Checking into the Habbo Hotel
By Mark Frauenfelder, Tue Oct 23 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Finnish company Sulake has developed some pretty cool stuff: Mobile commerce, community, and more...

My first mistake after checking into the Habbo Hotel was to tell the guests I that was a journalist and that I wanted to interview them.

I sauntered into the hotel's cafe and scanned the ultra-hip crowd there. A groovy-looking couple named SmileChix and KetaDude were standing near the counter. I went up to them and introduced myself and told them who I was. SmileChix told me to get away from her, and KetaDude called me a "bobba." I had no idea what that word meant, but I suspected it wasn't a good one, because he quickly walked away from me and started chatting with a dreadlocked girl dancing next to a booth.

My second mistake was to take the insults personally. After all, the only thing the guests knew about me was that I was an obnoxious little animated character on their computer screens. But I felt hurt, nevertheless. Everybody in Cafe Ole seemed to know each other and I was an outsider, being ignored. I sulked in a corner.

Before I closed my browser window in a huff, I decided to try a different tack. I returned to my user profile and altered my appearance by clicking on various buttons that changed my hairstyle, skin color, clothing etc. Then I returned to the cafe and started joking around and dancing.

Instantly, I was the life of the party. SmileChix started following me around, peppering me with questions about my personal life. I hung out in Cafe Ole for a while, danced on the floor of Club Massiva, and traded a cool looking chair for a coffee table with a mohawked guy in a chill-out room. Now I was having fun.

What's a Habbo?

Fun is the idea behind Hotel Habbo, an online interactive chat space disguised as a five star hotel, complete with a stylish lobby, club, bar, chill-out room, hamburger joint and other hangouts that teenagers can use as a 24-hour meeting place.

Visitors from anywhere in the world can create their own little character, known as a Habbo, and give it a unique name. The cute little Habbos can walk, dance, and quaff virtual drinks from the bar. You can make your Habbo walk around by clicking your mouse cursor on any spot on the floor.

By clicking on one of three different options buttons, you can choose to whisper to a single person, talk in a small group at a quiet table, or shout across a room to people out of earshot. Or you can just eavesdrop, which is just as much fun here as it is in real life.

Created by Sulake, a Helsinki, Finland multimedia company founded in May 2000, the Playmobil-inspired Habbo Hotel boasts over 550,000 members, mainly teenagers between the ages of 14 and 20. It has become so popular that 40,000 new members are signing up each week. With just 16 employees, Sulake uses the latest web development technologies to design environments for net-based communities.

Sulake isn't the first company to make a graphical chat room (Remember The Palace, a circa-1995 3D online world full of living rooms, nightclubs, and underground caverns?) but it is the first to make use of mobile technologies combined with a chat world.

For example, guests of the Habbo Hotel can decorate their virtual private rooms with virtual furniture, such as sofas, beds, televisions, posters, bars, potted plants, and bottles to play "spin the bottle" with. Users can punch a few numbers into their mobile phone to purchase these items. (The charges show up on users' monthly bills.) Once a Habbo buys something, he or she can give it away to another Habbo, or swap it in one of the private bartering rooms.

Mobile commerce

Habbo guests can also use their mobiles to buy phone logos or credits allowing them to send SMS messages to their pals. In addition to accepting payment by mobile phone, Habbo will accept checks, postal money orders, debit cards, and the Splash Plastic teenage payment card from the UK. Habbo credits cost 10p each, and the minimum debit charge is just GBP2.

Besides using the chat function of the hotel, Habbo guests can use something called the "Console," an on-screen application allows Habbos to communicate with other Habbos via instant message, email or SMS. (SMS messages are charged at standard prices.) "The Habbo Console can be accessed by WAP phones and messages can be sent regardless of where users are in the hotel and whether they are online or not," says Timo Soininen, Sulake's newly appointed managing director.

Since the Habbo Hotel is populated mainly by teens, Sulake is careful to guard the privacy of the guests. "Communication through the Habbo console does not disclose personal contact details such as mobile numbers or email addresses," says Soininen

Hotel Habbo started out as a hobby in 1999 for multimedia developers Aapo Kyrılı and Sampo Karjalainen, both in their early twenties. A friend asked them to design a Web site for a Finnish rap band called the Mobiles. The pair designed a chat room that looked like a retrogame-style discotheque. When the band broke up the Mobiles Disco lived on, first in the form of Hotelli Kultakala, a Finnish virtual hotel, and then as Habbo Hotel, aimed at UK teens, which opened its virtual doors in January 2001.

Sulake is planning on extending their technology even further into the mobile arena. The company's emphasis on real-time messaging, as well as its simple yet expressive graphical style, is ideal for small screens, and clients are starting to line up.

"We're currently investigating technical possibilities for implementing our multiuser services, such as virtual chats, messaging and games, on handheld devices like Compaq iPaq and 3rd generation mobile phones," says Soininen. He says Sulake has initiated discussions with a few partners but can't reveal their names yet.

Oh - and I found out what "bobba" means. It's a word that Habbo Hotel's software uses to overwrite any obscenities uttered by guests in a public area.

Hey, KetaDude, chill out.

Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles.