[Sulake's Sulka Haro (Habbo) is one of the more thoughtful minds in social games today, and Gamasutra quizzes him about exceeding user expectations, child rearing, and quality of life in the Finnish game industry.]
Habbo Hotel is immensely popular worldwide, with over 90 million Habbo characters for the graphically-based social space created as of 2008.
Sulka Haro is lead concept designer for the game/service, and helps guide facilitate user experience in both predictive and reactive ways. Haro is always thinking about the industry, other titles, and what can be done for the service, in a very deep level, almost academic way.
Atop the Hotel Torni in Helsinki, one of the tallest buildings in Finland, we continued a discussion that began on a nature hike by his father’s cabin (Haro is also an amateur nature photographer). It unfortunately leads to some rather baiting questions on my part, but which brings about a number of excellent points.
In this interview, we discuss social dynamics and style in MMOs, local markets versus foreign expansion, single- versus multiple-sharded environments, and how to predict where your game is to go, when all major play content is essentially player-driven.
Habbo and Social Culture
Talking about Habbo, I was interested when you said earlier today that you were seeing trends develop in terms of like style and culture across different servers. Can you talk a little about what was happening there?
Sulka Haro: Sure. Obviously, the servers we set up, they're partially divided by the markets, some partially by language.
By markets, you mean regions, right?
SH: Yeah, regional. So there's one hotel for the French and one for the Germans, which obviously is like... it’s kind of like language areas, as well, but for example, for the Spanish speaking people, we only have one hotel where a lot of Latin America and Spain come in. As far as I know, some people from North America are in there as well. And obviously, people carry their own culture, like the one they have in the real world, into the hotel.
So, that changes the way people behave in that particular instance of our shard. But also, there are aspects of culture that people create. For example, there's the racing culture. So, the way you're supposed to dress is different for each one of the shards in Habbo, even though for an outsider, it looks like the dressing is very similar obviously, because the clothing looks similar in all the hotels.
But the established players pretty much immediately recognize new players just by how they dress. So something that might look like a really proper fine clothing combination for somebody who doesn't know the dressing culture in that particular instance might be something that the established player thinks is very silly.
And when you say how you're supposed to dress, you mean socially?
SH: Socially acceptable by their clothing, yes. It's exactly the same as in the real world, but it just happens in a virtual world. That's also one of the things we've had to, as we've recognized this, it has also meant that if we design any characters locally here in Helsinki, they might work really well in some of the Hotels.
But they will look very silly in some of the other Hotels, so we're actually avoiding designing that many characters ourselves now. It doesn't work in some of the markets as well.
You're trying to have the characters designed locally in that market?
SH: Or working out clothing combinations done by the players themselves because they're the experts.
You mentioned a randomizer that... Can you talk about that?
SH: So, for example, if you go and change your clothing in Habbo right now, when you press the random button, instead of actually getting a random piece of dress, you actually get clothing from some other players. That's loaded from the database of that particular hotel, so it's kind of guaranteed to be socially acceptable in that particular shard.
Eve Online uses a single sharded environment, versus your market-divided shards. What do you think about the single-shard idea?
SH: There are pros and cons to each method. I guess in EVE [Online]... There are somewhat crucial differences between the games and the worlds. Habbo doesn't really have any topology in itself.
It's just rooms that you access through this navigator thing that we have, versus EVE, which is really a proper world where you actually have to travel from one place to another. By that virtue, it's much easier for them to actually shovel like a hundred thousand people into an instance because they're so spread out.
But for us, if we actually were to put into that number of players into just one instance, we would have to come up with ways of navigating the world in a manner that makes conceptual sense to the players with the lack of topology.
So it's kind of about different ways the server has been set up that supports different metaphors for finding yourself. But then again, we're pushing... Like the biggest instance that we have right now... The peak is I think more than 20,000 players concurrently. It's a different way of doing things.
For us, the fact that players get to experience the kind of culture they expect has been very important, and by that virtue, it's just fun and easier to do several instances that get the aspects of culture that people bring in from the real world. I guess part of that is why the cultural expectations of kids and teenagers are different than how adults perceive things. So, if Habbo were for adults, it'd probably be different.
The first time we talked, I asked you if many people working on Habbo had children, and you said not so many at the time. Has having since had a child changed your perspective at all?
SH: Not really, no. Obviously, she is so small, there's nothing in particular that I could apply directly. I don't think that has for me has changed that much.
But there seems to be a lot of babies springing up at the office, though. [laughs] The percentage of people with kids has certainly grown. I think we had a record of like seven people being on maternity leave simultaneously last year or so.
Wow. I wonder if that's simply due to the age of the people in the company more than anything.
SH: Probably. And also, I guess there’s also the fact that the amount of vacation you get in Finland if you have a kid is totally awesome. Moms get paid pretty well for if I recall 10 months after having the baby, and even dads get something pretty nice, like several weeks off.
In terms of the evolution of a multiplayer social environment, it doesn't age in the same way as a console game or even a 3D MMO. How do you sort of make sure it's contemporary? I mean, obviously, you have to do a lot of market research and that sort of thing.
SH: Yeah, and also for Habbo, as I've said before a number of times, one of the key things is that practically all the content on the servers is created by the players themselves, so it's not like we have to do that much to keep up with the times if you look at the content itself, because it's the players bringing the stuff in.
