Neopets (originally NeoPets) is a virtual pet website launched by Adam Powell and Donna Williams on 15 November 1999. Six months after the web site was launched, Adam Powell and Donna Williams successfully sold a majority share to a consortium of investors led by Doug Dohring. On 20 June 2005, Viacom bought Neopets, Inc. for $160 million (USD).
Neopets is based around the virtual pets that inhabit the virtual world of Neopia. Visitors can create an account and take care of up to four virtual pets, buying them food, toys, clothes, and other accessories using a virtual currency called Neopoints. Neopoints can be earned through playing games, investing in the stock market, trading, winning contests and making your own shop. Users can explore the world of Neopia with their Neopets and interact with each other through the NeoBoards, NeoMail, and guilds.
Neopets also operates a pay-to-play version known as Neopets Premium, which offers additional features and benefits for a monthly fee of $7.99 (USD). Several issues with the site, such as immersive advertising and gambling-based games have garnered criticism.
Neopets was conceived by Adam Powell while studying at the University of Nottingham in 1997. Powell left and started UK-based advertising company Shout! Advertising in 1997, which grew to be the third largest click-through program on the Internet by 1999. He also co-founded Netmagic, an online banner advertising design and sales firm and Powlex Ltd., a web site design firm. Donna Williams was a marketing manager for Shout! Advertising from September 1997 to July 1999 responsible for internet advertising, sales and services, graphic and web design. He and Williams started creating the site in September 1999 and launched it two months later on 15 November 1999. Powell was responsible for the programming and database, and Williams the web design and art.
The site grew by word of mouth and by Christmas, they received 600,000 page views daily and sought investment to cover the high cost of running the site. The same month, Doug Dohring was introduced to the creators of the site and, along with other investors, bought a majority share in January of the following year. Neopets, Inc. was created in February 2000 and began business in April. The website made profit from the first paying customers for an advertising method trademarked as "immersive advertising", touted as "an evolutionary step forward in the traditional marketing practice of product placement" in television and film.
Media conglomerate Viacom bought Neopets, Inc. on 20 June, 2005 for $160 million and planned to focus more on banner ads instead of immersive advertising. On the first day of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the Altador Cup started as an annual international online gaming event and had 10.4 million participants the first year. The entire Neopets site was revamped on 27 April, 2007, referred to as Neopets 2.0 in the Neopets FAQ. On 17 July 2007, the NC Mall was launched in a partnership with Korean gaming company Nexon Corporation. The next day, Viacom announced on their website that by the end of 2008, Neopets would be changing to NeoStudios, "which will focus on developing new virtual world gaming experiences online, while continuing to grow and evolve the existing ones.
After the changes in ownership, the site still retained its British English spellings. To date, since August 2003, the site has been translated into ten other written languages: Japanese, Traditional and Simplified Chinese, Spanish, German, Italian, Korean, Portuguese, Dutch and French.
Users are free to choose their own path in the world of Neopia, from collecting things to battling against other users. Visitors can create a free account. A user then creates a Neopet and chooses the name, physical characteristics, and personality and may own up to four per account. A newly created pet comes with randomly rolled stats used for battling in the Battledome. Players need to feed and care for their Neopets when they grow hungry or get sick, although they will not die if they are neglected. New users start out with a newbie pack of various items that introduce a basic feature of the site, such as food for feeding a pet. They can get more items for their Neopets by earning Neopoints, the site's currency, through various activities including playing games and selling items.
Users can interact with their Neopets by reading books to them, caring for them, and playing with them. They can train their Neopets to be fighters in the Battledome against other player's Neopets or non-player characters. Wearable items, such as certain clothing, can be used to customize a Neopet. Players can build a customizable Neohome for their Neopets, furnish them, and buy extensions that reflect the socioeconomic quality of the house.
Players can collect certain virtual items and display them in a gallery or album. In addition to items, players can also collect trophies, avatars, and site themes, although there is no function to display the latter two.
Users found breaking the rules set in the Terms and Conditions may have their account suspended or "frozen", a temporary or permanent block.
The content of the site is updated almost on a daily basis with the addition of new games and items, weekly content, and other things. In addition to the site content updated by Neopets, players also contribute user-generated content to the site. Player contributions come in the form of prescreened submissions and readily editable content that is automatically filtered, such as the site's weekly electronic newspaper The Neopian Times and their own user lookup, respectively.
