In the year 2000 a little online chat experienced launched which personally changed my life, that experience was Habbo Hotel, and now it’s turning 15 years old. We caught up with Sulake, the creator of the teen-focussed MMO to talk about some of the changes over the years.
Growing up I was addicted to Habbo Hotel to the point where I was considered a little weird by my peers. I didn’t care at the time, because I had other friends. I had friends within this online world created for teens where I could explore, virtually relax, and get away from the struggles of an early teenage boy in school. Habbo Hotel for me was more than just a silly online game, it was something I spent hours doing, something I spent real money on, and sadly it was something I quickly grew out of when the aforementioned real friends hopped onto MSN Messenger.
For those who don’t know, Habbo Hotel is an online social experience for teens. I wouldn’t quite call it a game, nor would I call it an MMO, but it has aspects of each of those within it. Essentially it’s an online hang-out place featuring pixelated graphics, a chatroom-like interface, and the ability to put yourself in the game as a tiny Habbo and interact with other players from around the world. It’s changed a lot over the years and has had its fair share of controversies which I’m sure two clicks on Google would tell you all about.
15 years on however, Habbo Hotel, or Habbo as it’s now called, is still going strong, and this year they launched their Android app which accompanies their already released iOS app, to firmly place what used to be a browser-only experience, into the mobile space. So we caught up with Sulake to talk about some of the changes that have happened in the years as well as touching on some of the more controversial times with the service.
[su_pullquote]”Some of the core features of Habbo are timeless..”[/su_pullquote]
In the past 15 years, the Internet has evolved into something more than it used to be. Almost everyone is online now and almost every service has some form of online presence, but Habbo has always stood strong, trends have changed and it’s a lot to keep up with, something Sulake is all too familiar with.
“The Industry is in constant change. The steady growth in Internet access is now being seen in mobile broadband penetration and it’s setting a fast pace. On the other hand competition has become extremely intense, so it takes a lot of dedication to keep up,” they revealed. “The biggest changes are due to the shift to mobile. It was easier for many social networking sites to make that transition than it has been for virtual worlds like Habbo, because the MMO experience we offer is live.”
This change hasn’t caused veterans Sulake to become stubborn however, as this change is welcomed with open arms at the company. This dedication to Habbo and its community is one of the reasons why Sulake believes they’ve managed to keep the service running as long as it has. That, and because they believe what they have with Habbo is something unique and something that no matter how long the time has been since your last visit, the core concept remains the same.
“Some of the core features of Habbo are timeless; avatar chat, pixel art, roleplaying and user generated creations, [i.e. games, rooms and pictures]. The main reason Habbo has lasted such a long time is probably because the community has bonded and put a lot of themselves into the world they’ve created. And the desire to connect with people, to make friends, to be part of a community, to express yourself and be recognized by others, these things haven’t changed.”
“It’s also part of our company culture to constantly evolve. There have been some major transitions like going from shockwave to flash, and now from desktop to mobile platforms. We’ve been blessed with an insanely talented team that has kept up with the technological changes and help drive them. It helps that the people here really love the service and believe in it.”
Though you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that the transition to mobile would be easy for Habbo, it practically seems built for handheld devices, and while some services like Zynga have struggled to move from web to mobile, Habbo seem to be doing a pretty great job with it. At least that’s what I’ve experienced on the iOS and Android apps.
“The design does lend itself nicely to mobile; however it was far from easy to make the leap. One of the main challenges is that we don’t offer a single-player experience. Habbo is a massively multiplayer virtual world, which requires a lot of people logged on simultaneously all with high-speed connectivity,” Sulake revealed. “On top of that, the devices need enough computing power to handle the huge variety of graphical assets that can appear. We’ve been developing Habbo for 15 years and have created tens of thousands of pixel art items that are used to customize avatars and to build user-made rooms. Our community expects all of the legacy features and UGC to work in any device they use to access. We’ve seen a lot of the other virtual worlds struggle with this and we’re fortunate to have pulled it off. We’re really proud of our developers for making that happen.”
Speaking of change, a lot has changed since my last visit which had to at least be around 2002/2003. I occasionally revisited the site to see whether my old account was still available, but even then the service was recognisable. It wasn’t until this opportunity came about that I decided to take a more closer look at Habbo, and though it still feels familiar, a lot has changed, totally for the better. Some of the more notable things I noticed was the fact that Private Rooms, or Guest Rooms, used to be totally unfurnished, this encouraged some users to then splash their cash on in-game currency which was then used to purchase Furniture for their rooms.
