Interview: Angry Birds’ Ville Heijari

We were convinced we had a hit!

At last week’s World Mobile Congress, our OnSoftware France colleague, Alexandre Carlier, caught up with Rovio’s head of marketing, Ville Heijari, to ask him all about their hit phenomenon, Angry Birds.

How did you come up with the idea for Angry birds?

In 2009, we were looking into developing something for the iPhone. We were seeing that the iPhone was getting a good market share and apps were selling more and more all the time. Everybody was talking about the ‘hockey stick’ –  that just around the corner the market would really explode. Samsung said here on Sunday that their smartphone sales grew 60% in 2010. So when we released the game in December 2009, we got in at precisely the right moment.
In early 2009 we were looking at how to make the best possible smartphone game for as large an audience as possible. Our designer, Jakko Iisalo, came up with the one concept that had angry birds in it and the game was then polished over the year; it took about 8 months from start to finish. The original concept always had the birds in it. We were looking at what was out there in the market, what people were playing, what feels natural, what feels good and so on. We came up with the parameters that it has to be ‘physics based’, have really good direct touchscreen controls that feel nice and then, most importantly, to differentiate from the competition and have really unique characters. Those were the main ingredients that we put together.

How did you manage the launch of the game?

It took us three months to get featured in a major iTunes store, in the UK in February 2010. But before that really it was just word of mouth. As there are relatively few downloads in Finland, we were in the charts there and being number one generates interest. From there came Sweden and Denmark, so small local markets, but then we were number one in several countries and they (Apple) started to take notice and then we got featured in the UK. From there the game started getting some media in the English speaking press, so the leap to the US wasn’t that big or difficult.

How did the cost of developing the game compare to your revenues?

We don’t have all our figures from last year yet, but on iOS alone we’ve sold over 20 million downloads. The game cost around €100,000 to make and with all the updates and improvements since its release, I’d say it has cost many times that. It’s a big investment to get moving and keep the ball rolling.

With all the new users we are getting, however, it’s definitely worth that investment. There are over 20 million Android users too, and by the end of last year that was generating a million euro in ad revenue per month. We are now looking at investing in growth, to branch out to into merchandising and entertainment and to do other things with the brand.

How do you explain the incredible success of Angry Birds?

When we were developing it we were really convinced that we had a hit game, and we were confident that we would sell 500,000 downloads. Now we have over 100 times as many with all the versions.

You definitely can’t prepare for something like that. No matter how good your game is, if you don’t get the word out, if it just doesn’t stick in the market, it’s not going be successful. You could make a crappy game with all the marketing in the world, and it might spike with the publicity but then would quickly sink into oblivion. We thought we had a really good game, and all the work we put in and the updates and so on contribute to its “stickiness”. You can’t really create the whole phenomenon of going viral, but when it does there are things you can do to feed it and keep it rolling. With updates and interacting with our fan community, we think we’ve done our best. But it’s the millions of people that the game resonates with, who love the characters and like the action… lots of different elements in the game link it all together.

Have you noticed any jealousy from other developers?

Actually we’ve had a really good response, because many developers and especially designers appreciate its cleverness. On a superficial level it looks simple, but it is actually very complex underneath with all the achievements and puzzles and the structure. In Finland there’s a really good developer community, and the vast majority of our peers are really happy for us and proud for the whole Finnish game development world.

Is it easy to find a new direction, to build on this success?
Right now we see this game as a window into the world of Angry Birds, so we’re looking at different games around the different characters. Obviously we’ll eventually come up with a game that’s nowhere near as popular as Angry Birds, but what we’re doing now is building the brand, branching out and building our footprint in the market. There will be different game experiences, some of them more marginal than others, but the core gameplay (of Angry Birds) has been around for more than a year and the game is just growing right now. When we bring it to new platforms we look at enriching the gameplay with things like multi-player, social gaming mechanisms on the web – doing things around the core gameplay. Of course we’re going to try to make great games in the future, but right now Angry Birds lives on, it’s updated all the time and it’s popularity is increasing.

What’s the definition of a good application?
Firstly, simplicity. Can pick it up and understand it immediately? With touchscreen smartphones it’s about elegant user flows: when I’m at the bus stop I don’t want to read pages of instructions, I just want to use the app. With us, adding the slingshot made the game much easier for users to grasp – everyone knows what to do and can use it instinctively. Angry Birds is designed to be universally accessible, not just to gamers.

As a new smartphone user, what would be your advice? What platform should I choose?

(Laughs) That’s a trick question! Let me be honest: I have an iPhone 4, I like the user experience, the apps, the interactions and I think it’s an elegant device. Android gives you more control over your device, but myself I wouldn’t know what to do with all that freedom! I just want my clean and elegant user experience. I don’t have much experience with Windows Phone 7 – it’s fast, it’s straightforward, navigation is easy – pairing that with great Nokia engineering could make for beautiful devices. I think it’s a really hard decision – I can see why people choose Android right now, as there are lots of really nice devices but I can also see why people are attracted to the iPhone.

Is it a good thing for the mobile market to have so many operating systems?

From our point of view, we build for all relevant platforms. Where the fragmentation starts is distribution. Apple has it’s fully closed ecosystem, but with Android you have a myriad of hubs and distributors that serve content. It’s the fragmentation that’s challenging.  There’s a limited number of actual platforms – it’s the distribution that’s complicated.

You can see from our success that Angry Birds is a mass market product, but we have limited resources and we can’t operate everywhere for small audiences or marginal channels. We try to cater for the widest possible audience through good partnerships with different distribution channels. We’re introducing our own payment system too, and want to provide another alternative to try and limit the complexity and fragmentation. It’s a big marketplace and very challenging for small developers to tackle!

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