Downloaded over 100m times, and beloved as much by gamers as improbable figures like David Cameron and Margaret Atwood, Angry Birds is a true phenomenon of gaming’s new age.
It started as a smartphone game, is dirt cheap at 59p, and has shifted over 2m in plush toy merchandise. The game – which sees the player firing enraged birds at egg-stealing pigs hiding in wonky houses – has flung its creator, a small Finland mobile studio called Rovio, into the mass market spotlight. Investors and licensees are lining up. Hollywood is knocking at its door. A stock market floatation beckons. And the game’s not even two years old.
How did they do it?
The person to ask is Rovio’s Peter Vesterbacka, the man who has pushed the franchise forward over the last year.
His job title is ‘Mighty Eagle’. That humoured name actually means day-to-day biz dev and franchise management. Plus, fittingly, he spends a chunk of his life in the air on planes, travelling to speak at conferences or meet movie execs.
Vesterbacka wasn’t part of the team when the game first launched, but joined a year ago as Angry Birds started going from ‘game’ to ‘game phenomenon’. It needed that ‘eagle’ figure to spread the brand’s wings – and the former HP exec swooped in.
“I originally only committed a few days a month,” he says.
“Yet we realised quickly that it needed lots of work – more than anyone had thought. I said we’re going to make 100m downloads, and at that point we had only 3m downloads. They thought I was crazy. But now we are there. It’s insane. We only hit 50m in December, to show you how fast it’s accelerating. We hit 100m before I thought we would.”
What proved the catapult game’s success was more than a short-term fling? “Simple things,” he says. “People would stop me and have a picture taken just because I was carrying some Angry Birds stuff.”
That ‘something’ actually ascended slower than you might think – it’s only become pre-eminent in the last nine months.
Angry Birds first launched on iPhone in December 2009. At first, it gradually climbed the charts, thanks to word of mouth and no marketing. But incremental episodic updates added new levels and features, encouraging repeat play and more new downloads.
Rolling the game out on more platforms was inevitable. iPad, Nokia, Android, PSP/PS3, Mac and PC all received it in the last year.
At the same time, sister title Angry Birds Seasons arrived in winter. The game features seasonal updates themed around events like Christmas and Halloween.
Concurrently, Angry Birds became a hot property outside of software. Rovio signed a few selective deals for merchandising (see ‘Birds of a Feather’), which have helped fuel ardent fans, and offer a way to engage physical goods retailers.
Then, the coup: a Fox movie deal that perverts the licensing model. Rovio has just released Angry Birds Rio, a version of the game framed around an upcoming CG family film.
It’s an IP and games biz dev fairy tale that no doubt turns the Koticks and Riccitiellos of the world a deep shade of green. And there’s more.
A recent $42m funding round has plugged Rovio into the Silicon Valley elite. Key execs with good contact books – the venture capitalist who helped Marvel sell to Disney, for instance, or the entrepreneur that funded trail-blazing file-sharing service Kazaa – now advise the team.
And in future: a possible floatation.
The saga was a long-time-coming for the Rovio business itself; the game was the studio’s 52nd production since forming in 2003. But the Birds boom was swift. All this excitement is driven by one game. A franchise not yet 18 months old.
FLYING ON FACEBOOK
With Rio now out, the next nest for Angry Birds to settle in is Facebook. In production for over a year, this new version will launch on the social network in May.
Explains Vesterbacka: “It’s a social experience, not just a ‘Facebook game’. It’s a way to bring all the current games and experiences together. It will be our biggest launch this year.”
Facebook’s features allow the company to focus on “more sharing, more collaboration, more creation”. Which suggests user-made levels.
“But we always say that Angry Birds is ‘a social game’ – because people talk about it, it’s a key part of the success. Facebook can amplify that.”
Rovio has already integrated Facebook into the original – hit ‘Like’ on the firm’s profile and you unlock more levels. It’s helping prime players for the next version, says Vesterbacka, as well as putting tangible numbers on Rovio’s fanbase: “We’re seeing the number of fans on Facebook rising by thousands every day.”
Facebook may be the big priority, but Angry Birds this year will also arrive on Wii and 360.
Although consoles aren’t a major consideration for Rovio (more on that in a bit), Vesterbacka shrugs off the suggestion that Angry Birds can’t compete with triple-A games. In many respects the franchise is everything that defines top-tier games; to-die-for demographic reach, significant regular dev costs, and money-can’t-buy buzz.
Not everyone agrees Angry Birds is a premium product worthy of respect, though. As the game enters its second year, sceptics have been out in force.
‘The game’s just based on luck,’ said critics of its physics-based gameplay at January’s Mobile Games Forum.
‘Actually, it’s Rovio that just got lucky,’ said sneering developers at Mobile World Congress in February.
