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GDC08: Sulka Haro tells us how to Habbo

Michael Zenke

Sulka Haro, lead designer on the wildly popular Habbo Hotel virtual world, yesterday gave the Worlds in Motion summit audience an in-depth half-hour rundown on the Habbo phenomenon. At its core, the Sulake company project is a meeting space for teens - a place to hang out and be someone else for a few hours. The fact that the company can boast millions and millions of unique users worldwide, though, speaks to something many have grasped for and few have succeeded at: a virtual world where people feel truly comfortable.

Haro offered up a peak behind the curtain, at the origins of Habbo as the four room 'Hotel Goldfish'. He discusses the successes they've had in markets abroad, their surprise at the game's adoption by teens, and the numerous ways they allow players to acquire in-game currency. He also notes that Habbo is a world-record setting title in at least one way: they've probably sold the most virtual reindeer poop ever in the history of man.

Read on for a dissertation on a poop-selling, smashing success story.

Gallery: GDC 08: Worlds in Motion summit | 62 Photos

Sulka Haro describes Habbo as an "accidental success story". While they certainly hoped the world would be well received, the response the hotel has gotten across the world far outweighed their expectations. He begins by offering a quick intro to the gameworld: Habbo is a teen-oriented website where you can sign in and customize your avatar. You land on a page telling you what's happening in-world, and one click leads you to an in-game room.

Users have their own rooms, with furniture often referred to as 'furnie. There are numerous decorating options, and objects are purchased with in-game credits. They monetize the game via the credits; there are 186 different methods of paying for these credits, the source of most of the game's revenue.

If you choose to, you can opt to work a job in the game, usually for free. Sometimes players pay each other in furnie. It allows younger teens to experience what it's like to experience real-life work - a form of roleplaying. RP is the primary activity in Habbo; if you were graph activities in Habbo compared to other games, Habbo would be near the top of the stack for interaction and pretending. The pitch to teens is, essentially, "i wish i had my own room and friends who love to hang out at my place." No one is as cool as they like, and some kids may not even have their own rooms. Habbo Hotel allows them to escape to the teen life they want to have.

Decorating is another core activity in the game, an egalitarian task that ties back into the designer's vision of Habbo. Everyone is the same height, which gets around social stigmas about dominance/submission. There is no voice chatting ,no physics, and objects float when stacked upon each other. Floating was oriignally a bug, but it was kept in because it allows for more funky awesomeness. Voice has been kept out of the game because it often destroys the social interaction between players. A teenage guy with a cracking voice would distract from the experience Habbo offers.

As of December 2007 the game had 8.3 million unique users. They have world record sales for reindeer poop - some 70,000 copies. Another popular item is the polar bear skin rug is also very popular ... which is ironic, from Haro's point of view. They did a collaborative study with Greenpeace and found that teens are most worried about global warming; funny that they'd want to spend money on the hide of a climate-change endangered animal.

As of this month, the game had 89 million accounts. He qualifies that by noting Habbo has been around in one form or another for about 7 years or so, so that number isn't super informative. They have a concurrency peak of around 100,000 users. Much more than that and things start breaking. Habbo is currently operating in 31 markets, with a total of 19 language-based hotels split between the markets. He notes that he's here talking because they're kind of big, and big = interesting.

Sulake started fairly small back in 2000, with a few other services that never really panned out. One example as a two-room bar where users tried to pick up chicks. In August of that year they released Hotel Goldfish. It only had four rooms, and they didn't think it was going to be that big a deal. The Retro-pixel design was initially aimed at style-concious twenty-somethings, so they were very surprised to see teens jump at it. The result is that most of the older users left as teens colonized the service. Haro feels that the game's look might have something to do with that: "We look exactly as old now as we did eight years ago." In other words, their graphics are timeless. "This retro-thingie just works." Over the last year they've added more detail to the avatars, but the core elements remain the same.

Their philosophy was to give users tools and space, and assume something interesting would happen. They had no expecations for a life time on the project, but the game's basic business model was there from the start: buying virtual furniture. Most people in Europe already had a cell eight years ago, so their first payment method was via premium SMS texts. Micropayments and content authoring were a great fit for their world concept. When Habbo Hotel opened in Europe in 2001, they needed to expand that idea as many teens weren't cell users. That's when they added the concept of the credits system, and allowed users to buy currency on plastic cards - a concept Haro notes they should have done from day one. The service went from zero to a million users in just one year. The developers were talking a bar one night after work, and they realized they'd just recently passed the number of users Ultima Online had at is peak - a landmark for them.

Mr. Haro offered up (by popular demand) a'little growth secret': Match your website's look to your game's experience. Initially the Habbos site had a dark and angular look. If you liked the website, odds were good that you actually wouldn't like the game's look that much. They redesigned the page to look more like the actual game, communicating to the users with visuals. Subscriptions skyrocketed as a result. Recently they redid the site again to look even more like the in-game experience, and they've seen some new growth as a result. "UI doesn't matter", but you should make sure the user understands the core value of the game via the UI. The website is like the wrapper - it should reflect what's inside.

Haro concluded by reflecting on the future. "We are really living in interesting times." There are many worlds in development at the moment, and good products will continue to expand the market. New needs will be addressed by good products - but why would you want to compete head to head with an existing product? He sees a lot of projects having a head to head mentality, and fears some of those are likely to fail. "Social networking meets casual gaming" sounds nice, but you need something better than buzzwords.

Future developers should realize that social interaction is hardcore. Casual games are casual. Casual games turn into hardcore activities if they're wrapped together. Implementing game mechanics isn't neccessarily the answer either. Haro wonders why we aren't seeing more targetted niche products "OMG PONIES!", cries a slide. He claims there has to be a market for an online pony-riding experiernce. He also thinks that an orchid-buying virtual world would be a hit. It may sound weird, but people buy 20 million orchids in the US alone. Globally, there even more, and these things sell for about $15 a pop. Why not make an Orchid-gazing game - look at orchids in-world and then buy them via the same interface?

As for Habbo's future, he expects they'll be cresting 100 million accounts this year. It's still just accounts, but it is a big number. The website will likely break 1 billion hits a month fairly soon. They've been putting a lot of effort into data mining and focusing on specific game elements to find new profit and growth. They're going to do another user survey this year, similar to a project they did last year. They ask some 60,000 kids what they like, what sites they use ... in the near future they're going to be releasing a book with the results of those surveys.

With that, Haro wrapped things up and offered thanks for listening; ending a fascinating discussion of a quirky, quirky game.

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