[su_pullquote align=”right”]”Habbo can be an overwhelming place on a first session..”[/su_pullquote]
Oh did I not mention? Habbo Hotel, for me, was one of the first times I experienced the phenomena of microtransactions, and is among the first service to actually adopt microtransactions into their service. So you can imagine my surprise when I was instantly transported to my Guest Room only to find that it was already kitted out with Furniture.
“In the past we would start players with an empty room to encourage use of our room building features. However, we realized Habbo can be an overwhelming place on a first session and having a nice home to relax makes it better. We still encourage room customization and building, but we let it happen more naturally after you’ve played for a while,” Sulake revealed.
As for the online currency, Habbo has experimented a lot with the ways players can purchase in-game items, as well as other premium currency which can be used for other features in amongst the service. Not only that players can also earn, trade, and purchase items which, like in the real world, can shake up the economy, but Sulake are on top of that one, though there’s still a lot of work involved, and finding a perfect balance seems like a pretty impossible task.
“I’m not sure there is a thing as “perfect balance”, given that the economy has millions of players earning, buying and trading items and currency. We do have some pretty advanced data analytics in place to keep an eye on it though. The in-game economy naturally stays pretty well balanced, but there are some things we have to tweak occasionally,” they said. “People tend to accumulate things and currency over time and that creates a gap between the new and old players. To make sure that everyone can play, we have to offer enough currency and items to new players while offering more advanced items at a broader range of values for more experienced players. We’ve got a system going to keep that mostly in check.”
As for microtransactions, though many of us hate them being thrown into games, Habbo has almost been at the forefront of the microtransaction movement, even creating their own network of payment integrations in the very beginning, but with the adoption of mobile and with that the almost ubiquitous existence of premium items and paid-for currency, the transition has helped both players of Habbo and Sulake themselves create an easier way for everyone to acquire the items they want.
While visually Habbo hasn’t really changed, a lot of features have come and gone since I last remember mostly due to the service transitioning between different development tools and platforms to keep Habbo up with the times. One of the biggest transitions was the move from Shockwave to Flash as well as the change from two different room structures to something more uniform throughout the service, these changes, though have been tough, have overall improved the service and has helped it become what it is today.
“In the early version we had two totally separate code-bases for our rooms,” Sulake told me. “One block of code for public rooms and another for private rooms. As we added more features, we had to do double the work each time to have the features supported in both environments. Eventually it become unmanageable and we decided to redesign the public rooms using our main room engine. In the new setup you can actually choose whether the avatars are zoomed in or out (pinch zoom on a mobile device, or click the zoom icon in the browser).”
One thing has always remained though, and that’s the service’s look. For almost 15 years they’ve continued to serve a (now retro looking) pixelated character model and room design, with a more isometric appearance than a full 3D environment like Second Life, or even World of Warcraft for example. It’s this simplistic design which feels familiar to old users, and not too overwhelming for new players, and while I noted that things seemed relatively the same, a lot is going on behind the scenes, including the new mobile releases.
[su_pullquote]”With one push of a button you can get out of an offending situation”[/su_pullquote]
“We’ve launched Habbo in iOS and Android and redesigned the website. And we’re pretty much launching new features every 2-4 weeks. A lot of them cater to more advanced use of the service, so its not such a surprise that you say [that it hasn’t changed much]. I think it reflects our feeling that the core elements of Habbo are timeless.”
While Habbo seem to have hit the nail on the head in terms of creating a core set of features that are familiar to old and new players, these past 15 years of service hasn’t been without its controversies. Two of which will remain in the Habbo history books, whether Sulake want them to or not. The first of two major incidents happened in 2012 when Channel 4 News reported that some players were experiencing other users posting “pornographic and violent messages” which is bad news for a service aimed at a younger generation.
This caused Habbo to cease all text communication and launched “The Great Unmute” as a way for the community to express its views on the Channel 4 report, as well as on the service as a whole. Text chat was reinstated a few weeks later complete with a new safety system in place. The suspension of text communication did have an effect on users of the service, and according to Sulake, did cause a drop in users, but those more involved in the service stuck around.
