Virtual Item Sales Appear in IM Services

The Wall Street Journal (no link, subscription required) reported on March 22 (p. R4) that avatar and virtual item markets are springing up in Asia, but not in the usual places. Games are mentioned in the report, sure. But it seems that avatars are viewed more as personalized ID cards for instant messaging and chat room services than as gaming vehicles. The article mentions not as a spinoff from games, but from SMS: a chat room with pictures.

But whatever the deployment, the interesting thing about the avatars is the secondary market they create for virtual items. If you're going to show a face and body in an IM system, why not give yourself a killer style too? And style, as we all know, costs money.

Excerpts follow. Thanks to my brother, Tom, for the note.

Some excerpts from the article, short enough to keep the IP lawyers at bay... BACK! BACK, I SAY! [hopelessly waving a string of garlic cloves]...

"Microsoft's MSN Korea subsidiary, which sells avatars and accessories to more than a million Korean users of the MSN Messenger instant-messaging service, plans to expand its avatar service to Taiwan this year. Yahoo Inc., of Sunnyvale, Calif., started offering services in Taiwan last year. Also last year, Neowiz started offering avatar services in Japan.

But efforts to expand the avatar market aren't limited to East Asia. Quarterview Inc., a South Korean Internet-service provider, started an avatar service in India last year. And There Inc., based in Menlo Park, Calif., began an avatar service in the U.S. last year, betting that the attractions of creating a visual online personality will sell even in a society where individual expression offline is less of an issue. It's too early to tell whether this or any of the other bets placed on the avatar market outside of South Korea will pay off.


As another way to lure customers, MSN Korea got Ms. Park, the electronics-company worker, started with a free avatar for her instant messages: a cartoon of a ponytailed female in a white T-shirt and blue jeans. She quickly got bored with that. "I wanted to look prettier, I wanted a change," she says. Soon, her digital self was clothed in a princess-like fluffy dress, holding a thin, colorful umbrella to match her classic feminine
look. A regular buyer of avatar accessories was born."

[edit: formatting]

Comments on Virtual Item Sales Appear in IM Services:

Dan Hunter says:

I know that there are those who can't bear the idea of property in avatars. And I'm not a booster for it. But I have to say that, purely as a matter of descriptive reality, this quote seems appropriate.

Posted Apr 13, 2004 8:54:08 AM | link

Michael says:

More support for the reality that "There" isn't a game. Like what I said. :)

Posted Apr 13, 2004 1:42:28 PM | link

Ian Bogost says:

On a vaguely related note, The Matrix Online is poised to offer AOL IM from inside the game. From the article:

Players will be able to keep their in-game identities separate from their regular or instant-messenger personas, AOL said, by linking their in-game name to their instant-messenger screen name.

Interesting thing about this being, you get to maintain both your avatar identity and your normal IM identity at the same time.

Posted Apr 14, 2004 9:31:07 AM | link

greglas says:

Ian> On a vaguely related note, The Matrix Online...

I'm afraid, for better or for worse, the Matrix is always related to every post on TN.

Ian> get to maintain both your avatar identity and your normal IM identity at the same time.

But are they really separate? :-) It kind of reminds me of what we were talking about with Mogi, GPS, & dual game/RL interactions. Pervasive bifurcated identity.

Posted Apr 14, 2004 9:42:48 AM | link

Ian Bogost says:

Right, they aren't separate... they are distributed and simultaneous, but not separate. In this case, the presence of the AIM software inside of the Matrix might force the player to consider this duality more consciously.

I know I was pretty creeped out initially in There when I discovered that the in-game web browser was just a web browser, and I could go anywhere online, in There. The difference, however, was that There uses the browser explicitly for in-game functions, for example you can create an online store for virtual objects you create. It might be more interesting if The Matrix Online also used AIM for in-game communication.

Posted Apr 14, 2004 11:22:56 AM | link

Michael says:

Yes...but what is the benefit?

Admittedly it makes sense not to reinvent the wheel when it comes to messaging services, but every other MMOG has it's own messaging system.

Where is the benefit for using AIM within TMO? Maybe I'm just not their targetted market. :)

Posted Apr 15, 2004 10:50:49 AM | link

Ian Bogost says:

Apparently the benefit is that the player can communicate both in-game and out-of-game. So, it reorients the game world such that it overlaps the real world more. Often when you are inside a VW, you become "isolated" in that world. With AIM in TMO, you can talk to your non-TMO playing friends while you're in TMO.

I'm sure the publisher is counting on getting more business by injecting RL into TMO. They might be right; I don't know about the rest of you, but I'd say a good 50 - 70% of my collaborative work gets done on IM these days.

Posted Apr 15, 2004 12:10:44 PM | link

Betsy Book says:

Habbo Hotel, a virtual world for teens, has developed a communications feature called the Habbo Console which allows members to keep in touch with each other outside of the world via IM, email, and SMS. This was developed not just to allow members to keep in touch with each other outside the Hotel but also in the interests of safety as this allows members to stay in touch using their anonymous Habbo screennames/identities rather than giving out their AIM names, email addresses, etc.

I don't know if the Habbo Console can also be used to trade credits and furni (their cutesy name for the virtual furniture used to decorate rooms) but that would seem a logical next step.

BTW, whatever the Habbo folks are doing seems to be working quite well. This press release claims 10 million registered users and 1.3 million unique monthly visitors across 5 international versions of the hotel.

Posted Apr 21, 2004 7:00:25 AM | link

greglas says:

BB> BTW, whatever the Habbo folks are doing seems to be working quite well. This press release claims 10 million registered users and 1.3 million unique monthly visitors across 5 international versions of the hotel.

Wow, Betsy -- that's huge! Any idea about U.S. subscriptions or links to academic papers about it?

