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GDC 2011: Rovio's Vesterbacka Thanks iPhone For Enabling  Angry Birds ' Success
GDC 2011: Rovio's Vesterbacka Thanks iPhone For Enabling Angry Birds' Success
February 28, 2011 | By Kyle Orland

February 28, 2011 | By Kyle Orland
More: Smartphone/Tablet, GDC

Of all the people happy about the way Apple's iPhone revolutionized the mobile game market, there may be none happier than Rovio chief executive Peter Vesterbacka, who's turned Angry Birds into a bona fide sensation downloaded tens of millions of times across many mobile and computer platforms.

Though many consider Rovio and Angry Birds an overnight success, Vesterbacka pointed out during a GDC 2011 presentation today that the company has produced 51 other mobile titles since starting in 2003. Most of these were made during the previous era of mobile gaming, which he called “J2ME/Brew hell.”

Before the iPhone, Vesterbacka recalled, some executive at a cell phone provider was the one deciding which of 27 largely identical poker games was the one to get limited space on that carrier's mobile store. He compared the system to the Soviet Union, where some beauracrat would dictate which toothpaste was on store shelves, with little concern for quality.

“Other people decided on our behalf what was a good game and what was a bad game,” Vesterbacka explained.

The iPhone's App Store changed all that by lowering that barrier to entry and letting game's succeed based on quality. Without that change, Vesterbacka is relatively sure Angry Birds never would have existed.

“[Under the old system] I would have had to go to carrier and said, 'We have this game where you have to slingshot birds at these green pigs.'” he explained. “They'd say 'It's not a poker game, we're not interested.'”

With iPhone and Android coming into their own, Vesterbacka says the mobile-phone-centered world analysts have been predicting since the early 2000's is finally here. This fact has effectively flipped the old script where console properties were awkwardly being ported to feature phones.

“When you look at the gaming market … the center of gravity has clearly moved to mobile,” he said. “That's where all the action is, that's where all the trends are being defined … what you see done with Angry Birds you will see done by a lot of people [on consoles].”

In the old mobile market, Rovio would probably have to split its focus among many different types of games, just to see what worked. “That was part of the carrier model before... it didn't matter if it was good, you just had to have a lot [of games],” he said. But the new model means that Rovio can be “all about Angry Birds, in all forms and shapes.”

Those forms and shapes include a planned feature length movie (in addition to a promotional tie-in with Fox's film Rio), and a line of toys that has already seen 2 million sales. Vesterbacka was particularly excited about a new functional plush piggy bank toy that will tie-in with a “piggy bank” game feature, to be added to the Android version of the game concurrent with the toy's release.

Vesterbacka also stressed how updates like these were key to maintaining interest in a successful mobile property. Despite the 99 cent purchase price, Rovio doesn't treat Angry Birds as disposable content, he said, with roughly monthly free updates adding new levels, birds and other content. The holiday-themed Angry Birds Seasons has been another way to keep the experience fresh with seasonally appropriate content.

“I can throw up a web site and never update it. How popular would that be?” he asked by way of analogy.

The company also has ambitious goals for Angry Birds' lone in-app purchase, the level-clearing Mighty Eagle. While Vesterbacka said 40 percent of new users are making use of the feature, he would be happier with a full 50 percent of users making the 99 cent in-game purchases to get past tricky spots.

“We're not happy with the industry normal two to three percent [making in-app purchases],” he said. “I think it's really bad if you make products that only two to three percent of your most loyal fans want to buy.”

A somewhat awkward moment came during the presentation's Q&A portion, when a questioner asked about the physics engine used in the game, and why it wasn't credited in the game itself. Only after Vesterbacka agreed that it should be credited did the questioner reveal himself as Erin Catto, creator of the open source Box2D physics engine used in the game.

“I have to talk to you after this,” Vesterbacka called out above audience applause, after the revelation.

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Chris Moeller
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Good to know they do use the box2d engine! It looked like it was, but wasn't certain.

It's nice to know another company thinks now is a good time for mobile development vs. back when there was no clear way for independent developers to create games.

Keep the Rovio articles coming! Like to have a full idea about the development involved in creating the game, along with their marketing strategies, at least back at the beginning.

Marc-Olivier Beaupre
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Haha, I laugh about the last moment of this article. So many people played the game and so much money made by the creators and they haven't created their engine and didn't even name the open source physic engine and the creator of the engine ask them about it. Awkward moment you said?

Robert Green
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I can't help but note that something else in the industry has changed dramatically. It used to be that you created games for others, eventually hoping to have a hit that enabled you to exercise some creative freedom in the future. Now that mobile/flash games are so cheap to make, it's more like the other way around, making whatever you want in the hopes of having a hit big enough that you can spend the next few years releasing porting it to every platform imaginable.

Wyatt Epp
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Hahah, awesome job Erin! According to the code license, "If you use this software in a product, an acknowledgment in the product documentation would be appreciated but is not required.", So it's not strictly _necessary_ that they credit him, but considering how many millions Rovio has made off of it, I think it would be respectful to do so.

Chris: We've known for a couple months now.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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"Only after Vesterbacka agreed that it should be credited did the questioner reveal himself as Erin Catto, creator of the open source Box2D physics engine used in the game."

That is epic, wish I was there.

I'm honestly getting tired of successful developer X saying that their dev platform where they happened to strike gold is _the_ center of gravity of gaming. If there is _a_ center of gravity of gaming, it can't be mobile and facebook and consoles. Last I heard, Rovio, Zynga, Valve, and Nintendo were all doing very well in different markets. Oh well, maybe he meant that the center of gravity has moved _toward_ mobile.

Regardless, "where all the trends are being defined … what you see done with Angry Birds you will see done by a lot of people [on consoles].” Coming from a developer for a Crush the Castle clone that didn't even create their own physics engine and didn't even cite the physics engine they used. Or do they think that seasonal content or expansion packs are their idea? AB is still a good game, I just wish... I don't know, this talk and Skaggs' Zynga "we achieved the impossible" talk make me feel like too many developers are confusing crapshoot success or lack of ethics for relevance.

Christopher Enderle
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You're probably not their audience. They're trying to get billionaires to part with their money and invest in them. You have to talk a big game, because if you're honest and say, "Anyone could have done what we did" then investors and employees might just strike out on their own.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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I get you, but at the GDC? With a room full of people that applauded Erin Catto's Q&A call out? Feels like a non-special success story being rubbed in the faces of their peers that work just as hard.

Well, I'm probably more bitter than I should be. I will say that Rovio seems like a good if not great developer, and I love Angry Birds. But either way, I understand their intentions. I understand the intentions of thieves but that doesn't mean I approve of them. I understand the intentions of politicians when they lie but that doesn't mean I approve of them. Of course, my approval is not a prerequisite for unbridled success either :). In fact, I'm starting to realize that it is a very accurate inverse predictor for success.

Christopher Enderle
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I really liked the comment about Apple's store letting good games succeed on their own quality. Them and Steam being more open to developers about how their game is actually selling and letting developers gather data on how people are actually playing their game is extremely valuable. Not that Apple's system is perfect, with the disparity between the top 10 and everything else and how good games can slip through the cracks, but more transparency can only leave us all better off. If a portal is opaque about how well your game is actually selling it really makes a developer struggle and things just get worse for both parties from there.