It's more like we get to know what's hot currently in each particular culture by just looking at what the players are doing by themselves. So, if one of the TV series... If there's a new TV series on TV and it's cool and the kids love it, they start to play in Habbo before we get any data from the media companies saying that it's a popular TV series.
So you can sort of follow the users' desires and then try to exceed them? Something like that? Say with a TV thing, if it becomes quite popular, you see that it's popular and you can do some sort of co-promotion with it or something like that?
SH: Yeah, yeah. Definitely. The thing that we're doing, obviously there's a marketing department that looks at what the kids are doing. The actual product development teams, we’re concentrating on practically everything except for the content itself.
So, we're kind of like making tools for the players to create more content as well as trying to make Habbo as approachable and usable as possible so more and more people can actually come in and do the content and enjoy the content created by other players.
So it's more of a usability thing on your end, and kind of making sure you're controlling the user experience more than the content?
SH: Sort of, yes. It's kind of like we're creating the platform for players to create content on as well. I guess the split between what we're doing and how we're concentrating...
Like, how you approach different sides of the servers are difficult calls sometimes because there's usability that applies to the user interfaces, so you want those to be as efficient as possible and effective as possible, and not get in the way.
And then there's stuff that happens in the rooms themselves, and that has to be as immersive as possible and take as much time as possible, which is totally contradictory to the usability goals. You have to be very conscious of where you apply usability and parts you want to be immersive.
Is that mostly kind of trial and error?
SH: Nowadays we're making more and more conscious decisions as to how it works.
Since it's been going for a while now.
SH: Yeah. Obviously, everything has to look pretty. Actually, just a little while ago, there was a new book that I read through called Beyond Game Design. The very first chapter actually discusses that, and they were using terms like “user experience,” which is like the classic usability thing, and “player experience,” which is the gameplay, immersion part. It discussed what the differences are and how contradictory the things are. Actually, that book had a nice discussion of what the differences really are.
Where do you see Habbo going in the next five years? Do you see it continuing on the same path?
SH: It's actually very difficult to say exactly. I think we have a very good idea as to like what we'd like to do within the next year, which I won't obviously tell you. [laughs]
But beyond that, the way we've been developing, we switched a couple years ago to SCRUM, which means that we have a very good description of the projects that we're going to be working on for like the next 30 days, and a long-return roadmap that's something like six months to a year.
Every single time we put out a new version of the product, we learn something new. And every time we learn something new, it begins to change what we think is important. And on top of that, we're doing a lot of user research as well. And the priorities of the users keep changing. Some of that just basically is when new products from competitors come out which might change the expectations of the players, or it could be = some aspects of culture which just keep changing over the years and we might need to react to that.
Habbo's been out for about 8 and a half years, and obviously the world has changed quite a lot. Habbo used to be in this nice blue ocean with no competitors, and now it's really turning into this red ocean where there are a lot of virtual worlds targeting teenagers coming in. Just by virtue of having a lot of options available, the perceptions of players have changed.
So perhaps now that the game has been out for some time, it winds up being more reactionary development than predictive. Well, I guess it's a combination of the two.
SH: Yeah, because obviously, like what I said, we have this one year roadmap. That means that way there are a lot of goals as to the direction in which we'd like the product to change, so it's not all reactionary. It's also stuff that we think... Whenever you ask players what they like to do, I'm not saying that we aren't going to do the things that players want to, but then again, but you need to also be able to look outside of the box.
You have to be able to surprise them.
SH: Yeah, so... for example, last year, we added the secondary currency in Habbo, where you can actually earn stuff now. It's not an obvious solution that most of the players would have asked for. Obviously, a lot of people have been saying that stuff should be free, and what we did is similar, but it's not the same, so... And it's not something the players would have known to ask for specifically.
Finnish Quality of Life
We were talking about quality of life earlier. Could you explain how overtime and the working environment is set up here?
SH: The way the system works here is that the employers and employees in various industries have to be in unions, and together with the government, they do a binding contract that the companies working in those specific industries have to abide. Those contracts define how, for example, overtime is compensated for, and how many hours you're allowed to put in by law. We have a legislation that's probably stricter than the American legislation to some extent, plus we have these other contracts on top.
And for games companies, we have this IT history contract that all the games companies actually need to oblige to by law, and by that virtue, we have no discussion on overtime hours people are supposed to put in and whether they're compensated fairly or not because we have a contract for it.
In order to have a discussion of whether you do compensate for overtime or not, you'd actually need to be talking to people not obliging to the law. So, the IGDA discussion over the quality of life issues have to some extent seemed a bit silly to us because we don't have the issue here. And obviously, that kind of discussion can only happen in a market where the government isn't actually regulating how companies are supposed to treat their employees.
Can you give sort of a general description of what that means? It is like 9 to 5?
SH: Well, the Finnish standard for working hours per week is 37 and a half hours. It's like 7 and a half hours a day, plus 30 minutes lunchtime basically. So, it's about 8 hours per day at the office. And if you require people to work on holidays or Saturdays and Sundays plus night time, there are defined amounts of extra money that you need to pay on top of regular pay. And that's typically, as far as I know, a percentage on top of the existing salary.
So, if you have like a highly paid employee, having one of them work overtime is actually going to be more expensive than having low wage people working overtime. And there's set minimums for the amount of holidays you get per year, which is fairly good in Finland. Everybody gets 5 weeks off every year, which is totally awesome. The whole country shuts down in July because everybody is taking their month of summer holiday.