This post is a piece written by a student in the the Communication Strategies in Video Games and Virtual Worlds class in the MCDM program. Flip the Media will be featuring longer pieces that are written for various classes offered in the program.
By Rodika Tollefson
On March 8, 2012, in a video posted on YouTube, NASA astronaut Don Pettit demonstrates how gravity impacts the trajectory of an object he launches with a slingshot. The video is filmed on the International Space Station, and Pettit explains the significance of a curved trajectory when a rocket, say, needs to fire its engines and still meet up with the ISS for landing. The object Pettit “launches” is a plush red bird. Wait. What?
That’s right, a scientist working for the U.S. government’s premier agency is launching the physical likeness of a character from the mobile uber-game Angry Birds. And before he started his “experiment,” Pettit made sure to inflate a green balloon and draw a face on it — to depict the Red Bird archnemesis, a pig.
He concludes the edutainment video with: “And we got to see all of this in a weightless environment, which is what Angry Birds Space game is going to be like, with gravity fields from planetary bodies.” What follows is a 40-second informecial (accompanied by a little plug for the Samsung GALAXY Note) showing off the game, which was due for release within two weeks.
The video, published almost a year ago, has more than 22 million views on YouTube. This kind of galactic reach is a marketer’s dream-come-true. It’s a perfect example of how Angry Birds are becoming embedded in our pop culture. It’s perhaps a demonstration that the franchise is on its way to becoming the “Disney of 21st century,” as the game creators hope it would.
What makes this an interesting phenomenon, however, is not the fact that the brand is everywhere (including, apparently, in space) but the fact that this rising empire grew out of a 99-cent mobile-phone game.
The company behind the game is 10-year-old Rovio Entertainment, based in Finland. It is estimated to have revenues upward of $200 million in 2012 (double that of 2011), roughly 40 percent of it from licensing fees — for everything from gummy candy, speakers and umbrellas to bedding, kites and ducktape.
Rovio is far from an overnight success. Like a few other mega-successful companies (Google, Facebook and Dell, to name a few), this one had its roots in a college dorm room. As the story goes, three Helsinki University of Technology classmates won a Nokia and HP-sponsored game-development competition. They were encouraged by Peter Vesterback, competition founder and now Rovio chief marketing officer, to start a studio with their payout, which included mobile devices and software-development tools.
The new venture moved out of the dorms and into an office after getting a healthy infusion of funding from the father of now-CEO Mikael Hed, cousin of co-founder Niklas Hed. They tried their hand at some shooting and horror games but failed miserably and within five years, in 2008, staffing was cut from 50 to about a dozen and Rovio was heading toward bankruptcy.
But before getting there, they turned their sights to the iPhone. And that became a game-changer (no pun intended) for Rovio — as it was for everyone else.
Angry Birds the game made its debut in 2009, quickly became Finland’s top seller, and went on to concur the rest of the world (and beyond), with a little boost from Apple — sales went through the roof once the game was featured in the App Store in UK three months after release. By the time it was released for Android, in 2010, it was so popular that it only took three days to reach 2 million downloads on the new platform.
By this time, the birds were being set free from their digital cages and into the happy arms of children everywhere: The first plush toys made their debut (first advertised, of course, in the game).
Vesterback demonstrated the first toy, a slingshot-style plush bird that made the same sounds as the game, in a video by Google that featured the Angry Birds success story. He gave this advice to developers: Other than building great games, “really really think hard about the marketing, the branding.”
The brand still had ways to go before the sight of the birds became as common as espresso stands in the Northwest, but Vesterback was already thinking full-speed ahead. Which is no surprise that he and several others in the company have expressed their goal of not just becoming a household name but being the Disney of digital age. Vesterback, obviously, was heeding his own advice. The cute little slingshot-powered bird was just the beginning.
As Vesterback said, it all starts with a well-designed game. In the case of Angry Birds, it took about eight months to analyze what would make a great game and how to best monetize it. Having a game built specifically for mobile instead of adapting a computer version was an advantage. And Rovio wisely decided to make a game that would appeal to anybody instead of going the narrower genre route.
Their goal was player retention, keeping people hooked once they got there. One strategy was to release free updates and keep the game constantly fresh. More than 400 levels have been added since, along with a few other versions with themes like seasons and Star Wars.
