looking back in time 🕧

Paving the way for micro transactions

Paving the way for micro transactions
Keith Kurson
Keith Kurson

This is part one in a series of posts on building Subeta, an early virtual pet game I made as a teenager. Subeta was also one of the first pioneers of what is now called micro-transactions, but to me it was just getting quarters in the mail to pay for something I loved making.

I created the virtual pet site Subeta in 2003, when I was 13 years old. I'd been around virtual pet sites for years and wanted to try my hand at programming something myself. Obviously, I started by making visual basic programs to cheat on Neopets, which led to me getting permanently banned. The next obvious step was building my own virtual pet universe, so I found a partner on livejournal, built an authentication system with the ability to adopt a few early pets that we drew, and invited friends from school computer class. It is not hyperbole to say that it took off overnight -- we hit 1,000 users the first month.

Subeta was my outlet to be creative and build anything that I wanted to see, and have people immediately interact with it and demand more. Taking the cue from Neopets, I created the first plot 1 in that first year, in addition to an in-game stock market, pet battling with complicated formulas for determining damage, and more. If I had an idea, I could make it happen.

It was easy to run for the first six months, on a small $10/month shared PHP hosting service2 (shoutout cPanel!) that I used my allowance money on. It started using all of the shared resources (sorry to anyone else that shared that server 🥴) and we got booted 🥾. I scrambled to save the site that I loved, and put up a PayPal donation button with a "sorry I'm 13 and figuring this out!!" message and circled up with the team3 to come up with a quick plan to start taking money once the site was at a new home.

We made it through that time, and the following 17 years, through the magic of ✨ micro-transactions ✨. Other online communities like GaiaOnline and HabboHotel were innovating in similar ways with small individual payments. Neopets took a different route (in addition to introducing scientology to the company4) and created ad-based gated content, and worlds that you could only explore if you watched videos or interacted with sponsored content. I wasn't capable of inking multi-year deals with corporations as a teenager, and so set out as an early pioneer of the micro-transaction trail.

This originated with players sending envelopes of cash and change taped to index cards to my parents house. My mom was sure I was getting up to something shady online, but no, just selling digital goods 😇. My sister and I would sort through stacks of envelopes, trying to decipher the hand written usernames attached to $5 in quarters. We had one player (Who later went on to become a moderator, and a kind of mom to the community) that would send me a box filled with things from hot topic (the only store to me at the time) and fuckloads of glitter, with the small amount of cash for the stuff she wanted. These early players shaped how I see the power of community beyond just posts / likes / $$$ and instead in the power to forge lifelong friendships. I know that sounds cheesy, but my best friend is someone I met on Subeta and she is now the creative director. I care so deeply about the friends I've made on Subeta, and it's a reason I continue to give time to it as an unpaid side project, because I think it's one of the kindest places on the internet.

After setting up that first "help!!" page, we came up with four types of "donations" available:

  • 🎨 Custom Items: If you sent me $5 (later increased to $10) in the mail, we would create an item based on your specifications and release it on the site. It was an item available to all users, and ranged from a special book (for reading to your pets) to popular items dressed up. For example a popular item was the blob doll, and we’d get requests to make a version with pink sparkles, or dressed up like Nicole Richie (that was me, I requested that).
  • 🥇 Gold Accounts: Upgraded accounts (see below) that gave you some benefits around the site.
  • 🎁 Monthly Collections: Every month we’d release a new collection that could only be purchased in that month, that had 15 items around a specific theme. They were $2.50 each and gave you a random item from the 15 when you opened it.
  • 🏅 Donation Profile Medals / Bundles: These were just medals that were meant to be displayed on the user profiles, you could buy a “rainbow donator” medal for $50 (!!!!) and get two Custom Items, five monthly collections, and a month of gold account. I knew how to make a bundle!
The view of purchasing a gold account in 2004

What the gold account purchasing screen looked like in 2004. This was not automatic, and required me to manually update accounts as paypal payments came in 😭

My user profile on Subeta in 2005, with an awful photo of me and a link to my amazon wish list

So much of my childhood is just available to view on way back machine, truly horrifying. This is an example of the Bronze & Rainbow trophies, but on a boring, non-customzied profile by someone with a complete lack of creativity but a link to my amazon wishlist 💸 I needed a new wacom tablet!!

One of the main pulls for players, especially converts from Neopets, was being able to build custom profiles for your pets. Anything you could do with CSS and HTML was possible on the profiles. While Neopets blocked a lot of CSS on pet profiles5, we encouraged it. One of the features we created early on was adding items to your pet profiles in their “treasure”, as another way to show off the personality of your pet. And having custom items that were made for that pet or player made the treasure even more compelling. These items ranged from special books, beautiful minions (friends for your pet) and weapons that weren’t more powerful than the ones available for free.

Subeta pet Toby with treasure items like the Torn Out Doodle Page & Box of Crayons

Pet Gappy that has hash based page navigation and a fun story.

Coming from a family that had trouble with money, I could predict from the type of players we attracted it would be dangerous to allow anyone to spend too much each month. Our players were on fixed incomes, or were teens, and would spend more to feel richer online than they could in real life. This became crystal clear as micro-transactions popped up in games like Farmville, which existed entirely to get as much money from the player as possible before they quit. Farmville brought micro-transactions into the mainstream, and had a reputation for going after “whales” who would spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on micro-transactions a month. Demographically these were typically women in their 30s and 40s who were turning to online games in much the same (although discussed in a completely different) way as men were turning to games like World of Warcraft. Amassing virtual wealth that would last forever and something you built continuously on was the promise of long running MMORPGs and games from Zynga.

