‘Angry ____’.

Most people in today’s society would fill in the blank with ‘Birds’. The phenomenon of the Angry Birds game/now entertainment brand is mind boggling. It has amassed 140 million downloads and now ranks as the top selling game apps of all time. In March, Rovio, the Finnish computer game developers behind Angry Birds, raised US$42 million in a round of funding from Accel Partners and Atomico, and has estimated revenues of US$50-70 million.

I spent some time with the Mighty Eagle Peter Verstabacka,  of Rovio Mobile, who was a rock star at this year’s GMIC conference in Beijing.

Peter’s Story – Success Came after 51 Projects

Peter has over 20 years experience in the mobile industry. He built and expanded the HP Mobile E-Service Bazaar, a global eco-system. As part of the program, he ran a competition sponsored by Nokia and HP to build the best multi-player game with the first Nokia smartphones. The competition was won by Niklas Hed and two friends.  Peter later suggested a collaboration to start their own game development company, hence Rovio was born in 2003.

Seven years, a lot of hard work and 51 games later, Angry Birds was created. When the game was taking off, Peter was asked to help manage the US operation but, soon realized that “it was bigger than any of us had thought it would be”, he agreed to join full-time. His only condition? That they “agree not to sell to the first American company that comes running with a bit of money but build this into a billion dollar, 100 million downloads – now we have over 100 million downloads and the good news is that we are only getting started.”

Eliminating Luck

Many developers around the world are envious of the success of Angry Birds and often question if this success was due to luck or skill. Peter says, “during development we tried to eliminate luck as much as possible. Good athletes are lucky because they train a lot. 51 games was good training to really understand and analyze the market to make a hit game. Even if we created the best game ever before with Java, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere because you had to know the right people like the operators or the handset makers, so it didn’t really matter if you created a great game or a crap game, if you didn’t get the distribution, nobody would know about it. I think Apple and the app store has really changed all of that, now good games matter.”

It’s all about Passion

Reminding me of when I asked Roy Liu, developer of PopCap’s Plants v Zombies, on why they are so successful, Roy responded “fun, fun, fun”. Peter agrees, stating, “it’s all about passion. Everyone at Rovio loves making and playing games. You can’t over analyze development. There has to be creative freedom and let people go a bit crazy”

The Evolution of Angry Birds

“The first mock-ups didn’t look anything like the current game except for the red birds. But everyone loved the red birds, so we had to design a game around the red birds. The first version, you had to flip the birds but nobody got it. But we added a simple thing like the sling shot and immediately everyone got it. Part of the design criteria was that when you picked it up, you would instantly know how to play it. It also has to be addictive.”

No Text Rule

In all the talk about bringing Groupon, LinkedIn, or Facebook to China, the key always seems to be who can localize it the best. But Rovio thinks globally from the beginning, by using universal icons and no text. Even during internal company presentations, they try to eliminate text. Says Peter, “It really forces you to do designs that are instantly obvious.”

3 Keys to Success

So why is Angry Birds so sticky? Everywhere you look, someone is flinging an animal across the screen. According to Peter, what distinguishes the game is:

  • Emotional attachment – “everyone loves the birds and hates the pigs”
  • Built for touch interaction – “it’s first and foremost built for good touch interaction”
  • Reward the user – “we reward but don’t punish, so there is a sense of accomplishment”

The China Strategy – 100 million downloads

“It’s a huge market on its own and huge opportunity. We are actually very proud that we are in the top 3 most copied products in China, along with Disney and Hello Kitty” – Earlier on the stage, Peter said Rovio is aiming to become the most copied brand in China.

“China for us, is our fastest growing market but we are a small company from a small country so we need to adapt and create special version for China. For example with Angry Birds Seasons, we will do Chinese seasons and culture. This year our goal is to have 100 million downloads in China, so we will support more platforms like online, PC, more smartphones and feature phones. Next year we want to be the leading entertainment brand in China.”

From Developer to Entertainer

Now that Rovio has dominated the app markets, the next phase is to capitalize on the buzz and create an entertainment company. They have already sold more than 3 million toys, and have been extending into clothes, animation, TV and movies, even collaborating with 21st Century Fox on their Rio campaign. Rovio is also working on a cookbook in both physical and e-book format since they are co-operating with Amazon and Barnes & Noble. As Rovio becomes more and more of an entertainment company, Peter believes that their app versus non-app revenue will soon become 50/50.

Angry Birds Magic – Goes NFC (Near Field Communication)

Angry Birds Magic will be the first game where all the apps and toys will be built with NFC. Rovio is creating NFC stickers that can work with NFC enabled phones, partnering first with Nokia. About 90% of Nokia smartphones will have the Angry Birds Magic game pre-installed. They are also looking to partner with other manufacturers to pre-install the game. Rovio is exploring options to apply this new technology to reward users in the real world, by unlocking new levels and content by using NFC at places like McDonald’s and KFC.