Image credit: Sulake

Wandering the quiet digital halls of Habbo Hotel

The once-massive social game trundles on.

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    Image credit: Sulake

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    "I'm Unicorn_farts and welcome to your official Habbo Intelligence Agency Training Session!"

    I was in a strange room filled with black couches, ebony walls and various elevators trapped behind glass gates. It would have felt like a bank or government building were it not for the ice-cream stand and Easter memorabilia, which included a giant rabbit plush and some egg-shaped statues with human-sized chicks inside.

    Many spaces in Habbo, a virtual world created by Finnish developer Sulake, feel like this one. The platform is loosely modeled after a hotel, but its user-designed chat rooms span a broad set of themes. Jungles, high schools and coffee shops -- they're all in here.

    As I glanced around my Easter-themed classroom and speculated on its architect, Unicorn_farts ran through a long and surprisingly thorough script. "Now, let's take a look at some basic rules of HIA," she said. "One, show respect to everyone, regardless of rank, gender, orientation or beliefs. Two, do not ask or hint for a promotion, pay, room rights or badge admins. Three, do not sit on the floor, use all caps or effects, flood, spam, or dance while in the HIA HQ."

    Roughly thirty minutes ago, I had been scrolling through the Habbo hotel directory, looking for a way to earn some in-game currency and upgrade my avatar's shabby clothes. I soon stumbled upon the Habbo Intelligence Agency (HIA), which had "★ DAILY PAYING JOB ★" written in its room title. Intrigued and desperate, I entered the central lobby, walked up to one of the eight pre-check booths and asked for a job. The receptionist said sure, provided I change into a tomato-red uniform and add some special information, including a custom HIA "badge," to my Habbo profile page.

    A few moments later, I was magically transported to a tightly-controlled corner of the room filled with travelators and waist-high barriers. My avatar was stuck there, rocking back and forth, until a security guard returned to his post and yanked a lever. I was then whisked to a different part of the room, staffed by Unicorn_farts, and told to step into a hotel elevator pressed against the wall. Confused and slightly disoriented, I obliged. The contraption was a portal to the Easter-themed wonderland that would serve as my private classroom. Clearly, the agency didn't want anyone eavesdropping on these sessions.

    Habbo

    My first HIA training session.

    I was, to be frank, shocked to find this small but highly organized role-playing community on Habbo. The hotel opened in 2001, before Facebook, Twitter and other social networks had taken over the internet. The pixel art visuals and user-customized rooms were attractive to people who had never played a video game online or spoken to strangers on message boards. Habbo's reputation was decimated, though, in 2012 after British broadcaster Channel 4 News discovered that many users were being asked to perform sexual acts over text -- a practice commonly known as cybering -- and, more worryingly, outside the game over webcam.

    "There was a problem," Lawrawrrr, general manager of Habbo fansite Habbox, said. "I think that Channel 4 report was important, and it flagged a serious issue. "

    Seven years later, I assumed the platform had shut down or been left in a semi-abandoned state. Few platforms could recover from such a damning expose, I thought, or compete with modern games and websites. But I was wrong. Somehow, against all the odds, Habbo is still in business. Like Second Life and Neopets, the site has outlived Google+, Vine, Club Penguin and a host of other web-enabled social platforms.

    "It's not normal for a game to last this long."

    Habbo's community has slowly dwindled over the years, though. Sulake doesn't share user numbers, but you can ballpark the platform's size through its built-in hotel navigator. The number of "popular" rooms with more than 25 people, for instance, rarely rises above six or seven. At its peak, Habbo had 12 sites serving specific regions, such as Russia, Denmark, Japan and the UK; today, there are nine, with a single destination aimed at English-language speakers.

    "Habbo is a really old game," Sarah Green, a community manager for the English version of Habbo, said. "It's 18 years old now, so of course there's going to be some attrition." The hotel must have enough users -- enough who are willing to pay for premium clothes and in-game perks, anyway -- to make it worthwhile for Sulake. "It's not normal for a game to last this long," Green added. "But the community size, we're really happy with it. We're really happy with how everything is at the moment."

    Sulake says Habbo still has "a really healthy flow" of new users. Many are former players who feel bored or nostalgic about an arguably simpler time on the web. In October 2015, DeAndre Cortez Way, best known by his rap persona Soulja Boy, returned to Habbo after a long hiatus. "add me on https://www.habbo.com/profile/souljaboysbeezy ... and join my room i'm online now @Habbo my fav chat game," he tweeted. The shock announcement triggered a small wave of sign-ups from people who wanted to virtually hang out with the star.

