were available for play. In the early days, the best bang for your point buck was hide and seek in the ice caverns.

In hide and seek ice cavern style, your pet hid somewhere in an image map of frozen crevices. You clicked all the clickable areas of the map until you found your pet. The game then rewarded you with a sum of points. The ice caverns gave a larger sum than any of the other areas and hide and seek was easy, so Cessy and I spammed the fuck out of it until we lurked in the shops five minutes before restock.

What did we buy? Broccoli, eggs, vegan cheese (there was a health food store,) hairbrushes, perfume, makeup palettes, books (reading to your pet increased their abilities and combat stats) and whatever other random shit the developers plopped into the shops. We hoarded these items in our inventories and our neopoints in the bank because if you didn’t put your points in the bank, random events occurred where your points were stolen by nefarious shadow entities (this was before the stock exchange and when reading a book or using an item didn’t cause it to poof out of existence.) When we possessed  a surplus of a particular item, we placed the surplus in our personal shops in the marketplace to sell to users who couldn’t click fast enough or had internet connections too shitty to stand a chance in the official vendor areas.

No one ever bought anything from my shop because I mostly sold common items. I didn’t want to sell or use my rares ::shrug::

A typical summer night for Cessy and I, when we didn’t hate each other, consisted of chatting, going out or staying in to watch movies, eating a bunch of food and snacks we bought from the Asian market and around eleven PM we’d jump onto Neopets. At her house or mine we only had one computer. At her place the computer was for the entire family use, so we fought off her mom, but her connection speed was better. My speed was middling, but I had a private computer. Either way, we shared. One of us played for an hour then switched with the other until electric blue bled into the black sky and we knew five AM had come.

For me, Neopets was less about caring for my pet (which I did) than accumulating points and items. Battling my pet wasn’t fun and I wasn’t sure why I cared about increasing my little aisha’s stats. This was one of the big reasons why I quit. After a while, the shopping rush petered out and there didn’t seem to be any real use for these things I bought, so why earn points when spending served no rewarding purchase other than the purchase itself?

As the community inflated, the shops sold out within a matter of seconds. Items in the user marketplace sold only for exorbitant prices. People couldn’t feed their pets from the official or marketplace shops. The developers had to create an alternate source for food. Soon, there was a section of an alien world that was one, giant pizza. You visited the giant pizza three times, I think, for three slices of pizza before you had to wait a day to collect more slices. One slice fed a pet three times. After the advent of giant pizza land, your pets were good on meals with no purchase necessary.

Items became a status thing once changing a pet’s appearance became a thing. You used items to complete quests too and quests gave you other rares. A quest, BTW, was just an item fetch and people knew what items were quest items, so they were always priced ultra high in the marketplace and good luck getting a random drop in the official shops. None of that was fun and the pets seemed more and more an afterthought to the virtual economy and how people interacted with it and, eventually, each other.

A lot of the enjoyment got sucked out of Neopets, for me, simply because it became extremely popular. Neopets was no longer a hodge-podge of dodgy HTML art and a, relatively, small group of people online doing something a little weird and charming together.

The community expansion was great for the game, but the experience didn’t feel small and special anymore. All the attention from the players also drew large companies looking to monetize that attention in various ways. Not long after I joined Neopets, maybe five or six months, a great many companies invested in the site. With them came an influx of ads and themed items and world areas based on the funding entity. I rolled my eyes over a great game I played with my friend now selling me products. The game was still free. A huge fan community was there, but it was covered in ad trash and its very largeness disenchanted me

I stopped playing and I think Cessy did too. I did, however, buy a small blue aisha plush when the merchandise rolled out because that small, alien cat reminded me of high school summer nights spent obsessing over a game with my best friend while she wrote or read on the bed (covered with Delia’s sheets) behind me.

Thanks for that, Neopets. I don’t know that I’ll ever have an online gaming experience like that again.