Sunday, March 12, 2006

Habbo Hotel Goes Mobile

Last Tuesday, Sampo Karjalainen, a co-founder of the Sulake Corporation that maintains and develops Habbo Hotel, kept a lecture in Tampere about the past, present and future of Habbo. Habbo is virtual hotel, where people come to chat a bit like in IRC. The participants are represented by avatars, which walk in the 3D hotel rooms. The users see the rooms in the same perspective as in Populous, newer Civilizations or Settlers, and not in the first-person-shooter perspective. From the communication point of view, the main restrictions compared to IRC are that (1) one person can only be in one room at a time, while IRC allows many channels, and (2) the messages are shown in the top of the avatars, and not logged.

Gradual Development

The current version of the Habbo software is running localized hotels in ~20 different languages. However, the software started local and was developed gradually with many intermediate steps.

Seven years ago, the first prototype was located at the website of a band called Mobiles. From the screenshots Sampo showed it seemed to have 2 rooms, where the avatars mainly walked around. Mobiles was a non-commercial project and was not advertised, but it established a user base and demonstrated that there is demand for this kind of service.

The second version, and the first commercial version, was a Radiolinja advertisement game named Lumisota (snow war). There, the avatars first teamed up inside a skiing hut, and then went outside to throw snowballs at each others. The third version was Hotelli Kultakala (Hotel Goldfish), a Finnish virtual hotel.

The presentation was non-technical, so it is not possible to track down exactly what features were added at each point, and how the code size, complexity and technologies developed. Probably most of those facts are trade secrets anyway. The prototyping clearly had a dual role both in making the technology mature and finding out the target group and business model. I got the impression that there weren't any big risks taken; each step forward was clearly justified by extrapolating experiences from the previous prototypes.

Small Torrents Create a River

In Habbo Hotel, the users can get their own room for free. Initially, the room is empty. The user can buy furniture to make the room less hollow. The main sources of are advertising and the sales of Habbo furniture. They also sell ringing tones and logos.

The small unit price of the furniture items requires a solid micropayment solution. The presentation said that Sulake has 160 local partners in arranging the micropayments. I didn't ask how automated the purchasing was: it would have been interesting to know how many systems were directly interfaced with the Habbo engine so that no human intervention was needed in purchases, and what kind of difficulties had to be overcome to make it possible.

The estimated income for year 2005 was 30m euros. There were 5 million different users each month visiting the hotel. This means that the average user produced 6 euros in purchases and advertising income. It's amazing that a whole company can run on personalization - on the willingness to make the environment reflect the identity - and more specifically on virtual personalization.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

The age group 12-18 contains 90% of the Habbo users. Sampo pointed out a central double standards with regards to privacy and censorship in the Internet: With adults, listening to other peoples' conversations is spying, a violation of privacy, a threat to freedom of expression and in general a bad thing. With children, not watching the conversations is a comparable sin, since it exposes the underaged to paedophiles, drug dealers, foul language and bullying.

Sulake was actually contacted by Kuluttajavirasto (Finnish Consumer Agency), and they had to explain what precautions they take to protect the users. They have a special moderation system, and English conversations are watched 24h/day, while local conversations are watched only during times when there are some people in the hotels.

Mobility And Its Discontents

The first link to mobile phones was the micropayment by SMS. There was also a failed attempt to make WAP client to Habbo.

With the arrival of Symbian Series 60 phones, with the performance of native C++ applications (as opposed to Java Micro Edition) and socket connections, porting the Habbo environment became a realistic opportunity. Writing the Symbian client started in 2004 and was gradual. The first phase ensured that the phones are powerful enough to run the visual interface, which they were. The second phase concentrated on solving network-related issues.

Sampo showed an impressive demo, where he run the Habbo environment on a Symbian phone. The screen was big enough to show several avatars. The scrolling was smooth, and there was no visible lag. When the user typed, a red ball appeared on the top of the avatar to indicate that he or she is about to say something. It seemed like most technical problems in the client side were solved.

There were also some Habbo single-user games. The games were warm-ups of simple arcade and puzzle games of the past. The link between the games and the Habbo hotel is the Habbo brand, and they have little to do with the hotel environment. Apparently the intention is to use the huge user base to efficiently advertise the games.

I asked how they tested their software on wide number of mobile devices and languages. They co-operate with Universum to test Java applications. The Symbian application hadn't reached the point were this kind of testing is needed, so didn't get any tips on that.

The Mobile Context Of Use

The difference between the computer and the mobile phone is not only in screen size, keyboard, computing power and network conection, but also in the way people use them. Mobiles are ideally suited to be used in various waiting situations: trains, classrooms, meetings, pauses between events. Another typical feature for mobiles is partial attention: If a person is using a computer, he or she probably sits in front of it and notices quite quickly what happens. On the other hand, on mobiles the person may be doing something else, and only sporadically watch the Habbo interface. This creates the problem that avatars guided from mobile phones seem to be passive lampposts most of the time.

This had at least two consequences. Firstly, they intend to make a separate hotel for mobile users, instead of putting them to PC hotel. Secondly, the shift of emphasis from the Habbo groupware to single-user games reflects the problems of the mobile context of use - they don't consider mere discussion to be fancy enough in itself in the mobile context.

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