Thursday, January 25, 2024

Why I'm not going back to Neopets

It's time for another highly opinionated rant, and with a provocative title like that, you know you want to read more. Actually probably nobody cares, but sometimes it just feels good to blog out my feelings, especially when it's a subject that I feel passionately about and has been a big part of my creative life. Besides, on the off chance that people actually pay attention to my Neopets work and are wondering why I no longer submit to the Neopian Times, am not pursuing a more prominent position in the fan community, etc., this post will explain it.

Spoilers: If you actually like the direction Neopets has been going lately, you will not agree with this post. You have been warned. I'm not trying to start an argument, I'm just feeling some feelings right now and want to air them for anybody curious, since at one point I was a mildly prolific Neopian Times writer.

Also, this is a long read, so buckle up. I've got several bones to pick.

I started playing Neopets in 2002 and quit in 2019; you can read my reasons why in this post. For four years, I had been patiently waiting for the website to regain its sea legs, so to speak, not only on the technical end of things but also creatively. The creative team up until 2015 was amazing. They were skilled artists and writers who knew how to craft a vibrant, unique, compelling world. After Viacom sold Neopets to what I can really only describe as a money-hungry faceless gaming corporation (which was then bought by another money-hungry faceless gaming corporation), not only did the site suffer massively on the technical side (anybody else remember the insane lagging and glitches?), but, to be frank, the creative facet of the game completely went down the drain and also simultaneously went up in flames.

Now, okay, I understand that for people who mainly play(ed) Neopets for reasons other than the excellent worldbuilding and eye-candy graphics, like the social aspects and getting to play around with website coding, rubbish artwork and writing isn't a big deal. But for me, it was the straw that broke the Apis's back (I think I'm so clever). The pre-JumpStart (and [shudder] NetDragon) creative content was absolute joy and perfection, holding itself to the highest of professional standards. Then JumpStart laid off the entire. creative. team. and replaced them with - I will phrase this diplomatically - people who I don't believe were qualified for the job and who really needed more training on not only how to write better, how to draw better, but how to not steal fan artwork and use it for official site graphics

Yes, that actually happened. And I hope people lost their jobs over it because that is totally unacceptable. Being incompetent is one thing (but still not a good thing), but being unethical? That will get you kicked out of art school, but to be brutally honest, I don't think the JumpStart art team even had a proper art education with the horrible graphics they were churning out. No wonder they stooped to stealing. 

And the writing, oof, the writing. First off, for almost three years there were no big creative content updates except for items made with stolen artwork. In 2017, there was the Wraith Resurgence plot, which was... okay, not great, definitely not up to the standard of the Viacom creative team, but I didn't hate it (it even inspired one of my original characters for a Neopian Times series). Then in 2018 they got us all excited about a new plot, Lyra and the Lost Heirloom. And it. Was. Awful. Awful. Awful. The main characters were abrasive and irritating. I zero percent care about a whiny entitled teenager (with color-clashing hair and fur, yuck) and an edgy bad-boy thief whose "friendship" consists entirely of vaguely teaming up while slinging insults at each other. 

I also legitimately hated that Aurrick (aforementioned thief) was additionally the protagonist of a (really bad) mobile game called Legends and Letters, which portrayed him as an adult, still being completely unlikeable. I played that game for about a day and a half before I realized I was doing it entirely to support Neopets and not because I was deriving any sort of enjoyment out of it. I'm not sure why the writers tried so hard to push Aurrick on the players with both the game and the site plot, because if your beloved brand new canon character is a thief, he needs to actually have some redeeming qualities. Aurrick isn't trying to right societal wrongs like Robin Hood, kindhearted and chivalrous like Disney's Aladdin, or just trying to help make ends meet for his group like Tomos and Nabile--he's a self-serving jerk who has no interest in the greater good or helping others, and has nothing but snide remarks and backstabbing for everyone he meets. And it's not even like this changes over the course of the two storylines he's involved in--he just continues to be an irritating one-dimensional anti-hero all the way through. I'm not sure what kind of demographic the writers were trying to appeal to with him, but it definitely wasn't the me demographic.

The canon characters in Lyra and the Lost Heirloom - from a previous plot I actually liked, no less - acted completely out of character. The same Princess Amira who utterly refused to surrender during a prolonged siege on Sakhmet is now a quivering pansy who falls apart under a little political unrest, and General Dacon, who for Pete's sake is the commander of the Sakhmetian army, a seasoned war veteran, and Amira's personal guard, gives up when rebels confront him because he apparently decides he is just too old to protect the princess, and lets her get placed under house arrest with no more than a defeated shrug. Hyren would have some strong words for that kind of treasonous behavior. "When your assignment is to guard someone, you guard them with your life, blast it!"

