Before Meta, there was Habbo: How social games laid the framework for the metaverse

Illustration of a gaming metaverse.

Meta — the corporation formerly known as Facebook — has firmly joined the ranks of metaverse-building companies such as Roblox and Epic Games.

But the concept of deeply social digital spaces far predates Fortnite and its ilk: early social games such as Habbo have quietly been building the metaverse for years. With mountains of accrued virtual assets and decades of history, these early metaverse platforms are looking to recapture their rightful slice of the virtual world to come. 

Founded as Habbo Hotel in 2000, Habbo is an online community marked by pixelated avatars and items existing within an arcade-evoking isometric landscape. The platform allows users to socialize in virtual “hotels,” with public rooms accessible to all and private rooms that can be tricked out with custom-crafted digital items. At the moment, the platform boasts about 850,000 monthly active users and 320 million total accounts, according to Jorge García Guerra, a product owner at Azerion, a digital entertainment firm that acquired Habbo developer Sulake in January.

During its heyday in the mid-2000s, Habbo was wildly popular among teens and early adolescents — including this Digiday reporter, who made an account as a 12-year-old in 2007. At the time, the platform’s shoddy moderation practices were par for the course for the early internet, and it soon developed a shady reputation, culminating in a 2012 VICE article titled “We Met a Pedophile on Habbo Hotel.” “The situation has changed a lot since 2010–2012,” García Guerra said, listing safety tools such as mute buttons, 24/7 monitoring and word filters blocking the sharing of personal information. 

It also helps that Habbo’s user base has grown up alongside it. The Habbo power user Pulx, who was elected its “president of fun” in a platform-wide election last year and requested anonymity, has logged in almost every day since creating his account in 2005. “These days, it’s quite rare to actually talk to somebody under the age of 18 on Habbo,” Pulx said. “I’d say that the core demographic is 20-plus.” 

Nowadays, the average Habbo user (or “Habbo”) uses it as more than simply a distraction from homework. Instead, these older and wiser Habbos are beginning to take advantage of the platform to live their lives in increasingly metaversal ways.

“I know people that have met on Habbo, got married, had children — there’s literally all of that,” Pulx said. “I logged on Habbo during COVID and I met somebody that I was friends with when I was like 13 or 14. There are cases where people have passed in real life, and their stuff is still in the game, and people sometimes go in their rooms and sit down and kind of grieve that person.”

These behavioral and demographic shifts have been a priority for the developers of Habbo as they have built “Habbo 2020,” a rebooted version of the platform designed with the Unity game engine. When early versions of the rejuvenated Habbo lacked longstanding elements such as item trading, the user base erupted in protest, and the developers tweaked the platform accordingly.

They also took steps to ensure that users would be able to transfer their decades worth of virtual belongings into the new Habbo space. “It’s such a beautiful, strong community that everything we do, we have to really take care of the community to make sure that they like it,” said Jurriaan van Teunenbroek, vp of games and content at Azerion. “And so that’s one of the most challenging tasks to do.”

Like Habbo, other still-extant social games from the early internet are beginning to realize the value of their proto-metaversal status. IMVU, which began in 2004 as an avatar creator inside AOL Messenger, now markets itself as a metaverse, boasts 7 million monthly active users and has acted as the staging ground for non-fungible token fashion shows. “If you look at the audience on those platforms, and I’ll talk about Roblox, their core age range is 9 to 12, and they skew more male,” said IMVU CEO Daren Tsui. “Our core demo is actually 18 to 25, and it’s actually over two-thirds female. I think that’s another unique piece of how we compare to others, especially in the metaverse sense.”

The bulk of IMVU’s revenues come from in-platform sales of virtual clothes and furniture — which are likely to increase as users invest more of their time and attention in IMVU. “Over half of our revenues come from users that have been on the platform for over a year,” Tsui said. “That’s how sticky they are.”

Perhaps the biggest advantage that holdout social games such as Habbo and IMVU offer over newer and more prominent platforms is that these early contenders come with loyal, baked-in user bases that are both accustomed to owning virtual items and in many brands’ target demographics. This is an advantage over platforms such as Roblox and Fortnite, whose users are overwhelmingly minors with limited money to spend. “We have the opportunity to reach different target demos, because Habbo probably has more of a Gen-Y millennial target demo,” said Madelon Smittenaar, a business development manager at Azerion. “They’ve grown up along with the product and the game.”

So far, Habbo has enthusiastically jumped into the brand partnership fray. In March, the platform partnered with The Coca-Cola Company to advertise Fanta, creating a dedicated Fanta area on the platform with virtual assets modeled after the drink. The activation “was specifically for Brazil,” Smittenaar said. “We have these language communities, so we can host local-specific integrations or global ones.”

Azerion has also partnered with clothing companies such as BALR, the Dutch apparel and lifestyle brand, to create virtualized garments and hosted virtual concerts in its games, similar to those in Fortnite and other metaverse platforms. 

Though Habbo still boasts hundreds of thousands of regular users, it has yet to reattain the glory days of the mid-aughts, when it was the most prominent social game. Despite its tightened moderation practices, Habbo’s unsavory reputation still looms large in the minds of some former users. “I’ve actually been seeing TikToks about Habbo lately,” said Cayley Plotkin, Digiday’s event programming manager and a former frequent Habbo user. “I think that they have a hard reputation to beat, because everything I’ve been seeing about them has been about child grooming.”

But Habbo and IMVU’s re-emergent successes indicate that metaverse platforms don’t necessarily need to reach a massive scale to be successful. Rather, it is more important for platforms to accurately and naturally recreate the experience of socializing and forming one’s identity in ways that build community and keep users logging in day after day.

Many of both platforms’ millions of regular users have lived their lives in them for over a decade, making it incredibly difficult for them to walk away. It’s easier for them to double down on their involvement instead, living more and more of their lives in the metaverse — and creating new and exciting ways for brands to reach them there.

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