Neopets may own pets called Petpets, which can be found throughout Neopia in shops or random events. Like Neopets, Petpets have levels and can be painted a variety of colours using Petpet paintbrushes. Petpets can be used to perform a few actions pets can not perform, such as attempt to wake the giant petpet Turmaculus (at the risk of having one's petpet eaten) and jump into the Mysterious Symol Hole. Petpets also have a battling area called the "Petpet Battle Arena". Taking the concept of pets owning pets further, petpets can have their own pets, insect-like creatures called petpetpets.
Items can be bought from shops found throughout the world of Neopia that are run by NPCs who may allow haggling. Players can open their own shops to sell items, sometimes after obtaining those items at a lower price from sources such as other shops. One may also exchange items at the trading post or use the auction house. The worth of an item is not only based on its use but also its rarity. Player-run shops have prices fixed by the seller up to a maximum; any items with a price over the maximum must be sold by trading or auctioning.
Neopoints can be earned from playing games, most of which have a set maximum of earnings or playtime. Players may also earn trophies for their trophy cabinet from games if they score high enough for the Hi-Score Tables, which are reset on the first day of each month. Challenges may be made against other players or random players in a "World Challenge" for a prize piece for certain Flash games. A monthly competition also exists for multiplayer PHP games with four week-long elimination rounds.
Neopets offers several different contests and spotlights, where winners are chosen by judges on the Neopets staff or voted on by members of the Neopets community. Contests include several formats, such as writing a story or making a short animated film. Spotlights showcase what users have done with customizable content. Winners also receive a trophy and a reward, which varies with the contest or spotlight.
In Australia, a cross-promotion with McDonald's where McDonald's promoted Neopets plushies in their Happy Meals and Neopets featured McDonald's-related content led to a controversy with Neopets' luck/chance games in October 2004. A story on the Australian tabloid television show Today Tonight featured a nine-year-old boy who claimed that the site requires one to gamble in order to receive enough Neopoints to feed one's Neopet or else it would be sent to the Pound. While this is factually incorrect (gambling is not required, nor are pets ever sent to an orphanage if they are not fed), it is true that the website has a number of games of chance that are directly based on real-life games such as blackjack and lottery scratchcards. Neopets has prohibited users under the age of 13 from playing most games that involve gambling.
Neopets Premium is an extended version of the site, for which members pay for monthly or yearly subscriptions. With Premium membership, external ads are removed and certain benefits are added, like extra Neopoints and access to beta versions of games. Neopets Mobile is a simpler version of the site using a web-to-wireless application developed by In-Fusio. Initially released to Cingular/AT&T, it allows access from a mobile phone where users get exclusive access to Lutari Island and other exclusive content.
The NC Mall allows players to buy items used mainly for customizing their Neopets or Neohomes using Neocash. Players must purchase Neocash with real money through PayPal. Customers in the United States can also buy Neocash cards at Target stores, the Target website, and at selected Wal-mart stores. The Mall was created through a partnership with Nexon, which also handles the sale of NX Cash used in the analogous "Cash Shop" of MapleStory. It was initially released for beta on 28 June 2007 and then fully released to players in the United States on 17 July. Two months later, it expanded to English users in other countries. Most Neocash purchased items remain with the buyer permanently, but can not be transferred or sold to other players. A few items have expiration times, after which they disappear from the buyer's accounts.
In February 2008, Neopets announced that Key Quest, a new feature to be introduced in the spring, will engage users by having them buy Neopets merchandise at Target and using a virtual code to redeem tokens for their user accounts.
Neopets has a community in which users can chat with and contact each other. Users may request other users to be "Neofriends" or block other users from contacting them. Players are represented by small icons known as avatars that are provided by the website, as players cannot upload their own. To comply with COPPA, players under 13 years of age cannot access any of the site's communication features without sending in parental consent. The main features include:
Discussions through these features are restricted and may not involve topics such as dating and romance or controversial topics like politics and religion. Continuous moderation is performed by paid Neopets staff members, and users can help moderate the site by reporting messages they believe are inappropriate or offensive. Messages are also automatically filtered to prevent users from posting messages with profanity or lewd content, although filters cannot catch everything.