Also, why didn't Qasala react sooner? That kingdom has strong political and blood ties to Sakhmet, and the whole situation with the coup was set off by Sakhmetians disliking Sakhmet providing financial aid to Qasala (although the reason for that is not ever actually given and just seems like a lame excuse to have something dramatic happen in Sakhmet), but why does it take until the climax of the plot for them to show up? Wouldn't King Jazan and Queen Nabile have noticed something going on in their neighboring kingdom a lot sooner than that? Like the fact that financial aid would have been suddenly and mysteriously cut off? 

Further, it's waaaaay too unbelievable of a coincidence that Lyra, upon running away from home, randomly decides to steal the one family heirloom that unbeknownst to her is the key to saving the city. (If you're running away from home, it's also just a terribly stupid idea to additionally steal a prominently displayed, large and unwieldy weapon that you don't know how to use.) And why does having a flaming sword automatically make General Dacon unafraid of the mobs? The dude is a tank, but suddenly he just needs his sword to be on fire to successfully take down his enemies? The plot is just riddled with so many holes and weaknesses that it makes me sick. Like I audibly said "blech" while reviewing the plot summary to make sure I had my info straight while I was writing this. 

And the illustrations, oh, the illustrations. Besides the color theory issues, there were all sorts of things wrong, from minimal-effort environments, to unconvincingly-gripped swords, conveniently silhouetted extras, and a disturbing lack of muscular structure (don't even get me started on that face), to recycled character artwork, to (this one makes me laugh and that's not a good thing) actually copying and pasting a character to fill a scene like we weren't going to notice

Also, as a paleoartist, creature artist, and animal enthusiast who actually bothers to do research it annoys me more than it would probably annoy most people that Aymas has a tattered. feathered. wing. when in reality, avians regularly molt their feathers and regrow new ones, effectively regenerating their wing structure. Feathered wings cannot, in the long term, display the same kind of damage as membranous wings (bats, pterosaurs, dragons, etc.). Okay, you say, that's fair, but what if the damage was recently sustained? I admit that's a possibility, but then you have the fact that there are holes in the wing and then feathers on the other side, which is physically impossible. If something tears a hole in a feather (which is really difficult in the first place since feathers are basically dense collections of very pliable filaments), the severed end of the feather drops out. As in, there's nothing to hold it in place anymore. In real life, birds with damaged wing feathers have feather-long gaps in their wings. Not holes. I actually laugh at Aymas every time I see him because the designers were obviously just trying way too hard to make him look tough and edgy and decided to ignore the laws of physics and believable biology.

And yes, I know these are cartoon characters and I should not take them too seriously. I am already cutting the Neopets art style as a whole a lot of slack for doing the whole Disney flexible-beak thing with their avian creatures, but that's mostly because overall the art is just so awesome, I mean look at Kass there, he's such an epic Draconian. (Please note that when I draw avian Neopians like Kass, I keep their beaks rigid because I am pedantic.) But I believe all good fantasy illustration has a foundation in reality, and it just stretches my suspension of disbelief too far to see a character defy the laws of animal biology and physics for no good reason. (Trying to make someone look edgier and more villainous is usually not a good enough reason.)

I will admit I wrote a rather cross email to Neopets at the conclusion of this plot kindly suggesting that they hire better writers and artists. It's not that difficult to find a skilled artist. Even an art major still in college could have done a better job than this wreckage. I'm not sure if the NetDragon staff actually couldn't afford to hire a real artist, or hired an art team that just thought they could get away with rubbish graphics. Neither possibility is particularly comforting.

Plus, maybe it's just me, but I felt like this plot dipped into some subjects that hit a little too close to real-world issues for my comfort, and it made me concerned about other players' emotional well-being as well. Past Neopets plots were heavily steeped in fantasy/sci-fi elements, and the threats in them were things like power-hungry sorceresses, vengeful faeries, and malevolent galactic overlords. They were worthy foes, sure, but not super relatable to anything going on in the real world, and in my eyes, that made them feel safe. Players could have fun outwitting Xandra or defeating Dr. Sloth's troops in the Battledome without being reminded of really unpleasant stuff they may have seen on the real-world news, or even experienced personally.

