Websites designed in the '90s may look rudimentary and simple compared to those built today, but a lot of hard work went into creating a domain.
Hardware was also relatively expensive during the infancy of the Internet-- families who could afford a single desktop computer usually delegated it to one section of the home. Because of this arrangement, kids usually had a limited amount of time to surf the web before having to log off.
So what was there to do online? Between playing Minesweeper or doodling in Microsoft Paint, many game developers who grew up with the Internet spent the bulk of their allotted time exploring Neopets, the virtual pet website launched in 1999 that grew to be so much more.
For Nina Freeman, a level designer at Fullbright and developer of the Internet-inspired Cibele and Lost Memories Dot Net, discovering how to create her own websites within Neopets was crucial to fostering her future in game development.
“I was using Neopets as a tween back in the early 2000s. I was super into their whole guild community, and discovered web design and coding through that space,” she explains.
'My first ever experience coding was on Neopets'
Guilds housed players under a central theme, becoming a space where they could take part in activities (usually associated with the theme of the guild) and socialize. Oftentimes, guild themes held no relation to Neopets at all and were dedicated to TV shows, movies, and video games.
Creating a guild was a lot like putting together a personalized web page, where users would format and layout their homepage with HTML and develop the aesthetic feel with custom CSS. For Freeman, she used the freedom of creating guilds to her advantage.
"If I really think about how I got into game development, I think I'd trace my path all the way back to those days spent making guild layouts on Neopets. I really cultivated my love for games."
“I used to make silly anime graphics in Photoshop and create custom layouts for strangers running guilds to use,” she says, referring to the practice of exchanging website designs for other goods. “We'd all post our layouts for these guilds on forums or sometimes even on our own websites, so that people could download and share them.”
The flexibility guilds offered paved way for many other developers when it came to discovering how to code, since developing a website was (in many ways) the first time they were exposed to the concept of programming.
“This whole scene is what really got me into coding,” Freeman continues. “If I really think about how I got into game development, I think I'd trace my path all the way back to those days spent making guild layouts on Neopets. I really cultivated my love for games.”
Having gone on to experiment with games around Internet culture and forming relationships online, it’s easy to see how the site ended up guiding Freeman’s work.
Discovering that those skills transfer over into game design was pivotal for a number of game developers Gamasutra contacted, including Linden Reid, a programmer at Procedural Reality working on Limit Theory.
“My story with programming and game development starts with Neopets. My first ever experience coding was on Neopets- you could customize your profile page with simple HTML and CSS,” Reid explains.
“I had never coded before because programming looked so intimidating, but the coding in Neopets was so simple and non-threatening and facilitated creative expression,” Reid adds. “I went on to experiment with web development outside of Neopets too, thanks to the foundation of skills I learned from it.”
Reid eventually went on to form a student organization in college called Women in Computer Science, which put together a 48-hour game jam and enlisted the help of industry professionals to volunteer during the event. It turned out that one of the volunteers had actually worked on the creative systems in Neopets that Reid had learned to code with during their adolescence.
“Having a developer who was a part of the reason that I now develop games volunteer at my event has been one of the highlights of my career so far,” said Reid.“I always cite Neopets when people ask me how I got into coding. And because of Neopets, coding has always been a tool for creative expression for me.”
Sparking curiosity is key
Kevin Snow, a narrative designer currently working on Southern Monsters, has similar thoughts about the accessibility of backend tools helping to shape his technical prowess at an early age.
“I played Neopets from 2001 to 2003 or so and I learned how to write HTML through the customizable homepages and storefronts on Neopets,” Snow says.
Neopets forums were ripe with a community of users eager to help one another out when it came to building these webpages, posting tutorials and tips on how to change the size and style of fonts or get a specific image to load without having it break.
“I started off copying and pasting code, then modifying it, then writing it myself,” he adds.
Snow felt encouraged to seek out solutions through trial and error, browsing through threads online to see how those before him solved an issue and trying it out himself until it worked (or didn’t).
"This was the first time I felt like I could see the seams and stitches of a game, and the logic behind it wasn’t daunting to me."
Just like her fellow developers, Sophie Mallinson, a narrative designer at Arkane Studios, agrees that Neopets was her first exposure with HTML and CSS-- and by extension, thinking critically about how systems actually worked.
“I was about 9 years old when I joined Neopets,” she says.” It was a pretty rudimentary browser game at the time, with simple, almost naive graphics and a minimalist interface.”
But for Mallinson it was Neopets’ minimalist interface which sparked curiosity and helped foster the desire to create which many developers went on to cultivate through their own work.
“Since most of my actions were just clicking on hyperlinks, this was the first time I felt like I could see the seams and stitches of a game, and the logic behind it wasn’t daunting to me,” Mallinson explains. “Neopets is also where I first learned to use HTML and CSS, designing layouts for guilds and profile pages.”
