Angry Birds: lessons learned from mobile development

GDC 2011: Angry Birds marketing guru Peter Vesterbacka talks about creating the popular franchise; urges new game developers to head into the mobile space.

Who was there: Peter Vesterbacka, marketing and business developer at Rovio Mobile, the Finland-based developer of the mobile game Angry Birds.

These birds sure are angry.

What they talked about: Vesterbacka began by talking about a side of Rovio that not many people know about. Angry Birds was actually the studio's 52nd title--the company has been making games since 2003, mostly work-for-hire contracts for publishers such as EA. Before coming up with the idea for Angry Birds, Vesterbacka and his team realized it would be more rewarding to begin working on their own intellectual property, which is exactly what they did.

Vesterbacka went on to talk about how the mobile space has really developed and grown. He related a story about a GDC panel some years ago where a few mobile carriers were trying to convince the audience that mobile gaming doesn't need a lot of the same type of different games when a single game for each genre could suffice; Vesterbacka compared this approach to the Soviet Union's insistence that 27 brands of toothpaste are ridiculous when everyone can be using just one brand. He went on to say that the Apple iPhone changed everything in the mobile gaming space and that today, nothing matters more than making good games in this space, particularly when it's so easy for developers to get onto the Apple App Store.

A few years ago, every mobile carrier and maker was trying to sell the line "everyone is going to have one of these devices some day," but Vesterbacka said that with Apple, this came true. He stated that in the gaming market, all the action seems to be happening in the mobile space--that's where new trends are defined; it's mobile first, then consoles later (where once upon a time it was vice versa). He went on to talk about Angry Birds' development process, stating that it took the team a lot more time and money than originally planned, something that helped them to make such a successful title.

Continuing with the subject of timing, Vesterbacka said that Angry Birds' initial success had a lot to do with word-of-mouth (particularly from a certain Swedish skier, who talked it up on national television). After the game became successful, Rovio had two choices: go down the traditional route of other mobile developers (that is, churning out hundreds of "crappy" mobile games) or turn Angry Birds into an entertainment franchise. No points for guessing which road Rovio took--soon enough, the company had ported the game to other mobile platforms, as well as the PC and Mac, and began to deliver continuous Angry Birds content, from seasonal updates for holidays like Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day, to the Mighty Eagle in-game character, which helps those stuck on a particular level.

Vesterbacka alluded to Nintendo's comments that this kind of business model is destroying the games industry by making games disposable, saying this is not true. He goes on to say that console games, although packed with postrelease DLC content, cannot have the same longevity and popularity as mobile games because their developers forget about them and move on to new projects. Mobile game development requires a new way of thinking for developers--more like a service as well as an experience. Vesterbacka said he does not want to make players continuously pay for content updates, which is why the only update you have to pay for in Angry Birds is the Mighty Eagle character--you buy it once, but it's unlimited use. According to Vesterbacka, Rovio's aim was to get 50 percent of Angry Birds users to buy the Mighty Eagle--currently, according to Vesterbacka, 40 percent of new Angry Birds buyers purchase the add-on for 99 cents.

Vesterbacka then went on to talk about Rovio's fan base, pointing out that the studio values feedback, something that was used when designing the Mighty Eagle in particular. Vesterbacka then showed the panel audience a drawing of an Angry Birds level done by a 5-year-old called Ethan, who sent it in to Rovio and the studio turned it into an actual level in the game (with Ethan's name written across the sky). He then talked about the importance of increasing exposure in new markets, something Rovio is doing by partnering with 20th Century Fox to create Angry Birds Rio--the tie-in game for the upcoming film Rio about two birds who are kidnapped and transported to Brazil. (According to Vesterbacka, it's not going to be a "lame" movie tie-in game though.) Rovio is also working on its own full-length feature film, the details of which will be revealed later.

