2008 was a good year for Habbo. It's seen about 40 percent growth in the number of users, according to Sulake lead designer Sulka Haro -- from 89 million total signups last year to 126 million today.
The online virtual social world for teens sees about 11.5 million uniques per month, Haro adds. So the numbers seem to suggest Habbo is thriving, and although its financials aren't published, "there's probably good news coming up," Haro says.
Haro was at the Worlds in Motion Summit at GDC 2009 to discuss applying game mechanics within the context of a social game, an effort he described as "pretty successful" thus far.
Since an online product is persistent, he dubbed his presentation more of a "mid-mortem" than a post-mortem, as it was originally billed.
As a social virtual world, Habbo's mechancs are rooted in user-generated content, and relies on providing an open-ended experience that the users can design.
"Given that we're operating in 33 markets and the youth culture is hugely different... we're still relevant to the teens in each one of our markets because the teens bring their own culture and the stuff they love into the world," Haro explained.
Habbo is "most definitely not a game," said Haro. "Looking at how people in the industry are looking at social virtual worlds, there's a very strong polarization between the two." Haro noted that people see open-ended social worlds as opposite to games. "I think that's complete bull," he said.
"But they actually support each other very nicely and could support each other much more," Haro suggested, noting that social worlds could benefit from game mechanics and games could benefit from more user-generated social content.
"When you go to WoW and try to do a pick-up group, most of the time the experience just sucks," said Haro, as an example. "So, we can really improve things going into the future."
In that vein, Habbo has been trying to boost the game mechanics within its world while still maintaining its socially-oriented open-endedness. There's a key reason behind the decision: in the highly competitive free-to-play social world space, user retention is key."
And social value erodes quickly," Haro said, noting the importance of user retention in the highly-competitive free-to-play social world space.
"If you leave Habbo for a couple months and come back, if you want to do well, you'll need to spend a lot of energy building a profile again. Social interaction is real-time, but there's no historic persistence for what you've been doing in the service."
So, it's difficult for users that take a break to return -- effectively penalizing players for not playing, a model that can create a barrier to retention. Not only that, but new users can feel overwhelmed coming in and confronting established social groups, Haro added.
"The behavior model is exactly the same as real-world culture shock," he said. "So, looking at the new user spending their first time in Habbo, there's a massive amount of different things to learn. 'How am I supposed to dress myself? How do I talk here?' Because there is culture in the worlds -- if this sounds silly, it really does exist."
In worlds that rely solely on social value, meeting the initial expectations of new users is also challenging. Many users come to Habbo expecting something more like an MMO, or believing that they can earn money by playing. The social world space is so variegated the chances of disappointing users with different expectations are high.
Habbo's designers call this gulf between user's introduction to the world and their acclimation to it the "Valley of Death." And one way to bridge it is through game mechanics.
This includes games without particular social weight to them, or goals that exist outside of the social circle, to provide opportunities for users to interact in the world without depending solely on the social climate.
Achievements and earned currency are one way to build these kinds of mechanics, and Habbo has been implementing them slowly, starting with earned badges for playing the in-world minigames.
They expanded the system with "goals for noobs," which awarded badges to players for small tasks like creating profiles or taking their first steps in the game.
"The initial user reaction was mixed," said Haro. "The top super-super socializers love the structure exactly as it is, and even if we're making changes in their best interests they hate it," said Haro.
Habbo then implemented a dual-currency model called Pixels, currency that can be earned through use instead of purchased via microtransactions, formerly Habbo's only mode. Pixels can be earned just by spending time online and earning achievements.
"The interesting part... is we're using the earned currency as a new scarcity model," Haro notes. "Used to be you could just spend money and buy all the virtual items you wanted in the world, which prevented people from setting goals. With the earned currency we can actually make stuff available at high prices... which allows people to set goals for getting this stuff."
This means goal-oriented players are interacting with the world for the purpose of attaining an object, with an ultimate reward in mind -- which benefits user retention and adds more game-like structure for players.
33 percent of users polled said it was difficult to show others they are cool or have done something well. 42 percent said it was difficult to know whether others think they're cool. So Habbo implemented a "Respect" system -- users can give respect to one another three times a day, and there's an achievement tied to how much respect users have been gaining and giving out.
Again, users complained of the worthlessness of the respect system since there was no material reward associated with it. They also worried they'd be addicted to the system. Other users disliked the social rule change -- "It takes a while for people to figure out what to do with social tools," said Haro.
Two months later, Habbo asked its users for feedback again -- and received a positive response. Some people decided to pretend the respect system was a way to give "love" to girlfriend-boyfriend avatars. Other players had formed teams to find new ways to gain respect for everyone -- and 76 percent of players said they hoped to achieve the "level 10 respect" badge. Users even paid one another in currency for respect, a huge reversal from the initial reception of the feature as "worthless."
Haro says a major takeaway from this is that immediate reactions to socially-geared changes are unwise. Day-to-day metrics aren't necessarily helpful when you're implementing changes with a highly social aspect, since it takes time to adjust.
"You shouldn't jump too quickly," Haro said. "I'm glad we didn't -- there's a huge number of positive things that have come out of the functionality that initially the users reacted to very poorly."
Overall, social context and game mechanics make a good fit, Haro concluded.