GamesBeat

Sulake CEO discusses Niko, Habbo Hotel and the drive to move audiences across platforms

Paul_LaFontaine_CEO_Sulake

With over 10 million unique visitors a month, Habbo Hotel is the world’s largest game and online community for teenagers, with users in over 150 countries. With parent company Sulake releasing Niko, its second iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) game, this week, VentureBeat spoke to chief executive Paul LaFontaine, about his cross-platform strategy.

LaFontaine was named as Sulake CEO in September 2011, having previously been vice president of global distribution at Playdom. This appointment coincided with the release of Sulake’s first iOS app, Lost Monkey, and LaFontaine says that moving its audience across platforms will be Sulake’s key focus for the year ahead.

The new iOS app Niko is designed to appeal to a broad customer base, combining platforming level designs with sling shot action. It is a standalone title, but includes direct tie-ins to Habbo Hotel, which allow members to earn rewards in the app that they can then transfer back to the Habbo community.

LaFontaine says the release of Lost Monkey in 2011 helped demonstrate that the Habbo community liked this idea of receiving transferable rewards in a mobile app. With a large teenage community to keep engaged, LaFontaine sees such movement as a key strategy. “Because we think retention which comes from moving audiences across platforms from product to product is an important strategic capability, you’ll see more mobile efforts and social media marketing efforts from us.”

Having first launched in 2000, Habbo Hotel has grown from a small Finland-based virtual community to a service with over 243M users worldwide. LaFontaine points out that in Western markets 1 in 10 teens try out the product. While Habbo Hotel is still strongest in Europe, as well as other English-speaking markets, LaFontaine explains that Sulake, “solved the difficult monetization problem of the Latin American markets, so we are strong there too.”

The Habbo Hotel experience is free for users to engage with, but access to premium services is carried out using Habbo Credits, the virtual world’s currency. These Credits are used to pay for items such as virtual furniture and elements for the homepage, and are bought with real currency. When asked about the percentage of paying users among the Habbo community, LaFontaine says,”our percent of paying users are consistent with other online entertainment communities and higher than Facebook social games.”

Habbo Hotel integrated with Facebook for the first time in Dec 2009, but the community had been firmly built before that. LaFontaine says, “Our strongest numbers are outside of Facebook. We view Facebook as a channel where we acquire users.” He added, “We do plan on launching standalone Facebook applications which will support that objective.”

With cross-platform movement the key focus for Sulake, LaFontaine confirms that the company intends to bring a Habbo Hotel app to mobile platforms. “The entire experience is not suited for the mobile form factor, but elements of it are. We think moving audience is the key for long-term retention, so creating a consistent experience in the Hotel and in a subset of activities that are aligned with the Hotel keeps the audiences moving from online to mobile and back again.”

Sulake will continue to focus on the teen market with its products, but LaFontaine is aware of interest from users who have grown up with Habbo Hotel. “Over the years 240M teens have registered ….. and some of them “outgrew” the service, since they are not teens anymore. We call them our alumni. We plan to actively engage that audience in a way that is fun, and nostalgic. After all, when you were a Habbo the world was a much simpler place, wasn’t it? We see this as a really fun new part of our business.”

As for the future of social gaming as a whole, LaFontaine is overwhelming positive. “We think social gaming is a long-term part of our lives because now everyone plays. It’s for the whole family.”

LaFontaine highlights the strength of specialization for future growth, saying “The growth opportunity is for specialization by player type, or demographic. Habbo Hotel has been fortunate enough to start as a specialist and the results speak for themselves. There will be specialist winners in the future who take advantage of this in other areas. We think the potential for growth is still there.”

Niko is now available for iPhone, iPad, iPad 2 and iPod Touch. The first six levels are free to download and play, and the full game, featuring 28 levels, can be unlocked for $1.99.


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