They danced, built, competed, lost and won. Some cried, some lied.
Behind the scenes in one of the earliest virtual worlds
Cuteness was the law. Darkness lurked in pixels. We never signed confidentiality agreements, but underwent vigorous training to protect our real-life identities. Banned users had broken into Habbo’s offices more than once, demanding their accounts were reopened and virtual goods reimbursed. This online world for teens could inspire that level of obsession. Working there full-time instilled a secrecy that’s made me (and most former staff) reluctant to share anything that could break the spell, or attract trouble. It’s taken almost a decade to share my adventure in digital storytelling for the most popular virtual world for teens.
I was hired by Sulake, the Finnish company that developed Habbo Hotel, in 2013. By then, its worldwide success had passed. User adoption boomed in 2008, with millions of young people creating parallel lives on the platform. Like with most novel products, after the peak came a slump that was hard to combat. Minecraft’s 3D offering attracted far more users than Habbo’s pixel art cosmos could, and an online coup d’état known by Habbo users as “the great mute” further disillusioned once fervently loyal followers.
For days, avatars were muted by Sulake in response to a sensationalist report by UK’s Channel 4, claiming the platform was a perv’s paradise. More than half the users left. By the time I joined, declining revenues just about kept the Hotel open. Fear existed within the community that their second life might abruptly dissolve, losing years of accumulated digital goods.
The product was developed in Helsinki and operations were run in Spain. Each site, grouped by languages, had its own team striving to build back what had been. I was Community Engagement Coordinator for the largest site (habbo.com). The true moneymakers though were Latam/Spain (habbo.es) and Brazil(habbo.br). Monetization was based solely on in-game credits. Anyone on a freemium plan could customize their pixelated avatar, start building rooms and socializing. The catch was gaining peer-to-peer cred. Without premium hairdos, accessories and furni (virtual furniture), prestige in the community was limited.
The new project I was recruited for was Habbo Stories. It involved virtual goods ideation, community building, and tons of copywriting. Sulake developed this MVP in the hopes of striking gold with the (then) buzz term UGC, or user-generated content. Months of think tanks exploring gamified user journeys revealed that while content created and shared within this metaverse gave users notoriety, its profitability was limited. Before reaching this conclusion, prototyping and beta testing the new product was our mission and my blazes, was it exciting.
Habbo was and is a virtual Lego land for architecting, sculpting, even engineering of Lilliputian proportions. The avatars and furni have an itsy-bitsy-cutesy look that I considered appealing to third-graders, but not my idea of teens.
My adolescence was spent in industrial Milan, at the same bars my ex-pat teachers went to, reading Beckett and feeling sophisticated. They laughed when I told them I was a communist. At 17, I believed cuteness was something only small children or Japanese adults valued. For someone who’d questioned the contradiction of Western youth receiving pocket money to buy the latest Rage Against the Machine CD (grunge defies consumerism man), seeing millennials buy crystal collars for their digital piglets left me in awe.
Never one for chat rooms and prone to cringing if a human I didn’t know IRL (in real life) friend requested me on Facebook, the risk of me using limitless staff credits (most users’ dream) to embezzle furni and construct my digital federation was null. How such an undertaking might tempt young people across the world remained a mystery. This fundamental difference between the Habbos and I made me a “safe” person to hire, but caused my own demise at Sulake.
Immense efforts went into keeping the users safe. Human moderators were in the process of being replaced by a sophisticated AI tool that was designed to come to the underage users’ rescue if ever they were whisked away from the platform and onto a video call. We had to hit the numbers, so the trade-off was getting teens to spend, spend, spend on credits while ensuring they didn’t trade nude shots of themselves for credits. The company relied on a chat filter to block swear words and predatory behaviour. Habbos (as users are called) skilfully bypassed it, using special characters and scripts to cuss, con, bully or describe what they’d do to one another in full erotic detail. To the web-sex prudish, these kids’ convos (if they even were kids) could induce a cold sweat. Most of it was innocent enough.
