Though it didn't attract the biggest crowd at the show, Sulka Haro's keynote speech on Habbo Hotel delivered a lot of wry commentary and useful information on the building of successful online worlds.
Even though his world is mostly populated by 13-16 year olds - by his own admission - Sulake Labs' Haro noted there are lessons to be learned about broadening the appeal of products that touch on one or more of the tactics Habbo Hotel takes in developing its userbase.
Habbo Hotel - The Basics
The talk started with statistics. Habbo Hotel has approximately 7.5m unique players per month globally -- nipping at the heels of World of Warcraft. In the seven years since the game launched, 80 million accounts have been created. Globally, the game typically has 100,000 concurrent users playing at one time.
The creators of Habbo Hotel came from the web development community. According to Haro, the team was originally "not much in gaming. We've since hired people from the games industry... the core product itself was really done from the web mindset of things."
It grew from a "Disco" project with just two rooms that attracted a surprising number of international players even though it was only available in Finnish. "Most of them couldn't understand Finnish but they still went through the registration... there was a massive crowd from Brazil who visited the site for some reason."
This project evolved into a snowball-fighting browser game, but here Sulka learned an important, early lesson. The game allowed players to buy better equipment. "People hate when you buy stuff that lets you do better in the game. There were a bunch of kids who couldn't do purchases..." These players soon grew frustrated with the players who could.
Habbo Moves On Up
The next project? Hotelli Kulta Kala, which translates to "Hotel Goldfish". Haro remembered, "The retro pixel look was done at this time. It's actually served us pretty well. It looked as old seven years ago as it does now. If you think about 3D games from seven years ago they look pretty terrible. And the kids who play this game don't even know what the word 'retro' means. It's just another look to them."
When the project began, there wasn't so much a business plan or even an overarching design philosophy. "We wanted to give some kind of tools for people to do their own stuff. [There was] no thinking about business models at this point. We just wanted something to happen. [We expected to last] 3-5 months, if we're lucky." Of course, Hotel Goldfish was designed to generate profits from the get-go (or it wouldn't be around today as Habbo Hotel, no doubt.) "The business model here was virtual furniture sales using premium SMS. It took about five minutes for us to set up the actual sales part because it had already been established."
Immediately, there was a scamming problem with the users. The naming convention for furniture allowed for a trick where a user with a name like "100x" could convince other users that he was trading 100 units of furniture. In light of this, Sulka's advice is, "When looking at your product and figuring out how people play it... one in a million might figure [an exploit] out, but we have 80 million people visiting the site. Always expect your users will figure it out."
Shortly, it was time to take Hotel Goldfish global. And the name had to be changed, to Habbo Hotel. "We retroactively branded the finnish hotel -- the users hated it, obviously." Given that Finland is the home of Nokia, it's little surprise to hear that the population had cell phones in 2000. But at the UK launch (the second territory to get Habbo) kids in that country didn't have phones. "We changed from selling virtual furniture to selling virtual currency. This is obviously a massive change for how we did things. We didn't realize at the time back then how big a change this was. We through it was just a workaround to get the furniture into the hands of the kids." These days, Habbo accepts "100 ways" to pay.
According to Haro, if you want a big audience, "Credit cards and prepay cards are cool -- but they just don't cut it in the global market" for selling to kids.
Currency And Economy In Online Worlds
Haro was a bit cagey about how the move to a money-based currency changed things for Habbo. "There's a massive difference between selling currency and selling property. I'm not going to spell the beans but do think about it." He did admit that "It did actually add a lot of flexibility" to the game economy. "Teenagers really do get the fact that you own a piece of property and you get to trade it."
The company began to introduce rare items, produced for a limited time (though you could purchase as many as you want while they're available. These items are "pretty expensive, they're like five bucks each." When it comes to selling items to kids, "Many users might only put in a couple dollars, but there's a few who will put in thousands of dollars because we enable them to."
Beyond direct currency sales, Habbo hotel supports advertising -- which began with web-style ad banners. "We're really trying to migrate away from that," Haro explained. Advertisers now understand that "you can communicate with the teens, not at the teens. We're putting out branded furniture which the teens love even more, oddly enough."