Vesterbacka closed his panel by reiterating the importance of the mobile market as a place for new ideas and innovation and then joked about taking donations from the audience once the panel ended. The best moment, however, came during the follow-up Q and A session with the audience, in which Vesterbacka was asked by one member of the audience what engine Angry Birds uses.

"Box2D," Vesterbacka replied, confused.

"And will you be giving credit to whoever made the engine?" the audience member asked.

"Of course," came the hesitant reply. The audience member then revealed himself to be the creator of the open-source physics engine that Angry Birds runs on, causing Vesterbacka to ask that audience members should state where they're from before asking a question.

Quote: "Mobile is the center of gravity for all gaming."--Peter Vesterbacka.

Takeaway: Vesterbacka provided a good insight into what choices led to Angry Birds' success. They didn't stop supporting the game after it became popular; rather, they chose to construct it into a franchise that would provide players with continuous, free content to keep the title fresh. They believed in the future of their intellectual property and are now sharing the secrets of their success with other mobile developers.

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21 comments
fightmusician
fightmusician

My little sister has been non stop playing this game since I showed it to her on my Itouch. She asked me the other day what it would be like if it was called "Happy Birds" instead lol.

Ironfist66
Ironfist66

ripped straight from valve's playbook

CyberKlown28
CyberKlown28

Good game. Overrated when compared to hardcore games. But great compared to the rest of the mobile game library, which is just...ugh..

gamerpipe
gamerpipe

is angry birds even creative? I like it, but the idea I 've seen in countless of games before.

alexatkin
alexatkin

Not paid addons? He obviously forgot they sell level packs for the N900 version on Ovi Store. If you buy all the levels its a reasonable chunk of change.

XboxGuy1537
XboxGuy1537

I remember getting Angry Birds when it first came out. Wasn't too popular, but then....BAM! It's selling like crazy.

metalkid9
metalkid9

I got the HTC Desire HD and I downloaded the game and it's totally awesome! Kudos to the devs. I've never been addicted to a simple game this much before even when I'm at home.

Szeiden
Szeiden

@haiku808 well, they still could have been an overnight success, just unknown to the public. Probably weren't, but the point is that we wouldn't know regardless since they were working under other companies until Angry Bird.

-DaNuTz-
-DaNuTz-

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Buzduganjr
Buzduganjr

IF u are a BB use u can play this game to but is called Angry Farm ! :)

Haiku808
Haiku808

Wow. Angry Birds developer was not an overnight success, it was their 52nd title.

AuronAXE
AuronAXE

@Generic_Dude "Angry Birds II: Lost In New York" Hot Tea, squirting out of my nose. Thanks for the painful laugh :D

Shanks_D_Chop
Shanks_D_Chop

This guy talks rubbish. People are just easily addicted to something mindless and repetitive, especially if they carry it around in their pocket. This bloke tries to make it sound like they are wonderful businessmen. They're just riding a wave.

OJ_the_LION
OJ_the_LION

This is my favorite game on my droid, but after clearing the levels once I tend not to try them again. The continuous addition of new levels is awesome, though, as is the whole "being free" thing.

Astro-Effect
Astro-Effect

i jus love this game:).....its soo captivating that it makes me stuck to my mobile for hours .........n lookng forward if they come up with smthing new.

Generic_Dude
Generic_Dude

This game got pretty big -- it's only a matter of time before Activision buys it up and we start seeing Angry Dogs, Angry Cats, Angry Birds II: Lost In New York, Angry Turtles, Angry Hermit Crabs, Angry Antelopes, Angry Birds III: Die Angry Birds Die, Angry Bird Hero...

ColdfireTrilogy
ColdfireTrilogy

I tend to play games that haven't been beaten to death with a stick and mallet in the flash world. Needless to say this game has little interest to me, interesting to read its rise to prominence though.

ColdfireTrilogy
ColdfireTrilogy

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

puffadell
puffadell

i play this when new levels come out then i beat them and stop playing

GymFox
GymFox

I am an AB freak...