LINE Play, is a virtual world accompaniment for the popular smartphone messaging application LINE. Despite having launched in Japan last November, LINE Play has been relatively unheard of this side of the world up until its official international release last week. We gave it a try and learned why.
I’ve only recently learned about LINE myself. Launched by the Japanese branch of Korean web portal company Naver, LINE boasts over 100 million users worldwide. Its popularity in a market saturated with other similar, more reliable programs like WhatsApp and Skype is a mystery to me (though I suspect it involves Korean idols). It helps that it’s also completely free and supported by the sale of animated emoticons called stickers.
Through its indirect integration with LINE, LINE Play appears to be a less than subtle effort by Naver to tap into its existing market. Albeit not a very good one.
Cutesy avatar based social systems are hardly a new idea. In fact they’ve been around even before the advent of modern smartphones with the incredibly successful Mobage owing its success to the idea. As others have pointed out LINE Play also appears to be a rip-off of the popular Ameba Pigg service. In practice though, LINE Play is much less elaborate.
LINE Play begins with users creating their own chibi-avatar. Play-ers choose from creating male, female or anthropomorphic characters. Customization options are actually quite diverse with users being able to select from a variety of hairstyles, face shapes and individual facial features.
After creating your character, users have the option of further decking out their character in a variety of clothing and accessories, though it seems that the majority of items follow a similar teens fashion theme. At this time there is sizable pool of customization options and new items are added regularly. There has already been 3 content updates in the past week alone. Of course, given its relative newness, LINE Play has still long to go before it’s able to compete with the content of other virtual avatar communities.
The recency of its design however allows LINE Play to benefit aesthetically. Graphics-wise, LINE Play’s avatars look great. Due to limitations on size and being animated, they aren’t nearly as detailed as those found in poupeegirl, but they certainly look better than Ameba Pigg which it is compared to.
One major problem though comes from being unable to change your base avatar once you actually create it. The only option after creating a character is to delete and make a fresh account, which erases everything, including any items and real money currency purchased.
This looks like a big design flaw in my opinion. Rather than purchasing more items with real money as Naver hopes for, the current implementation actually allows people with more than one cellphone to create secondary accounts which they can reset infinitely to funnel items to their main account through the in-app “gifting” mechanism.
For a virtual community program in this age, LINE Play isn’t very social. It is strange that it sacrifices many of the truly social elements that make other community based frameworks like Ameba Pigg in favor of the generic social game conventions found in games that have been limited by social network services.
As expected, LINE Play allow users to easily add friends who are already part of their LINE contact list. They can of course just as easily advertise the program to friends for a bonus of 1000 gems (approximately 100 yen).
LINE Play also actually allows strangers to discover users you at random too, to read your “diary” and to initiate contact. While this might not be unlike the open concept of social networks, this element took me by surprise initially, especially when considering LINE Play and its parent program’s basis as a messaging replacement.
The application gives each user their own house. While the houses themselves are fixed, users can customize the interiors with an even greater variety of furniture and decorations than the clothing offerings. However unlike the communal spaces that are the backbone of Ameba Pigg, users in LINE Play are not actually able to interact with other players in houses in real time at all. Instead users an only visit a simulated “saved” version of their friends homes to perform tapping chores such as “cleaning” and “plant watering”, as they would the SNS “villes”.
Instead, actual human interaction in LINE Play is limited to the form of a chat window that is nearly identical to LINE’s. User avatars are of course displayed in the messaging window, complete with some nice fluid animations. However the redundancy makes the entire communication aspect of LINE Play seem stale and redundant. This is especially true given the more common use of regular old LINE, its ease of usage, and fans already investing into LINE’s stickers (which are not accessible through LINE Play).
To counter this, Naver has provided the “Lounge” where users can go to chat with random strangers. Strangely these use LINE’s chat system and the stickers that you’ve accumulated there. It’s disappointing that LINE Play’s animated avatars aren’t included, making them little more than glorified chat rooms, which are even more archaic than the virtual communities that they inspired. Even if the promise of chatting up random people on the go does attract you, it doesn’t help that there is only one regional lounge room per country and that each room is limited to 5 or 10 people at a time. This is particularly strange, given the normal LINE’s 100 person group chat functionality.
The “diary” system has been poorly executed as well and is again a step backward for the application. Not wishing to duplicate the timeline feature in Play as well, the developers have opted to set up a diary hidden away in each user’s home. The introduction of the timeline to Facebook played an important role in the demise of the previous generation of Friendster and MySpace, so there is good reason why even newer social systems incorporate the idea of a timeline into their framework.
There is little motivation to visit friends individually to read their status updates when you can much readily have it fed to you directly through Twitter, or Naver’s very own LINE. Accessing your own diary to post updates is a chore too. You know something is wrong when they have to offer you gems just to visit your own diary.
Had they created an application that provided all of the functionality of LINE with added avatar support, LINE Play might find a niche with people who wanted that. However, I cannot see LINE Play taking off in this day and age when given its limited and clunky social features. Sure enough figures point toward a grim future for the application. LINE Play attracted only 1 million users from Japan (where its parent app is most popular) and a total of 4 million users since its global launch.
While this might seem like a sizable figure, given the nature of social games, we’ll likely see usage dwindle after the initial hype. It is also good to note that LINE Play is one of LINE’s weakest tie-in launches, with the other branch off applications all attracting 10 million downloads each in a fraction of time.