Lyra and the Lost Heirloom, however, dealt with political turmoil, civilian revolts and military corruption, riots in the streets, and a misguided attempt to overthrow a government that wasn't actually doing anything wrong. Characters who had been heroes in previous lore were unfairly antagonized by the citizens they served. It's all too uncomfortably reminiscent of a lot of unfortunate incidents that have happened in real-world history and are still happening today. I don't actually want gritty, bleak political upheaval in my fantasy. We get more than enough of that in the real world.

And the relationship between Lyra and her father Aymas just really hit some sour notes with me. Aymas is an absolutely terrible father who not only evidently has a strained relationship with his daughter, but when he finally tracks her down, actually attacks her with the apparent intent to kill her. He's not only abusive, but murderous, and the only resolution the two find is for Lyra to get far away from him while he shows no remorse for his actions toward his own child. Parental abuse is a really, really sensitive subject, and I'm not pleased with the plot writers for going this direction. There are a lot of Neopets players who use the game as an escape from their own stressful family situations, and stuff like this can be really triggering. It's also just not pleasant or fun to see, even when it's between badly colored cartoon characters.

The old Neopets staff were very adamant about the idea of Neopets being a safe place where players of all ages and sensitivities could rest from their real-world worries and immerse themselves in a world full of wizards and space troopers, fantasy sports, and annual events dedicated entirely to chocolate. Behind the scenes, they were very self-aware about what kind of content they not only allowed players to present on the site, but what they themselves presented. It was a big part of what made the website and franchise a happy place for kids, teens, and adults alike. And I feel like the Lyra and the Lost Heirloom plot made me lose faith that the JumpStart staff were adhering to that same standard. Few things disturb me more than media creators who don't have an adequate awareness of what they're creating and why.

Fast forward to 2022, when I was mildly excited about a new Neopets mobile game called Faerie's Hope. I say "mildly excited" because based on the information I was seeing about it, it didn't look all that great, but I wanted to believe in Neopets again. I wanted to think this was the start of a return to excellence.

Well, I was wrong. Faerie's Hope has some pretty decent match-3 gameplay, but the story and graphics are so cringey. It takes place in Faerieland--not Faerieland on the ground, but a patch of cloud somehow left over from when Xandra crashed the city. So everything is almost painfully pastel. The main character is, sorry not sorry, a really ditzy-looking light faerie with an uninteresting personality, and her sidekicks are a collection of preteen-looking Neopets with bad fashion sense and similarly dull personalities. The storyline is super eye-rolling; while it starts out somewhat interesting with Fyora tasking the main character with rebuilding the old Faerieland, it quickly devolves into mundane drivel such as the main character placing random knickknacks in her house and trying to figure out slumber party arrangements. 

The whole game, including the cutesy and horribly off-model Petpet figures used in the match-3 puzzles, looks and feels like it was designed for preteen girls, and only for preteen girls. It's the sort of game I would not have enjoyed even when I actually was a preteen girl, and it just feels really alienating for anyone who is not interested in pastel pink and fashion design drama. Maybe it doesn't help that I'm not super into Neopets faeries (I'm more of a Werelupe girl), but if there must be faeries, I really like the idea of them being demigodly supermagical immortal entities with phenomenal powers and more interesting agendas than recoloring hotel windows, not sparkly ditzes in nightgowns who squeal every time I complete a level.

I think what makes things worse is that I feel like the general idea of the plot would have worked much better as a city-builder type game; if the whole idea is to rebuild the old Faerieland, I'd like to see gameplay that actually reflects that, instead of irrelevantly playing match-3 levels to earn Wocky Jelly (how does that tie in to Faerieland at all?) to perform linear tasks. The whole game just feels like a quickly cobbled-together cash grab instead of an experience worth my time. It's like whatever development team they outsourced this to wasn't even trying to match the creative vibe of the IP as a whole, they just zeroed in on Faerieland and faeries and sparkles and what else can we do to attract the type of people who shop at Claire's. It's rather shameless and a pale echo of what brought me to the site and kept me playing in the 2000s--fantastic lands, endearing characters, original and fresh creative design, and a commitment to keeping content kid-friendly while not intellectually alienating adults of any age.

Which leads me on nicely to my next point. I am fully aware of the recent administrative changes at Neopets. It's a story I've been following closely, and I'm very glad to see Neopets break away from NetDragon's string of terrible business decisions (NFTs? cheap mobile games? a Metaverse with a sociopathic social media team????) and become an independent IP again. It's also really nice to see that the current CEO is a Neopets player who truly cares about the franchise and is trying to revive it. And already I think they've made some really good steps in that direction.

