Habbo: a social virtual world for teens



Habbo: a social networking virtual world that's won over millions of teens (© image © Habbo)

If you’re not between the ages of 12 and 16, it’s likely you won’t be familiar with Habbo.

Even if you have heard of it, this social networking site is unlikely to be as high on your radar as the likes of Facebook. So it might come as a surprise that teen-friendly Habbo recently celebrated the creation of its 100 millionth avatar.

To clarify: avatars are the customizable virtual representations of individual users. These avatars traverse the virtual isometric rooms of the Habbo world, chatting or playing games.

Virtual worlds meet social networks

Habbo’s mix of social networking, casual gaming and virtual worlds has proved a winning formula among young people, who form the bulk of the site’s user base. The site recently hosted a popular Big Brother ‘series’, in which 21 users simulated the reality TV show online.

A selection of customized Habbo avatars (© image © Habbo)

Curious as to how a quirky, retro-looking endeavour like Habbo has successfully vied for the attention of so many demanding teens, MSN Tech & Gadgets spoke to Phil Guest, Regional Director for Habbo Central Europe.

“The Habbo idea has been around since 2000 in Finland,” Guest explains. “It started initially as an idea for people who wanted to gather around a band called Mobiles, supporting and following it.”

Habbo history

That idea became a single online room called Mobiles Disco. “The concept was very simple: you could create a character, go into this room, meet other people that were interested in the band and chat with them.

“The technology only allowed so many people to be in that room and then they had to create another room to get more people on that server. That's where the concept of having multiple rooms started to grow from.”

"Dated the day it arrived" - Habbo's retro look (© image © Habbo)

It was this set-up – a collection of virtual rooms – that led to the site’s original name: Habbo Hotel.

“The first hotel, called Hotel Goldfish, was launched in Finland back in 2000,” Guest tells us. “That was the first version of Habbo Hotel. Very soon after that we launched in the UK. Then, over the next five years, Habbo just rolled out to more and more markets.”

Retro and isometric

Habbo currently runs sites in 32 countries, though the Helsinski base still handles the technology, production and – most importantly – the site’s distinctive design.

“It is very much the style that makes Habbo so successful,” says Guest. “I've heard it described by one of the founders as ‘already dated the day it arrived’. As a result, Habbo never really got any older. It's retro in its look, and people really like that pixel imagery.”

Two avatars in a Habbo virtual hair salon (© image © Habbo)

Guest also attributes Habbo’s success to the combination of creativity and anonymity the site grants its young users.

“One of the attractions is to come into this world, create an avatar of yourself and decorate it any way you want. Then you can go into an environment where you can meet lots of people.

Creativity and anonymity

“There's a degree of anonymity... If you have a day where you want to have green hair or dress in a wacky outfit, you can do that in Habbo, you can express yourself with what you're wearing. And you can change this at any time very, very quickly.”

“So it's a really good way for people to express themselves, and to do it in a way that you learn about social interactions, maybe in the upper age group, learning about how to talk to people, how to chat up the opposite sex - and they can do it safely.”

Habbo: a hybrid of virtual worlds and social networks (© image © Habbo)

Safety is something that Guest emphasizes, well aware of the caution with which people – particularly young people – are being urged to approach social networks.

Online safety

“We don't allow the sharing of personal information,” says Guest. “You are your character. We have a lot of things in place to make sure people don't go beyond that.

“We also have over two hundred moderators worldwide that deal with requests for help and issues that come up. They can be called up, twenty-four-seven, by anyone with an issue.”

The site additionally features innovations like the Infobus: an area where qualified counselors are available to chat to kids. Online safety is one topic addressed by Habbo’s proactive education program, another is drug abuse – in a collaboration with anti-drug campaign FRANK. 

A Habbo swimming pool frequented by multiple avatars (© image © Habbo)

Microtransactions

Though Habbo is technically free to play and, as Guest points out, “most people … never spend a penny”, microtransactions – small user purchases of virtual currency - form a precious revenue stream for this social networking site.

When new users sign up, they are given a room of their own, along with some basic items with which to furnish it. If a user wants to customize their room further, they must purchase Habbo credits with real money to purchase extra items. Text messaging is one way in which Habbo currency can be bought.

“For the price of a cinema ticket,” says Guest, “you can buy a load of stuff that says something about you as an individual.”

Virtual worlds

Moving on to the subject of social networks and virtual worlds in general, Guest is pleased by “the growth in virtual worlds generally. There’s definitely an undercurrent there, more and more coverage.

A virtual rock concert in the Habbo world (© image © Habbo)

“The forecasts say maybe 80% of regular internet users will be creating virtual selves in four years’ time, and 22% of all internet users will be using a virtual world within 10 years.”

Habbo does not see high-profile three-dimensional virtual world Second Life as a direct competitor, Guest tells us, partly because of Habbo’s superior accessibility as a web-based environment.

As far as other web-based social networks seeking to emulate Habbo’s success as a virtual world, Guest is confident that his brand, with eight years of experience, will stay ahead of the field. “Other web-based environments have a long way to go,” he says.

“But when I see lots of other virtual worlds launching I think great, because they're becoming that much more mainstream."

Habbo UK official site

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