Every day, millions of man hours are spent playing Angry Birds. Could this fiendishly silly game really become bigger than Mickey Mouse?
One night about two years ago, a Finnish video games designer called Jaakko Iisalo found himself home alone with time on his hands. His wife had gone out for the evening and, as usual, when there was nothing requiring his immediate attention, the 30 year-old settled down in front of his games console. Iisalo, a self-confessed “games geek”, would happily spend all his spare time immersed in the world of electronic make-believe if left to his own devices.
While he messed around, his brain chewed over a project he’d been set at work. His employer, a small mobile games developer called Rovio, was short of funds and had recently drawn up a make-or-break business plan, which, essentially, involved developing a game for the hot new gadget of the day: Apple’s iPhone.
Iisalo and the company’s other developers had already put forward a number of ideas, all of which had been rejected by Rovio’s directors for being either too complicated, too simplistic or too boring.
What would hit the spot? Iisalo knew it had to be something fun, something with a strong central character. Suddenly, an idea began to form in his head. Switching on Photoshop, the designer started sketching a flock of fat, round birds with big yellow beaks, thick eyebrows and intense, slightly crazed expressions on their faces. They had no legs to speak of, but, despite this drawback, were racing manically along the ground towards some sort of castle.
“I didn’t think it was that special at the time,” Iisalo says now. “I didn’t even mention it to my wife when she came home.”
But the following week, when Iisalo presented the screen shot to his bosses at work, it caused quite a stir. The mechanics still needed work – the object of the game was still not clear at this stage – but there was something about the cross-eyed birds that everybody in the room found irresistible.
“As soon as I saw those characters I liked them,” recalls Niklas Hed, Rovio’s co-founder. “Straight away, I had a feeling that I wanted to play the game.”
Two years later, millions of other smartphone users have had the same feeling. Angry Birds has become iPhone’s most popular app, in other words, the piece of software that has been installed on the most number of handsets worldwide (quite an achievement when you consider that it’s one among 300,000 applications on offer) and has quickly spread to Apple’s iPad and other types of phones as well.
The game has been downloaded 50 million times. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has admitted to a mild addiction, as have a variety of other supposedly busy people, from Dick Cheney to Mad Men actor Jon Hamm. Last year, two brothers, Rodrigo and Gustavo Dauster, competed against each other in a two-month marathon session to see who could score the maximum number of points. (Gustavo is now writing a book entitled Angry Birds Yoga.) Mothers bake Angry Bird cakes and stitch Angry Bird Hallowe’en costumes for their children, and a sketch on an Israeli comedy show, which featured an Arab-Israeli style peace conference between birds and pigs, has been viewed more than four million times on YouTube.
In total, the game notches up 200 million minutes of play time every day, which is close to the number of minutes viewers in the United States spend watching the average prime-time television programme. Versions of the game are being developed for the PlayStation, Xbox and Wii. There is a line of Angry Birds soft toys, Mattel is working on a board game and before long there will be a cartoon series, and, if all goes well, a film.
“Suddenly it’s ubiquitous,” says James Binns, head of the games media brand Edge International. “There have been other iPhone games that have sold a bunch, but it’s the first one that everybody is talking about. It reminds me of the Rubik’s Cube. You see people playing it all the time.”
One of the things that makes the game so popular is its simplicity. Taking advantage of Apple’s touch screen technology, Angry Birds doesn’t require the player to master any controls. In fact, there are hardly any instructions at all; once the game starts, a child can work out what to do.
To the right, on the main screen, are a collection of sniggering green pigs, sheltering under a structure made out of wood, concrete, steel or ice. To the left are Iisalo’s legless, cross-eyed birds, whom you must launch through the air at the pigs, using a catapult. Points are scored for destroying the forts, which become increasingly elaborate, and squashing the pigs. The only thing a player needs to operate the catapult is their finger. When I tried the game for the first time, my friend’s five-year-old daughter showed me how to play.
But if that was all there was to it, Angry Birds wouldn’t be the hit that it is. As the game unfolds, you realise that there’s a science to the bird-flinging. Certain trajectories are more effective than others and certain birds (there are seven different types) need to be drafted in to break certain materials.
Hit the pigs’ various shelters in the right place, with the right bird, and you are generously rewarded. Get it wrong and you are forced to start the level again with the sound of porcine laughter ringing in your ears.
Like many of the best video games, Angry Birds hides a keen intelligence underneath its wacky exterior. In contrast, the people who work at Rovio couldn’t be less wacky if they tried. The office, in Espoo, just outside Helsinki, is thoroughly bland; a large open-plan room with regulation desks, white boards and pot plants.
A splash of colour is provided by the Angry Birds soft toys that are perched on top of computer towers and filing cabinets. But next to the towers about 40 people sit in almost total silence, staring at their screens. They are nearly all men in their mid to late twenties and they take their jobs very, very seriously.
When they go out to a bar after work on a Friday they bring their iPads and iPhones with them and play games. At lunch, the canteen is abuzz with industry talk.
These people haven’t become successful by accident. Angry Birds was the product of a very deliberate strategy – devised by Niklas Hed and his cousin, Rovio’s CEO, Mikael – that combined business acumen with technical expertise.
“This was our most calculated game,” says Niklas – an intent 30 year-old, with blond hair and a whispy goatee beard – when we sit down to talk in one corner of the office.
“We had done 50 games before Angry Birds. We knew we were able to make the best games in the world, but the problem was that you had to do loads of versions to support all the different handsets. So our development time and overheads were getting worse and worse.”
Rovio needed a solution and the iPhone provided one. After the phone’s launch in 2007, Rovio realised that their industry was about to change completely. For the first time, users from all over the world would be able to download games from the same place: Apple’s online App Store. So a manufacturer only had to produce one version of a game, reducing costs dramatically.
