Messaging apps are dead in the water. That’s the controversial message that Futurefly’s founder and CPO, Oskari Häkkinen, explains to me when we meet on a sunny morning in over coffee. Sure, everyone is using them, but the medium isn’t evolving. Instead of changing the way we communicate with one another, the big players have all settled on a single medium and are now plugging in extraneous tools that nobody really asked for. You only have to look at Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to bring bots, services and third-party plugins to Messenger to understand what’s going to come next.

So, why bother jumping into the messaging space in the first place with Rawr? “I researched Snapchat and went on to look at WhatsApp, Kik Messenger, KakaoTalk, WeChat – it was a full look at the messaging space – and they all had their own personal stories,” says Häkkinen. “However, there was one thing that really stood out: they all brought something new, a kick-ass feature, that hadn’t been seen before. That was the reason they had really taken off.

“So, with no intention to build a messenger myself, I had an idea: what if we brought 3D avatars and animations to the messaging space? Would you be able to tear down the walls of self-expression? Would I be able to say to you ‘hey, I’m going to be five minutes late’ and then give you a low five? Could I send a message to my wife and say ‘I can’t wait to be home today’ and then give her a hug? That was the seed of the Rawr idea.”

Now, two years on since his initial idea, Häkkinen’s left Quantum Break developer Remedy Entertainment and joined the exciting world of the Finnish tech startup scene. Futurefly has seen investment from the investors of Giphy and Bitly, Nokia chairman Risto Siilasmaa and Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels’ venture-capital company. Clearly, Rawr has managed to capture the attention of some influential people, and once you’ve used it, it’s easy to see why.

The Rawr difference

Aimed at teens and millennials, Rawr shares much of its basic DNA with other messaging services. Your chats still take place within a private space between two (and soon to be more) users. Unlike other messengers, however, everything you say is expressed via a fully customisable avatar. At this point you may be thinking “avatars. That’s the big idea?” Stick with it: when you see it in action you realise that it’s so much more than that.

Using natural-language processing, Rawr takes your message and – near instantly – adds emotion to it. Send a message saying “I’m going to be late, sorry” and your avatar will appear forlorn as it relays the message.

“Everything that’s been done to date with emoji and stickers has been baby steps in comparison to this.”

The same process works with emojis, too. Send a thumbs-up, middle finger or a coy smile, and your avatar will act out the emotion or action seamlessly. You can also make your avatar perform actions by simply using a “hashtag” to issue commands directly to your little virtual self.

“As a communication tool, we haven’t seen any messengers innovate the chat experience in a long time,” Häkkinen explains. “Facebook Messenger is going towards WeChat’s complete platform experience, we’re not. We want to innovate the way people chat instead.

“We feel that everything that’s been done to date with emoji, animated emoji and stickers has been baby steps in comparison to this. Now you can actually hug someone, actually kick them in the balls or slap them, whatever.”

Getting seriously emotional

It may sound like an incredibly odd hook for a messaging app, but in practice it brings a new level to conversations with friends. While it’s not quite as surreal as a social interaction in virtual reality, the presence of tiny virtual people conversing in the palm of your hand adds a new layer of emotional connection. That may seem insignificant, but a lot of communication’s subtleties and non-verbal cues are lost in text, and our current solutions – emoji and acronyms to indicate sarcasm or humour – are clunky to say the least.

“You do end up sending a lot of stupid shit,” admits Häkkinen. “A lot of my friends just write ‘kick’ and ‘slap’ with absolutely no context. Sometimes it’s just like, ‘how are you?’ Slap. It feels as silly as Snapchat, and I think that’s a good thing. You’ll get a notification and open it only to receive a slap in the face or a friend pooping emoji on you.”

“You do end up sending a lot of stupid shit.”

And it’s true: during my chat with Häkkinen his wife sends him a message that opens as a flurry of cloud emoji emanating from her bum and onto him. I can’t read Finnish, but he assures me she’s talking about an approaching storm back home, rather than her need to expel wind. I’ll just have to take his word on that.

Part of Rawr’s charm comes from its incredibly rich avatar creator and animation library, which they can continually update on the fly. “We’ve done an interesting thing with the back-end where we can bring in animations, clothing items and things like that to react to popular culture.” It’s this flexible ethos that makes Rawr feel continually fresh and fun to use.

To emphasise just how quickly Futurefly can react to trending topics, one example Häkkinen gives is the addition dabbing. “When we came into work last Monday we had over 2,000 requests to add ‘dab’,” he explains as I look on blank-faced wondering what a dab is. “Don’t worry, we were all asking ourselves, ‘what the f– is ‘dab’?’ too. We had no idea.