But the biggest attack came from gaming’s most cherished name – Nintendo. President Satoru Iwata took the keynote stage during March’s GDC to say the smartphone business model and its cheap apps were destroying the value of games. Iconoclastic shots fired by a threatened gaming giant.
“It’s interesting to see people like Nintendo saying smartphones are destroying the games industry,” Vesterbacka mulls. “Of course, if I was trying to sell a $49 pieces of plastic to people then yes, I’d be worried too. But I think it’s a good sign that people are concerned – because from my point of view we’re doing something right.”
With millions playing the game, you can see his point. Angry Birds puts beaks out of joint because many don’t see a games brand that started as a 59p app a worthy entry into the history books.
Nevertheless, Rovio is pushing onto more established, high-priced platforms, but only to grow the brand.
“Games consoles for us are just like launching on a new smartphone platform,” says Vesterbacka. “We don’t see…” He stops, more weary of writing off consoles than recent headlines would have you think.
“Look, the console market is important, but it’s also… It’s not dying, but not the fastest growing platform out there. So we don’t see it the way others do. A lot of people in the games industry, they think the ‘real’ games are on consoles. You’re only a ‘real’ games company if you do a big budget game. But we don’t have that inferiority complex.”
FREE AS A BIRD
Still, Angry Birds has ruffled feathers. Thanks in part to the speed with which Rovio has moved. It gives away new content for free, subverting the DLC model. The resulting mass of levels makes the cheap price an even bigger draw. Inspiring and irritatingly clever all at once.
It doesn’t sit well with the walled garden of console games. At GDC, a Microsoft employee publicly chastised Vesterbacka and Rovio for being slow to touch consoles. But that’s due to Xbox Live’s slow pipeline for content approval.
“Is that our fault? No, that’s their problem. There is no reason why, when you do digital distribution on console, you couldn’t do frequent updates. It’s just a legacy way of thinking. And if the consoles want to stay relevant they have to start mimicking what’s going on around them on app stores, smartphones and online. It’s the only way. because people expect games to stay fresh. If you pay $59 or $69 dollars and you get no updates – but you pay 99 cents for a game in the App Store and get updates every month, then it sets the expectations higher. So the pressure is definitely on those guys.”
Established players have tried to undermine that model. EA slashed the price of many game apps to less than a quid. Titles once £4.99 shot up the charts, dethroning Seasons and co, albeit temporarily.
“All they are doing is teaching customers there will always be a promoted price eventually. It works in terms of quick sales and they can occasionally say they are in the Top Ten – but it’s not the marketing I would do. I don’t see the value in it at all. It’s not smart.”
HATCHING A NEW IDEA
That’s the biggest lesson of all to learn from Angry Birds. The company behind it has never wavered in its focus on what makes Angry Birds work, and never tampered. New investment and the large-scale merchandise push are the result – not the causes of why Angry Birds is a success.
So it’ll come as no surprise to hear that Rovio’s not hung up on what Angry Birds’ successor is.
“It’s the mistake a lot of game companies make – you have a hit and try to do another one. Everyone in games, music and movies does that too. But creating a hit is not trivial. So of course there is pressure on us to do more, but not to create a new IP,” says Vesterbacka.
Maintaining that focus keeps people talking about Angry Birds.
“Word of mouth is still the biggest thing that drives people’s excitement,” he says.
That buzz just also happens to coincide with a huge cultural shift around smartphones.
“We’re benefiting from the growth in technology – more iPhones, more Android devices, more tablets, more everything. That market itself is growing at such an amazing clip it helps our numbers. So the reason we’re succeeding is a combination of things. Angry Birds became a household name and then, especially in the smartphone market, that technical growth pushed it further.”
Throughout, Rovio has maintained tight reigns on the IP.
Says Vesterbacka: “In everything we do we intend to keep control ourselves. So if we made an Angry Birds movie would the animation be by us in-house? Who knows. But we could. It puts us in the position to stay true to Angry Birds and expand its world in the way we think it should be done.
“Our goal is to build Angry Birds out beyond games and build an entertainment franchise over the next 10 or 20 years. It will take a long time, and we want to do things that are sustainable.”
He likens the lasting potential of Angry Birds to Mario, Disney and MTV. Flight of fancy? Those 100m players and VCs shelling out $42m may beg to differ. The firm is seeing millions of new players flock in from Asia, where the recently launched Android and Nokia versions are finding many fans.
So in many respects, the story of Angry Birds’ success is only half-written. The good news for everyone else, is that it’s just one success foreshadowing many more.
Rovio may have been the first to take disruptive flight in a bold new world of lucrative games hatching from new platforms kept aloft by cheap software pricing – but it’s certainly not going to be the last.