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Fowl Play

How Angry Birds went from a cute game that saved a company to a bona fide brand

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Early in 2009, programmers at Rovio Mobile Ltd. got together to brainstorm some new apps. The boutique studio located in Espoo, Finland, had already cranked out 51 games in its six-year history. None had broken through. For a time, the specter of bankruptcy shadowed the door. Rovio needed a hit.

The designers cycled through the predictable lot of proposals, but one really stood out. “[It was] a bunch of angry-looking bird characters,” recalls franchise development vp Ville Heijari. “Everybody fell in love with them, so we decided to use them.”

Good call. Angry Birds—an infectiously cute game in which the player uses a slingshot to help flightless fowl exact revenge against some green pigs who’ve stolen their eggs—now rules the roost. It’s the No. 1 paid app in the U.S. Justin Bieber has said he can’t stop playing it. Angry Birds has been spoofed on Saturday Night Live (by Julian Assange, no less) and downloaded over 200 million times. “Anything from 500 to 1 million downloads [was] our most optimistic plan,” Heijari says. “The success has been quite staggering.”

Blessed with a victory of this scale, most app developers expand vertically by creating new games. But Rovio’s flown horizontally instead and is busy hatching merchandise (plush toys, T-shirts, phone cases, etc.) that’s making Angry Birds as much an analog brand as a digital one. Mattel has just unveiled an Angry Birds tabletop game—making cardboard the latest incarnation of a digital idea. “We had the prototype, got in contact with Rovio, and got a deal going pretty quickly,” relates Mattel marketing manager Ray Adler.

That was no accident. As Heijari admits, “The plan was never to focus entirely on the videogame. We set out to launch a new brand—intellectual property with identifiable characters.” For the record, Walt Disney had the same idea back in the 1950s, using his movies to funnel millions of Americans to Disneyland, where they bought untold tonnage of Mickey ears and stuffed Dumbos. According to Richard Gottlieb, publisher of Global Toy News, “Rovio is taking the long view, building brand equity in the long term.” He adds that the margins on licensing deals are likely 10 percent to 12 percent. “It’s substantial, incremental income,” he says.

Which hardly means the Angry Birds’ app sales have failed to feather the corporate nest. The game’s iPhone downloads earned $30 million last year, and the ads on the free Android version pulled in another $1 million per month. In fact, Rovio’s earnings have driven Nokia’s share of Finland’s GDP down to 1.6 percent. “Those pigs and birds are now icons,” says Carl Howe, director of consumer research for tech-sector analysts Yankee Group, “so there’s lots of opportunity.” Still, he adds, “It’ll be important to see how well all this stuff does during the holiday season. Will everyone say, ‘That was so last year’? We don’t know yet.”

Here’s an even bigger thing we don’t know. With all the app games out there, why was this the one to go huge? We asked David J. Sushil, professor of game and simulation programming at DeVry University, Orlando, and the creator of the award-winning Vanessa Saint-Pierre Delacroix & Her Nightmare for the Xbox 360. Angry Birds, Sushil says, combines the elements of easy playability with a participatory story line that’s moral and heroic. “Because their eggs were stolen,” Sushil says, “players have an emotional attachment to the birds. They feel like they’re fighting for them.”

Meanwhile, Rovio’s betting that bird fever lasts long enough to fling even more spinoff merch into the U.S. “We could see Angry Birds bubble gum to card games to theme parks,” Heijari says.

In case that last one happens, we’re first in line for the slingshot.

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