“We’re old, so we went online and looked and it turns out dab’s a dance. It’s a huge trend in the States… We created “dab” on the Tuesday and released it on Tuesday evening. There was no need to update the app, nothing like that. When people try ‘#dab’ [the animation] is there.”

Animations, however, only get you so far – it also helps that, as Häkkinen puts it, Rawr has “the most advanced avatar creator you’ll see on mobile”. Not only can you make your avatar look like a carbon copy of yourself, meaning it actually feels like your friend and you are performing those actions together, but Futurefly has been incredibly savvy with customisation options. It’s through these that it plans to monetise the whole endeavour, meaning it isn’t using data from conversations or user habits to bankroll the app.

The big money question

Calling upon skills he learnt working on brand partnerships at Remedy, Häkkinen and his team have managed to bring some big names to Rawr. Currently you’ll find US footwear brand Otz Shoes, Finnish clothing store Makia and Chelsea Football Club populating Rawr’s various item stores. Red Bull is also bringing a store to the app.

“I had a fair amount of experience [in brand partnerships] from having worked on Alan Wake at Remedy. I formed partnerships with Energiser and Ford as part of a plan to make it feel realistic,” he explains. “[Back then] brand deals were tough and we only secured four. Now, though, we have nine brands on board with Rawr.”

While three of these have already launched, it also seems that something big is on the horizon for Rawr users – although Häkkinen is rather coy about it. “We have one, large American celebrity, an artist. We also have some HBO series coming in…” No matter how much I push, he won’t name the series or celebrities in question. However, the deal involves both animations and avatar clothes, allowing your avatar to wear the clothes that characters in the series wear.

Image: Twitter

Drawing on the models of many popular free-to-play apps out there right now, Rawr will make some of its money through in-app purchases. Don’t worry, you won’t be charged to message people. Instead, you’ll be buying in-game currency to customise your avatar and purchase licensed items of clothing. As with all free-to-play titles, Futurefly also provides ways for you to earn currency through playing games or inviting friends to join.

Of course, Rawr will suffer the same problem that every new community-driven app faces: getting users. Futurefly has a solution for the friendless masses: Globetrotter chat.

You can think of Globetrotter as a Chatroulette for Rawr users – albeit with avatars instead of grimy webcam feeds – connecting you with random Rawrers (I’m going with it) around the world. “Globetrotter is basically modern-day pen pals. These people are global and random, and we’re not sharing any personal information beyond your avatar.” For security purposes, Futurefly has disabled the use of picture-sharing in this mode too. “There’s no photo sharing here because, well, otherwise people share photos of… people doing stuff that people don’t want to see.”

Three million conversations and counting

Over Rawr’s first weekend, the team saw more than a million Globetrotter chats take place, with the average user session length rocketing into 212 seconds per session. For context, Häkkinen claims that’s more than three times longer than people use WhatsApp, more than twice as long as people spend on Snapchat, and just shy of twice as long as people sit on Facebook on their phone. Not bad.

“We’re hoping that this is what people thought Miitomo should have been.”

So what about the future? Futurefly plans to capitalise upon both the addition of mini-games and clever, helpful bots. As games are in the very blood of every Futurefly team member, it’s a no-brainer that games will eventually come to the service. However, sensibly, Häkkinen decided it was best to get Rawr out of the door before they stuffed it with games detracting from the app’s core proposition.

Image: Twitter

Bots, however, are there to bring in an extra layer of usefulness to the app. Currently they just have Tim Rawr, a bot designed as a way to offer feedback to the dev team and ask questions about how to use Rawr. Further down the line, Häkkinen has plans to bring in a whole variety of other bots for people to communicate with. “One idea we had was a cooking bot where you say ‘I have bacon, what can I make?’. It’ll send you a recipe and you can say ‘nah, I don’t want that’ and it’ll send you a different one. It’s random, but it could spark some inspiration and it saves you time trawling the internet for something you can make.”

“We’re hoping that this is what people thought Miitomo should have been,” Häkkinen says as we talk about the worries around Nintendo’s avatar-based app. “Obviously my view is distorted, but the people I chat with have a ton of fun, and it really feels like there’s a lot more to [Rawr] than just a regular messenger.” Having used Rawr myself for a little while, it’s clear to see that – while, yes, there are a lot of messaging apps out there – Rawr really does have something going for it.

“In the first week, over three million conversations were started,” Häkkinen states. “Those early metrics are telling us that we do have a heartbeat.”

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