NeoTales: Plotting a Plot – Part 1

What were they, when were they, and why weren't there more of them, you jerks?

Hey, kids! It’s Neopets story time!

I mentioned we’re starting off these NeoTales with general info on how a Plot came together Back in My DayTM. Plots had already begun evolving by the time I started working at Neopets and they continued to change over my 12 years there (Y4/2002 – Y16/2014). So, seeing as how we spent over a decade learning lessons through live-fire trial and error, I thought it’d be interesting to cover not only what Plots were to us, but also the how and why we made the decisions we did, for better or worse. That will also give some context to later posts about specific Plots. I think. Maybe. Who knows, man?

Anyway, after I hit 4,500 words on my “light” first pass of this post, I decided to break it up into two instead. This is better for your sanity and mine, trust me. We’ll start here in Part 1 with what a Plot actually was—it’s a simple question with no simple answer — and what it took to actually commit to one on the schedule.

So, gather around my rocking chair, Neokids, and let granny snarkie tell you all about it. Apologies for all the asides you’ll see throughout but I have yet to master being succinct in explanation of such things while also providing fun tibits but not going off on tangents. I really hope you find at least a few semi-interesting nuggets buried in what is definitely a long post full of my signature rambling. Unfortunately for you, you won’t know until you read it. Nuts.

So, What is a Plot, Exactly?

If you asked ten Neopians, you’d probably get ten different answers to this question. A Plot was different for different people, which is actually what we were trying to accomplish with Neopets as a whole. That’s not a bad thing but it did make for interesting discussions among fans.

If you ask a staff member, the answer would have been something like, “A Plot is an event during which a story is told and the players participate to help move that story along somehow.”

If that sounds really vague to you, you’re not wrong. We were intentionally cagey about officially defining it because we didn’t want to lock ourselves into something. This is especially true when you’re talking about setting expectations for a very large, dedicated fandom. Once you do that, it’s very difficult to go another direction. So we wanted to leave the door open to try new things and surprise people, meaning Plots had no set scope or even a checklist of specific content we had to include. The format and execution also changed over the years as things evolved—things like the site, the stories, and us personally. It turned out that the basic essence seemed to always stay the same, though.

Immersing players in a compelling narrative is the goal. Everything else is a bonus.

We didn’t always know this. We learned this lesson as time went on.

The Early Days

Which Plot should be labelled as the “first” is debatable. Things like Sacrificers and Ski Lodge would probably be called “mini-Plots” by some folks nowadays but, as far as I understood, they weren’t conceived as anything so grand at the time. Just something fun to keep players entertained. There was also no Neopian world building or lore that players could participate in.

We get a bit closer with Virtupets, an in-Neopia story with players “helping out”. Although, that merely meant dumping items into a hole and the story continued on regardless. It was a good start but still not what you’d call participation or immersion.

Then came the Battledome and with it, Wars.

Wars dropped players into the story (a conflict), were driven by their participation (combat), and let players have an effect on the outcome (winner; changing the world). So to me, this is where Plots started to actually become a thing and gain momentum.

Based on that line of thought, here’s a handy list of Plots so we can track the evolution:

  • Virtupets: Fetch Quest-y thing
  • Tyrannian Discovery: War
  • Brucey B: War
  • Champions of Meridell: War
  • Battle for Meridell: War
  • Hannah & the Ice Caves: War
  • Curse of Maraqua: War/Fetch Quest
  • Lost Desert Plot: Puzzle (light BD)
  • Altador/The Darkest Faerie: Puzzle
  • Cyodrake’s Gaze: Logic Puzzle
  • Tale of Woe: Combo
  • Journey to the Lost Isle: Combo
  • The Return of Dr. Sloth: Combo
  • Atlas of the Ancients: Puzzle
  • The Faeries’ Ruin: Combo
  • Obelisk: War

Okay so, uh, we stayed on Wars for a while without trying anything new, gameplay-wise. Give us a break, we were young and naive!

Learning by Doing

You’ll notice that Curse of Maraqua is where that “Plot = War” thing changed… slightly. Regular Battledome participation was pretty low by then. Wars required strong Neopets by design and that immediately excluded literally 97% of people after the first round (not to mention the people who didn’t even participate to begin with). Sure, people liked the stories, but we needed to make a change if we wanted folks to actually participate in those stories.

We were still thinking in terms of Wars being the thing at the time, so the brainstorming centered around simply adding on an activity for everyone else. We’d done a smaller story with one-off, non-Batttledome activities before (Virtupets, etc.) and we wanted to try including something like that in the larger, story-driven War. Short on time and needing to stick to the theme, we quickly added the “Supporter” role for non-BDers, which was actually just another item dump. Not the most creative solution and the execution was lacking, but the consensus was that the intent was solid. We should definitely keep adding more for everyone else to do, please. A lot more. We started talking about maybe telling a story without the Battledome being at the center of participation.

