There is an insightful interview of Sulka Haro, the lead designer of Habbo Hotel by Brandon Sheffield on Gamasutra. The interview covers a broad range of issues and may be of interest for who-ever is intrigued by "gameless games" or the "social web" or the evolution of the game industry as a whole. It's not all about MMOs but it shows how the topic overlaps with other themes such as social software, multiple on-line identity or scrum development etc.
It starts from the recurring question (at least for people in the game industry") about Habbo is not a game "as games straight out, we probably should be expanding what our definition of game". Haro answered by highlighting the importance of "play" as opposed to "game" in terms of the important metaphor. The discussion goes on and on about this and it reminds me of some people from the video game industry who still overlook Habbo at "some part of the industry". The main reason they give comes both from the technology employed and the game mechanics.
(A screen capture of Habbo Hotel as shown on the Gamasutra website)
What is more interesting is the following:
"BS: It seems like you've added more of what we traditionally consider video game-like game elements to Habbo over time. What was the reasoning behind it?
SH: I guess the initial couple of games we did were very small. (...) So these would be like the super minigames, which are really popping out more and more nowadays, but then we've been expanding into doing more complicated stuff, where the user is actually playing what you would identify as a game, like the snowboard game, and you have proper games, like throwing snowballs. I guess, partially, it's good business. There are people who actually want to play, and they pay money for it. But also, at least in my view, if you're looking at, like, a 13-year old guy, who is used to playing games, it's easy to communicate that, "Hey, there's this game-game here as well, and if you start off on playing that, maybe you'll get used to talking to the other users and get excited to meet people and eventually do the other activities as well." It broadens the scope a bit as well. The action in Habbo is really in the rooms themselves, so...
BS: I was wondering how it was that you came up with the idea to let users play around with stuff. It hadn't really been done too much on a scale where it was easily accessible like that.
SH: As I said in the keynote, the people who founded Sulake -- the first core group of people -- they all had multimedia-slash-web backgrounds, and [were] not the games people. So we didn't even have this notion of stuff not being done before. It's kind of like really looking at all the websites that were already back then doing a lot of content -- obviously not to the extent where it is now, but really just looking at the past experiences and knowing that people want to do it."
Some elements about the users are also worth to note:
"The market penetration in some of the markets is incredible... I don't know exactly, but almost every single teen in the whole country who is in that age group has actually been there. It's kind of funny -- if you go and look at like eighteen-year-olds, or people who are already past the teenage age, they still have this thing in common, that they actually have been to this service and have played out. It's kind of funny, sometimes, to talk to people who are way beyond it already, but still remember the funky stuff that they did. (...) , the fact that we have the teenagers in there is a big turnoff for the older people."
There are also interesting issues regarding the importance of localization (" The UI is always local. Especially with teenagers"), no plan to go on the console market (" the fundamental thing is really like text-based roleplaying, and with consoles, people don't have keyboards. ") or UI issues.
Overall, it's interesting to notice how this project came out form the blue and is now taking more and more respect in the game industry (although there is still doubt and skepticism). From the academic perspective, it's a bit similar, I haven't really found any research regarding Habbo and it's often studied as part of the Web2.0/user-generated/social software artifacts. Anyhow, we can possibly think about Habbo Hotel as a boundary object, something interpreted differently by different communities. One can see it as a boundary objects both for the industries (web vs games) and the demographics (teenagers vs grownups). And as every boundary objects, it's something worth to explore.