It is arguably the most contentious issue with the site with regard to the ethics of marketing to children. Half a million of the 25 million users were under the age of eight in 2005 and children under eight have difficulty recognizing ads. It draws criticism from parents, psychologists, and consumer advocates who argue that children may not know that they are trying to be sold something, as it blurs the line between site content and advertisement. A psychology professor at Georgetown University stated, "It's self marketing, selling to kids that don't know they are seeing anything". Dohring responded to such criticism:
"[O]ver 60 percent of our audience is 13 and over, so it is not like we are dealing with four- to six-year-olds that may not quite understand the difference between content and advertising. And of the 40 percent of our users who are 12 or under, the ages start at around seven or eight years old and go up from there. The preschoolers are not really our audience, because you have to be a pretty fluid reader to navigate the site.
Other criticised the functionality of the site. Susan Linn, another psychologist and author of Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood said, "The whole purpose of this site at this point is to keep kids in front of products". Kalle Lasn, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Adbusters magazine, said the site was "encouraging kids to spend hours in front of the screen and at the same time recruiting them into consumer culture", which was "the most insidious mind-fuck ever". Neopets executives have stated in 2004 and 2006 that paid content comprised of less than 1% of the site's total content. Children are not required to play or use sponsor games and items.
Consumer advocates also argue that immersive ads should be clearly labelled as advertisements. Dohring has said, "We're not trying to be subliminal or deceive the user. We label all the immersive ad campaigns as paid advertisements."
A press release from Neopets in 2001 stated that Neopets.com led in site "stickiness" in May and June, with the average user spending 117 minutes a week. Neopets also led in the average number of hours spent per user per month in December 2003 with an average of 4 hours and 47 minutes. A 2004 article stated that Nielsen//NetRatings reported that people were spending around three hours a month on Neopets, more than any other site in its Nielsen category. By May 2005, a Neopets-affiliated video game producer cited about 35 million unique users, 11 million unique IP addresses per month, and 4 billion web page views per month. This producer also described 20% of the users as 18 or older, with the median of the remaining 80% at about 14. Neopets was consistently ranked among the top ten "stickiest" sites by both Nielsen//NetRatings and comScore Media Metrix in 2005 and 2006. According to Nielsen//NetRatings, in 2007, Neopets lost about 15% of its audience over the previous year. In February 2008, comScore ranked it as the stickiest kids entertainment site with the average user spending 2 hours and 45 minutes.
Most of the users are female, higher than in other massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) but equivalent to social-networking-driven communities. Cuteness is one of the main factors. Open-endedness is another. Lucy Bradshaw, a vice president of Electronic Arts, said, "Games that have a tendency to satisfy on more than one dimension have a tendency to have a broader appeal and attract girls".
Wizards of the Coast released the Neopets Trading Card Game in September 2003 based on the online characters and setting. In 2004, the cards were promoted in three of General Mills "Big G" cereals and ten Simon Property Group malls. The TCG received two different nominations for "Toy of the Year" and two other recognitions.
Neopets: The Official Magazine, published by Beckett Media, was a bi-monthly magazine released in September 2003. The magazine was sold through a subscription service and in stores, with back issues available for order on the magazine web site. The magazine's features included Neopet games, stories, guides to the Flash games on the Neopets site, news on upcoming site events and merchandise, and drawings for readers. It also regularly offered games tied to the site that allowed the reader to receive a prize on the Neopets site. After 26 issues, Beckett sent a notice to subscribers announcing that the January 2008 issue would be the final issue of the magazine and that Beckett would replace the issues remaining in the subscription with their new magazine Beckett Plushie Pals, which would still include some Neopets news, but also news related to various other companies, including Ganz Webkinz, Disney's Club Penguin, TY Beanie Babies, and Kookeys.
Neopets signed a deal with Warner Bros. Pictures in March 2005 to produce films. The unreleased first film was announced to be written by Rob Lieber and produced by Dylan Sellers and John A. Davis in February 2006 by Variety.
In November 2005 Sony Computer Entertainment America Inc. released Neopets: The Darkest Faerie, for the PlayStation 2. A second game, Neopets: Petpet Adventures: The Wand of Wishing, was released March 14, 2006 for the PlayStation Portable.
A very popular form of merchandise for Neopets was their set of toys in 2005 at McDonald's, which brought many people in to Neopets. A second release of Neopet toys occurred at McDonald's because of the success of the last promotion. These toys have been released in countries such as Australia, USA, Singapore and the U.K. In September of 2008, Neopet toys came to Burger King in the United States and Canada.
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