    "I think he spent a whole week in Habbo playing, meeting people and telling his fans to meet him in Habbo," Green said.

    The HIA lobby.

    Habbo was a short-lived phenomenon at my school during the early 2000s. I never planned to go back, but a sudden wave of curiosity changed my mind.

    So here I was, in 2019, working at the Habbo Intelligence Agency. Every so often, a new user came through, desperate for work and credits, and I would explain how to change their badge, motto and clothes. If they followed the instructions, I was allowed to pull the lever beside my desk and send them through to security. Sometimes, a returning HIA member would walk up and ask to be sent through, too. Most of the time, though, I was sitting and waiting in total silence.

    It was pretty boring.

    But I couldn't switch off. A floor manager would periodically walk round and bark an acronym such as "ATT," which stood for "attention" and meant that everyone nearby had to stand up, wave and shout either, "Yes sir!" or, "Yes ma'am!" If I left my computer or switched over to a different browser tab, my avatar would eventually start to doze and trigger one of these military-esque wake-up calls. I needed the money, so I quickly learned to keep Habbo open and periodically wave in my chair, just to prove that I was around and paying attention. The staff seemed to notice: A higher-up soon walked over and privately explained that I could change my profile motto to "Agent II."

    That was my first promotion. Elated, I turned around and continued my dull but seemingly important work. Another recruit explained that credits were handed out at 6am, 12pm, 12am, and 6pm GMT. You could only collect your pay, though, if you had been online for at least 60 minutes. Furthermore, you couldn't collect pay the next day unless you worked for another 30 minutes after the handout. It was a strict system, but one designed to stop lazy users from logging on, collecting pay and immediately disconnecting. Conversely, the setup encouraged people to log on throughout the day and keep staff numbers at a consistently high level.

    Habbo

    Queueing for pay.

    Habbo might be an old platform, but it has some crucial features that keep users, including espionage role-playing fans, coming back. The hotel's art style, for instance, is still a major draw. Pixel art is an expressive but technologically primitive technique that was pioneered in the late 1970s. Artists carefully color individual pixels to create recognizable characters, such as Sonic the Hedgehog, and beautiful worlds including Hyrule from the original Legend of Zelda. Crucially, pixel art can be combined with an isometric perspective to create a seemingly three-dimensional world. Sulake used this trick to create a hotel that was expansive but also lightweight enough to run inside a web browser during the early 2000s and beyond.

    Pixel art is strangely timeless, too. It's why many video games from the NES and SNES eras hold up better than PlayStation One titles. The clean, crisp shapes have also come back into vogue through countless small, experimental indie games such as Stardew Valley and Hyper Light Drifter. Habbo doesn't compare to blockbuster video games with near-photorealistic graphics, of course. But it's not an archaic mess, either. "You can look at the furniture that we're doing today and look at the furniture that we did 18 years ago," Green said, "and maybe there are some little differences, but more or less, it's the same and it doesn't look any worse or better than it did 18 years ago."

    "It doesn't look any worse or better than it did 18 years ago."

    Habbo's user-designed rooms can also support any conceivable role-playing scenario. "Join the army and suit up for duty, don your cape and save the universe, wear Habbo Couture as you strut down the runway, become a nurse and save pixel lives," the Habbo website boasts. "It's the biggest, strongest community on Habbo," Lawrawrrr said. "When you are on the hotel, often or pretty much all the time, the top one or two rooms, population-wise, are the FBI and the HIA." These role-playing rooms, or factions, give people a sense of belonging and an obvious space to make friends. The various jobs and ranks, too, encourage good time keeping and a strong work ethic.

    "You learn a hell of a lot of different things [through role-playing]," Lawrawrrr said. "These are 13-, 14-year-olds in most cases, who for the first time are getting a sense of discipline and community that they wouldn't necessarily get in school or somewhere else." The hotel's community spirit can also be infectious and make troublesome users reconsider their actions. One Habbo user called Amy Skates played as a teenager and then returned several years later our of boredom. "I had nothing better to do so I was just trolling people," she said. "And then I somehow made friends, I don't know how, because I wasn't exactly a very nice person when I was doing that, but they found it entertaining. They became my friends."

    Habbo has wisely empowered its most dedicated users and communities, too. It has formally recognised a bunch of fansites, including Habbox, HabboQuests and HabboCreate, which have active forums and run community events. They're listed on the Habbo website and ensure newcomers can quickly find the people who still are still passionate and active on the platform.

    Habbo's pixel art has a timeless quality.

