GDC09: Game Mechanics Without Rules

Sulka Haro, Sulake


The intersection between social and gaming, and where that should be going, instead of where lots of people are obsessing about taking it.

(I have more to add here later, but I’ve got to run to a meeting; will update the post when I have time)

All errors / omissions my fault, as ever, and my comments in [square brackets].


This is not a post-mortem, it’s mid-mortem – we’re still actively doing the changes I’m talking about here.

126 million registered accounts, 11.5 m monthly logins. Seen 40% growth in last year of signups. 2008 was a good year for us. Financials arent’e public yet, so I cant say, but there’s probably good news coming up.

We’re trying to add more game to Habbo.

What’s Habbo? A Social MMO.

[description of Habbo]. We did web based first, it’s nice to see the industry validating our decision from 2001 and also moving to web-based.
[showed screenshots of Hogwarts room where people are RPing HP inside HH]
[showed American Idol RP]; there’s no tools, no logic, no control – it’s all voluntary shared play.

We’re now selling windows, so you can stick them on the walls and get pieces of views out to outside [couple of examples where people made floor to ceiling glass walls by plastering the wall].

[showed McD role-play], with people pretending to be servers, buying food, eating, etc. All emotes. Children are interested to know what it’s really like (real world) to flip burgers, theyr’e too young to really do it themselves, so this play is a way of exploring the ideas.

[ADAM: this is a big under-explored area. Looking at the real-life themeparks designed for children to play at being differet adult professions for a day (now live in 7 different countries, IIRC!), it would be good to do more of this stuff, I think]

Social MMO: we’re UGC, open-ended [self-defined by the users], not a game.

With industry people lookign at games as VWs, theres strong polarization, and people see them as mutaully excusive. I think that’s complete bull, and they are mutually supportive, and should be combined.

In general, though, the exampels of integrations you think of, like WoW, the built-in systems are really ONLY supporting games, and never social.

We’ve been trying to boost the game mechanics without killing the social experience. We’re tryignt to balance ourseves a bit better [showed Schubert triangle], be less extreme.

[becoming unfocussed?]

Problem: our socila interaction is really very hardcore. we see a 95/5 split (top 5% of users spend as much time in habbo as the rest of the world put together). Thankfully the spending doesnt follow the same distribution, its much more even.

Social value erodes quickly – if you leave for jutst a short while, when you come back you need to spend a lot of time/money re-building your reptuation, your set of currently cool items, etc.

[interesting graph of excitement vs time since joining: shoots up, then suddenly drops 60%, then bounces back up to 99% where it wavers around forever more]. My job as a designer is to get people to surive the Valley of Death after their initial enthusiasm, while they’re becomign overwhelmed and lost and fristrated, and before they get subsumed into the community and feel comfortable wihtin the expeirence.

Users can tell how old a players account is simply from glacning at their avatar clothing because its so hardcore in terms of knowing what dress culture is current, older, etc. It makes it very very hard for new users to break in to the social structure.

[ADAM: reminds me of Eve]

new users reactions: expected to be able to “earn” something (levels, etc) by playing; expected a lot more “game”-ness to it.

So … we’ve been adding mechanics. Sticking to ones that ?dont? have direct social meanings, or that support social value. Even if your’e not paritcupating actively in the social circles, you have some game stuff to do and enjoy.

1st thing: achievements. An additional in-game currency (earned)

Looking at other eperinces, people dont tie together all their features. So we set out to tie all our new suff together from the start.

Added “goals for noobs” to help people through the start.

Feedback: lots of unhappiness, but habbo users alwasy reactionary against new stuff unless it benefits them. Looked into the people who ran the anti-achievement group, foudn they were some of the top achievements-eaners in the entire game. But also some very positive repsonses, people loved it, provided context for what they do.

2nd thing: buying pixels, andother in-game currency (paid)

We’re using the earned currency as a scaracity model. It used to be that you could use money to buy anything/everyting in world. Now we can sell stuff with high earned-cost thing that forces people to earn as well as pay, supporting people who want to do goal-oriented play and have meaning

[ADAM interesting how reactionary USA companies were over doing any pay-for-advancement, and some still do, whereas Habbo is pay-only, and just seeing “some” benefit from “allowing” GOP, rather than obsessnig and assuming “people ONLY ever want GOP”]

[ADAM thought: does Habbo have a powerful enough search system for finding all these interesting rooms that Sulka is showing?]

33% of users said that it was difficult to show others the are cool or have done somethign well.

42% said it was difficult to know if others THINNk they are cool have done something well

Perhaps this is a teenager thing, that peopel are more uncertain about how they are perceived than by how they are.

3rd thing: Respect, antoher currency (earned, but giftedby other people, not self-earned)

“respect is worhtless because everyoen cna get respect” (quote from player)

It take peoepl a while to work out “what to do” with any new social tools. When you put it out, they arent’ sure what the socially-acceptable uses are going to be. So, 3 months (long time in this world) after laucnh they asked what people were using it for:

– weclomg new players, making them feel happy
– renaming it “love” and gifting it to GF/BF

Now, 76% of users say they are trying to earn the level-cap achievement for Respect (big change from launch, with the strong negative feedback, and the claims that it was fundamentally useless and terrible and would ruin the world).

23% of users have been paid to give Respect. It’s now a signficant driver of the economy.

Social mechanics change slowly, it takes a long time for people to decide what to do with them, to find ways of using them, to adpt it.

In the words of Raph: Chat is not enough. This is true, it carries you a long way, but you can go / need to go a lot futher.


how do you gather the feedback that you get from users, and how do you process it?

lst year we did 9 big releases, after each we did a huge poll of the users. Mix of feebback on concrete aspects of the change, and forward-looking statements so that we can later re-ask those post-release and see how good the predictions were / how much opinion has changed over time.

We follow fansistes too, but the forums are dominated by the loudest voices. Distribuiton of percentage of people that like/dislike a given thing is radically different between forums and questionnaires.

what %ge of time are people devoting to these new game-like mechanics?
why didnt you implement more of those mechanics yet?

Wev designed achievements as a dise product of regular actvitiy more than something you have to change your behaviour to achieve – you would get there eventually anyway for a lot of them, just be being an active, normal, good member of the social community.

how much detail are players asking for in the logic of mechanics?

we get asked for eveyrthing that exists in any game in the world, and thousnads of responses contunuosly

[ADAM: they have so many users that they’re inundated with any requires you can think of; I think the questioner (worked for a company making game-creation suites, wanted to know if there was ]

have you woven in any narrative to the world?

tried some, mostly just to help new users understand the mechanics of the site and what your’e trying toa chieve.

but the world changes so fast that everytiem we put in some narraitve, it becomes out-of-date within a few weeks (the UGC fads move on too fast).

also teenagers seem to hate being given an on-rails narrative path of how they “should” be relating to the expeirence, instead of just explorng for themselves

but we do run a lot of social events where we soft-seed ideas and peices of narrative, and leave it to the players to volunartily role-play stores and ideas based on that.

2 thoughts on “GDC09: Game Mechanics Without Rules

  1. Pingback: Linking In » Habbo implementing more game

  2. Pingback: T=Machine » GDC 2009: all transcripts / liveblogs

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