AGDC '07: Habbo Hotel manager checks in

Creator of online social community site for teens gives keynote on supporting open-ended play and user creativity.

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Habbo's recent
Habbo's recent "Habbowood" promotion.

AUSTIN, Texas--While discussions of the biggest massively multiplayer online game efforts in recent years are likely to center around World of Warcraft and its 9 million subscribers, it is by no means alone in its good fortune. One of the bigger success stories that doesn't get covered much on gaming-specific sites is Habbo Hotel. The free social-networking service crosses the appeal of MySpace with games and customizable avatars into a cocktail that has attracted more than 80 million registered users in its seven-year history (mostly teenagers). Habbo Hotel sports roughly 7.5 million unique visitors every month--roughly 2 million more than the population of Finland, where its developer, Sulake Corporation, is based. Last year, it made $50 million in sales of virtual furniture and other items for users.

To kick off the second day of the Austin Game Developers Conference, Habbo Hotel creator Sulka Haro delivered a keynote address to an interested audience. Haro began by talking about Habbo's progenitor, Disco, a simple, online virtual club made in 1999. That was followed by a snowboarding-themed game with a virtual ski lodge for people to hang out in, as well as an assortment of minigames. In a significant misstep, Haro said the creators allowed players to use real money to buy in-game items that would grant advantages to the users.

"We learned that people hate when you can actually buy stuff that makes it so you can do better in the game," Haro said.

Haro described a "retro pixel look" that all of his works have shared. While it leaves the games less than visually impressive, it gives them their own character and prevents them from getting dated. Habbo's graphics looked old when it was new, Haro said, but they haven't aged since.

Habbo Hotel doesn't have room rates, as it makes its money through advertising, sponsorship of certain in-game areas, and selling virtual currency that can be traded for items. Because the game updates frequently with new in-game products and cycles out older items, Haro said a secondary market has sprung up around rare goods. Some items have been valued at up to $2,000, with Haro listing the total secondary market for Habbo Hotel at about $550 million a year.

That's particularly striking, Haro said, given that the vast majority of users are between 13 and 16. There are exceptions, as Haro said that in Japan the game is unusually popular with older housewives. But for the most part, the game appeals to users at the time when they are just building their identities and experimenting with the social aspects of life outside their immediate surroundings. However, once those users get driver's licenses and have places to go and other things to do, Haro said they tend to lose interest in Habbo.

The company has analyzed its users into a variety of categories, with labels like "rebels," "achievers," "loners," "creatives," and "traditionals," with most of them split in similar proportions between boys and girls. However, different regions tend to produce different types of players. In the USA there's a wealth of achievers, while Japan is rife with loners, and Finland has an unusually large percentage of traditionals.

That global success has also led to some problems for the company. While 70 percent of Finnish players were keenly interested in having foreign friends, Japanese users complained that their hotel was overrun with Finnish players. The company eventually had to use IP-screening to block Finnish players from the Japanese hotel in order to let that community grow without being pestered. Across the board, Haro said only about 44 percent of the teen users of Habbo have positive attitudes toward foreigners.

Haro said Habbo is about open play, and the company is trying hard not to define what the product is about. But more than anything else, the company wants the users to dictate what happens with the game. For instance, there are no predefined rewards for any actions in the game. Every bit of positive feedback comes from other users, and that has led to the creation of a wealth of unintended games.

Haro has seen players exploit bugs in the game's room-creation process to make their own games, creating a room of floating chairs that serves as a puzzle for visitors who need to figure out where to click to sit down. One player set up a faux fast-food restaurant to role-play as a minimum-wage-earning burger cook and take the orders of visiting users. Others would make mazes out of multiple rooms connected through teleporters. Some form their own Harry Potter-inspired Hogwarts, complete with separate factions. Others establish their own armies or mafias.

While some would call the game dependent on "user-generated content," Haro said he preferred to think of it more as player-generated activities.

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