Rovio was perfectly positioned to take advantage. It had learnt a lot from the triumphs and failures of its past games. It also had copious notes from focus groups it had organised over the years, during which Niklas and his colleagues had watched people playing games from behind a glass screen and recorded what the players found difficult, what excited them, what they found boring.
The information from these sessions had then been used to produce a blueprint of the “perfect” mobile game. The checklist ran to several thousand words, but, one of the main things they learnt was that each level had to feel achievable.
“It’s important that players don’t feel that the game is punishing them,” Niklas says. “If you fail a level you blame yourself. If the pigs laugh at you, you think: ‘I need to try one more time.’”
They also knew it was important that any game they designed could be played in short bursts – occupying those periods of “downtime”, such as queuing for a coffee or waiting for a bus, that had formerly been devoted to staring into space or, perhaps, reflecting on life.
“You have to be able to play the game right away,” Niklas says. “We didn’t want any loading times.”
It was this principle that led to the introduction of the catapult, the game’s central feature. Players know immediately what to do with it and it makes the game more intuitive.
The game also had to appeal to both video game “virgins” and hard-core enthusiasts. “We knew it had to be simple but it couldn’t be too simple,” Niklas says.
“That’s when we started building layers in the game; different kinds of birds, certain birds affecting different blocks. And these were things we didn’t tell you about – you had to figure them out on your own.” (Iisalo chose birds as his protagonists because there are so many varieties. He chose green pigs for no other reason than that he found them funny.)
Finally, and crucially, Rovio put together a remarkably canny strategy for getting to the top of the iPhone chart. This was where Mikael Hed’s commercial nous – a business degree from Tulane University in New Orleans and years working for his entrepreneur father – paid off.
If they wanted to get noticed among all the competing apps (there were 160,000 at the time) he realised they would need a strong brand; to put a face to their product. Which is why the game was called Angry Birds and not, for example, “Catapult”.
“We recognised what we were building,” Mikael tells me, with the same intent manner as his cousin, when we speak later in the day. “We looked at the App Store and realised the power of the brand.” Apple chose products with a clear identity as their “Featured Apps” and these in turn, enjoyed massive sales.
Rovio can’t take all the credit for this strategy. Angry Birds was published by Chillingo, a company based in Macclesfield, which had good contacts at Apple and had already taken unknown brands and made them No 1. But Rovio does deserve credit for choosing Chillingo in the first place.
You have to admire their determination. Nevertheless, my time at Rovio has turned out to be considerably less fun than I was expecting. It’s been more like a business meeting. Even Ville Heijari, the company’s head of marketing, who refers to himself as “Bird Whisperer” in his emails, and whom I was expecting to be relatively entertaining, is super serious.
“Everything was aimed at eliminating luck,” he says during a tour of the office. “You could make a game according to your own tunnel vision and then, fingers crossed, if you get lucky, people will pick it up. But we didn’t want to depend on luck.”
As we look over the shoulder of one of Rovio’s designers, Heijari tells me about the game’s intricate programming. A “physics engine” has been built into the game that applies basic rules of gravity, velocity, mass and so on to every material. Things don’t fall apart exactly as they would in the real world, of course, but everything in the Angry Birds universe – stone, glass, wood, steel – performs in a consistent fashion.
Rovio’s designers are constantly having to think of different structures for the birds to destroy. Since launching the game with 63 levels in December 2009, Rovio has added another 147, at the rate of about 15 every three or four weeks, in a ploy to keep the game at the top of the charts.
They released special themed versions of the game at Hallowe’en and Christmas last year, and are publishing a Valentine’s edition – with exploding chocolate boxes and pink hearts. There will also be a game to accompany the new animated film, Rio, in April.
After winning over iPhone and iPad users, the game was rolled out onto other smartphones last October, where it was downloaded one million times in the first 24 hours, and to PCs and Macs last month. Now Rovio is busy working on console versions and promising future Angry Birds permutations.
Heijari won’t give away any details and he won’t say how the plot will be expanded in either the games or a prospective cartoon series. But he assures me that this is just the “first glimpse” of the Angry Birds world. “There are a lot of storytelling opportunities,” he says.
So, has it made the directors millionaires? Niklas’s answer is typically deadpan. “No, not yet. I think it’s somewhere there in the future but we’re just concentrating on growing the brand,” he tells me. “The focus is not [on money] at all. It’s all about building the infrastructure, making operator deals, opening new platforms…”
At the moment, the company is privately funded by Mikael’s father, Kaj, but this could change. Last January, another mobile phone games developer, Ngmoco, was sold to a Japanese firm for $400m.
Rovio certainly doesn’t lack ambition. At a conference in Munich last month, Peter Vesterbacka, the company’s head of business development, boasted that Angry Birds was “bigger than Mickey Mouse”. He was referring to the number of times the two terms were searched for on Google, but said he intended eventually to be “larger than the brand itself”.
In fact, Rovio no longer describes itself as a games developer. It sees itself as a media company focused, as Mikael puts it, on “building really strong brands” of which Angry Birds is only the first.
The soft toys, phone cases, comics and even the movie are not an after thought. They were part of the plan from the very beginning. Whether the comics and the movie will ever come to pass is a moot point, but you can be sure that Rovio will leave no stone unturned.
It is Friday and, as my visit comes to an end, I ask Heijari whether the team are going out for their traditional Friday night drink/games session. I feel journalistically obliged to tag along. But it’s not to be. People are going home first, he tells me, and meeting up later, by which time I will have to be at the airport.
OK, I say. I’m secretly elated. I’d rather go to a bar, have a beer on my own and maybe play a little bit of Angry Birds on my phone.