He showed off Target-branded furniture now launching in the U.S. Rare items do value up in Habbo -- "Some items value over $2000 each. Some people try to monetize this on eBay but it actually doesn't work that well. The teenagers don't check eBay." According to Haro, the items on Habbo Hotel in 2007 have a total market value of around $550,000,000.
Looking Into Habbo's Demographics
Here, Haro moved into a discussion of the game's demographics. Globally, the game attracts around 51% boys and 49% girls. "13-16 seems to be the predominant age group we're getting." But in different territories the story may be different. For example, in Japan there are a lot of younger kids playing, but there's also a hardcore cadre of housewives who play in their own cliques. When it comes to the U.S., Haro posited, "I guess in the States the tipping point is when you get your driver's license and you can actually go somewhere to meet people."
A big concern of Habbo players is to create a private space where their parents don't know what's going on -- and this extends to when they get in trouble. "We even had the incident where we wanted to make an example of a scammer and tell the cops. The only thing he wanted is that his parents didn't find out." According to Haro, Habbo Hotel represents a generational shift in how younger users look at the internet. "People are playing internet these days. It's not like people are thinking of it like a medium, but as a place where you do stuff."
And Habbo Hotel is at the forefront of collecting information on its audience's trends. "We're doing a yearly global youth study. Last year we interviewed 42,000 kids to find out who they really are." The demographics break down into five main groups.
52% boys, all age groups
Carefree, risk taking attitudes
Value fun, enjoyment and experiences in life
Open toward change and new ideas
Interested in extreme sports and street culture
We like to organize and participate in player created games and activities
59% girls, many 11-16 year olds
Open-minded, curious and active
Value artistic self-fulfillment
Tolerant attitudes, strong social conscience
Wide range of cultural and intellectual interests
We come to Habbo to meet our real life friends
56% boys, many 13-16 year olds
Self-confident and ambitious
Value material welfare and success
Intolerant attitudes, negative towards environmental issues
Interested in sports, computers fashion and partying
We are into trading and collecting
46% boys, largest in over 17 year olds
Passive & insecure
Quite open-minded, liberal attitudes
Focused areas of interest, for example comics & gaming
We come to Habbo to meet our online friends
49% girls, largest in under 12 year olds
Responsible and honest
Value personal safety and ordinary life
Conservative attitudes, but positive towards environmental protection
Interested in nature, sports and pets
We are keen on helping new players!
According to Haro, "If you look at Japan, there's a massive overpopulation of the loners segment. It doesn't mean they're behaving oddly... U.S. has a lot in the achievers section."
The difficulties in global gaming aren't just about different kinds of audience breakdowns -- it also relates to the interaction between these different gaming territories. Haro recounted an amusing anecdote about Habbo Hotel's introduction in Japan. "Finns invaded the Japanese hotel. They wanted to know what the Japanese were like. Turns out [despite 70% being interested in having a foreign friend] only 44% of the teenagers globally had a positive attitude towards foreigners. What happened is that it was a total catastrophe -- the Japanese locked up their rooms and didn't allow people in their rooms unless they had a Japanese name. It ruined the Finnish community too. We had to come up with an IP blocking technology. It sounds stupid but we had to let the Japanese community grow to the point where Finns could visit the hotel."
The Casual Gaming Question
Is Habbo Hotel a casual game? Haro isn't entirely sure that's the case. "If you want to do well you have to invest a heck of a lot of time, and in that way you can't say it's casual." He also rejects the Web 2.0 and Game 3.0 labels -- if for no other reason than Habbo Hotel has been around since 2000. "My personal favorite is 'gameless game'," he remarked, and "I'm very proud that we have this core gameplay without going out and killing monsters."
At this point Haro began to show off some of the rooms players had created in the world. Though there's no core gameplay element, Haro has discovered that players will devise their own fun. For example, a snow-filled room: "You can see the elevation of the room.. there's no gameplay but people were actually running around and pretending they were snowboarding." There was also a puzzle room made out of stacked chairs -- it's tough to navigate to the top without errors. There are show-off rooms full of expensive items, mazes, and even kissing booths (despite the fact that the Habbo characters can't actually kiss.) According to Haro, these are "Pretty popular as well. But there's a fine line what you can do before you get banned."