So we decided to give it a shot and go all in on “activities” (a.k.a. puzzles) for the Lost Desert Plot and Mr. Insane and I took over that bit. This broke the War parade that had slowly been getting stale but, more importantly, it let us include everyone who wanted to participate while still keeping things challenging. We also wanted to amp up the feeling that many Neopians were participating in this global event and solving things together. We wanted everyone to actually see each other and feel the other participants’ presence, which we couldn’t easily do in the BD. So, puzzles! Lots of them! We kind of went overboard on the puzzles!

The Lost Desert Plot Fun Fact
So yes, you can blame literally all of those LDP puzzles on Mr. Insane and me (with help from our friends, of course). A&D had done the main story for the TCG set and oversaw the comics for the Plot as usual. But they handed complete control for what came in between chapters to us. So we basically looked at the comics and then came up with stuff that we thought would make sense to fit in between. This is also why there’s a bit of a disconnect between what happened in the comic and what players were doing. They weren’t concepted together so they didn’t flow as seemlessly as they should have. But it was a good first try, I think!

Also, you’ve not seen pure, unadulterated glee on a grown man’s face until you’ve seen Mr. Insane coding the Temple of 1,000 Tombs and anticipating the agony it’d cause once it was released. Good times.

Plot Pillars

Lost Desert wasn’t perfect—we still had a lot to learn about puzzles, tracking progress, prizes, and pretty much everything else—but it generally went over really well, so we did it again for Altador with some tweaking to all those things as we learned.

By the time Tale of Woe came around, we could brainstorm both the story/comics and player participation activites right from the start, making the transition from comic to puzzle more seamless and helping the players feel like they were right there in the thick of things. We also tried to bring Battledome combat back into the fold in earnest, both as something for BDers and to hopefully reintroduce the Battledome to non-BDers as well.

So while it was still not perfect, it felt like Tale of Woe is where we finally had some small semblance of Plot proficiency. A few basic “rules”, or pillars, for Plot creation had shaken out.

  1. Tell a good story.
    • Present it in chapter form—usually comics, but sometimes animations or even just text—to be released over a period of time.
  2. Between chapters, let players participate in the story directly.
    • They should be part of the story. Sometimes this was solving puzzles, or completing certain tasks, or even kicking a bad guy’s ass. Sometimes all of those things.
  3. Reward the player with choice.
    • I could very easily ramble for days on how we went from simple prizes to Prize Shops, and more days just on the importance of player choice! But the gist for Plots is that players should be rewarded well for their efforts and they should choose what that means for them wherever possible.
  4. Overall plot length is irrelevant.
    • Turns out players didn’t really care how “epic” or long a Plot was, as long as it had the three points above. Though the most fun were definitely the big, sprawling tales that lasted months, with hundreds of thousands of players participating, speculating, and investigating.

And there you go. That’s what a Plot was to us. I… I hope this entire section doesn’t just seem like a really long way of saying, “Plots were whatever we wanted them to be so nyah.” The point is that we had guidelines, however loose, that were actually super important. They had written themselves based on all our years of trial and error determining what worked at the base level for players (and would have very likely continued to evolve). They were intuitive and not too restricting. We could play around in the space all we wanted and if we ever got lost, we could find our way back using this list. (That’s what pillars are for!)

So we were kind of, sort of, maybe getting the hang of this Plot thing! And were bolstered by the growing demand from players for more of them. Problem was, actually getting one on the schedule turned into a very tricky thing.

Greenlighting a Plot

The fact that HUGE Plots were so infrequent in the later years was much to the chagrin of literally everyone. Us included. I promise you we wanted them just as much as you did. Maybe more? Hard to say. They were a lot of work, and fairly agonising in a way, but apparently we’re masochists because they were also a hell of a lot of fun to make. (We’ll get into that in the next post.) We really loved working on Plots.

“Plot, plot, plot, plot, plot, plot, plot, plot, plot, plot, plot, plot, plot, plot, plot, plot, plot…”
- Literally every Neopian, all the time, forever

The “Golden Age”

Early on, a lot of Plots were justified because they supported merchandise releases like TCG and console games. Like, almost all of them. (BFM, HatIC, LDP, Altador/TDF, etc.) These releases were scheduled out well in advance and we knew we were going to support them with Plot content. We scheduled around them as tentpoles.

So the “golden age” of Plots, as some folks called it, was made possible only because of merchandising deals. In other words, we were basically paid to do them and it was “free” marketing for the products. Wins all around.

Once that was no longer the case, it was harder and harder to get a Plot on the schedule. Why? Three reasons:

  1. They took months to prep/make.
  2. Then they took months to run.
  3. And after all that, they probably weren’t “worth it”.

Too Late to Plot

Since Plots usually took a few months to run—assuming we didn’t run over, which happened a lot—finding a big enough hole in the schedule without a product release to hold it wasn’t an easy task. This was especially true when we had to make a choice between a Plot or other content (more on that later).