Subeta could have pursued the path of taking as much money as possible, but that wasn’t the community we wanted to build and we even got offers from large corporations but felt that taking their money would surely result in pressure to grow profits at any cost and that wasn’t compatible with the Subeta I envisioned. I didn’t have to worry about where food or electricity was going to come from ever again thanks to Subeta, and couldn’t bring myself to turn it over.

In order to keep growing the site and keeping it sustainable, we had to come up with a better system than “send me money in the mail and write down what you want”. So, we created the Cash Shop Credit ($1 = 100CSC). Players could buy a new currency specifically for Cash Shop purchases like Gold Accounts, Monthly Collections and profile medals. This grew to include a special Cash Shop only pet “color” called Angelic that started at $30, today it’s 750 Cash Shop Credits.


With more complexity came the need for setting base guidelines and values. So, I came up with Keith’s Principles of Ethical Micro-transactions™️. It boils down to trusting the players that could to keep giving their hard earned money to us, and for the ones that couldn’t we weren’t going to make Subeta unplayable.

  • No game breaking items available for money. This included weapons that could be used in the battle system, the most popular area of the site for engaged players. Anything that would make the game unfair or tip the balance too far toward players who spent money was off the table.
  • Non-paying users have access. Each user sold the items they got in games, events and participating on the forums in their personal shops, and selling Cash Shop Credits was no different. Users have always set the price of CSC to Subeta Points and it would fluctuate and steadily rise over time as there were more and more things to spend Subeta Points on. This gave us the ability to easily give out CSC in the case of downtime without making people who paid for it feel like it cheapened it. They actually prefer the price being kept artificially low because it meant users didn’t have to spend years to earn enough sP to convert it to CSC 🥰
  • No “gambling” (what are now called loot boxes). We had the monthly collection items based on the popularity of Japanese Gacha games, and had boxes that contained 15 random items each month, and you’d get a random one from each box you purchased for $2.50. After two years we noticed that there were some of the most purchased items on the site, but users were the most unhappy with them if they got what was considered one of the dud items for that month. We retooled the feature to be a little more expensive (250CSC → 500CSC) but allowed you to choose the item you wanted, so there were no duds.
  • Maximum of $100 a month per user to prevent taking advantage of our playerbase. We later raised the limit to $300 based on feedback from users who wanted to spend more and were instead spending that money at Neopets.

The one week gold account is still the go to free gift if there is significant downtime or errors on the site, or the team just wants to give everyone a little boost. No paying Gold Account users complain that it is taking something away from them, or making their gold accounts worth less, because we’ve built this kind of thinking into the community.

CleanShot 2021-05-04 at 17.29.11.jpg

When we added Human Avatars to the site in 2008, and the largest avatar site after Gaia Online, we really strived to ensure the quality was incredibly high and the value for buying an entire set felt like you were really getting something of (digital) luxury. This was really important because kids were spending their real money on it, and had competitions for building these beautiful avatars. A set of Delish (the in game name of the luxury designer) items cost 1,500CSC.

Entire fan sites like style-file popped up to catalog these lewks and having the most recent fashion became a major part of the game for some players. It was still important to make sure that users who couldn’t spend money had access to these sets, so they could buy CSC from other users for sP and then buy the sets themselves.

style-file an early fan site centered entirely around building beautiful avatars

The Delish brand is what is used in the cash shop for "premium" ($) clothes

On Subeta today, the most common thing to spend cash on is the “Custom Clothing” system, which allows players to upload their own items to be used in the dress up wardrobe feature. Those items get put into the users shop, where they can choose the price they sell it for in CSC and make a sick (on site) profit, which they can then in turn use to buy other items from users. We investigated doing payouts to creators but the small amounts coupled with the wild market we saw happening at Second Life gave us pause, not to mention it was technically difficult when the custom wearable system launched.

Players who started making custom clothing on Subeta have gone on to become indie game creators and actual fashion designers. It gives creators an outlet for creativity and creates community around their creations that didn’t exist at that time on the internet. Some of the longest running forums are centered around specific artists and trying to collect their early artwork in the game.

CleanShot 2021-05-04 at 17.35.22.jpg

Custom wearables ranging from the classic party cup to alien skin 👽

This is part of a series on building Subeta, one of the earliest and largest virtual pet sites on the internet. The next post will be on building a community centered around free expression (not free speech!!) compared to Neopets where you could get banned for saying “gay” even referring to yourself, writing one of the earliest community codes of conduct, how to deal with an aging playerbase, and gracefully (I hope) handling the death of popular and loved players in a tight knit community.

  1. A plot was a side-wide activity that required players to come on every few days to see how the story would progress, and take part in it in some way. Typically there were puzzles to solve, and players who solved them got greater prizes at the end. The first plot I wrote starred a narcassistic unamed goddess and a childlike oracle. I don't remember what people had to do, but I remember having fun pulling the strings.
  2. I had to FTP MY FILES onto this server. I edited them locally (but could not run them) and would upload them and just see what happened. Truly the DO IT LIVE of web development. I deleted production data frequently. I miss it.
  3. other unpaid teens
  4. Really! Neopets was bought by a scientologist and run with some principles of the org 👽 🤯! You can also read the co-founders reddit AMA about it!
  5. This has given me a todo of writing a script to take a screenshot of all of the pet profiles. Trying to find screenshots of early profiles that were beautifully designed is met with 'this image no longer exists' imgur and photobuckets :(

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