When no one shows up at your child's birthday party, your Neopet friends have your back. That was the case for Mylissa Motes, whose parents and grandparents were the only people to show up for her daughter's 6th birthday.
Fortunately, a birthday post by Mylissa to the Facebook group Neopets Nation -- bustling with over 5,900 international Neopets fans -- led to users gifting her daughter around 20 rare digital Neopet items and rescuing her special day.
Mylissa introduced her daughter to the virtual pets site two years ago, after she spent nearly two decades on Neopets. Since the birthday gifts arrived, Neopets has become a close part of their relationship -- not only because both enjoy the site, but because of the Facebook group's support.
"I was so surprised by the response … I sat down and cried," Mylissa said.
That small but significant connection points to the relevance of Neopets today, 20 years after its launch. Neopets is an emblem of the early 2000s web culture -- a time in which early internet users flocked to sites like Club Penguin and Millsberry to nurture virtual pets and characters. The followers of these sites piggybacked off the fandom of-- handheld digital pets that users were tasked with raising from eggs to adults in a fad that erupted in the mid-'90s.
While Tamagotchi pets are the stuff of warm and fuzzy -- if faded -- memories, Neopets continue to be a thing in 2019. Its longevity breaks from other flash-in-the-pan toy fads, nurtured by the evolution of a fictional pet game into a social vehicle. Now virtual pet owners connect with one another and share everything from Neopian fan art and cheat codes to dealing with their real life problems via chat rooms. Even today, Neopet users from the site's early years are inviting each other to their weddings, celebrating each other's birthdays, and actively sharing life milestones through scattered social media groups.
Competing sites Club Penguin and Millsberry, have now shut down due to declining membership and mounting costs. But Neopets managed to survive. Sure, the site doesn't boast 3.4 million users anymore, but it still has a devoted fan base of 100,000 daily active users, many of them having played for more than 15 years. Today's users are mostly 18 to 34 and spend more than 90 minutes a day playing, according to Neopets.
To put the site's current popularity in perspective, in the past two years there were still half a million tweets about Neopets, Twitter said in an email. The peak occurred in April 2018 after celebrity model Chrissy Teigen tweeted about the site.
Jim Czulewicz, the CEO of JumpStart, an early education company that owns Neopets, credits the site's longevity to his team's focus on catering to loyal fans rather than changing the site for a mass audience.
"At one point, let's face it, Neopets had more (daily active users) than Yahoo did...it was one of the most used sites in the world,'' said Czulewicz. "The user base we have now is loyal users."
After that birthday, the Moteses may remain loyal for years to come. Under her mother's supervision, Emmalee first picked up abandoned pets left by other online users at the "Neopound" and dressed them up.
"I posted her username when others started asking and they sent items to her inventory … lots of pink and glitter items which she adored," Motes, 28, said about the Neopets gifts. "(They) included various cupcakes...a book about princesses and ...a pink paintbrush for her pet to be painted."
For Neopet.com fans, sending rare items such as pink paint brushes is an act of extreme generosity. Users would have had to earn high scores on the site's games to accumulate the needed 1.8 million Neopoints (NP). According to a post by Neopets.com, the average Neopoints a user holds on the website is about a fourth of that -- 415,000 NP.
First the friendships, then the wedding invitations
What made Neopets addictive is that in this alternate universe, tailored for all ages, there isn't a single end goal or standard for victory. There are endless ways to exert your competitive energy and gain virtual prestige.
This can be aiming for top scores on the site's original adrenaline-inducing games such as Extreme Potato Counter, which, as the name implies, has you counting potatoes flying across your screen to earn Neopoints, digital currency you can use to buy weird virtual items such as swords or toy plushies. Or you can challenge other pets in the Neopian Battledome.
Securing rare items is usually the result of skillfully playing the site's games for hours or winning them from the site's array of luck-and-chance spinning wheels. These wheels can often be frustrating -- the Wheel of Monotony, for instance, can take up to 24 hours to stop after a single spin.