    Creative users are invited to the Builders at Work program, an exclusive group that designs rooms for official Habbo events and campaigns. Experienced players can also be rewarded with Ambassador status, which grants them a handful of moderator abilities. "We have some capabilities, but we don't have all the [same] capabilities as moderators," an ambassador called Zarek said.

    These volunteers help Sulake police the hotel and keep other users interested. The Ambassador title gives them a greater stake in the platform and, through everyday interactions, the power to slowly shape and improve its culture. "A lot of our users, they have this really strong sense of ownership over Habbo," Green explained. "They want it to keep going. They have so much passion and love for the game. They know Habbo inside out."

    Habbo's longevity can also be attributed to its free-to-play model, which uses microtransactions for premium clothes and furniture. These items are hugely desirable -- it's the only way to show off and project some kind of social standing on the platform -- but don't affect the core functionality of the site. Newcomers can still enter rooms, chat with people and participate in basic mini-games, just like Habbo veterans. "I think Sulake has a really good balance between not having to pay and paying for things," Green said.

    Sulake offers two subscription packages, Habbo Club (HC) and Builder's Club (HBC), alongside its premium currencies. HC has a number of site-wide perks, including exclusive hair, clothes, furniture and dance routines. It also doubles the user's friend list and increases their room limit from 50 to 75 people. HBC, meanwhile, lets create users borrow a virtually unlimited amount of furniture and access a special floor-plan editor.

    Habbo

    A room modeled after Hogsmeade, a fictional town in the Harry Potter universe.

    The room-editing tools keep plenty of players hooked. Certain items can be stacked on top of one another to create custom furniture -- for example, placing an orange cushion on top of a black stool -- and add verticality to a room. So-called 'Wired' items, meanwhile, allow room designers to dabble with basic logic and automation. The system, which launched in 2010 and is broadly similar to redstone in Minecraft, can be used to make switch-operated lights and password-protected doors. Many use Wired to create elaborate games or, in the case of the HIA, control both its members and unexpected intruders.

    "The Wired [items] changed the whole community completely," Zarek said. "Now I can Wire a whole game, and all I have to say is, 'Start game' and it'll do its thing. You can even have it set up so people can just come into your room when you're not even online, and it plays the game, and it collects who won or how many times they've won, or how many points they scored when they won. You don't even have to be there."

    These additions have been coupled with slow improvements to the back-end of Habbo. The desktop browser version started on Shockwave but was eventually moved to Flash in 2009. Adobe is killing that web technology next year, however, so work is underway to move the hotel on to another platform. "We have plans for that," Green said. "We are preparing for that." Sulake has also released mobile apps to tempt younger players and support shorter, on-the-go sessions. Unsurprisingly, some of Habbo's older players prefer the browser experience. "I will put my hand up," Lawrawrrr said, "I was a critic of the app. I hate the app to this day. I don't use it and I don't like using it. But I'm a very traditional user. "

    "I hate the app to this day. I don't use it and I don't like using it. But I'm a very traditional user. "

    Habbo has survived, but its virtual guest house isn't perfect. The site still grapples with trolls and sexually explicit language, for instance. On my first day back, I ventured into an underwater nightclub with a neon-soaked bar and dancefloor. I immediately saw and overheard a group arguing with a mixture of phallic insults. None of them seemed particularly aggressive or hurt by the language used, however. Like a group of schoolchildren, they were merely competing to utter the worst possible phrase in human existence.

    On a different day, I saw a small group role-playing some undeniably dirty dancing in the same nightclub. "lick marks abs," vickylass urged. "he wants you to." A few yards away, britneylass responded with "*licks marks abs*" and her dancing partner, -SkidMark-, exclaimed "woah. me gusta mucho." Many users with a female avatar are bombarded with private 'whisper' messages in these rooms, too. "If you walk into a public room as a female you will get whispered by several mouths and if you tell them you are 14 or 15 or whatever, they will say something like, 'Age is just a number' and this stuff,'" Amy Skates said.

    Habbo still has a moderation problem.

    The hotel also hides casinos that go against Habbo rules. "There's nothing being done about [them]," Amy Skates added, "Because no one is reporting the rooms. No one is reporting the owners. The only way I've seen a casino get banned is if someone tweets [about it] on Twitter and Habbo sees it."

    Sulake won't say how many employees it has. Users believe the team is small, though, and ill-equipped to moderate the platform. "We used to be able to tell the moderator on duty," Zarek explained, "and say, 'Hey, this is happening,' and they would go and shut it down. But we don't have that anymore. Now, we'll message one of the staff, and when they come online, they may be able to do something, but it might already be over by then."