I’ve only tried the game once or twice so I can’t personally speak to what makes it so addictive but when my husband, who normally plays platformer FPS games, gave into the craze during the early days, I had to wonder. And then I watch my almost-7-year-old working his way up the levels and declaring his Angry Birds T-shirt his favorite, and this cross-generational appeal explains why this idea of the 21st century Disney may not be that far off.
To start with, Rovio doesn’t see itself as a mobile-gaming company but an entertainment company. And it’s certainly entertained the masses, endorsed by everyone from NASA and Lucasfilms to Philadelphia Eagles and the band Green Day (the latter two having been featured in the game).
Seattle got in on the craze too. To announce of Angry Birds Space a little closer to Earth, Rovio partnered up with T-Mobile last March and created a 300-foot-long slingshot installation with Red Bird on the Space Needle. A celebration for the fans came complete with giveaways and Angry Birds cupcakes made by finalists from the TV show Cupcake Wars.
There are an estimated 20,000-some branded AB products, and more than 400 other brands, from greeting card publishers to food and beverage suppliers, have become partners with Rovio. Retailers are happy to oblige too — you’d be hard-pressed to not find any Angry Birds merchandise in a department store. Even the owner of an independent toy shop, which doesn’t carry mass-market toys, told me she decided to sell the Angry Birds plush toys last year because of high customer demand.
While Rovio is taking a page or two from Disney, it’s also finding its own way. You won’t see a theme park any time soon, for example. The company’s strategy is to become integrated into daily life, be where the fans are. Which is why instead of a theme park, it has themed playgrounds in Finland.
Rovio has certainly figured out how to go where the fans are. There’s a Facebook game. The company’s YouTube channel has more than 455,000 subscribers and more than 1 billion video views. It’s not uncommon for its videos to get more than 1 million views (and some, many many more).
The brand has crossed over into children’s books, cookbook apps, comic books, television (Nikelodeon has aired some AB animated shorts) and, soon, the Silver Screen (a movie is planned for 2016 and will be produced by Andy Cohen of “Despicable Me” fame).
2011 was a great year for the cute little birdies: The game was the top downloaded app across platforms, beating Facebook, Twitter and Google Maps; in fact, three of its games, the other being Angry Birds Rio and Angry Birds season, were in the top 10.
But 2012 was even better, a milestone year, in the words of the company: Downloads of the app reached the 1 billion mark and December was a record month that saw 263 million active users. The company has also grown to more than 450 employees and offices all over the world.
Full Engines Ahead
Rovio is still a few billions of dollars away from beating (or meeting) Disney, but the competition is certainly paying attention. As one example, Disney created a mobile game, “Where’s My Water,” whose character went on to have its own online animated show.
Angry Birds may be a feather in Rovio’s cap, but the company is not putting all its eggs into this basket. Fans, after all, get bored. The “three screens” are all screaming for attention. To diversity in the mobile-game universe, the company launched two new games, “Amazing Alex” and… wait for it… “Bad Piggies.”
Proving that spinoffs work not just for TV shows, Bad Piggies flew to the top of the charts and stayed at the top, becoming the fastest-selling game last fall in the App Store. The game trailer, posted to YouTube in September, has more than 16 million views to date.
The timing for Bad Piggies couldn’t be better, as Angry Birds slid from the perch of the charts. As of this writing, it’s No. 38 in top paid games for the iPhone, and No. 123 in top-grossing. Angry Birds Star Wars is doing better at No. 4 paid and Bad Piggies is not far behind, at No. 14 (one spot ahead of Tetris but behind Fruit Ninjas and the $6.99 Minecraft).
2013 may be an interesting year for Rovio and its cast of lovable birds. There have been talks of an IPO, and we can only hope it goes better than for the other dorm-room darling, Facebook.
The company’s CFO has been quoted as saying that an IPO is ready but when, or even if, it happens in 2013 has not been decided because the company doesn’t really need any cash at the moment. Not bad for a company best known for designing a bunch of animated birds that do nothing but get endlessly and effortlessly hurled at some sickly-looking pigs who caused ire by stealing their eggs.