The end of Flash was a bittersweet moment for many in the industry. Fertile ground for small creators and lucrative for a great many businesses, Adobe's decision to finally bring its 25-year run to an end was greeted by a mix of warmth, nostalgia, and a little regret.
For Sulake, however, it was the catalyst for a very public revolt in the community of its biggest game: Habbo, the virtual community known for most of its long life as Habbo Hotel, which had been a Flash game for more than a decade.
"We had a look, two years ago, at what we wanted to have Habbo be in the next ten years," says Valtteri Karu, CEO of the Finnish company. "It was quite obvious, first of all, the underlying technology [Flash] was going away, so that was the trigger. And also our mission of accessing new users and new markets, it wasn't so easy to do with the game as it was at the time. A lot of how the game works... It has grown older with us."
Habbo evolved over a long period of time. Like any online community, its systems, customs, culture and economy were intimately familiar to loyal players, but could be impenetrable to newcomers. According to Karu, the need to switch to the Unity engine was seen as an opportunity to prepare Habbo for the future -- becoming more accessible to more people, by both refining the user experience and improving its mobile strategy.
"Our mission of accessing new users and new markets, it wasn't so easy to do with the game as it was at the time"
"We started to look into mechanics that would get new users enjoying the game a lot easier than before," Karu says. "And also Habbo's mobile presence, that's basically non-existent. There is an old client that is more like a companion app. We wanted to have a unified client where we could give the experience of Habbo on all devices."
Sulake started to publicly reveal its plans in October last year, inviting a select group from the Habbo community to a closed beta. In December, just a few weeks before Adobe's deadline for the end of Flash, it launched the open beta, and a much larger number of players were exposed to the various changes and improvements -- a comprehensive breakdown of which can be found here.
To say that the transition didn't go according to Sulake's plans would be a gross understatement. By the end of December, #SaveHabbo was trending on Twitter in countries around the world, as parts of the community rallied against the new version -- complaints included technical instability, the removal of features that helped with moderation and player safety, new restrictions on player-to-player trading, and the introduction of fees and taxes that were construed as profiteering. One of Habbo's main player groups, US Defence Force, drew up a list of demands, sent them to Sulake, and staged a 72-hour walkout.
"Now, when we were able to expose the game to a wider audience, we saw what we got right and what we didn't get right"
"The more controversial things -- like [player] trading -- they did get mixed up a little bit with [the fact] that the game client wasn't ready enough," Karu explains. "Things were not necessarily completely removed. They were working differently, but they were not working as [intended] when they were designed. We ended up in a situation with this incompleteness, with a change of features, and they kind of crashed into [each other] at the same time. And then it started to be fairly hard to make changes in the design."
In truth, concern over the changes emerged earlier than December and the open beta, but Sulake's ability to respond was limited by the looming end of Flash itself. In simple terms, the task of migrating Habbo to Unity had to come first, regardless of how the community was responding to the new direction of the game. The window to launch the Unity version was closing, and closing fast.
"It would have been [better to launch earlier], but there was too much work to be done for us to start it earlier," Karu says. "The teams did a lot of work getting to the open beta at the time it went out. It was not left until the final moments [on purpose]."
By the start of January, Sulake was taking steps to pacify the community, issuing an official response to the #SaveHabbo campaign. That also proved divisive, however, with parts of the community finding the concessions to be inadequate relative to their ongoing issues with the new version of the game.
"We are talking with them, and they are sending tickets and discussing publicly with us what's wrong with the game, how we should change it," Karu says. "On that part, we have to do better."
Since that first response at the start of January, Sulake has continued to walk back changes -- reducing, for example, the size of the fees it introduced for player transactions in Habbo's marketplace. According to Karu, changes to trading and the marketplace were the focus of much of the community's frustration; while Habbo is ostensibly aimed at teens and younger players, it had a relatively complex player-to-player economy that was open to exploitation. In trying to address the problem with an incomplete new version of the game, Karu says, Sulake left itself open to criticism.
"Because not all the bits and pieces are in place to fully explain what the feature will be, it feels incomplete, and it feels more like taking away.
"We're going to buy more time by offering the old game, so we can continue working on Habbo with the vision we had"
"It's largely a user-run economy, and there's this very wide range of behaviour from users, where they are running the economy in their own bubble. We are struggling a little bit to fully comprehend from all different directions how it works. And only now, when we were able to expose the game to a wider audience, we saw what we got right and what we didn't get right.
"It's not so clear for the users that the need [within the community] is so varied. If we cater to the status quo for one portion of the community, then some other part feels left out, and then we have to balance it."
The process of making the new Unity client for Habbo took two years, and if the recent problems in the game's community make anything clear, it's that Sulake's work is far from over. It will continue to improve and balance the new version of Habbo, but last week it also announced the release of a downloadable version of the old Flash client. Players will be able to interact across both versions of the game, though the features of each will be different. The Unity version will evolve over time, the Flash version will stay the same, as if sealed in amber.
"They are going to get their old game back, and let's see if the users accept this," Karu says. "The last month left a bruise on our community, and it's up to us to redeem ourselves -- showing that we do listen, and we are on the users' side.
"We are going to buy more time by offering the old game. We will make the necessary changes to the new client, so we can continue working on Habbo with the vision we had.
"For us, the whole point of [moving to] Unity was that, throughout these years, it became harder and harder to make serious development in ActionScript. The technology had come to its end, and it's not just that the support was dropped... What we really intend to do, it's for the next ten years. The game and what kind of content we can give to the users, the roadmap is very, very long.
"Should we give the players all they want? They're gonna get a good chunk of it."