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How Angry Birds Became The Next Big Thing

January 31, 2011

Angry Birds, the game, is everywhere. On YouTube, parents post videos of their kids playing Angry Birds in real life. Even talk show hosts like Conan O’Brien can’t resist cracking a joke about the game every night. Some tech observers previously dubbed Angry Birds the new Pac-Man, but that wasn’t big enough for the game’s makers.

“What we’re doing is we’re building out the Angry Birds world,” said Peter Vesterbacka, to Wired Magazine, whose business card title reads “Mighty Eagle” of Rovio. “Pac-Man is only one game. Mario is a better benchmark.”

First appearing in Apple’s iPhone App Store in December 2009, the game has expanded to multiple devices, including the iPad, Android phones and the Sony PlayStation Portable, amassing over 75 million downloads to date, according to Rovio. The majority of sales come from the App Store, where Angry Birds has consistently ranked a best seller.

Rovio’s Angry Birds finds the sweet spot of the business opportunity unlocked by the iTunes App Store, Apple’s digital-distribution platform for selling third-party apps for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.

Launched in summer of 2008, the App Store’s friction-free business model proved to be a new digital frontier where software programmers big and small had an opportunity to make serious money, whereas before, hobbyist coders were no match to major game studios and their colossal marketing budgets.

In the App Store, some programmers have netted hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales with clever games, software utilities and DIY social marketing. Apple recently announced that iOS customers surpassed 10 billion app downloads.

But Angry Birds was not a small-team effort, nor was its success a lucky strike. Based in Finland, the Rovio game studio that makes Angry Birds has 40 employees but expects to expand to 100 by the end of this year. Angry Birds was actually the studio’s 52nd published game, and its 16th originally created game, says Mikael Hed, Rovio’s CEO, to Wired magazine.

The idea of Angry Birds hatched when a game designer produced a single mock screenshot of an angry-looking bird with no legs and no wings. The designers at Rovio knew they had something special. Add physics-based gameplay that made it easy to learn, while creating depth for advanced players in later stages along with very cute characters and sounds, and a polished design, and you have a big hit.

“It wasn’t completely random that Angry Birds did very well,” Hed told Wired’s Brian X. Chen. “We did a lot of homework before we ended up with that concept.” Hed continued, saying the company studied the iPhone app ecosystem hard, looking at what worked.

A team of 12 at Rovio spent eight months developing and refining Angry Birds before it was released. Another top-selling iPhone game Doodle Jump incorporated similar elements: a sharp design appealing for people of all ages and a physics-based gameplay. After producing a viral hit, Rovio kept Angry Birds popular by doing its own marketing with social-networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, and by continually adding new products.

Rovio also maintains brand loyalty by keeping in touch with the fans of the cartoon birds, “We try to respond to every question asked on Twitter,” Vesterbacka said. “Sometimes I reply, too.” The company also regularly issues software updates for the game, adding new levels to keep people talking about Angry Birds.

The company operates an Angry Birds shop, where you can buy toys, T-shirts and iPhone cases. There’s even an Angry Birds board game in the works, through a partnership with Mattel. To reach Mario status, Angry Birds needs a breakfast cereal and more variants of Angry Birds games. The Angry Birds directors said they were hoping to try out every possibility.

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