“Sure, [suspending text communication] definitely had an effect on the service. Some players left due to the suspension of chat, but it was mainly those who hadn’t played very long. Many of our loyal players hung around. When we returned the chat features we also introduced a many new features to improve the service,” said Sulake. “We added a citizenship path to educate new players, and enhanced our moderation filters. With one push of a button you can get out of an offending situation. We also rebuilt our web forums as in-game forums and upgraded our private messenger to support offline and mobile messaging, both of which allow users to report problems to our moderators.”
Speaking of moderation, another one of the controversies which has quickly become a meme, is the “Pool Closed” situation in which Anonymous had heard rumours that moderators were being racist, so they decided to create accounts and fill the Swimming Pool Public Room declaring that it was closed. This of cause caused problems for the service, but since then Sulake has become more prepared and though they can’t prevent users gathering in such a manner, they can respond much quicker.
“We’ve become a lot more sophisticated in our moderation since then. We’ve got a smart feature that prevents spamming chat in rooms, filters to automatically report anti-social behaviour, and live moderation 24/7 in our hotels. We’ve also introduced the community based programs (more details below). It’s impossible to prevent users from gathering and causing controversy, but at least we can respond much faster.”
As for the Pool? Well that was a pretty good Public Room where players could queue to climb the diving board and pull off some wicked dives into the pool. Sadly that no longer exists but not because of the “Pool Closed” incident, because sadly it was one of the many sacrifices the company had to make when changing from Shockwave to Flash.
“The diving board no longer exists mainly because it never made the transition from shockwave to flash. It was an advanced bit of code that ran on a totally different room engine than other rooms. The team had to make some tough choices back then,” Sulake added.
With a service dedicated to providing a safe place for younger people to enjoy the more social aspects of the Internet the company has had to introduce some sort of moderation scheme so players can hang out in a safe environment. When I used to be on Habbo, there was a scheme called “Hobba,” a way for players 16 and over to become moderators with a handful of tools to make sure people aren’t misbehaving or causing problems. Sadly that scheme has ended now because it became difficult to moderate the moderators given the tools available to Sulake at the time, but many other things have come into place since.
“The [Hobba] concept was good though, and based on that we’ve brought back player-moderation in a brand new way,” they revealed. “We have a helper system that allows Habbos to ask questions from more experienced Habbos through a special private messenger. Helpers can advance to Guardians that help to vote on some moderation actions to provide more information for our live moderators. We recently introduced an additional scheme named ‘Ambassadors’ which are hand-picked upstanding Habbo citizens who gain special rights to keep the peace in our public spaces.”
So unlike before, when specially selected people could become Hobbas, players now have to earn their merit to show they they really are upstanding members of the Habbo community and care about the service as much as Sulake.
[su_pullquote align=”right”]”Our best advice is to educate children about online safety and privacy”[/su_pullquote]
With Habbo being a teen-focused product, Sulake have a keen focus on making sure it’s a safe place, like with the moderation we discussed before, as well as getting involved with various anti-bullying campaigns like Ditch the Label. But over the years teens have become a lot more tech savvy, Sulake tells me, but they still feel a deep sense of responsibility to educate their audience about online safety. Along with hosting monthly safety campaigns and engage in partnerships to have NGO’s speak to their users, they also actively moderate their service to maintain a positive social environment and also make sure the sharing of personally identifiable information is prevented.
“It’s a considerable investment, but we think it’s the right thing, given that the majority of our users are between 13-18,” admit Sulake.
I’ve always been an advocate for the Internet, and whenever someone calls it an awful seedy place full of perverts and adult-images, I’m the first to come to the Internet’s defence reminding people that those places are only found when you go looking for them. This is an opinion shared with Sulake, who strive to show that the Internet isn’t a bad place if parents can educate children about online safety and privacy and also pay attention to what they’re doing.
“It’s common to teach children that they should be careful in public, but these days we also need to translate that guidance to the online world as well,” Sulake said. “Anyone can quickly find bad things on the Internet if they go looking, but it’s also very easy to find useful and helpful things. Privacy and Anonymity can also be shields against anything bad happening to you. It’s quite different from real world situations where it is more difficult to get out of a threatening situation. On the Internet you are one click away from escape, as long as you haven’t revealed personal information linking you to the real world. Teens know this pretty well already, but should always pay attention not to share their personal information with people they meet on the internet.”
“Our best advice [to parents and guardians] is to educate children about online safety and privacy, and take an interest in what they are doing online rather than letting them run free without supervision.”