Say you’re a Japanese otaku who loves the new Destiny game, light novels, and giant robot anime. But how would you keep up with the latest news for each one of them? Obviously, you’d have a few of your favorite sites bookmarked and you’d visit them a few times a day–if you were living in the Stone Age! Even if you’ve evolved enough to create your own RSS feed, you’d still only be in the 20th century–and far behind the times. For shame!
Now, if you were are a real 21st century geek, you’d get all your nerdy news through one “AI-enabled” app complete with adorable moe mascots and personalized news recommendations. Obviously.
At least, that’s what DeNA is hoping mobile users are thinking anyway, otherwise we don’t see their new app Hacka Doll taking off anytime soon. And considering the 50,000 installs the app has garnered since its release this summer, we’d say they might be right. But we had to see this “smart” app for ourselves and decided to download it.
Fair warning: This app is, sadly, Japanese-only right now. That said, we think this is a great (free!) learning app for anyone studying the language since most popular news sources don’t use too many uncommon kanji, and it’s a great way to keep yourself motivated!
▼Also, how cute are these characters??
To begin with, we should get the app’s name out of the way–it’s not a misspelling of Hacker Doll, as we had first imagined, but a play on “hakadoru” (捗る), a verb meaning to advance or progress, as in “we are advancing information gathering.” Since the aim of the app is to help people find information about the content they’re interested in–whether it be anime, video games, manga, or any of the various other “otaku” fields of interest–DeNA sees it as a way to advance information collection. As one of the company’s representatives explained in an interview with news site IT Media, the content-creation industry is doing well overall for now, but it’s always a risky business since it can be difficult to find the right audience for your content. If the content-creation industry–which includes all the studios that make our favorite manga, anime, games, and so on–is to stay healthy, DeNA believes more streamlined and intuitive content matching is necessary. The fact that “hakadoru” happens to (basically) have “doll” in it is a bit of a lucky coincidence–but one that they’ve been able to successfully capitalize on!
▼Less Guys and Dolls and more…Lovely Doll?
Hacka Doll first appeared this summer, and since then it has been downloaded over 50,000 times. While DeNA still has a way to go before it catches up with Angry Birds, things are looking good for the app. A large part of its success seems to be the three “mascots” that are the Hacka Dolls, who are named, simply enough, Hacka Doll Number 1, 2, and 3. While “Hacka Doll Number 3” isn’t the most, um, humanizing name we can imagine, each character has a defined personality, as you can see in the promotional anime below.
The video and characters were produced in collaboration with Studio Trigger, who has done work on The Idolm@ster and Kill La Kill. We’d say that DeNA has more than got their money’s worth as the “cute” characters are often cited in the apps success.
But just what exactly does the app do? Well, we’re glad you asked!
Hacka Doll essentially aggregates news from new sites, blogs, matome sites (think the Japanese versions of BuzzFeed or Mashable), and social media about whatever topics the user is interested in. While you might scoff at such a service, there are a couple of improvements that Hacka Doll offers over traditional RSS feeds or even something more context-sensitive like Google News. First, Hacka Doll learns (or at least aims to learn) what users like based on both user feedback and keywords found in the articles that each user reads. This means that the app should, over time, “synchronize” with the user to provide better, more targeted news and content. Kind of like Amazon’s recommendations, but not quite so random. (Just because I bought rope doesn’t mean I also want to buy a gimp mask, Amazon!)
The other thing that Hacka Doll aims to do is find new content users will potentially like. So, if you read a lot of articles about a particular anime series, you can probably expect to see more articles about related shows. As mentioned above, you can also give the article feedback on each article, telling it if you liked a particular article or not. Of course, all this means that your first few days with the app might produce less-than-ideal results, but DeNA explicitly tells users that it takes time for the Hacka Dolls to get to know you.
Their second promotional video even shows the three dolls totally messing up a transmission–partly through laziness and partly through incompetence. It somehow ends up being almost endearing.
While it might seem a bit random, humanizing the Hacka Dolls is actually an essential aspect of the app. Since the app can only adapt to users if they use it a lot, there needs to be an impulse to keep people coming back regularly. To that end, the app treats reading the aggregated articles like grinding in an MMO–complete with earning points, getting badges, and unlocking extras. While this may be a clear sign that the gamification of everything is getting out of hand, it actually kind of makes sense here. After all, why wouldn’t an app about anime, manga, and game news work like a game?
But the real question is–how does it work? Well, let us take you on a tour!
At the first installing and launching of the app, Hacka Doll Number One appears and asks you to tell her your genre preferences.
▼Of course, you’ll also have to agree to their terms and conditions.
