Neopets, the interactive pet site created in November 1999 and beloved by millions even over twenty years later, may not hold a reputation in the minds of most for being a place where creativity begins. Sure, everyone had fun naming their pets, and, in later years, customizing them with outfits and accessories, as well as moving stuff around in their little Neohomes – but the later arrival of Webkinz didn’t exactly produce kid geniuses, either. But Neopets was different than the many adoptable pet sites that followed in its, at the time, groundbreaking, wake. Neopets encouraged & fostered creativity in their community with input from the players. This was implemented in a couple of ways – caption contests, contests for the best dress-up or home customization, art competitions, even opportunities to create items to be released on the site – but undoubtedly, the biggest creative front enjoyed by players was the infamous Neopian Times, the site’s own newspaper.
The Neopian Times arrived very shortly after the site’s initial launch – but it left much to be desired. The original Times was, for the most part, just a blank white page with a wall of text, as well as a small banner at the top of the page. Nonetheless, it was an exciting outlet for the site’s, at the time, small userbase. As it does today, over 22 years later, the Times had three sections (as well as an additional ‘Artwork’ section) sections for creators to submit to – short stories, articles (typically, player guides for the site’s minigames or quests), and, of course, the much-beloved comics section.
The comics created by Neopets fans (Neopians) are, in many ways, the backbone of the site-oriented publication. Users’ submissions are screened by Neopets staff and may not be accepted for a variety of reasons: poor art quality, unreadable text, an idea that’s already been published, or simply for not seeming like a good fit. The rejection process is similar to what one might find when submitting a real comic or pitch; a kind Neomail is sent to the user informing them their work wasn’t a good fit this time but that they’re free to try again. Of course, the selection of comics isn’t quite as rigorous as it would be for professional artists, to give artists of all skill levels a chance to participate. The technical talent isn’t always what matters; submissions seem to be judged more on creativity and effort. Of course, no real payment can be provided for submissions that actually land themselves in the Times, but the talented users that manage it gain a shiny trophy for their user lookup, announcing their accomplishment. For those who manage to get into ‘special editions’ (every 50th & 100th issue), items that are high-value and scarce on the site are awarded, including the White Weewoo, a beloved item & mascot of the Times, originally inspired by an in-joke established through comics submitted to the newspaper.
So what exactly are these comics about? Almost always, there are the player’s beloved pets interacting with the site’s unique lands, foods, and other creatures. While Neopets has its own guidelines on the canon of the site to keep things consistent through many plotlines established over the years, including that no humans or human-made technologies are present in the lands of Neopia, the guidelines are much looser for what players are allowed to publish in fan-made comics. It’s largely up to the creator of the comic whether their pets are just that, cartoon animals, or if they take an anthropomorphic form. The relationships they have with humans are also fairly flexible; many comic artists, particularly younger players, show themselves as a ‘parent’ figure in their comics with their pets forming a family. Neopets still lays down the law about a few things; ideally, comics still do not contain modern human technology like cars or cell phones, with the exception of items altered to fit Neopia (for example, a television set labeled as ‘Neovision’). But, other than a few guidelines, mainly establishing safety for younger players (no nudity, sex, violence, or so on), the interpretations of Neopia’s culture & characters are largely up to players.
The comics found on Neopets have changed fairly drastically over the years. While most of them are site-centric, when scrolling through the Neopian Times’ archives, the dates certain comics were created becomes glaringly obvious. Many comics published from 2005-2008 feature Neopets sporting an emo fringe, eyeliner, and other assorted art styles that could have easily breached the front page of DeviantArt. Slightly past that point, though, you can find Neopets adorned with hand-drawn troll faces and placed in popular meme formats. Now, the trend continues, with current cultural references sprinkled through every few comics. The more recent issues hold comics with references to Britney Spears, Neopets drawn in the You Know I Had to Do It to ‘Em pose, and other current events. While some of these references may go over the heads of preteen players, they keep the comics relevant and provide an interesting perspective into the past. A glance through the archives gives a look through the minds & different times of young players just enthusiastic about their pixel pets & the joys of publishing. The Neopian Times allows comic series, and some have been continuing on, sometimes taking hiatuses, for years on end, surpassing dozens or even hundreds of comics from just one committed Neopian artist. These comics show even more drastically time’s changes – some artists started out primarily drawing for the Neopian Times, and years later are at a professional level.
In recent years, the Neopian Times, like the Neopets site generally, has seen decreased activity. The once-bustling magazine filled with weekly updates and hundreds, sometimes thousands, of comic-writing Neopians clamoring to get their work seen has dwindled to a handful of comics every issue, which are now released bi-weekly as opposed to weekly. This is partially just due to the aging nature of pet sites; Webkinz, another popular 2000’s toy/online website, recently ended its recognizable plush line in favor of more modern designs, and Moshi Monsters and Club Penguin have shut their doors. However, while site traffic is certainly down from the “glory days” of Neopets, a committed & active fanbase remains – many of whom are still grinding to make the best comics possible out of love.
