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WIM Summit: Fast Food Jobs And Reindeer Poop: Habbo's Surprise Success

Habbo lead designer Sulka Haro was at the 2008 Worlds in Motion Summit to discuss the surprise success of his online world targeted primarily at kids and teens. Haro admits that he never planned for Habbo to grow so large - so what perspectives has the Fi
Habbo lead designer Sulka Haro was at the 2008 Worlds in Motion Summit to discuss the surprise success of his online world targeted primarily at kids and teens. Haro admits that he never planned for Habbo to grow so large - so what perspectives has the Finnish designer gleaned on his way, and what's his secret? Haro showed off Habbo's funky avatars, customizable bedrooms, and social element. As we saw when Worlds in Motion took a trip to Habbo for our Online Worlds Atlas, the currency system is credits, which allow users to build and customize more. For example, Haro showed off a Harry Potter-themed Hogwarts world that the users had built. Users also like to roleplay more mundane things -- surprisingly, they enjoy playing minimum wage jobs such as serving at McDonalds. While this seems perplexing at first, Haro notes it makes sense for kids who have teenage elder siblings who really do those jobs, and the kids want to roleplay to understand their siblings' experiences. It actually comes down to what teens want from life. During the teenage years, it's rare to find individuals who are as "cool" as they would like to be, who have as many friends as they aspire to be, who have their own room that they can decorate any way they want. So knowing the audience's desires and creating an opportunity for them to experience that is part of Habbo's appeal for its young users. Habbo also equalizes its audience -- all avatars on the same height, and there's no voice chat to better allow people to personify their dreams. During his session earlier in the Summit, Raph Koster pointed out that differences among avatars can create the same kind of complex issues that they do among humans, so Haro feels that this even playing field helps with the appeal. The top-selling item in Habbo is a polar bear-skinned rug, popular despite a majority of kids expressing concern about the environment in a survey the company did with Greenpeace. The second highest-selling Habbo item was the Christmas-themed reindeer toys on wheels that come with reindeer poop. "If people say shit don't sell, then just make a virtual version," Haro joked. Currently Habbo operates in 31 markets globally and has sustained up to 100,000 users concurrently. But the company started small, Haro says. In 2000, it operated smaller services, like chat rooms, that while "promising," were not as popular. In August 2000, though, Habbo launched Hotel Goldfish, an early precursor to Habbo. In 2001, Habbo Hotel opened in London. And since then, it continues to grow into the millions. A secret to the explosive growth? It was as simple as the splash page. Haro says they were able to double revenues by changing the way they communicate with the users, something as basic as ensuring the screenshot on display was representative of the actual environment. "The retro pixel look was designed for young, design-conscious people," Haro says. He also explains how it gives the environment longevity -- 2D graphics look largely the same as they always have, but 3D graphics age fast. The philosophy of Habbo, Haro explains, is, "give users tools and space, and something will happen." "I'd say we'd failed if we hadn't grown as much as we have," Haro says, pointing to the way the MMO market has grown exponentially since 1997. In the face of all that growth, he says, it's only right for successful individual projects to develop at the same rate.

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