But let’s say by some miracle we found a free chunk of time to fit in a Plot. Well, by the time we made that discovery, it was too late. *facepalm emoji* For a very long while, content was only scheduled a month or so out. If it takes three months to prep and get ready to release Chapter 1 of a Plot, but we only knew about a viable slot in the schedule a month and a half before, you can see how things started to fall apart. We basically had to wait for key moments that we knew about far enough in advance and then jump on them like rabid Gelerts. This didn’t happen often.

It became less of a problem as we got better at content, though! We eventually started scheduling a whole year’s worth of non-daily News stuff in advance, which let us start to see potential Plot gaps more easily and with enough time to prep. We basically created our own tentpole system focused around holidays and peak times of year instead of product releases. Yay!

Except boo, we still had another problem.

The Engagement Paradox

Plots were fairly easy to justify when they were the only timed content driving player participation. But then came the Plot’s arch rival: Events.

Events, as opposed to Plots, were smaller and more focused, usually lasting 2-3 weeks on average and targetting a very specific area/gameplay pattern of the site or a tentpole slot. We eventually did one a month so people always had something extra to do and look forward to. A good example was Daily Dare, which was an Event created specifically for mini-game players because there were a whole hell of a lot of mini-game players.

Multiple Events engaged many, many more people over the same span of time as a single Plot. That meant increased uniques (player participants), page views (ad revenue), and item sales revenue (in the later days), which were all things we needed to keep the site running. So it was very hard to justify replacing even one Event with a less “successful” Plot, never mind the two or three Events it would take to cover the span of our usual Plots. And that doesn’t even count the Events we’d have to cancel or de-scope because we also needed months of development time before the Plot even started.

Essentially, Plots were the most interesting, most talked about thing players loved to request but they rarely had the most engagement among all our content offerings.

There was no quantitative proof they were “worth” doing compared to other things. So yeah, it took a lot of effort and planning and convincing just to get a plot approved.

The Faeries' Ruin Fun Fact
In the case of TFR, well, it was basically a necessity. The short version of the story is that I was brought back to Neopets to run Creative after a tough couple years and was asked what we needed to revitalize the community. I didn’t even have to think about it. I knew what I wanted, I knew what everyone on the team wanted, and I knew what the players wanted. We needed an “old-school” Plot and it had to be big.

I mean, I still went and asked everyone on the team what they thought just to be sure but I was right so whew. That would have been embarrassing.

The higher-ups said okay and supported it 100%. They let us forgo those more quantitatively “successful” Events for something we knew in our hearts would make people happy regardless of the numbers. Except we were also pretty sure we could get those numbers way up this time around using a few tricks up our sleeves. 😉

But once the stars aligned and we finally did get that sweet, sweet “yes” for a Plot, we were off and running.

Next Time…

Okay, Part 1 in the bag! (2,682 words. Not terrible. I tried.) We’ll jump right into the actual plot-making process in Part 2. Brainstorming, concepting, settings and storylines, and some other things I’m sure I’ll remember. Woo, the fun stuff.

See you then!


By the way, I’m totally open to feedback on content and/or format for future Neotales. Just leave a comment or hit me up.

3 Comments

  1. Snarkie Fan August 7, 2019 at 19:23

    Hey Snarkie,

    Thanks for sharing your stories!

    It’s so interesting that player engagement was measured by number of participating players and pageviews. I participated in all of the plots and events starting from Return of Dr. Sloth (when I started playing) and ending with the Obelisk War (when I quit). (I still log in now and then for the memories.) I collected avatars, and most of the events had a history of having a corresponding avatar. Although I participated in the Daily Dare, Games Master Challenges etc., I can say I participated because I *had* to, whereas I participate in plots because I *love* to. So although the number of trackable hours and pageviews may have been the same, I got a lot more enjoyment out of plots, and am sorry they couldn’t be greenlighted more often, as it sounds like you guys enjoyed making them as much as I did playing.

    Ultimately, as the event-to-plot ratio went up, my interest went down and I left around the same time you did.

    Cheers – thanks again n_n

    Reply
  2. Oli August 9, 2019 at 08:47

    What about the Mystery Island plot? That was quite a different type of plot as mysterious things kept happening around the site without a comic strip to back up the story. Lots of hidden stuff/features/excitement/speculation which seemed to make the neoboards frenzied. I think you guys used to put red-herrings on the Neocam to throw us off. Was that considered a plot or a mini-plot?

    Reply
  3. Neopets Player August 16, 2019 at 04:37

    It’s interesting how you thought wars were amazing. For me, I think I empathize that feeling with the finale of TFR. I liked how all the parts depended on each other and were dependent on the community and only happened once. Very special to think back on. The fact that usually no instructions were usually given for steps and people had to figure them out was also unique.

    Reply

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