Why exactly did Neopets’ downfall begin in the first place? Part of it was simply due to the inevitable downfall of a fad. Neopets reached its height in 2002-2007; the years when the site had its largest and most active userbase, along with corresponding activity + updates on the site. When activity starts to decline on pet sites such as Neopets, it’s often a downward spiral; less money & resources are funneled into the site, and then fewer players return, and the vicious cycle repeats. Additionally, many of Neopets’ assets were, and continue to be, very dated; much of the site’s original art from 1999 has yet to be replaced, and, in the most loving way, it definitely shows. On the other hand, some of the art replaced by the staff was heavily criticized by long-time players as having lost the original charm and nostalgia associated with the site. In a sea of problems with art, lackluster moderation, and aging games, Neopets found it hard to come out on top. Once a pioneer in the virtual pet industry, Neopets rapidly became outdone by newer technology.
Things only got worse with time. Neopets made little to no preparation for the inevitable rise of mobile gaming. The attempt that they made was actually too early on in the curve of mobile growth – Neopets released Lutari Island, a portion of the site only accessible to those using the Neopets Mobile service through In-fusio, a mobile carrier no longer in existence, in 2006. The downfall of Lutari Island – which, over 15 years later, has no function on the site since the loss of Neopets Mobile – seems to have scared off the Neopets team in regards to making advances forward with mobile technology. No app exists for Neopets, and what exists of a mobile version of the site is clunky & incomplete, leaving players switching layouts from page to page – in addition to the mobile version losing the fun aspects of the site such as pop-up event banners. Despite having several years’ worth of warning, the shutdown of Adobe Flash was a devastating blow to essentially every function of Neopets. At least from many players’ perspectives, there had been little to no preparation for the loss of Flash. Almost all of Neopets’ 200+ games became unplayable overnight except for a handful (less than ten remained); many of the site’s other assets, such as plots, certain daily activities (such as a ‘movie theater’ where pets could stop by daily for free snacks such as popcorn), and even individual pet pages were gone. Suddenly, Neopets was a wasteland in comparison to the once vibrant site it had been, with images of a gravestone emblazoned “RIP Flash” almost tauntingly in place of childhood favorites. One of the only survivors of the Neo-Apocalypse? The Neopian Times. None of the newspapers’ assets had been coded through Flash, and, so, all contributed articles and comics were safe – and, with the site such a mess (and, after a mass layoff, severely understaffed), the updates to the Times were one of the few updates players could hope to see reliably.
Despite all of the losses experienced by players of the site, the Neopian Times remained a treasured part of the site. When Neopets was sold to a new owner, Jumpstart (previous owners after the site’s creation including Nickelodeon & Viacom), a mass layoff occurred, losing many staff members beloved to players, as staff interaction was often encouraged and fostered through the staff’s inclusion in player events and Neoboards (the site’s chat forums). This included the Neopian Times’s longtime editor, Droplet, to the outrage of many players. The post-Jumpstart version of the Neopian Times faced longer response times – or none at all – and more infrequent updating, unofficially transitioning from weekly issues to biweekly. Players lashed out, both on the Neoboards and unofficial sites like Reddit’s r/neopets, but Neopets simply didn’t have the staff to support the Neopian Times the way they had in the days of old.
Why, exactly, has the Neopian Times hung on despite the failure of other aspects of the site? Part of it is sheer indestructibility. Due to its mainly plain text & png. images, the magazine was unaffected by the loss of Flash and will likely survive for as long as Neopets does; possibly larger in some aspects, since the Times has largely been archived by adoring fans on outside servers. Part of it is its ability to keep up with change and modernization in ways Neopets itself hasn’t managed. Since the Times is fan-created, it understands its audience well; some of the staff’s efforts to be ‘hip with the kids’ come across as pandering or miss the mark entirely, such as the ‘gamer chair’ item released for Neocash (the site’s secondary currency paid for in real money). However, nobody understands the playerbase like, well, the playerbase. Many of the current comics poke fun at the degraded state of Neopets, but in a teasing, lighthearted way clearly meant with love from simply exasperated players. While some of the site is stuck in the land of 2000s nostalgia, the art styles & themes found in the Times stay relevant with popular culture – but if you ever do feel nostalgic, browsing the archives is a quick and startling glimpse into the art and ideas of past youth. With such love and dedication, no matter how bizarre, it’s hard to picture the comics of the Neopian Times going anywhere fast.