Habbo Hotel, the social networking game/platform for teens and pre-teens, is recovering after a tough couple of months. Although the game’s been around since 2000, the title and its developer Sulake recently came under fire following a media report claiming underage Habbo players were at risk and the game was a “pedophile haven.” Since then, the game’s operating at close to full steam and Sulake CEO Paul LaFontaine took some time to chat with us in order to set the record straight about exactly what happened, how the game’s even more secure for its player base and where Habbo is headed.
In June, U.K.-based Channel 4 News ran a report saying that an independent producer had played the game was constantly subjected to “regular pornographic chat.” Channel 4 also noted two recent cases where pedophiles had been arrested for molesting children they’d befriended in the game.
LaFontaine won’t say if he feels the Channel 4 report was a fair story, but he doesn’t deny the reporter’s claims, acknowledging, “there was inappropriate chat. That did happen.”
Sulake’s investigation into Channel 4’s allegations revealed 3.7 percent of users were engaged in improper behavior, or less than 2,500 players out of the 60-70,000 logged in each day. According to him, those who were involved with this have been disciplined and moderators are paying even closer attention to users’ chats.
LaFontaine also maintains that the behavior Channel 4 claims it encountered wasn’t that of pedophiles, as those types of sex offenders’ behavior patterns usually sees them wooing children with gifts over a period of times, isolating them from larger communities. He also tells us that while there have been pedophiles caught in the game before, Sulake has always cooperated with law enforcement agencies during these kinds of cases.
Unsurprisingly, many media outlets covered the sensational aspects of the story and public reaction was swift. Several retailers in the U.K., including Tesco, WH Smith and Game announced they would no longer carry Habbo game cards. While these announcements made headlines, it wasn’t sure just how much of an impact removing the cards from stores would have, since the U.K. was home to roughly 300,000 players. Meanwhile, investors like Balderton Capital and 3i began to publicly distance themselves from Sulake.
Dealing with the fallout
LaFontaine took an active role as soon as the Channel 4 story hit, publicly stating how Sulake takes its users’ safety seriously and that the allegations would be investigated. For a week, the company muted all conversation in the game while it reviewed long-term plans to improve user security and safety. On June 22, the company launched “The Great Unmute”, a site that let users publicly share their concerns and hopes about the game, as well as share their in-game experiences.
The Great Unmute proved to Sulake that, while public opinion of Habbo might not be at its highest point, the game still had a lot of loyal players. “The public is one thing and the users are another,” LaFontaine explains.
“The users’ experience of the site determine their use of the site. The Great Unmute came about when we were doing our forensics and investigating to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. It gave the community an opportunity to speak about the site and what was important to them. Within six hours, over 13,000 users came forth and said why they valued the site. There was some criticism in there, but universally they said they felt the site was safe enough for them to feel comfortable, that they wanted to be there and they voted with their feet and came back when we opened the site back up.”
Although users feel safe, Sulake is taking extra precautions to guarantee safer user experiences. As the game has its chat reactivated across territories, there’s a new default system in place that won’t allow players to chat until they go through a “safety and appropriateness training” and then pass a test based on the training. Sulake also brought on technicians from companies like Zynga and Playdom to do a complete assesment of the new system, as well as new filtering software from a third party. Finally, the developer is also putting moderation duties in the community’s hands, allowing members of the community to form a kind virtual form of the neighborhood watch, called “The Patrol.”
LaFontaine says that from February to the present, Sulake has spent more on moderation and user safety than the total amount spent in the rest of the game’s history.
Returning to stability
Now that Sulake is starting to distance itself from the scandal, things seem to be returning to normal. LaFontaine says revenue was down for two months after the report, when the game was largely suspended, but that it’s now recovered to 75 percent of its normal levels. Likewise, while some investors sold their shares, the majority stayed with the company. “Our remaining investors stepped up,” he explains. “When the other investors left, those remaining wound up with more share [of the company].”
Meanwhile, Habbo Hotel continues to expand. Yesterday, the game launched in Turkey; as with other regions, it’s fully localized and is free-to-play. When asked about further plans, Sulake is quiet on the matter, but does say the operating improvements made over the past six months allows Habbo to enter new territories. “We see our entry into Turkey as the first in a series of new markets into which Habbo will expand,” the company says.