Ok, so... AGC. There will probably be more commentary than news in these AGC-coverage articles, but this first might be an exception.
Let's start with the session I didn't plan on attending, but was glad for doing so: Sulka Haro and Habbo. Before this presentation, I had heard the name but knew nothing about Habbo. I still only know what was said at the AGC, so I'm afraid you'll have to get details elsewhere.
This is why Haro was invited, despite his own admission that he doesn't think of himself as a game designer. Over 7.5 million accounts... roughly 100,000 of those logged into one server at a time. There are currently 19 Habbo "hotels" in 30 markets. The Sulake Corporation made 50 million dollars last year in virtual property sales. If I remember correctly, Haro said transactions concerning Habbo virtual property made outside of Sulake's oversight amounts to over four times that ($200M).
WHAT IS HABBO?
In a sentence, it's crack for teenagers who have grown up never knowing the world before internet, who think online socialization is as basic and everyday as turning on the TV.
It's primary audience is teenagers, and it approaches them without enticing them into a world of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. In fact, now that I think of it, it's almost an embodiment of Disney's catchphrase, "It's a small world, afterall." Haro pointed out that teenage years are a time in which most are "building identity" and socially exploring, so there's a huge market for this sort of stuff.
A good question to ask here: How many such sites/programs can any one teenager be expected to subscribe to at one time? Many Myspace users also have accounts with Facebook and other socialization tools. So how does the success of one affect the others?
Habbo is basically a visual-based Myspace. In fact, it even has homepages similar to Myspace. It's not a game. Habbo is a virtual environment in which users can visually express themselves and buy virtual items to create a Sims-like home or business. Sometimes the user communities create games, but the gameplay is almost all of their making.
But enough with organized information. The random details are the really impressive part, so here are my notes.
At some point, Sulake moved from selling virtual furniture to virtual currency. Haro said there are "massive differences... [particularly] from the user perspective", but he didn't elaborate. He did point out that his audience, teenagers, don't frequent Ebay... so the selling of virtual property operates on a different level than with MMOs.
Eventually, Sulake introduced rare items, which were met with great success. They considered advertisements, but decided that banners and such are "boring for the users". Branded furniture has also been a hit. Haro's not sure why stamping a brand on something makes it popular, but it obviously does. Target and other real entities have been recreated in Habbo.
The Sulake Corporation interviewed 42,000 kids. They identified 5 major categories of users: Rebels, Creative types, Achievers, Loners, and Traditionals (meaning, basically, mainstream interests). The population distribution in these categories varies somewhat by culture. The U.S. has the largest Achiever segment; Japan has the largest Loner segment; Finland and Brazil have the largest Traditional segments.
They found that 70% of users want foreign friends, but only 47% think positively of foreigners. Sulka offered an example of users from Finland and Japan coming into contact. The Finnish folks flooded the Japanese hotel with high hopes of exploring Japanese culture, but the Japanese users closed their doors and avoided the Fins.
Contrary to popular belief, Haro pointed out that many, if not most, Habbo users are not casual. These users spend an absorbitant amount of time logged in.
And they can do some pretty amazing stuff with their time. Haro showed a picture of one user who had modeled his Habbo room to look like McDonald's. The user didn't stop there, though. Other users lined up in this place to buy "virtual burgers" and would emote both the transaction and the eating of the totally imaginary food. Think that's interesting? How about the "lots of armies and mafias" who have no capacity for simulated violence. Instead, all they can do is design uniforms, practice virtual drills and type emotes like "bang!"
Sulake has added items like pets and snow (yes, you can place your snow indoors).
Habbo is a sandbox like no game could ever be a sandbox. Its users invent the gameplay. Some users roleplay, like that McDonald's nut. But you think that guy's crazy? Just wait! Habbo has no model for horses, so some players pretend their human characters are horses, emoting every action and offering others rides.
They eventually did add some mini-games. One example is a sound mixer which allows users to combine melody samples to form music (like a dirt-simple FruityLoops).
Communities have invented ways to demonstrate community ties, such as the "spider-pig" symbol.
Sulka pointed out that the internet allows us to play childishly without social admonishment. In real life, adults are allowed to act childishly only with young kids and with pets. Habbo allows people to be as silly as they want in an anonymous environment.
SO WHAT DOES SULAKE DO AGAIN?
As I said before, the activities in Habbo or primarily user-generated. "Players don't have to wait" for content upgrades. The community invents content and that content spreads at a ridiculously fast pace. Fansites are self-correcting.
Sulka emphasized the importance of community management. Habbo may continue on just fine in most other respects, but he feels this aspect demands a lot of attention and work.
The advice Haro offered to developers was: (1) offer toys, (2) interaction should be intuitive, (3) set the mood, (4) support user-created goals, and (5) promote a shared social setting.
I'm glad I went to Sulka's presentation and I admire what he's done. Initially, I agreed with Raph (who sat about five seats down from me and was smiling through the whole presentation) that it's a shame more developers were not there to listen to the session, because it's an insight into online communities and the possibilities of extending gameplay avenues. But now I worry about how closely many developers and publishers will follow Habbo's lead, considering its massive appeal and money-laden trail.
From game-makers to toy-makers
Habbo is not a game, in the strictest sense. Games revolve around rules and prescribed activities. Habbo is about combining virtual toys with Myspace-style social networking systems. With toys, the gameplay is mostly player-created and emergent. In other words, game developers who try to cash in on Sulake's system will effectively be transitioning into toy developers without realizing they're changing industries. They don't realize it because virtual toys are relatively new and undefined (I've never heard anyone use the phrase "virtual toys").
So they change industries... so what? Well, it's their choice. But expect such developers to continue to think of themselves as "game" developers and exerting influence over the design philosophies of true game developers. And if folks like Raph go that way, I'll miss them... I mean, the guy was behind one of my favorite MMO experiences, the original Star Wars: Galaxies. But hey, maybe Areae will surprise me by going a very different route.
Sulka's session did inspire a debate in my head about the relationship between character progress and player knowledge, but this post is already too long. I'll write that article some other day.
Please pardon me if I revise whatever typos in this article after posting it. It's taken a while to write, and I'm still trying to keep this blogsite a casual endeavor. [Sure enough, I had to edit.]