And here are the nine general categories. You have to choose two or more from manga/light novels, anime, games (including board games, trading card games, and even D&D), goods (such as models and figures), voice actors and anime song singers, tokusatsu, cosplay, vocaloids, and BL.
▼Seriously, they’ll find news for you about D&D in Japanese.
Next, you’re asked to get rid of any subgenres you’re not interested in from within each category. So if, for example, you like manga but don’t want to read any moe stuff, you’d just click to deselect it here. It seems kind of counterintuitive to us, but we suppose it makes sense if you’re trying to get as much news as possible.
After another screen asking about specific titles, you’re taken to your news feed which, as mentioned earlier, is populated with articles from news sites, matome sites, and social media. Now, all you have to do is read! Just scroll through the news feed and click on any article that looks interesting.
Each article is reformatted for mobile devices, which is something you often don’t realize you want until you have it. At first, the article appears with just the top image and a few sentences from the beginning of the article, letting you get a preview before opening the entire piece. You also have three options at the top the screen: Rating, Read later, and Share. Read later and Share should be obvious, but the rating button needs a tiny bit of explanation.
▼The app also pulls together all the tweets that link to the article,
so you can easily read them by tapping a button on the bottom of the screen.
When you tap the rating button, the dialog box below appears, and you can choose whether you want more of these types of articles or not.
▼If you liked the articles, the Hacka Doll will be happy…
▼…and if you hated it, she’ll cry and apologize.
Can you imagine if waitstaff in restaurants did that?
Once you’ve signed up, you’ll be given 25 articles to read. After that you…have to wait for the next transmission. This is where we’re not so sure about the functionality of the app. There are only three transmissions per day–and they all fall in specific time frames. For example, your morning delivery must be selected from between 7 am and 11 am, while your afternoon delivery will be between noon and 3 pm. And your evening delivery is between 8 pm and midnight. So, what if you read all of your articles and want more? It looks like you just have to wait. Of course, you can read articles from earlier in the day, but you can’t simply refresh the app whenever you like. We’re not sure why this is, but that said, it’s not entirely uncommon for Japanese news apps. The very popular SmartNews app, for example, has a similar thrice-a-day update schedule and you only get a specific number of articles with each update.
Of course, you could always just go online and read whatever you want. But if the point of the app is to introduce users to new content as much as it is to share targeted news, we can’t imagine why you’d want to put such arbitrary limits on it. Maybe it’s meant to keep people from being overwhelmed…
▼One of the schedule updates as it appears in the Android menu.
She’s asking about lunch when all I want is my video game news!
However, even once you’ve finished reading your articles, you don’t necessarily need to close the app. In fact, if you have enough hacka points, you can actually play a mini-game in the Hacka Game Center. Yes, that’s right, you need to get points to play the games. Reading articles gives you points, but you can also get points for winning badges (basically like achievements on your video game platform of choice) and so on. When you have 15, you can play a game, which uses up your points, and then you have to start over.
After getting our first 15 points, we tried what we can only call a “conversation game.” It was like a dating sim, where the goal is good communication, and it basically involves talking to Hacka Doll Number 1 in her bedroom about what to get for lunch. “Creepy” doesn’t quite fit the context, but it comes close.
▼We were able to get “good communication” with Hacka Doll Number 1…
▼So she gave us a present: A special Hacka Doll Number 3 wallpaper.
And then we closed the app.
Now we have to wait for the next transmission so we can read more articles to get more points to play more games to get more gifts so we can…umm…turn our phones in Hacka Doll advertisements? We’re not sure what the long game is here, to be honest. Even DeNA seems to be a bit uncertain about the direction they plan to take the app–they’re apparently still discussing monetization possibilities, which could mean ads or an integrated store. Though their main goal is apparently to makes something that will last for 10 years. We’re not sure how they came up with that number, but how many mobile apps do you know of that are over 10 years old and still relevant or useful? It’s an ambitious goal, but we think they just might be able to pull it off!
You can download Hacka Doll for free from the Google Play Store or Apple App Store. As we mentioned before, the app is currently Japanese-only, but even if you need to look up every word, we’d still recommend downloading it. This a great way to motivate yourself to practice reading. Plus, with Android at least, you can select and copy text, enabling you to quickly look up any words you don’t know. This probably won’t help you pass the JLPT N1, but it will definitely help you learn many of the common-use kanji and it’ll be a lot more fun than your textbook!
Update: A Facebook commenter has noted that it’s not possible to download the app with English versions of Android. We were able to download the app with an imported phone using More Locale 2 set to Japan/Japanese. This may be because we are in Japan, but if you’re having trouble downloading the app, it might work for you. More Locale 2 is available for free in the Play store, but it may require root to work on newer versions of Android.