    The company's first line of defence is an automatic filtering system. If any user tries to swear, say something sexually explicit, or give away sensitive information such as their phone number or email address, the infringing words will show as "bobba" instead. The system is generally effective but often punishes users unfairly. "You can say something like, 'I want to lick that strawberry jam off the doughnut,' and it'll give you a warning for that, because it's seen the word 'lick,'" Lawrwarrr said.

    Sulake disciplines users with an escalating sanction system. These penalties range from simple warnings to temporary mutes and, eventually, permanent bans. Sharing links, unsurprisingly, is a no-no on the platform. Many users are frustrated, though, that this rule extends to officially recognized Habbo fan sites.

    Users chat with the same speed and frequency as a private iMessage conversation.

    "I understand why," Lawrawrrr said, "because people will try to share dodgy links. But Habbox is an official fan site. We work with Sulake really, really closely, and if you say, 'Sign up at habbox.com,' you get a sanction. You get a mute for that." She's been asking Sulake "for years" to create a whitelist that would help fan sites attract new users and organize community events on Habbo. "Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to exist," Lawrawrrr added.

    Moderation, of course, is a widespread problem on the internet. Almost every social-media company, including Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, struggles with harassment, bullying and generally toxic users. "[The problem has] gone everywhere else," Zarek said. "You have your other online games that people have amassed to, and now they have those problems, and they've kind of realized it wasn't just Habbo having the problem. All these places have the problems with moderation."

    On Habbo, though, the scale and complexity is unique. Users chat with the same speed and frequency as a private iMessage conversation. That's more than the average person tweets or uploads to YouTube. "There are sometimes 75 people in a room spitting out lines and lines of text," Lawrawrrr said. "It's like a group Facebook conversation, but all the time and in, what, 200 rooms at once? There's a huge amount of text that goes in."

    Habbo

    Some rooms are busier than others.

    The future of Habbo is unclear. Sulake formally launched another social game, Hotel Hideaway, for Android and iOS devices last year. It seems to be reasonably popular -- the Android app, for instance, has over one million installs and an impressive 4.6 user rating on the Google Play store. While thematically similar, Sulake says Hotel Hideaway isn't designed to replace Habbo. "As a company, we are 100 percent behind both products," Green told Engadget. "It's not a question of should we put some resources here or here. We are 100 percent behind supporting both communities."

    Regardless, Habbo's existence and cultural relevance is constantly under threat. Sulake is battling with YouTube, Instagram, Fortnite and the myriad other ways that people can spend their free time. "Social media didn't exist when I first started playing Habbo," Lawrawrrr said. "No one used Facebook. No one used Twitter. It's just changed so much." It's a miracle that Habbo can pull people away from these other time-killers. "It's like an escape,"Lawrawrrr said. "I feel like I can talk about my job and my family and my friends, and I can whinge and say, 'Ugh. I'm dying from food poisoning. Everyone say their goodbyes.' It's just a nice escape from the real world."

    Habbo might be old, but it feels comfortable and familiar to many people. Some rooms are filled with trolls and worrying language, but there are just as many, if not more, that are chock-full of friendly folk.

    I've seen one of the latter communities first-hand. On my second day as a HIA member, a manager walked over and promoted me to security. That meant another round of training and, more importantly, a new level of respect from my peers. I sat and listened diligently as another Habbo user, guvenS_, explained how the position worked in a private room. It was now my job to patiently and thoroughly scrutinize everyone that was let through by the agents on the front desks. That meant typing every visitor's name into a security system that was hosted on a different website. The database would throw back a color -- green, yellow or red -- which had a corresponding teleportation tile inside Habbo.

    "Not a question in my mind that Habbo will still be here in five years' time."

    I spent an entire evening working and familiarizing myself with the position. I could have been watching Netflix or devouring the latest batch of PlayStation Plus games. Instead, I felt drawn to a group of strangers that had invited me into their fictional agency and given me a mundane but strangely rewarding job. It was a simple, but refreshing change from most nights.

    Many users have a similar attachment to the hotel. Some even feel trapped by the friendships and communities that form a large part of their social life. "Sometimes I feel sorry for them," Amy Skates said. "Because you're just going to end up stuck like everything else. I hear people say every single day, "I need to quit, I need to quit." And they don't because obviously they're stuck with all their friends and they don't really want to leave them. Everyone wants to quit but none of them are going to and that's the fact."

    That stickiness and sense of belonging could keep Habbo running for many years to come. "[There's] not a question in my mind that Habbo will still be here in five years' time," Lawrawrrr said. The virtual hotel might be a little quieter these days, but it still has diehard regulars and, it seems, enough pixel art charm to tempt the occasional newcomer through its doors.

    Images: Sulake

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