Less competitive users can also invest in Neopian stocks, join selective online clubs and venture through distinct worlds in the planet Neopia, such as Faeriland and the prehistoric Tyrannia. At a minimum, all users must feed their pets with virtual food items, usually bought with Neopoints or secured as a freebie, to avoid their pets starving of hunger.
For Melissa Forbes, the founder of Neopets Nation, her online "neo friendships" turned out to be more than just game alliances. They blossomed to real-life close friendships.
"I've got two beautiful best friends who have asked me to be in their weddings so I'd say it's been a very rewarding experience," Forbes, 29, currently a student, said in a Facebook message. "One lives in America (I'm Australian but we plan to meet next year) and another lives in Tasmania."
With over 117,500 posts, comments, and reactions combined for the month of June and a 46% jump in new members from the month prior, Neopets Nation remains one of the most active Facebook groups centered around the site. The community also serves as a platform where international Neopets users can learn about events from one another. Forbes credits the Neopet community's longevity to the site's easy-to-use features and how it remains attractive for users of different ages and nationalities.
"Given the many different countries we're all from, we keep up with current events around the world and learn new things all the time...it's like having a few thousand acquaintances and a handful of great mates!" said Forbes.
Giving birth to a generation of artists and coders
The bonding over virtual pets isn't just limited to Facebook. Twitter also boasts its share of interactions between Neopet fans.
I searched #Neopets and was immediately captivated by how artists would share original Neopets inspired creations.
Twitter user @AK_illustrate, who didn't want to disclose their name or gender, started playing Neopets at 13 and is now in their mid-20s. Through Twitter DMs, they have talked about building an online portfolio, crediting some of their inspiration to Neopet.com's online contests, where a single win would result in users having their art featured on the official Neopet's Art Gallery along with 10,000 NP, a rare item and virtual trophy under their belt.
One of @AK_illustrate's recent pieces featured six classic Neopets, each belonging to an original storyline in the Neopet saga. It was retweeted by the official Neopet's handle. The artpiece garnered praise from other Neopet fans, with some even recalling their favorite childhood characters.
"Sudden wave of nostalgia, especially for… The Darkest Faerie...I loved it as a kid, glitches and all," said one user @Marzipan_Kitty.
It isn't just art that brings users together. As you click through Twitter Neopets posts, a string of users bond over how Neopets.com spurred their passion for computer programming.
The site encourages users to design their own homepage with HTML/CSS and even provides "The Neopets HTML Guide," an online reference tool that teaches users how to add everything from colors to music to their page.
An attractive user page is often a factor differentiating a novice Neopets player from someone advanced. A page with an enticing background, featuring one's name, hobbies, country of residence, pets, and even duration of play can grab the attention of other advanced players and lead to useful alliances on the site.
Samantha Benacquista, 29, who played Neopets.com as a child and goes by the Twitter handle @sjbenacquista, states the HTML/CSS coding lessons she applied on Neopets are relevant today to her job as a web developer at Lambton College in Ontario, Canda.
"I think Neopets made coding fun, and it wasn't required or forced onto you. If you wanted to make your pages look prettier, the only way you could was through code," said Benacquista. "(It) gave me the push to get into HTML and web design.
While Benacquista's reason for tweeting about Neopets was due to her gratitude towards the site, @AK-illustrate says their Neopian-inspired artwork is an escape.
"The world is very stressful now," @AK_illustrate said, "with constant bombardment of bad news and Neopets is like a nostalgic breath of fresh air where I can distract myself for a bit and remember when I had much less to worry about."
Seeing online communities about Neopets made me reminisce about my own virtual pets I abandoned online 13 years ago. They're probably somewhere at the Neopound right now or in perpetual "dying" of hunger mode, alongside my eclectic inventory of free omelettes, battlefield elixirs and piles of dung. I wouldn't know for sure because I've been locked out of my account.
The only vestige is the regret I carry. I never saved enough Neopoints from the site's online games to buy a digital Baby Paint Brush -- an item that transforms your 2D pets into adorable infants and can raise your prestige on the site. Maybe if I too had generous "Neofriends," they would've helped me out.