A platform to tell stories
Having the ability to manipulate code wasn’t the only feature that sparked creativity inside developers-- within Neopets was the Neopets Adventure Generator, a tool that worked similar to the choose-your-own adventure engine like Twine.
The product of this generator, appropriately titled “adventures”, were text-based games which included instructions and set the scene for the story a user would embark on. Clicking on links would lead to separate passages, where there were typically one to four options for what to do next. Just like Twine, Neopets Adventure Generator allowed fledgling developers to change font colors to denote different choices, or choose background colors to establish a mood. Perhaps most importantly, it encouraged storytellers to create a compelling beginning, middle, and end.
The Adventure Generator is what independent developer and 3D artist Francesca Carletto-Leon remembers using to create her first game during restricted Internet hours.
“This was the first time I spent time on the internet regularly without the direct supervision of my parents,” Carletto-Leon explains. “Within the Neopets Adventure Generator, I made my first game.”
“I worked tirelessly on a hyperlinked text adventure and then posted it to the void that is the Internet and never thought about it again,” she continues. “I was so proud of it, but it wasn't something I wanted to show my parents or real-world friends.”
Neopets forums were a space where Carletto-Leon could post her fan art of faeries or publish adventure games with a group of peers engaged in the same activities and interests she had. Being able to share her work with other anonymous denizens of the Internet had a big impact on her career as a game maker.
“I now make games, a lot of them narrative-driven, about my life and experiences hoping that others will find in me what I found on Neopets; validation that we all have stories worth sharing,” says Carletto Leon.
Mallinson echoes the impact Neopets’ forums had, attributing them with helping her understand the impact of telling stories solely through text.
“When I wasn’t busy feeding omelettes to my pets, I was on the Neopets forum, learning to write through text-based role-playing. Some of these role-playing threads would last for weeks,” she says.”
“About a decade later, I started using Twine, a tool that lets your create interactive fiction in the form of web pages.”
“I feel like my experience with Neopets helped me understand the potential of hypertext for telling stories, and how evocative text-based video games could be," she adds. “Twine was my first foray into A-to-Z game development, and is one of the reasons I’m working in games today.”
Gabby DaRienzo, an artist and game developer from Toronto known for A Mortician’s Tale, also cites the Adventure Generator as being influential to her career as a game developer.
“Neopets had a very basic, Twine-lite ‘choose your own adventure’ game making system, and I would often write elaborate stories and make my own games through it,” DaRienzo explains. “My text-based, choose-your-own-adventures were some of my very first games, and subsequently got me interested in both game development and also narrative design.”
And a place to socialize
It’s no surprise that Neopets became a platform for people to socialize, using forums to post threads and commenting on each other’s work or simply reaching out based on common shared interests to form bonds.
The accessibility of the Internet meant that developers could log on and instantly befriend like-minded individuals, preparing them for eventually interacting on social media platforms to promote their work and become comfortable putting themselves out there.
Neopets was especially crucial for developers like Snow, who relies on online communities for work and collaboration.
"It made me confident about making something and putting it on the Internet for other people to see."
“It made me confident about making something and putting it on the Internet for other people to see,” he explains.“Growing up [in] the rural American south, the online community I found through the website was vital to me, and made me seek out similar online communities after I started to visit the website less frequently. It was the first online community I spent any real time in.”
Because Neopets seems to have been the first online community for many developers, it was especially important in discovering that they weren’t alone. DaRienzo notes that finding a space free from the constraints of the small town she grew up inr was monumental in accepting herself.
“I grew up in a very small town north of Toronto, where everyone was white/cis/straight. Neopets had a fairly large LGBTQ+ community, and was my first introduction to that space,” DaRienzo explains. “I didn't come out as Queer until I was in my early 20s, but in hindsight I think the Neopets community had a very positive influence on me and allowed me to be my queer self with other queer kids (even before I knew what that meant to myself).”
While many game developers I spoke to were younger when they first discovered Neopets and began socializing on the Internet, Emily Buck, a narrative designer at Telltale Games, was in high school when she began using the website.
“I started playing Neopets in high school- I was on what I thought was the higher end of the age spectrum for the service,” she recalls.” At first I enjoyed gaming the economic system and saving up for paintbrushes.”
Buck participated in activities (including site-wide quests) and created her own websites,just like many other users did.
“When I went off to college, got my own laptop, and had no more parental restrictions on computer time- my love of Neopets spiraled into my first forays into coding,” she explains.” I made a webpage for one of my pets all about theories on how to get the mysterious Chef Bonju avatar.”
But her most formidable experience with Neopets came from the Lab Bay Waiting Room, a nightly chat in the Help forums where people would gather to discuss how their zapped pet might transform.
“I was going through a dark time in my life, and the knowledge that these online acquaintances might miss me, the habit of connecting to them, got me through on days I might not have otherwise,” Buck explains.
“Those social connections kept me engaging with the game long after I probably would've, age-wise,” she continues. “I learned the power of being able to talk with other people about the games you love, why you love them, what works, what doesn't. We constantly dissected how the Neopets economic system had become so broken.”
So how did this revelation help later in life, when Buck became a narrative designer? Learning the importance that stories had on individuals and figuring out how to create narratives that would evoke the same feelings was a start.
“Working in episodic narrative, I'd also say that the site-wide quests deeply influenced me. Content that could only be accessed during a certain time period, and that was meant to fire in order, changed how I looked at games forever,” she adds.
While the climate of the Internet may be vastly different now than it was during the time many of the developers I spoke with were using it, it’s definitely had a profound influence on how they share their work and interact with fellow devs online. Neopets taught Internet etiquette in a way many places never did. With many games being developed and distribute on digital platforms, navigating this space is crucial.
Artistic expression led to inspiration
In addition to being a website where devs could learn to program and design websites and develop their own choose-your-own-adventure text games, Neopets was ripe for producing fanart. Lots of it.
“I didn't find this out until very recently, but Campo Santo's art director Claire Hummel was actually an artist on Neopets, and drew a lot of the faeries,” DaRienzo tells me over email. “I was obsessed with the faeries as a kid, and was constantly drawing them. Neopets, whose world had a whole bunch of random systems in it including a whole stock market, had an art gallery too where users could upload their own fanart.”
The Neopets art gallery was full of fanart, encouraging artists like DaRienzo to put their work on display to be praised and critiqued. It served as inspiration and also prepared her for the inevitable feedback which developers need to take into account when playtesting or reading reviews.
“So I spent a lot of time drawing faeries, uploading my art, and then interacting with other artists (receiving/giving critiques, etc). A lot of games encouraged me to pursue a career in game art, but Neopets was probably the largest influence on that career choice.”
“Also for the record, even today Claire continues to be a huge inspiration for me,” she adds.
From Neopets to In The Valley of Gods
Unbeknownst to many (including myself), Campo Santo’s Claire Hummel, who currently serves as art director for In The Valley of Gods, actually worked as an artist for Neopets and designed many of the iconic characters developers have gone on to emulate themselves.
“So probably like most kids my age with internet access, I was a huge fan of Neopets in the late 90s - early 2000s,” says Hummel. “It was right on the cusp of my anime phase, I was busy honing my digital art skills, and by 2001 my little 9th grade portfolio was full of Neopets fanart—Egyptian neopets, Animorphs neopets, a Neopets/*NSYNC crossover called, predictably, *Neosync. The whole shebang.”
Hummel found the contact information for whoever was in charge of hiring over at Neopets and (being young and bold) sent out an email with samples of her work, waiting patiently to hear back.
“Against all odds they got back to me, and invited me in for an interview—I'm pretty sure I told them I was 14 right from the get-go (my mom has always said otherwise),” she recalls. “But in the grand scheme of things it blows my mind that they took a chance on me considering how young and untested I was!”
Campo Santo's In The Valley of the Gods
In our email exchange, Hummel breaks off for a moment and discusses how Neopets giving her a “first chance”, despite her relative professional inexperience, is a practice the rest of the games industry needs to adopt.
“When people talk about luck and privilege being a huge factor in how you get into any given industry, I am living proof of that—I was doing good work, sure, but I already had experience with digital art, I had a dad in the animation/film industry, I was living close enough to the office that I could commute,” Hummel acknowledges.
“I owe so much to the circumstances that put me there, along with my ‘indefatigable teenage spirit’ I guess, but I'll try to avoid going off on a tangent about how I'm trying desperately to pay that forward to other young artists in the industry.”
Once Hummel settled into the job, she worked as a full-time artist for Neopets every summer. The art team was democratic; they had leads, but every artist worked on pretty much everything over the years—paintbrushes, items, new pet designs, game art, advertisements, merchandising, concept art, comics, and trading cards.
Hummel explains how every artist had specialties or things that they were particularly good at (she notes that she drew a lot of the Battledome action poses for unique paint brushes or the front page banners), but the site moved so fast that each artist had to be able to pick up any slack wherever it might be.
“I think one of the greatest soft skills I got out of working at Neopets was working within the rapid turnaround times for getting art up on the site,” she says. “We had daily deliverables and constantly shifting targets, and as a result you get very good at churning out assets as needed.”
Clearly this was good practice for a career in game development.
“Honestly, Neopets also taught me that I could tolerate and even enjoy the idea of working within a studio environment,” Hummel adds. “Before tripping and spending the last ten years in games I had initially been planning on getting into feature animation, but either way Neopets proved out this idea of working as part of a team, matching a house style, playing in someone else's stylistic sandbox, that sort of thing.”