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Virtual Worlds Conference: Ironstar's Joakim Achren Talks Mobile Virtual Worlds

It seems that mobile connectivity to virtual worlds is right on the horizon. But what about a virtual world actually self-contained in a mobile phone? At the 2007 Virtual Worlds Conference, Ironstar Helsinki CEO Joakim Achren demonstrated and discussed MoiPal, his company's mobile virtual world that works on basic Java handsets.

Title It seems that mobile connectivity to virtual worlds is right on the horizon. But what about a virtual world actually self-contained in a mobile phone? At the 2007 Virtual Worlds Conference, Ironstar Helsinki CEO Joakim Achren demonstrated and discussed MoiPal, his company's mobile virtual world that works on basic Java handsets.

"The idea was like, your friend in the phone," Achren said. "It's an avatar that lives in your cellphone." The mobile pal is controlled like a Sim, or a Tamagotchi. Achren explained that he got the idea from thinking of how adults have facebook and kids and 'tweens have Club Penguin -- but what about teens?

"They are usually not at home, but they always have a mobile phone with them," Achren noted. "And they usually have the best phones. It is a means of self-expression, like ringtones. But self expression should be more than just ringtones."

Achren did say that, as it happens only during idle time, gaming and social networking on a mobile platform still have to integrate with a website, especially since mobile phones have such restrictive memory. "Concentrate on using the mobile to do something simple and realistic," he advised. "You can't just take Second Life and put it on a mobile -- except for Japan, maybe," he joked.

"It has to be a personality extension... and it has to be free," Achren continued, noting it's not generally a good idea to aim a subscription-based service to kids, since they probably won't even try it. Incentivizing free content is a much better method, he said.

Moreover, there are a lot of possibilities for the mobile platform. Achren highlights simple 2 or 3-dimensional content items that can be created on a phone without challenging the memory restrictions. There's also social networking. "You've seen Facebook on a mobile. It works pretty well," Achren said.

"Mobile gaming is here to stay, so why not think of mobile when it comes to virtual worlds?" He added.

Successful apps have to be client apps. For Western countries the handsets really allow for just text, but Java handsets can be adopted by just about all phones. Achren noted that Flash is becoming more prevalent on handsets, so it may be handy in the future, but for now, "Java is the way to go," especially since Java code translates easily between a mobile phone and a PC.

It also needs to use very little wireless data -- less than 1 megabyte, according to Achren. "It can't be a 100 dollar phone bill every month," he noted.

Achren described his company's own experience. In 2005, they had developed their own mobile game engine, and they wanted to do something special with it. The pet aspect was a good fit, because it was simple -- you feed the avatar and play games with it, without the need for a network connection. Users can stream their stats to the server, but it's not required. There are also elements of adventure gaming involved. "That's how we thought of the world, a world with a lot of things to do, not just standing around and talking." So MoiPal incorporated missions, pre-scripted events, and a narrative.

Most notably, MoiPal is persistent. "Even when you're sleeping, your pal is doing something," Achren says. The avatar can travel on its own to a virtual city, and upon returning will report to the user about its adventures. "When you wake up in the morning, on the bus you can see what your pal has done and send him or her to do something else while you're at school," Achren explains.

The website acts as an extension of the world. "It gives you a godlike view of what's happening," Achren explains. Through the website, users can see what others are doing with their pals, their decorations, clothing choices and other game elements. There's even a version of the mobile game available on the website in a pop-up window, for those users who can't play the game on their phones.

The content is monetized directly, through virtual goods that can be obtained through a variety of payment options like SMS, PayPal or a credit card. Users can buy gaming extensions, decorative items and other content bonuses that provide better equipment and resources. There are also indirect monetization models, like sponsorships, advertising and product placement.

"Ringtones and wallpapers are old news," Achren says. "Having brands give items and missions is a better incentive."

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