∞ Angry Birds CEO: "We really have Apple to thank"

Of the thousands of games available for download from the App Store, none has had the sustained popularity of Rovio’s Angry Birds, a 99 cent physics-based puzzler in which you use a slingshot to launch birds of various shapes and sizes at fortresses containing green pigs. Rovio CEO Peter Vesterbacka spoke to a large crowd at this week’s Game Developer Conference (GDC) to explain his company’s success.

[ad#Google Adsense 300×250 in story]Many people in the industry see Angry Birds as an overnight success from an obscure publisher, but Vesterbacka resoundingly rejected that observation. Angry Birds is actually the company’s 52nd title; Rovio has been making games for mobile devices since 2003, long before the advent of the iPhone.

“We did a lot of work for hire,” explained Vesterbacka. Rovio worked on Angry Birds in between the games it developed for other publishers. A team of 12 developers and designers put the game together in about eight months, he said.

Rovio underestimated the time and cost it took to make Angry Birds, but Vesterbacka said in the end it was worth it – the added time and expense enabled the team to more thoroughly refine the game play experience.

“For us, the timing was really perfect, it was a perfect storm,” said Vesterbacka.

But even then, it wasn’t an immediate success. Vesterbacka said that the game was first released in December, 2009, and was a hit in its home country of Finland. The game got a viral push when a popular skier told Swedish TV viewers that she played the game; it then caught on through other European countries, caught the eye of American gamers, and eventually gained recognition from Apple, which featured it on the App Store.

Say dasvidaniya to the Soviet model

“We really have Apple to thank,” said Vesterbacka – not just for helping to promote Angry Birds, but for creating the App Store to begin with.

“We got away from this carrier-dominated Soviet model,” he explained – before the App Store, the carriers were responsible for figuring out what software would run on their phones. “Other people decided on our behalf what was a good game and what was a bad game,” Vesterbacka said.

Cell phone companies didn’t want 25 poker games, said Vesterbacka, they just wanted one “good” one. But the cell phone makers would decide what games were “good” and what games were “bad.”

By that measure, it wasn’t that different than what Finland’s old neighbors, the Soviet Union, used to believe, according to Vesterbacka – you didn’t need 25 kinds of toothpaste. One would do, and it didn’t need to be particularly good – people would use it anyway, since they had no choice.

Gaming and entertainment centers on mobile devices

“The center of gravity has clearly moved to mobile, that’s where all the action is,” said Vesterbacka. And that applies not only for games but for other forms of entertainment – music, video.

“Going the other direction doesn’t work very well,” said Vesterbacka, referring to another industry trend: repurposing existing IP or porting games altogether to iOS and other mobile devices.

“What we see now is tremendous growth,” said Vesterbacka, referring to iPhone sales, the rise of Android and other smartphones. He predicts that Rovio’s model for Angry Birds will be repeated by other developers, as well.

Angry Birds’ success on the App Store gave Rovio hope that it would translate well to other platforms. They’ve since brought the game to Android users, Mac and PC, with plans to bring the games to video game consoles as well.

On pricing

“Ninety-nine cents is the price, there’s no point in arguing if that’s good or bad,” said Vesterbacka. He acknowledges that different developers and publishers have different, strong viewpoints (“religious,” he called them) about pricing, but 99 cents is clearly what App Store customers have been willing to pay for games.

Yet Rovio has raked in millions at that price point, and they’ve built their success off of continuing to expand the game with new content – Angry Birds now sports 240 levels, new birds and other content that has been added on since the game was released, “all free,” he said proudly.

Rovio has also been very conservative to add in-app purchases. To date they’ve done only one – a level-killer called the Mighty Eagle that can be used at any time, and costs 99 cents more for additional use.

While some developers measure the success of in-app purchases incrementally – they’re happy with single-digit percentages of customers making in-app purchases – Rovio decided that its success with the Mighty Eagle would be measured instead by seeing half of all its millions of customers purchasing the add on.

To date, Vesterbacka said, Rovio hasn’t met that goal – though they’re close. Forty percent of all Angry Birds customers have bought the add-on, and that number continues to grow.

The importance of marketing

Vesterbacka discounts developers who say they’re content to just make a game and don’t feel comfortable with actively marketing it, because for Rovio, that’s been the key to sustained success.

“It’s not enough to make great games,” said Vesterbacka. “You also have to do great marketing.”

And great marketing means much more than just sending out press releases. It means engaging with the customers, figuring out what they want and making smart decisions about how to grow the franchise.

Angry Birds has spawned sequels, and Rovio has also launched a successful line of plush toys based on the Angry Birds characters. The company has already sold more than 2 million plush toys, with more on the way. They’ve also partnered with 20th Century Fox for Angry Birds Rio, a new game coming out on March 22nd; the game ties in with an animated movie (not based on the game, but involving birds). What’s more, Rovio’s planning its own feature-length movie based around the Angry Birds characters, though that will take some more time, Vesterbacka said.

Rovio plans to continue to milk the Angry Birds franchise for all it can, according to Vesterbacka. In addition to being ported to different platforms, the game has spawned Angry Birds Seasons, a season-themed Angry Birds game that continues to see content added on (the next will be a St. Patrick’s Day level), Angry Birds Rio is coming in a few weeks, and there are more plans too.

“You won’t have to wait too long,” said Vesterbacka – Rovio plans to release new Angry Birds games this summer.