Facebook may be the leading social network for games, but it's not the only platform for social game developers. At GDC, the Habbo social network for teens announced itself as a game development platform. Habbo has established itself as the leading global place for teens age 13 to 16, with an astounding 1 in 10 teens in Western countries registering on the site. Now Paul LaFontaine, CEO of Habbo developer Sulake Corporation, is opening up their social network to game developers. Sulake is already in discussions with developers about bringing their games to Habbo. "We're actually working with developers today," LaFontaine told GamesIndustry International in an exclusive interview. "We're open for business when it comes to co-developing new entertainment products for the large teen market that we're able to access."
Game developers have the opportunity to deliver one of the initial games on a social platform that has a global reach. Habbo's numbers are impressive, if not on the scale of Facebook: Over 249 million total registered Habbo characters, an average of 100,000 new members join every day, and more than 3 million new members join every month. More importantly, Habbo gets 10 million monthly unique visitors (source: Quantcast, December 2011) to their sites, roughly split between boys (56%) and girls (44%); 65% of the users are aged 13 to 16. Habbo has customers in over 150 countries and is available in 11 language versions.
"We're going to provide best-in-class gaming with user-generated content in a safe environment where teens can spend, and that seems like a great way to grow the service"
A worldwide study conducted by brand value rating agency BV4 and HWZ University in Zurich rated Habbo as the tenth most valuable social network brand, with a value of $3 billion, ranking just behind Zynga. Social game publishers are busy looking for alternatives to Facebook as a platform, for a variety of reasons. First of all, if the majority of your revenue comes from Facebook (in Zynga's case, over 90%), you have to be concerned about the possibility of unilateral changes that may adversely affect your business with little or no warning. Second, other platforms are likely to offer audiences that may not access Facebook. Finally, other social networks are less crowded with games, making customer acquisition easier (and potentially less expensive). Habbo is the latest social network to open up to outside developers.
LaFontaine was open about what led to the decision to open up Habbo to game developers. "I joined in September and we spent some time examining the service," said LaFontaine. "We're just going to focus on what we're very good at. Teens traditionally don't monetize very well on other platforms; we monetize them very well. The other thing we do well is safety. We moderate all chat; we've been recognized by the EU for having one of the safer sites for teens. Safety is a passion of ours and we're very focused on that. If we can provide a safe, moderated environment where teens spend, and we open that up, we can take advantage of a lot of creative force."
Habbo already has games on the network created by their in-house teams, but LaFontaine felt that this was not taking full advantage of the network's potential. "We're not experienced at building mobile games, we don't have the best game teams in the world," noted LaFontaine. "We are one of the best at monetizing teens and creating a safe environment, so why not put the best with the best? We're also moving towards more user-generated content. We're going to provide best-in-class gaming with user-generated content in a safe environment where teens can spend, and that seems like a great way to grow the service."
Habbo will provide a set of APIs to developers along with rule sets to help them develop specifically for Habbo's audience. Habbo also plans to share their data on the user base. "We've opened up our business intelligence," said LaFontaine. "The way teens like to use the site, the different types of activities that they enjoy. We'll show them all the data we've collected and steer them in the right direction. We have a full business intelligence team that I think is gold standard. We've got terabytes of data on user behavior, and all of that will be available for developers so they can create a great game." Armed with that information, LaFontaine expects developers to develop different kinds of game mechanics around that specific set of teens. "We're a real-time service, so it's synchronous. We have chat, real-time moderated chat, so game play can be different," LaFontaine noted.
Habbo is actually encouraging developers to engage directly with the users. "Absolutely," LaFontaine agreed. "We do this in Habbo, we're opening up behind the scenes and they are absolutely passionate about who makes the games. We have a group of 12 senior staff that tweet each evening with users. They ask questions about how things are made, and they really care. If it works for Habbo, it should work for developers."
Perhaps the important question for developers is the revenue share; is it less of a cut than the 30% Facebook charges for Facebook Credits? LaFontaine isn't ready to reveal the number publicly just yet. "The revenue share is standard, and it's more advantageous than you'd find in other markets," he said. "We actually want to trigger a lot of activity and make this a great place to develop."
Habbo plans to make announcements soon on partners who are developing for the site. Games should be able to appear swiftly once deals are struck, as modifications should be relatively minor.