Onboarding involved being flung head-first into the murky waters of internet weirdness. It wasn’t just prowlers and degenerates we had to battle, but clever scammers who built “retros” or copies of the Hotel. Retaining its look, functionalities, and sometimes name, copycat platforms extracted credit card details from unsuspecting players. Some retros managed to mooch thousands of users from the official hotel. The legal fight to shut them down took months. It was one of the more costly pitfalls for Sulake. Privately, I found it amusing that Habbo had knockoffs. They were often built by young fans turned fledgling developers, mostly in Asia – not a bad way to learn to code while undermining officialdom. In any case, for someone whose self-image was based on questioning the consensus reality, what could be defined as real or fake in this early web 3.0 venture was already blurry. The most bizarre was yet to come.
All Sulake workers had an avatar of their own with signature staff badge, a highly coveted item. We were adored by the community. I mean worshipped. Requests for taking screenshots together saturated our chats. Collaborating with staff was for many an honour. Fansites dedicated entire pages to dissecting staff avatars’ peeves and preferences. For most of the Madrid-based team, this celebrity status was endearing, if not laughable. The managers ensured they hired creatives who wouldn’t be sucked into a digi-ego trip.
My avatar was QueenofSheba, named so for my predilection for Jamaican music and Ethiopian myths. Sheba was tan, rocked purple buns and rabbit slippers. I spent more time on ideation, copywriting, and eventually leading the rollout of the new habbo.com client, than as Sheba in the actual hotel. In-game hours were spent on user discovery through virtual activities. These events explored self-expression, recreating real-world cultural consumables like album covers and magazines with Habbo’s pixel art style. My avatar’s live events drew enough crowds to gather valuable feedback on iterations of Habbo Stories. Discerning if their enthusiasm for a new feature was genuine or starstruck-fuelled was tough. Habbos bombarded us with questions about the inner workings of the Hotel, sent us their CVs but went “ew” at the thought of knowing what we actually looked like. The same applied to their online courtships. Although a handful of these relationships ended up in real-life unions, most remained within the Habbo meta-realm, kawaiiness doing nothing to abate heartbreak.
The Finnish team was innovative and flexible. However, their iterative approach to product design was more a canvas to ideate upon than deliver from. A process of discovery. As the roadmap for launching a separate Habbo Stories product remained undefined, profitability was achieved by releasing exclusive digital goods (furni). Helsinki’s insistence on delegating the ideation of Habbo Stories furni lines to the Madrid team marked an extraordinary chapter in my tech career. The most memorable campaign I worked on was the Shakespeare bundle: Elizabethan-inspired items that players used to design and act out Shakespeare plays. The restraints posed by isometric 2D graphics always resulted in astonishing resourcefulness. Staff would crack up at how players combined their avatar’s limited movements to recreate Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene, Ophelia’s death in Hamlet, or the moonwalk.
Months went by and the goods we brainstormed became top sellers. Sheba hosted Jamaican Christmas events, with Habbos djing reggae and dancehall over 3rd party services, so all users could tune in. The fun factor could not be denied. My discrediting of Habbos’ online infatuations as completely ridiculous decreased. The scamming and backstabbing now inspired compassion. Not wanting to know anything about each other in real life but obsessing over what went on in the Hotel lost its oddness. I shrugged off valuing online recognition over anything the tangible world offered. Isn’t it just part of growing up? Mid-morning musings on the sociopsychological factors that allowed this dual existence to transpire ceased. Instead, I wondered at the ethics of game design aimed at exploiting young people’s desire to fit in, and their parent’s wallets.
