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