Friday, March 31, 2006

An Unexpected MMOG

I've come to an odd realization, and I don't know why it took me so long. The wife has been playing Neopets quite a bit recently. It's something that she's played on and off for the past few years. I've... we'll I've gently mocked. A part of me genuinely cringes at it. It is overly cute, and too sickeningly sweet by far. It is also strangely compelling. I have a growing respect for it as a game.

The premise is that you adopt a cute little animal (or 4) from Neopia. Neopia is a living world with various regions, and inhabitants. It has things to do, places to see, people to talk to (however limited). It has shops, and mini-games; challenges, and rewards. It exists so you can make Neopoints (the resident currency) and get various items. These range from food, to stuff for your house, to items to enhance and change your pets. You can even get pets for your Neopets to play with (appropriately named Petpets). You do all of this in your web browser, interacting with a combination of server-side scripts, javascript, Flash, and Shockwave (all this started years before AJAX).

It seems like a simple web game. Something to fill the idle hours online. Simple one-sided interactivity between client and server. Until you start looking beneath the surface. Here is a quick list of the Neopets features (that I know of) that line up pretty well with a more traditional MMOG definition:

  • Lots of users, who can communicate and share items
  • Users can form Guilds
  • Users can compete against each other (Battle Dome)
  • Users are sent on Quests to Find Things
  • Items, Stats and World Elements are persistent
  • The world is dynamic and content is being added regularly
  • A significant part of the game economy is controlled directly by users (via auctions and player owned shops)

Now, mind that there are a number of things that differentiate Neopets even from the simplest of MUDs. For one, you don't exist in a specific space with other users. Your view of the world is individual to you. The only time you have to interact with other users is when buying items from user shops/auctions, or when items are bought out from under you by other players. Even then it is more of a phantom interaction, ghosts of other users.

Neopets allows the user to both exist within a widely played and enjoyed world, and play entirely solo should they choose. There is also no direct or necessary story. The designers do provide what they call plots. These are in-world games, often adventure- or puzzle-like in nature, that develop world areas. Through these plots, users are provided a way to explore the expanding history and story of Neopia, often times in the role of an explorer. Areas appear (or are found), grow, change, die, are destroyed, reborn, nearly anything. And it changes gameplay for all users as available shops and items change over time.

The more I see of it, the more impressed I am at the depth of content that is being provided. I think that this is probably the first Casual MMOG created. Neopets is already 8 years old, claims to serve over 70 million pet owners, and somehow manages to update at least 5 days a week. It is also free. Although it looks like they are currently trying to address issues with bandwidth drain and in-game inflation, they are doing it entirely with game currency. All other expenses appear to be paid with ads, product placement, and a merchandising scheme.

The more I look at it, the more it looks like a MMOG, however unexpected it may be.

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