Paul Chen, General Manager of Rovio China, opened his keynote speech on the innovation of Angry Birds with a question: how many people in the audience have heard of Angry Birds? After a predictably enthusiastic response (everyone raised their hand), he went on to note that the game has racked up a total of 700 million downloads worldwide. But to get to this point has been an uphill battle. Behind the franchise’s runaway success is Rovio’s enthusiastic and indefatigable team, said Chen.

Courtesy of Chris Tow

Rovio was founded in 2003 by a group of three friends. In its first six years, the company developed many games – but nothing seemed to strike a chord with the general public on a broad scale. In 2009, they were losing money and considered closing shop. That same year, the first Angry Birds game was released. It quickly became a phenomenon on iTunes, rocketing to the top of the charts – and giving Rovio the injection it needed to further develop the franchise.

Chen next displayed a chart of the player demographics for Angry Birds, which revealed a near even split between men and women and between all age groups. Angry Birds is not just a commercial success; it is the fastest growing consumer franchise of all time, said Chen.

Up to now, Angry Birds has expanded into animated shorts, cartoons, merchandising, and tie-ins with various companies. There is also an Angry Birds game on Facebook that allows players to compete with their friends on an online scoreboard, and display power-ups on their profile pages.

Simpsons fans already know that the eponymous birds have made an appearance on a recent episode that lampooned videogames and gaming culture. However, only the most avid of Angry Bird-ites might have heard that the birds are painted on the side of a series of planes in Finland, and that they made a trip to space aboard a NASA shuttle.

After the US, China is Rovio’s 2nd largest market worldwide, Chen told me in a face-to-face chat prior to his speech. There are a lot of non-official Angry Birds products being made and sold in China, and Chen is not averse to such fan fervor. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” he said. According to Chen, Rovio appreciates people’s love for the game, and the company is even learning from the imitation merchandise to innovate its own product line and provide an improved customer experience.

In order to make its official products stand out amidst the myriad t-shirts, plush toys and key-chains that can be found in countless stores across China, Rovio plans to incorporate a digital element into its merchandise. For example, buying an official Angry Birds t-shirt could net you an exclusive game level that’s not available for purchase anywhere else. Rovio has already opened up an online store on Taobao’s TMall.

Aside from new approaches to merchandising, one of Rovio’s biggest thrusts right now is to inject the birds with more personality. In the first game, the birds were basically little angry balls with no personality to distinguish them; now, each bird is developing its own unique character that will be reflected and reinforced in animated shorts and in the game’s cut-scenes.

We can also expect to see the Angry Birds story get more fleshed out in future iterations of the game. On point, the birds’ next adventure won’t even take place on Earth. Chen announced that the next game in the series will be titled Angry Birds: Space.  “It’s one small fling for a bird, one quantum leap for birdkind,” said Chen.

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