[Over at sister 'online worlds' site Worlds In Motion, Mathew Kumar continues to expand the Worlds In Motion Atlas, and this time, he looks at the tremendously popular, but slightly baffling Viacom-owned NeoPets - s'fun having him puzzle over it.]

2008_10_31_neo.jpgName: NeoPets

Developer
: NeoPets, Inc.

Established: November 1999

2008_10_31_neo2.jpgHow it Works: NeoPets is entirely browser-based and runs in HTML and Flash. Navigation and gameplay are accomplished via mouse and keyboard input.

Overview: NeoPets is, essentially, an online "virtual pet" simulation, where players take care of pets by buying them food, toys, clothes, and other accessories using a virtual currency called Neopoints, which can be raised by playing games and other methods. Players can interact with each other through in-game mail, discussion boards and groups.

Payment Method
: NeoPets is free to play and ad-supported, but also offers a subscription, starting at $7.99 for one month's access, which removes (some) adverts and allows access to more areas and features. In addition, there is also the NC Mall, which is a cash shop for virtual items.

Key Features:

- Virtual pet simulation
- Customizable pet/home
- Safe environment with moderated interaction between players (for example, across discussion boards)
- Combination of revenue streams (ad-supported, item sales, subscriptions)

NeoPets: In-Depth Tour

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I've spent literally days just staring at Neopets' homepage trying to make head or tail of it. I'm a person who has managed to hack a MySpace into shape and has managed to grap some of the worst designed online spaces you can find, but Neopets is bewildering.

It's probably simply that the site has existed for so long—since 1999—that has led to it being so complex and confusing, but as a world that's aimed at children, I'm amazed. What does an eight year-old make of this page? Do they know what the "Neodaq Index" is, or why I should care (or not?)

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Well, at least getting started with Neopets is sort of simple. You create a user name, then select your Neopet from a vast selection of creatures and options; I created a red "Yurble" called Dotstream (I named him after the first thing I saw on my shelf; my copy of the wonderful Bit Generations title Dotstream for GBA) and once past that point I was thrown into the world with no idea what to do.

So much so, in fact, that I managed to not feed Dotstream until I realized he was starving. My plan—to visit the Neopets food store (because it was linked on the page where I found out he was starving) was somewhat stymied by the fact they were "sold out of everything"(amazingly) and was advised "Neopian Inflation is currently at 2.31%", which, well, I have no idea what that means.

Rather than wait the "eight minutes or so" I was told I'd have to wait until the store was restocked, I decided to play one of the minigames available, Dice-A-Roo, because (yet again) the page told me that might be a good way to win some food.

Each play, it turns out, costs 5 "NP", or NeoPoints, which I found I had 1,050 of. Thankfully Neopoints are the points that you can raise in-world, unlike NeoCash, which are the points you must purchase with real-world money.

Dice-A-Roo turned out to be an bizarre dice game with rules that were completely obscure to me (though perhaps I didn't pay enough attention, worrying that Dotstream was going to expire at any minute) and after a few rolls I was informed that there was a "new challenger!!!" waiting for me at the Battledome.

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So, easily distracted, I decided to go and explore the Battledome. Except, only pets who aren't hungry can play that minigame. So that was out until I could find some food.

After what felt like hundreds of throws (and no food in sight) I gave up on Dice-A-Roo, and returned to the shop to find (finally) they had some food back in stock. After haggling for a while, I was loaded up with deli Turkey slices to feed Dotstream… If I could just work out how to do it. I'm not joking, but I could not work out how—until eventually I stumbled upon my inventory (I'm not even sure how) and finally made him reach the state of "famished" rather than starving.

Of course, on returning to the store to buy more food, it was sold out again. And with that, I put an end to my initial Neopets experience; still thoroughly confused and dispirited with the whole thing.

NeoPets: Conclusion

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IThe most striking thing for any user of Neopets is that it is, at least initially, very complex to get to grips with for a online space aimed at children. Each screen is full of a mass of information and images, much of which is redundant or advertising (which isn't always obvious).

Navigation is poor—there is a navigation bar at the top of the screen, but the meaning of each section isn't clear to a new user, particularly when each section splits up into even more choices.

Despite all that, there is a reason that so many users clearly find Neopets captivating—and that's as simple as there are a near never-ending amount of things to do. By simply stumbling about the site (as I have been doing) you can find any number of unique and interesting games to play. For example, the last time I logged in, I clicked about for a while and found myself playing KeyQuest, a detailed, Mario-Party-esque virtual board-game that contained live chat and interaction with other players. There are tons of games, some of which are good and some of which aren't so great, but there's a lot of them.

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In addition, Neopets also has a very strong and consistent theme. There's clearly as much depth and backstory to the Neopets world as there is to World of Warcraft (really!) and although the cutesy pet animals look like a barely acceptable rip-off of Pokemon to someone like me, they're enjoyed by the intended audience.

People get very attached to their pets and their experience in the world, though, and that's not only due to the consistency of the theme. They're very clever to ensure you keep logging back in by making sure that your pet gets hungry and lonely if you don't, and make sure you spend a lot of time there by requiring you play it for long periods of time in order to raise the required Neopoints to buy food, toys, or other things for your pet.

Gamers who have money, of course, can shortcut this by visiting the cash shop.

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But taking all that into account, none of that makes me particularly like the world. I can absolutely respect the work put into Neopets across the years, but what the've chosen to engineer is (to an adult, at least) absolutely and transparently a timesink. Everything seems geared to keep you surfing their pages and seeing the adverts (and there are a lot) or spending money in their cash shop (or on any of the real world items that you can buy which gain you some advantage in the world).

Were the experience of using it more streamlined, better designed or just more pleasant I think we could overlook that, but Neopets sinks your time into doing something that isn't even especially fun.

It's an interesting world, one worth looking at, but as much to see success despite glaring problems as it is to see its positive aspects.

Useful Links:
The Daily Neopets (fan site)
Neopets Fanatic (fan site)