GDC 2011: Rovio's Vesterbacka Thanks iPhone For Enabling Angry Birds' Success
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.