Neopets’ new mobile game won’t save it from extinction

The beloved browser game Neopets is back with a new attempt on mobile, this time inspired by smartphone hits Puzzle & Dragons and Words with Friends. In its new game, Legends and Letters, Neopets revives old characters from 2005 and earlier in a word game that combines lore with vocabulary building.

Neopets has been dying a slow death over the past decade. The game has had a rough history: the original creators sold it to Viacom in 2005, which then eventually sold to JumpStart in 2014. The result has been massive turnover and a radical restructuring of the people that make up the game’s development team. Only two members of JumpStart’s team have been with Neopets for over ten years, meaning that they were there during Viacom’s acquisition, but weren’t around during the genesis. Employees who became well-known amongst players as fixtures of the community, like creative director Snarkie; Droplet, who managed the site’s newspaper; and the creators Adam Powell and Donna Williams, either quit or were laid off.

Despite all that inner turmoil, Neopets still has a beloved cult following. There are fans who have been around with the Javascript and Flash-powered site since 1999. There’s literally a graveyard of dead mini games Neopets has had to retire over the years, including plenty of fan favorites, because technology has outpaced personal preference.

Membership on the site continues to decline, and JumpStart’s push toward customizations and items that cost real money has never fully taken off. That’s why, for all the fan loyalty, Neopets’ parent company JumpStart, which is known for its educational games for younger children, is hoping to reach a whole new audience with Legends and Letters. “It’s not a crossover between website and mobile. Neopets fans would have loved that but we want a standalone mobile game,” Stephanie Lord, a product manager at JumpStart, says.

Neopets is the game that taught many young girls how to code. It’s also the game that I caught a girl in my college dorm hall playing and instantly connected over. It’s helped me save friendships, forge new ones, and even publish a few short stories. Overall, there’s a lot riding on Legends and Letters. “Legends and Letters is our way of pivoting into 2019,” says Lord.

The game is one of the company’s few ventures into mobile, and its previous attempt didn’t go that well. Ghoul Catchers, released in 2015 on iOS and Android, is a lot like Candy Crushexcept that the combos aren’t intuitive, it doesn’t load when you’re offline, and there’s no clear way of getting past the paywall. Ghoul Catchers is filled with low ratings from people who initially liked the game and got hooked, only to run into an annoying paywall they couldn’t overcome. A mobile version of the Neopets website is still under development.

Legends and Letters’ tutorial opens up with a crocodile-like Neopet called a Krawk telling you a story and painting one of his friends as a nemesis. He also says he’s going after a magical tablet to steal. You, for whatever reason, decide to help him. As you help the Krawk, both of you accidentally free an evil spirit called the Claymaker, who claims he made all Neopets himself and he’s decided to curse them.

After the tutorial, you can name your character and customize its appearance. You can choose between a number of different Neopets including the newest creation, Vandagyre, which was introduced in 2014. I chose to make the squirrel-like Xweetok; as it turns out, each Neopet has a special skill, and the Xweetok’s is to heal itself by licking its wounds.

Then you’re sent back into the gameplay, where you’ll have to fight off enemies with spells created by the words you chain together. In the game’s fiction, there are no clear stakes for these battles. You’re given no context and no introduction into the world of Neopia. There aren’t even clearly defined characters, but one way or another, you soon find yourself fighting pirate Neopets.

Beyond the storyline, the actual mechanics of the game are also in doubt. You have to drag and drop letters to create words, and you also have to chain these words together. One current bug will cause valid words to be occasionally labelled as invalid because the game appears to be reading them from the wrong direction. Your only real choice in these instances is trial and error until the game accepts your word as valid. Worse still, the tutorial doesn’t teach you important tricks that make the game significantly easier.

I could see myself continue to play this game, but only if I was stuck underground in the subway without Wi-Fi or otherwise stranded. Unfortunately, this game needs Wi-Fi to work, unlike other mobile games like Candy Crush Saga. And if you keep the game on in the background in the middle of a level and then return hours later, it might not save your progress.

JumpStart also lets you connect with other people playing the game, but it does a shoddy job of building a community. You’re automatically prompted to add other players to your battles, but the other players aren’t actually battling alongside you — you’re just taking their Neopets along for the ride. Then the game asks if you want to friend the player, which seems like it’ll lead to a lot of incoming friend requests from bots once the game goes live.

With Legends and Letters, JumpStart also seems to be confused as to who its audience is. If it’s aiming at a more general audience, then why is there such a big focus on Neopets lore and nostalgia? Longtime fans, meanwhile, can connect the mobile game to their Neopets.com accounts and are promised a free background image for their pets on the site if they do so. JumpStart has said Neopets fans wouldn’t earn Neopoints through the mobile game. “That was a big decision we made internally,” Lord says. “The number one thing is it’s for everyone, not just the Neopets fan base. It’s not a crossover. Neopets fans would’ve loved that, but we wanted a standalone mobile game, since we’re pivoting into 2019.”

Unfortunately, Legends and Letters is just a little bit too much like its predecessor, Ghoul Catchers. Neither mobile game truly connects with what makes Neopets fun and meaningful. JumpStart has discerned that it was the social element that continues to draw users back into the game and it’s partially correct. It’s also the nostalgia and creative content — creators that are on the same page as their audience. Neopets has a lot of fun lore, whimsical writing, and a community of artists, none of which are truly showcased in these mobile games. The plot of Legends and Letters falls flat and recycles old characters without thought for how they should make sense together. The map of Neopia on the homescreen of the app is a good start — with nods to the elaborate world-building Neopets.com of yesteryear had — but the rest of the game could do more.

Still, JumpStart promises it will add more features down the line. “We understand a core mechanic of Neopets is the social element … the community people found in it and the comfort they found in the game … so we have bigger and better plans to incorporate that,” says Taylor Lord, director of community and web development, who’s also Stephanie’s sister. Stephanie adds, “Along with the loyal user base, we’re also trying to get back those users that used to play Neopets and who remember playing it as a kid.” Legends and Letters has already improved immensely between the few months I was beta-testing and today’s launch, which is a promising sign that JumpStart is open to player feedback.

Neopets really needs a good game to push it back to being relevant. There are still plenty of fans who remain obsessed with the world. Mention it to ex-players and more likely than not, they’re willing to revisit the game, even if it’s just a brief while. If JumpStart had something new to offer the community, it would be welcomed with open arms, as evidenced by the hype surrounding Legends and Letters at the San Diego Comic-Con this year. But, in its current form, this mobile game doesn’t seem to be it.

[“source=theverge”]