Habbo Hotel also has MySpace-like profile pages. He showed a popular profile of a Finnish user. "The guestbook has more than 30,000 comments in it -- and this is just a regular user. She's just doing well in the world and being polite." There are also pages for groups of gamers who like the "little thing" characters which can follow your player, which come in two varieties -- single-color and multicolor. "There's actually this huge war between the single-colored groups and the multicolored groups."
Into Music, Room Replicas
Habbo Hotel also has expanded its offerings with a music tracker that users can play with and create tunes. It has a lot of complexity, but its visual style fits right into the Habbo world. "We have this incredibly talented dude back in Helsinki. It takes 30 seconds to start mixing the sounds and everybody feels like they're some kind of supercomposer," Haro noted.
For six years, the game was soundless. "We were thinking of mp3 uploads, but it would be a huge copyright nightmare and it wouldn't be the music players composed themselves... [having the music player] adds value. You have to pay 15 cents for the virtual CD to burn the music onto, the same price you'd pay in the real world. Because players are used to this in the real world, they'll pay the money."
At this point Haro showed off a user-created replica of Harry Potter's famous school Hogwarts. "Harry Potter is really big right now." As a player, though, Haro wasn't interested in this Hogwarts room because it was all Hufflepuff (one of the school's four fictional factions, which is duplicated on Habbo Hotel.) So he searched for another Hogwarts that would fit his faction -- and found it.
"Spider-pig is a good example of what people think surf around and find out." Though The Simpsons is an amerian show, according to Haro, the Australian Spider-pig fan-page is better than the U.S. one. It's not just pop culture, either -- Haro pointed out an environmental group's page. "There are a lot of people expressing their values in the world."
Roleplaying In Habbo
Other players build rooms for roleplaying situations -- like a police station, where the players dress like police and pretend to monitor Habbo. Next up, a recreation of a famous restaurant chain. "This is McDonalds -- there are people who are roleplaying a minimum wage job... it's all roleplay, you can't carry the food or anything. They're just emoting." There are also other factions -- "There's lots of armies. Mafias are really popular as well. They can't do anything... they're just wearing the suit and standing there. They'll emote that they're punching something."
People also roleplay as horses in a stable environment, and other players pretend to pet them. The developers pondered putting in horse characters but decided against it, as the players seemed happy just to roleplay. "The players are coming up with all the cool stuff they're doing. We're not trying to define what the product is about. We're poking in and if it looks like they're introducing elements we don't want" they'll put a stop to it."
Haro compared it to small children playing in the real world -- "If you look, little kids will play for hours... but teenagers are reaching the age where that's not socially allowed anymore. We're providing an environment where that's OK." The in-game tools allow players can do what they want as soon as it's cool -- they'll know what thye want before Habbo will. So the tools are there for them to provide it for themselves.
"If you are thinking that community management isn't necessary, or that you don't have to put a lot of energy into it, you're wrong," Haro warned. "But you also have to understand that there are a lot of different ways to do community management. [In many games] community managers can become superstars, and we're trying to avoid that like crazy, because the players forget that the player-created content is the core of the world."
When it comes to adding those new features at the Habbo level Haro noted, "We do weekly surveys and focus groups -- we're asking new things from the users every week. We do a new build every month so something could be in the game within 30 days." He also commented on the development of Habbo: "We switched to Scrum last year and it's doubled the productivity of the teams. But Scrum is kind of hard to do. You need to fully embrace it -- that means that people have to really let go."
Haro then summed up the talk with six important points.
1. Create something to play with. "Lego are a good example of what you should be building."
2. Intuitive interaction. "You need to kill the UI. If the users notice there's a UI it's probably too complicated."
3. Set up a mood for play. "This is maybe the hardest part to explain. In the real world, as I mentioned earlier, it's increasingly hard to play. Just celebrate the fact that people do stuff and don't punish for failures."
4. Support user-created goals. "Players know the best."
5. Shared social setting. "Even when people create the content, let people walk into the room and [use] the stuff. If you want to play, you need to figure out how to play."
The bonus sixth point, according to Haro, is safety. "The users need to feel as comfortable as possible." Habbo bans players for passing personal info. "If you construct the game so that people can screw up what other people do, people won't bother... it's too difficult to maintain."