Neopets is one of the pioneers of casual gaming. The PC title launched in 1999, offering players virtual pets for single player play as well as multiplayer interactive elements. One of the early adopters of a free-to-play business model, account owners can trade real-world money for items for their virtual pet.
The title was financially successful, and was once a much-lauded intellectual property. This resulted in Neopets being sold to Viacom in 2005 for a massive $160 million. Viacom then sold the franchise once more, with Jumpstart, an educational gaming company, taking control for an undisclosed amount last March. There have been troubles since the Jumpstart buyout, however, with players citing various glitches and site lag.
Now, Neopets fans have been hit with a bombshell. According to Jellyneo, a fanmade Neopets help site, there have been mass layoffs within the development team. An insider source reveals that most of the Neopets team has been laid off as of Friday last week, just one year after the Jumpstart buyout. The development team has been left with only a handful of programmers, a support team and monitor team.
At the moment, the next move for Neopets is unknown. There has been talk of a Neopets app, moving the game from a web browser to mobile phones for the first time. An app was announced in early 2014, and Jumpstart has recently released the Neopets-related Ghoul Catcher mobile app. However, it seems as though the team that actually developed Neopets is not going to be part of the app’s long-term development.
The move to mobile is something that may not come as a surprise for some. The growth of casual gaming on mobile devices has been huge in recent years, with Candy Crush Saga developer King taking home over $600 million in profits in just the first quarter of 2014. Meanwhile, browser-based casual developer Zynga has seen profits drop in recent years, losing $400 million from its valuation in July 2013 and repeatedly closing down games and laying off staff. Even industry veteran Sega is cutting 300 jobs to focus on its digital and mobile future.
From the sounds of it, the virtual pet sim is not going to shut down any time soon, in spite of the layoffs. What this means for the future of Neopets, however, is unclear, and whether the creation of further content will continue is unknown. Even if new content is developed, it’s likely to be a sharp learning curve for any new developers coming into a game with fifteen years' worth of dedicated fans.