Got a great question over on my AMA about the Neopets app we were working on before I left. I’m finally answering it! Look at me go.
I can’t really post images very well in that AMA system, so you get a post instead! The dev version of the app that I had on my iPad stopped working about a year ago so any “screenshots” you see are really just mockups from my archives. They may be a bit old but I hope they give you a good idea of what the “final” app was like before it got cancelled. And I’ll include the wireframes so you can see some of the progression.
Anyway, I guess I should start by explaining how the app came about in the first place for context.
Why a Companion App?
Revamping the site itself to be mobile-friendly would have been a huge project that took forever to get approved (if at all), let alone implemented, so we felt like an app would be a good solution in the meantime. The studio was getting into mobile for other Nickelodeon properties and we’d been pitching some Neopets games in there, so we also included a pitch for a companion app. Something that let existing fans check in on their Neopets/accounts away from the computer. It was early stages—still just an idea on a slide in a PowerPoint deck—so it stuck around and actually made it into a set of mobile focus groups we did in early 2013.
Except the problem with companion apps is that they don’t make money. The whole point of them is to support an existing player in the main game, which happens to be free in our case, so it doesn’t tie directly into any revenue stream. (Supporting an established player base of which a small percentage is paying, sure, but no direct revenue.) Spending time and resources—which were especially tight at the time, let me tell you—on something with no quantitative monetary return isn’t usually on the top of the list for approval, especially when you’ve been pitched other stuff that does make money. At the Nickelodeon level, the idea died there, not getting much beyond the pitch/focus group stage. Totally understandable but still disappointing.
But it wasn’t dead to us so, uh, we kind of went rogue. We built it anyway with a small team of mostly volunteers: an Artist, a Flex/Flash Engineer, a PHP backend Engineer, a Graphic Designer, and a Creative Lead/Designer (itsa me!). It was basically a passion project we worked on between projects/during downtime/after work, hoping we could prove out its value in the future. This meant we had to be quick, flexible, and reuse what we could.
So, with that in mind, here’s the app. The feature list was based on what we heard from veteran Neopians in that early focus group, what we wanted to see ourselves, and what we had to work with (time, resources, assets, etc.).
Features in handy list form:
- Read your Notifications from the site (items, Neofriends, trades, etc.)
- Use Neomail & Neoboards
- Read New Features
- See your Neopoints balance
- Check on your Neopets (feed them once daily with free pizza woooo)
- Earn NP by playing some games & dailies ported to the app
- Sutek’s Tomb
- Meerca Chase II
- Kass Basher
- Patapult NC Game
- Wheel of Excitement
- Fruit Machine
- Anchor Management
- Lab Ray
- Scratch Card (a new one exclusive to the app)
And here’s some stuff we wanted to do in the future if the app ever got any traction:
- Localization, of course
- Android version
- Special features for Premium players
- Daily login reward
- First-time login rewards for trying out the app (like a site theme, etc.)
- Special events/achievements within the app (either exclusive or coinciding with things happening on the site; fun stuff, not anything super valuable since not everyone would be able to use the app)
After the initial brainstorms, I did a design doc, flowcharts, and wireframes for everyone to tear apart and comment on and start working from. We slowly made progress, figuring out things as we went: like security and UX and how to award prizes and the best way to interact with existing site features that were decades old. Other folks in the studio volunteered to help us test it at the risk of all their Neopoints because that was a fun bug. Thanks, guys!
Oh, so, the fact that those initial wireframes I did and the final look & feel were both yellow and blue is a weird coincidence. I was using an app to do interactive wireframing for iOS and just happened to have that background saved to it from something else. The robot was designed separately by the artist and he chose those colours on his own. Then the final look & feel was taken from that.
Or I’m psychic. That’s probably it.
Speaking of the robot, we also liked to put character and story into everything we did and this was no different. We felt like the idea of a virtual Neopian AI helping you out in the real world was fun so we went with that. It was originally going to be NPv2 because that was familiar to veteran players, but he felt kind of stale design-wise. We decided to create a new, more slick/modern character instead, which broke world canon a bit because it was probably too advanced even for Virtupets tech, but this was an extension of the world so we were fine stretching things a bit. Though the artist did give it a bit of retro charm anyway to pull it back a tad. Also eyebrows.
It was called Marvin for the longest time because someone once called it a Martian early on. We had some great dumb ideas for what M.A.R.V.I.N. could stand for:
- Mobile Assistant to Roaming Very Intelligent Neopian
- Meaningless Acronym Represents Vacuous Idiotic Nerditry
- Mobile Automated Retrieval Villainous Internet Node
- Mechanical Assistant Ready to Voice Information to Neopia
- My, Aren’t Robots Very Interesting, Naturally
We eventually decided to call it B.L.I.P.: Brilliant Logistical Interaction Program. That was shorter and cuter. Plus, we also had it occasionally turning red and glitching out on you, saying weird things about taking over Neopia and how great Dr. Sloth is, so that name fit it much better. It also got bored easily and wore stupid “costumes” depending on what you were doing in the app. I’m sad you never got to meet it.
I’d say the app was 97% finished when we’d announced it and posted that poll about naming it. By this point, the higher-ups at Nickelodeon were actually interested in the community value of it and had given us some launch support, which was nice. (Our plan worked!) After some final polish to the game ports and some UI tweaks here and there, the next step would have been submitting it to Apple.
For 6 or so months after the sale to JumpStart, we kept trying to get it launched. At Nickelodeon, we had access to the company’s app store accounts and would have submitted it ourselves when it was ready. At JumpStart, we were at their mercy and they just never submitted it once it was done. In the meantime, we were asked to reskin one of their existing match-3 games, which became Ghoul Catchers. Eventually, all the volunteers that made the companion app and folks that did the creative on Ghoul Catchers left the company. JS still released Ghoul Catchers shortly after that but On-the-Go continued to languish. Then the vast majority of the remaining staff was laid off a few months after that, including anyone who was still trying to get it released. It’s been years now, so I assume it’s completely dead at this point. It’d be too old to release anyway.
JumpStart never actually told us outright that they weren’t going to release it, let alone why. I’m not sure if they even made that decision or were just putting it off. (To be fair, a lot of things were going on at the time with the transition and their other properties, etc.) Either way, I have no actual information on what they were thinking because they never shared. I do have my own personal theories, some of which make sense to me and I could understand why killing it was the right move from their point of view. A few other theories are… less nice bleh.
Anyway, I’m not sure how well the app would have done if we’d released it at the time. (We’d most definitely do something different if we were building this today, hoo boy.) I think it would have been popular but only with a very niche audience, and I think we probably wouldn’t have touched it for quite a while afterwards. And it definitely wouldn’t have made any substantial revenue but that wasn’t really what it was for in the first place. So I guess I still think what I thought then: if we didn’t make a huge deal out of it or hype it up too much, it could have worked as a nice little community app to support people who really loved Neopets and tide them over until the next thing: either a responsive upgrade of the site or a whole “2.0” version of Neopets on mobile.
It would have been fun to release regardless just to get people’s feedback and learn from it but oh well. Maybe it launched in an alternate dimension and Neopians there really liked it. Yup. That sounds nice.
Thanks for your question, Dustin! I hope you like lots of words.