This is from two years ago, and has teens paying money by cellphone for Habbo 13w+:

But what a grim chateau it was! Little Ruthelina stood forlornly in an empty room, all bare floors and stark, industrial-gray walls. "Wow," I said to Timo Soininen. "I've heard of minimalism, but this is ridiculous." Soinenen chuckled indulgently. "It looks really depressing, doesn't it," he said. "You see, this is where our revenue model kicks in."

The kindly Soininen showed me how to open the "Catalogue," helpfully placed in the right-hand corner of my austere new dwelling. Clicking through the catalogue, I quickly saw how, for a mere fifteen credits (about four U.S dollars), I could turn Chateau de Ruth into a veritable online Shangri-La. I could paint the walls ochre, or perhaps chartreuse. I could add 1970s ski-lodge furniture, or perhaps a few streamlined selections from an IKEA-ish line called Ice ("It's so chic, it says everything and nothing.").

I wonder if many of us here are being a bit myopic by focusing primarily on hack-n-slash level grinding VWs...

Posted Apr 21, 2004 8:55:26 AM | link

greglas says:

The Eight Commandments of Habbo Hotel:

Thou shalt not:

1) Use any hacking, scripting or editing program within the hotel

2) Steal other Habbos' Credits or furniture

3) Describe sexual acts to other Habbos

4) Pester people who don't want to talk to you

5) Swear or use sexually graphic terms or be racist

6) Ask other Habbos for their password, email addresses or other personal information

7) Type your password anywhere except in the 'Check in' box on

8) Break the law in the hotel or talk others into breaking it

So... no hacking = #1, no theft = #2, no obscenity = #3 & #5, no harrassment = #4, (equal protection?) = #5, no invasions of privacy = #6 (rather important because the Habbos are minors), no criminal conspiracy = #8. I can't exactly figure out #7, but I guess it is a kind of paternalistic "you must wear a seatbelt" rule?

#2 and #8 are the most interesting to me.

Posted Apr 21, 2004 9:13:10 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

greglas>#2 and #8 are the most interesting to me.

#8 seems to be saying "or break any other laws that we might arbitrarily bring into being for whatever purposes we like because we're in charge here muahaha!".


Posted Apr 21, 2004 9:47:33 AM | link

greglas says:

Just as an idle thought experiment, suppose this was a set of real hotel rules posted on the walls of a real hotel -- you'd look at this list and...

1. ??? (prohibition on witchcraft?)
2. Of course!
3. Free speech? (see Pruneyard)
4. Of course!
5. Free speech? (see Pruneyard)
6. ??? (maybe EU Data Privacy laws?)
7. ???
8. Of course!

Posted Apr 21, 2004 10:09:47 AM | link

Betsy Book says:

Wow, Betsy -- that's huge! Any idea about U.S. subscriptions or links to academic papers about it?

There is no U.S. version of Habbo Hotel yet and I don't know how many of their current users are American. According to the corporate site they're operating in 9 countries now: Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Judging from the high traffic they receive on my site (the review page for Habbo Hotel on VWR has consistently ranked highest of all review pages in 2004, averaging around 3,250 pageviews per month) and the enthusiastic emails I receive from Habbo members who love it, they are doing quite well with their target audience.

I haven’t come across any academic papers on Habbo Hotel but if anyone does find one or is working on one, by all means share. One of the stated goals of VWR is to provide basic info about interesting worlds as a jumping off point for those interested in doing further research. There is so much interesting material in the newly emerging social virtual worlds and yet most of the academic work seems to have been done years ago in older worlds like Habitat and Active Worlds. Current research seems to be focused on the gaming worlds (and more power to you, Richard, Ted, Greg, Dan, Julian, Ren, etc.) But the social worlds are just as rich in potential research material, in fact may have more to offer if you are a social scientist. So to all you academics out there, I’ve provided a starting point with VWR. Now it’s your turn – get going, people!

I wonder if many of us here are being a bit myopic by focusing primarily on hack-n-slash level grinding VWs...

I come to TN with a background in message boards communities, text chat communities, and social virtual worlds that are descended as much from IRC and AOL chat rooms as games. The RPG stuff is new to me. TN has been a great educational experience in terms of learning the terminology, perspectives, and basic hot button issues of gaming worlds. But I do wish there was more recognition of other types of worlds that perhaps don’t fit the gaming hack-n-slash level grinding world. Perhaps I can help with that.

It makes absolute sense to me that technologies further enabling social communication are being integrated into virtual worlds. Of course they are. Why should we ever expect to be limited to chat bubbles and text logs forever? Why shouldn't virtual worlds strive to develop more and better ways for citizens to communicate and form social networks that extend relationships outside the world? Does this break the magic circle or extend it?

Oh…and Greg, I think the RL equivalent of Habbo rule #7 is “Don’t give the key to your hotel room to anyone else when they ask for it. This key exists to stop others from coming into your room, charging up a huge-ass room service bill, stealing your stuff, and generally causing a big fat headache for you and the hotel management”

Posted Apr 21, 2004 6:29:52 PM | link

ino how u can get free cred says:

go on

Posted Sep 30, 2005 12:14:31 PM | link

Alex de Jong says:

Just came across this post. In fact I am researching Habbo hotel, especially its trading and gambling aspect, which are very prevalent in Habbo. To this end I set up what is in effect an escrow functionality for Habbos who want to gamble safely. The one drawback with Habbo is that you can convert credits into furni, but converting furni into credits is impossible. Habbo's trading mechanism works separately from its IM mechanism. In fact, the main feature of habbo, text chat, is used in conjunction with the trading console to communicate while trading.
Anyone wanting a tour can find me as "urbandiscount" at There is a uk Habbohotel for English speakers who want to give it a try.

Posted Dec 5, 2005 8:42:16 AM | link