On a certain level in Angry Birds, placed in the sky and just out of sight, the name Ethan is scrawled in stone pieces.
Ethan is a five-year-old who, as a fan of the bird-flinging mobile game, had drawn a picture of an Angry Birds level and had his parents send it to the doormat of Finland developer Rovio.
At the studio, it was decided that the boy’s picture should be remade into a real level on the game, and was sent to millions of fans as part of a packaged update.
“I’m pretty sure that makes Ethan the youngest level designer in the world,” said Peter Vesterbacka, a key executive at the company.
Speaking at a lively session at the Game Developers Conference today, Vesterbacka said it was this kind of fan engagement that made Angry Birds a $0.99 game that was in no way disposable.
“There were some comments by Nintendo, that $0.99 apps are destroying the industry, and making games disposable,” Vesterbacka said.
“We don’t regard Angry Birds as disposable content. That’s why every few weeks we update the game. More levels, more content. Though games publishers and studios say that social media is a really important element to its business, at Rovio we really mean it,” he said.
“We try to read and respond to every letter, every email and every Tweet we get.”
In a lecture where, for 99 per cent of the time Vesterbacka pulled no punches, it was here that he disagreed with Nintendo both as firmly and politely as possible.
In February, Nintendo’s US boss Reggie Fils-Aime said “one of the biggest risks today in our gaming industry are these inexpensive games that are disposable.”
This was days before Nintendo announced it would publish Angry Birds on the Nintendo 3DS.
And in making that deal, it appears as though Nintendo’s new handheld will need to allow for constant game updates.
“We don’t think games should be treated as disposable content,” Vesterbacka said. “We are working with the console makers to make sure that our games will be constantly updated.”
Vesterbacka said that this kind of interaction with fans is all part of the games-as-a-service design.
“That’s a very important aspect of our App Store market,” he explained.
“When you look at the pricing, there’s no point denying it, $0.99 is the App Store price. But true value comes from updating. Games today are more about turning something static into a service. Websites that never get updated aren’t usually very popular. Ones that always shift are,” he said.
Vesterbacka also said that in-app purchases were part of its games-as-a-service plan.
The studio recently released a new character/weapon for the game, named the Mighty Eagle, and Vesterbacka claimed the item had been purchased “by about 40 per cent of our new users”
He said there were plans to release more n-app content, but added that the studio doesn’t want to make hundreds of in-app items to buy – “just ones we think are fun”.
For the latest GDC news iPhone owners should download our free app (iTunes link). It puts Develop's daily must-read online news content – including all the stories from GDC – in the palm of your hand. Sponsored by Blitz Games.