Sulake was interested in figuring out what motivated the “whales”. These unique users racked up mind-boggling virtual coinage. They were often low-key in the community and challenging to get to know. One 8-bit diva, clad in limited-edition accessories and perched on a costly Midsummer Night’s Dream swing, a pixel-perfect Marie Antoinette, told me her doctor had to keep increasing the dosage of antidepressants she was on, due to emotional wounds inflicted on her by Habbo friends. Was this true or fabricated? Was any info pertaining to real life worth questioning any more? Connecting with the person behind these avatars felt like learning a body-less-body language and mind-less mindset at once. Suspension of belief took on and lost layers of meaning. Cynicism was replaced by the newfound legitimacy of heart emojis. With unbridled satisfaction, I tracked how the rainbow unicorn balloon I conceptualized became that year’s top-selling item.
Queenofsheba and I never fully melded, but delighting so many players through her while retaining anonymity, felt alright. Like The Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, pulling levers non-stop, unsure of what relinquishing the power attributed to a grandiose, but fake identity might bring.
On the day the general manager’s head popped up beside mine, saying “Can you please follow me?”, I knew something was up. As I went into a room and sat down he said: “No son buenas noticias”. Bad news?
-“You’re letting me go.”
What the f*ck for? I thought. I’ve done nothing shady.
– “What?” I replied. “Let me speak to the Finnish woman who booked tons of meetings with me last week, extracting the ins and outs of every team and operation. The one who confessed she also couldn’t fully grasp what made Habbos’ tick. Call her in”. I requested, heart pounding.
-“You can’t speak to her.”
-“So you’re firing one of the people who work the hardest?”
-“If you think you work the hardest, that’s your bag. You’re being made redundant, not fired. Would you like to stay the rest of the day to say goodbye to your colleagues?”
Hell no! I’m leaving asap, couldn’t be more embarrassed, I thought.
The scene I was met with when leaving the room I won’t forget. All desks were empty. Team members, locked in embraces, had faces flooded with tears. Only 5 of us were being made redundant, one from each region, but the suddenness of it brought the entire Madrid workforce to its knees. Was it the loss of job security or the disintegration of a family that had seemed immortal? Impacted roles included one of the most senior employees, who’d been there for over a decade and was considered a legend, in-game and out. We were the human interfaces that sat between the physical and the digital, the client and the backend of this metaverse. The Hotel’s cast of gatekeepers was not ready to see 5 of their own go or answer the questions they’d face from players. Habbo fans crawled the sites daily, monitoring if any staff accounts were removed. If only they knew that on our side of the looking glass, the ripple of redundancy had spurred an international weeping fest.
My Aussie colleague sobbed as she walked me to the door. The French Hotel’s ultra-composed manager shook as he repeated “Je’n veu pas, Je’n veu pas”, devastated that his bestie was let go. The Brazilians might as well have been at Ayrton Senna’s state funeral. And the lady who’d booked a week of meetings with me (said to be the mastermind behind the restructuring, sshhhhh)…well, she stared in horror. I don’t blame her. We must’ve looked like the most sentimental shower of c*nts any corporation had dealt with. Is this how restructuring is processed in Spain? To leave your desk and bawl for the rest of the afternoon, office turned crisis-center of never-ending cups of tea and hugs?
I made a quick exit, more mortified than saddened by the idea that instead of getting the promotion I felt I deserved, I’d been unceremoniously laid off. Months later, another round of roles was axed, and a year later again. So it goes in corporations. But in this one, where meta realities were at play, the blow was different. On the evening of my fresh redundancy, knowing I now had time to pursue creative projects, I breathed a sigh of relief. In the quietness of this revelation, I found myself going onto one of the largest Habbo fansites. When I saw my avatar’s picture with the title, “Goodbye Queenofsheba, beautiful angel” at the top of the news feed, a stab went through my heart. Had I been converted? Not quite. But my avatar, who I inadvertently breathed life into, had died. The discovery of mourning this character’s departure from the Habboverse, was by far the most bizarre occurrence of my time at Habbo Hotel.
Disclaimer: Working for Elisa, Finland’s top digital services company, and its subsidiaries was a remarkable experience.