Neopets community in delight and discord over the return of original pet art

For years, Neopets has had a black-market pet problem. Neopets themselves aren’t just digital pets — they’re also currency. When the website, popularized in the 2000s, got a revamp in 2007, its creators unintentionally created a new market for rare goods. At that time, most of Neopets’ pet art was updated to a new style that let players decorate their pets with clothes, props, and background art. But certain pets weren’t converted automatically, and some users opted to keep those pets unchanged. Unconverted pets only got rarer from there, creating an economy driven by scarcity.

Neopets players started trading pets using a complex system that ranks pets into 10 tiers. Players usually trade up until they get their holy grail pet, but it’s a system that’s hard to get into if you don’t already have a valuable pet to trade initially. That’s where the black market comes in; people are willing to buy unconverted pets, and others are willing to steal them to sell them off. (Neopets has had tons of problems with data breaches in the past, including compromised login information that was posted from the hacked data, making it relatively easy for bad actors to access old or “abandoned” accounts.) The black market has been a problem for years, but now, Neopets is ready to tear down that scarcity economy with the addition of readily available unconverted pets.

Unconverted pets will return to Neopets on Jan. 23, now called NC Pet Styles.

Players will be able to adjust their pets using the NC Mall’s new Styling Studio — meaning Neopets players will have to pay for the process. Neopets hasn’t yet announced the pricing structure, or exactly how the update will work. However, the launch will start with just three different pet color options, which are Faerie, Darigan, and Grey. Users can change their Neopets’ colors by using paintbrushes that impact aesthetics; the Darigan paintbrush, for instance, generally gives pets a purple hue and a dragon vibe. The Faerie paint brush gives Neopets fairy wings and uses softer, more pastel colors. (Several of these looks are almost status symbols in their own right, because paintbrushes can be expensive! Grey paintbrushes, which make your pet look sad and gloomy, are one of the more valuable options at roughly 6 million NeoPoints.)

The new system will impact all Neopets, allowing players to switch between the classic, unconverted pets and the new, updated art. That also means that all existing unconverted pets — nicknamed UC pets — will be converted to the new art style, but all users with UC pets will get the wearable item that will give them the UC art again with no purchase necessary. In addition, all pets from before the 2007 conversion will get trophies designating that status.

To put it simply: If a player has a UC Coconut Jubjub, it’ll get converted to the new system next week. However, that player will also receive a “skin” item that can be applied to the Neopet to bring it back to its original art.

The original announcement was met with excitement, but after a YouTube livestream on Wednesday, there’s been drama. In the attempt to democratize UC pets, the Neopets team is making all pets the same, allowing players to switch UC mode on and off with a “wearable” skin. All pets will convert to this system, something the community is saying feels no different than the auto-conversion from 2007. Neopets staff member Fae reiterated during the stream that no player with an existing UC will have it taken away, just that the system for acquiring them will be different. Neopets players enmeshed in the UC community have typically been through the drawn-out process of trading up to their desired pets, whether that’s been done legitimately or not. They’re feeling like that work is now erased with this change, leaving no designation of that status they once held — except the trophies, which apply to all Neopets past a certain age, UC or not.

But the majority of players, who’ve been left out of the UC pet community, are looking forward to the change — if the price is right. The Neopets team has not announced the pricing structure just yet.

“Neopets has been playing with that delicate balance between exclusivity and access,” longtime Neopets player Logan told Polygon. “This will fit right in with their recent push to make nearly unobtainable items more accessible to the community. I think this is incredibly positive for the community. ‘Real’ UCs will still retain their value among the highly enfranchised players, but the rest of us who just like the art rather than the rarity will be able to obtain them without resorting to the sketchy black market or the craziness of the pet trading boards.”

Will, who’s been playing Neopets on and off since 2005, added that the UC community on the site has become more insular as the years go on, as people do eventually get their dream pets, coupled with Neopets’ declining player base. (Neopets has increased its player base in recent months, however.) “UCs became the ‘white whale’ for a large majority of the user base,” Will said. “Many users have wanted certain UCs for over a decade. This NC UC program is not just an alternative to getting a preexisting UC, for many people it is simply the only way it would ever happen for them.”

frog neopet in yellow, with different versions of the art styles Image: Neopets

That is, unless you’re a player willing to engage in the black market, where certain pets could sell for hundreds of dollars alongside NeoPoints and other rare items. Of course, exchanging real money for Neopets is against the site’s rules, but the team has struggled to contain the problem for some time.

“Black market buying and selling is a big problem that we’ve seen since the early days, but it’s not an easy fix,” Neopets CEO Dominic Law told Polygon. “But we do want to eradicate it as much as possible.” Law said the UC update is just one way to address the problem; by making UCs more obtainable, the black market becomes less relevant.

Names may become the new currency. “Common words, common names have always been in high demand, but now that will be another level,” a Neopets player who goes by SpiderByt3s on Reddit told Polygon. “People are super creative, and alongside AI, it’s much easier to come up with untaken names, and, surprisingly, there are great names still out there, even 20 something years later. Sure, they aren’t 4 or 5 letter names. But great nonetheless.”

Law said that Neopets players will still be able to trade UC pets — in fact, he expects it to be a lot easier for legitimate players to work within a designated, in-house system.

“It might sound odd to people that adults are this attached to PNGs on a decades-old browser game, but I would liken this change to something like a virtual console release of a Pokémon game or maybe a re-release of a rare [Magic: The Gathering] card,” Will said. “Sure, these games/items are technically obtainable without a re-release but the average player is going to find them out of reach unless purposeful accommodations are made.”