Can there really be a rigid equation for making a hit game?

Rovioâ??s Angry Birds and elated addicts

If you’ve played Angry Birds you’ll know that it’s far from formulaic. It is a game with character, spirit and energy, all of which are hard to quantify with numbers and conventions.

However, Angry Birds’ status as one of the most successful titles on the iPhone is no accident, says its developer.

Finnish studio Rovio is sure it has crafted a magic recipe for making a hit game; that fabled equation for creative triumph that has long eluded those looking to make catchy pop tunes and good reads with mathematical precision.

Of course, Rovio’s equation for success is highly tailored. It is about making popular games on the Apple portables, and it has evolved over time.

The formula is one that sets the perimeters in which the Rovio team can play with ideas, and provides focus on what makes a game popular with players.

Getting at why Angry Birds itself was so well liked by consumers is not rocket science. Simple, immediate and satisfying, the action-puzzler game costs just 59p, and as the provider of numerous free updates it offers dozens of hours of gameplay. The game, however, is not just the result of the equation. It is part of the sum’s formulation.

Rovio’s secret for success is an ongoing project, and apparently goes a little deeper than the fundamentals of what makes Angry Birds one of the perennial poster children of Apple’s new gaming model.

In fact, the reality of developing a secret recipe for making a hit came as an unexpected benefit for the studio, and Angry Birds itself almost went unmade.

When the youthful Finnish team began work on Angry Birds, they had just one screenshot, a headcount of 12, and a slightly uncertain vision of what the game would be.

“We didn’t understand what the game was really about at that point,” admits Rovio COO Niklas Hed. “We wanted a way to come up with some easy to understand gameplay for the screenshot, and it got forgotten about for a few months.

“Then we started discussing how we could take the luck out of the equation when making a game. We wondered if there was some kind of common pattern we could use. Then we started defining a requirement list of things every game should have.”

At that point, Hed and his colleagues looked back to Rovio’s early history, and a time when they worked as sub-contractors for Nokia. The studio had fleshed out 50 games previously, and went on to create two iPhone titles – Darkest Fear and Totomi – all of which let it build its equation.

“We then combined that list – that equation – to the screenshot, and that was the starting point for the game,” says Hed. As a result, Rovio has what it believes is a genre agnostic rulebook it can apply to its future titles on the iPhone.

Of course, the equation alone wasn’t the making of Angry Birds. It also took a great deal of skill, time and play testing, and the result is a title with a finesse that has made it famous. Still, the secret recipe born from the development process has become a valuable asset for the studio.

Hed is keeping his magic formula a closely guarded secret, and there is little point in trying to get him to reveal its nuances, but he does admit that some of the factors on the list of criteria are obvious; simple details like building a creation that doesn’t require a tutorial.

So just how did Rovio craft its clandestine recipe? “It’s hard to explain,” says Hed. “It’s easy enough to make an equation for the outline of a good game, but with making a really good game there is this magic in it that you can’t define so easily. We have new people joining the team, and in a way the requirement – the equation – sets the sandbox where they can play. It’s about setting up a place where you can find the spark needed.”

Summing up the approach as something of ‘beauty’, at a push Hed will admit it is possible to reverse engineer some of the equation from Rovio’s games.

 The notion of pulling Rovio’s formula from Angry Bird’s is a nice one in theory, but it would rather miss the point. What Hed and his colleagues have created is a equation that works for them, with their games. What can be learned from the Rovio case is that many studios may already be sitting on the elements that will form a customised equation for them. Taking a clinical look at back catalogue – and successes and failures – may hold the secret to defining success in quantifiable terms. It’s obvious, but crucial.

In forming the basis for Rovio’s perfect formula, the Helsinki-based outfit also dedicated numerous hours to market research. Hed also confesses that Rovio’s ‘disastrous’ first iPhone games also helped forge the equation, and is happy to agree that there’s is plenty more that can be done before it is complete.

 “It is only one part of what makes a game be successful,” concludes Rovio’s COO, adding: “But it is something that we are guarding. That’s why I’m so glad we have an equation like this, because we know why we made Angry Birds as successful as it is.”

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