Meet the man behind Angry Birds
What were your expectations for Angry Birds when its development was finished?
I was just happy that I finally got to make a game that I felt good about. That was enough for me. A videogame is a personal thing, but it’s also a commercial product, so you hope others like what you have created.
When you make a game, you get to a point where it finally becomes fun to play. When we made the game and people in the office started playing it, they stuck with it for at least 15 minutes at a time and others would gather to see someone playing. Then everybody starts to play it and really like it – and then you know you’re on to something. I remember that before we shipped, our COO Niklas Hed gave the game to his mother to try out. She never plays games, but she played it for hours and she loved it.
We had very little user-testing. We just made a game that we all liked. We really emphasised extremely accurate touchscreen controls because we definitely didn’t want to have any sort of onscreen joypad. I hate those. The amount of downloads we’ve gotten is crazy. I thought one million downloads was amazing. Then you get to 100 million and it just keeps going… It’s difficult for me to grasp. When I’m at the office or at home, nothing’s really changed; you just keep working away. I love making games, so of course it’s a great feeling when others enjoy your work.
Is there any formula or checklist of features that increases your chance of success on mobile? How much is success due to happenstance and how much is it due to manipulating platforms such as the App Store?
A lot of it’s down to luck and timing. Like I said, we did spend time looking at what was popular on the casual gaming side to try to minimise the risk of failure. I think that’s something you can repeat to some extent. If you look at the success of Tiny Wings – which is a great game – there were quite a few very similar Flash-based games around before it arrived on mobile devices.
Once you find something that seems like people could like it, you have to take that and improve it – make it somehow unique and better than the competition. Of course, that’s not necessarily enough.
We had no advertising banners. If you look at our sales spike, it’s very familiar to anyone who has dealt with the App Store. Once Apple took notice of us and we got the banner in the App Store, our sales skyrocketed. We did spend a lot of time getting there in order to gain that visibility in the store.
You have to have a product that has legs once the initial sales spike is over. Once we knew we’d get that visibility in the store, we created the first story trailer and released it. We tried to take as much advantage of the visibility as we could. You have to have a great idea for a game. It has to have heart and soul. For me, that’s the most important thing. I see a lot of technically great games, but they have no soul and the content is lacking.
The characters in Angry Birds are super-important. I think the characters are almost more important than the game. Of course, nobody would know the characters if it wasn’t for the game, but once it ships and takes off, it’s the characters that are associated with the brand.
You were working at Rovio when it had shrunk to nine people and could only afford to create one more game. Now the company’s grown to over 150 employees and Angry Birds has become a global phenomenon. How has life changed for you professionally?
You know, not that much. Obviously, I don’t know every employee any more. We have our game development area, which is separate from the merchandising and marketing folks. When we only had a few people, communication was far easier and things were more personal, but now we’re more like a well-oiled machine.
I used to create all of the levels myself, but now I have a team creating them. Whenever we have a version of the game shipping on some new device, I still play the builds from beginning to end to make sure that everything is as it should be, as I know the game inside out.
It’s nice to be in an important position, but then you end up doing a lot of random stuff instead of coming up with new ideas, which had me quite miserable for a while. Lately, we’ve been able to accommodate things so that I have more time to be creative and think of new ideas, which I feel great about.