However, despite that, I don't think I'll be returning to Neopets anytime soon, because I feel like they're taking the creative direction and the overall spirit of the site down paths that I'm not fond of. Despite still claiming to adhere to child-safety standards on the website, the staff has made it evident that they are mostly trying to appeal to young adults who played the game as children/teens and are now looking for a more "adult" Neopets experience. 

I'm baffled as to why they now allow discussing certain sensitive, personal, and highly inflammatory subjects on the Neoboards, despite the fact that the boards are supposed to be safe for children--while usually only accounts 13 and over can access the Neoboards and other social content, parents can write in to Neopets to allow their underage child to access these areas, and historically the Neoboard admins have been very strict about keeping it a child-friendly environment. Neopets is not the place for anybody to be airing sensitive information about their personal lives. If players aren't allowed to discuss things like religion, dating/romance, or real-world politics/current events on the Neoboards, personal stuff (including stuff relating to dating and romance) has no place there either. It seems obvious to me with this move that Neopets are trying to cater to a specific community, which I don't feel is fair to people who don't want to hear about it, or to children and their parents who don't want them exposed to such things. It's a definite double standard.

(Although, in my honest opinion, I feel the Neoboards themselves are really outmoded, especially with the proliferation of social media as a much more versatile and well-equipped way for the player community to communicate with each other. If I was in charge, I'd kill the Neoboards and guilds and de-emphasize the social aspects of the site, because a) that's what social media is for nowadays and b) kids under 13 shouldn't be communicating with random strangers over the Internet anyway.)

I also hate that a fair amount of the more recent merchandise has been obviously tailored to adults. Neopets tarot cards, seriously? Please don't jump on that idiotic fortunetelling fad bandwagon. And the upcoming Battledome TCG (CCG? what's even the difference?) has been promoting itself as allowing you to relieve the nostalgia of Neopets, as though the IP is a thing of the past and the appeal of the game lies solely in giving you fond memories of junior high, rather than portraying Neopia as a living, breathing world that still has so much potential for expansion and further adventures with beloved characters and new ones alike (like the Faeries' Ruin plot, which did an awesome job of blending new and established characters into a cohesive cast, thank you old writers). As someone who is not in the age group they seem to be targeting, is not interested in seeing Neopets as merely a nostalgia jaunt, and also dislikes fads especially when they're stupid ones, all this stuff is just falling flat with me.

I'm also a bit miffed that the creative side of the IP is still really lacking. The new CEO promised some shiny fun stuff on that end back when he bought Neopets, like a new mobile game and a new plot, but it's been some months now and they haven't said anything new about either of those, just done a lot of technical fixes and upgrades. Which is not unwelcome, but it's been uncomfortably reminding me of 2015-2017 all over again, when the entire site was just one big bugfix with stolen graphics

And after what happened with Lyra and the Lost Heirloom and the mobile games, I'm feeling really wary about the creative direction of any new plots or mobile games. Already I haven't exactly been thrilled with some of their latest creative content on the website. I'll say it again, the Viacom-era (and even pre-Viacom, yes, I am old and remember those days) creative team was absolutely top-notch. I can't bear to see Neopets be reduced to creative mediocrity and trend-chasing. So unless something drastically changes, I really am hanging up my Neopets hat and self-identifying as a former player. I loved the old Neopets. The new Neopets is just not something I'm a fan of.

As a final note, I also have to say that on a more personal level, I've also become disenchanted with Neopets because my Neopian Times writing is not garnering any attention whatsoever. After a years-long hiatus, I submitted a two-part series to the Times this past December for their Giving Day issue. It was a story I had worked hard on and derived a lot of enjoyment from, and had an important message that I wanted to share with anybody who might need it. The series was accepted, and even made the front-page quote of the Giving Day issue, which was an immense honor.

But I never received any Neomails about it or received any feedback on social media. And that was really disappointing and disheartening to me. I'd gone through all the effort to not only write the story, but format it and submit it, so that people can enjoy it, and as far as I know, no one's even read it. It brings me so much joy and fulfilment to know that my writing is positively affecting people, so to get zero reaction from my audience hurts. It makes me not want to submit anything to the Times anymore because it just doesn't feel worth the effort.

So, as I said, I'm stepping away from Neopets for the time being. I don't like the direction it's going and I don't like how my creative efforts are being treated by the player community despite my best efforts. It's an IP that's not giving me anything I want, and I don't owe it anything in return. I've got better ways to spend my time.

That being said, I remain way too invested in my fanfic cast. I am still working on archiving my fanfic here on this site, so if you've been enjoying those, there's more to come. Like a lot more. 

Until then, later taters.

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