With around 80 million registered users, 6 million unique visitors, and 400 million page views on its websites per month, the web-based teen centric online hangout/play space Habbo Hotel is one of the most popular online worlds on the planet - but is relatively little talked about in the game industry.
Sulka Haro, the lead designer of Habbo Hotel at Finland's Sulake Corporation, delivered one of the most entertaining and informative keynote speeches at last month's Austin GDC. Here, in conversation with Gamasutra, he takes on the very nature of play and what defines a game. He also talks more about Sulake's successes with implementing Scrum, and ponders what the attempts to define a "game grammar" mean to design.
Some people have been saying that
while we don't look at products like yours essentially as games straight
out, we probably should be expanding what our definition of "game"
is. That's because Habbo Hotel is the
sort of thing that people are playing. What do you think about that?
Sulka Haro: I guess I really don't look so much at the definition of "game" as much as I look at the definition of "play." If you look at Habbo, nobody can say that people aren't playing in there. People really do play in all of these environments, so I would use that as the unifying metaphor for discussing the different environments and products you can use to play. It's more clear.
Obviously there's products that are more "game," and they define gameplay, and the algorithms, as Raph [Koster] put it, where the meshing actually has a way to compute the thing that's going to happen next. As opposed to the purely social play, like Habbo. But people are still spending time doing something that could be really said to be "play."
Do you think there needs to be a new term for that? Is it important to label that, or does just the definition of "game" need to expand?
SH: I don't know. I guess I'm also looking at this from the perspective of not being an English speaker. In English, the word "play" is fantastically good. It's defined so broadly. In Finnish, there's several different words for different kinds of play, which means there is no one unified word we can actually use in Finnish to quantify the types of play that people do with games, because you probably do need to use one of the more specific words for different aspects. Also, the word for "game" is pretty broad, so that could be applied to different kinds of games, but that doesn't include the kinds of games like Habbo, which is more like the "gameless game" kind of thing.
Though there are games within it.
SH: Yeah. So if we really want to find a global way of speaking about it, it should obviously coming up with something new would help, because we could apply that anywhere. But then again, that's like coming up with new terminology. It usually doesn't work.
Global words are insanely difficult anyway. If you took the word "play" and said it phonetically in Japanese, for instance, you could get "play" or you could get "pray." It's not easy.
SH: There are people in the area of computer games saying that "game" means something that you can play with. I guess then that it would make it easier, and there wouldn't be any discussion as to whether products like Habbo are games or not, because they wouldn't like the word "game" to actually cover it.
Right. A game that plays with you is an interactive game, right? It would be hard to call it a video game if it's a board game and it's just you, because you could play all the sides I suppose.
SH: Yeah, but then again if you look
at Habbo, if you go to a room and you're alone, it would be just
furniture. There's no play. You're kind of playing, but it's the same
as if you had a doll's house, just moving the furniture, which you can
also kind of play, but it's definitely not a game.
Right. If you have the knowledge that other users are there and you're playing by yourself, and at some point you can invite them -- even if it were only on your own screen on your own computer -- you could invite someone over to your house and play.
SH: Well, in a case like the doll's house example, if you were hanging out in a group of people who all had doll's houses at home and you knew that they were playing with their doll's houses as well, and occasionally gathered everybody's houses together and played together, would that change it? It's essentially the same as being like you're in this big network [with] your own room, and you're playing and you know other people are there. Of course, with [Habbo] being virtual, you can actually just jump to other peoples' rooms immediately and start to play with them. There's none of the limitation of having to physically be there. But in terms to play, I don't think that it actually does change it that much.