No matter if you’re in an aeroplane, on the Tube or waiting in the queue at the supermarket, people everywhere are playing Angry Birds. With over 300 million downloads racked up to date, the series’ ubiquity should be no surprise. The public face of Rovio, the Finnish studio behind Angry Birds, is often the ‘mighty eagle’ Peter Vesterbacka, who joined the company after the avian-themed physics challenge became a hit. Little is known of the game’s small development team and of thirtysomething Jaakko Iisalo, who created both the birds and the game’s concept.
As with so many people who comprise the Scandinavian game industry, Iisalo got his start in the demoscene composing tracker music, creating graphics and writing code, before moving on to designing games. Now he’s one of the creative forces behind a franchise that has become Finland’s biggest videogame export since Max Payne. We sit down with Iisalo as he takes some time off from his busy schedule in his hometown of Helsinki.
You worked as a musician and graphic artist during the late ’90s and early 2000s – when did videogames enter the picture?
I’ve always loved games. I’ve got about 60 boardgames at home and I own every console out there. I was a huge Nintendo fan as a child. Kids in school had a nickname for me: ‘Nintendo-Jaska’. I remember that when we went on this school field trip, the girls were teasing me that I wasn’t going to able to play games for a while, but then I got a Game Boy, so problem solved.
I kind of missed the PlayStation era and I came back into gaming via the GameCube – and I’ve always played games on the PC. I do play all the modern games like Dragon Age II and Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare, but they just require so much time, which I don’t have.
Do you think there’s any particular Nintendo influence in your design work for Angry Birds?
I think Angry Birds is very Nintendo-like in many ways. Nintendo’s games are always easily approachable and they tend to be quite relaxed and happy by nature. Their games always concentrate on the core gameplay mechanic and making sure that the gameplay experience is an enjoyable one, so the way Nintendo makes games is the way I want to make games as well.
How did you come up with the game concept at the heart of Angry Birds?
We had a really small team and simply set out to make the best game we could. We had the opportunity to make one more game, as Rovio didn’t have any more money left. I pitched lots of ideas when we thought about what kind of game we wanted to make. I had dozens and dozens of game ideas with various characters. The birds were originally part of a different concept. I had created a piece of concept art featuring the birds – which everybody loved at the studio – so we settled on using them.
The way that I design games is by drawing pictures. I have to see how the game looks in order to understand it. I try to visualise the gameplay for myself, and drawing it helps. It gives me a feel for what the game’s about. We spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of game we could make that could be a hit. We looked at a lot of games on the web, such as Flash-based games, and we studied what kind of games people liked to play. We wanted to minimise the risks, so to speak, and go with what seemed to work for people. Two-dimensional physics-based games were really popular at the time, especially the kind of games where you launched something in the air. So we decided on that genre and then put the birds that everyone liked into the game. We got the publishing deal for Angry Birds based on that single piece of concept art.