Opinion: Why Miyamoto is wrong about Angry Birds
I once likened the ubiquity of Angry Birds to that familiar post-apocalyptic scenario where 99% of the population has fallen victim to a mysterious virus while the remaining few are miraculously unaffected. By happy accident I was led to the revelation that Angry Birds was indeed viral: a ludic contagion equivalent to a YouTube video of a cat playing a piano. People played Angry Birds because their friends were playing it, because celebrities were discussing it; because it was the latest cultural touchstone about which everyone had to have an opinion.
Of course, this isn’t a new phenomenon in games; indeed, it’s one Nintendo in particular is very familiar with. Game Boy's Tetris was the must-play game of its time; Wii Sports opened up the medium to a new audience, only for much of that market to migrate to smartphone and browser games – two formats which, of course, both host versions of Rovio’s ubiquitous physics-puzzler.
With that in mind, it came as quite a shock to hear that Shigeru Miyamoto had lavished praise on the game in a recent interview. "What I like about Angry Birds is that it has a traditional videogame [feel] to it, but also a very creative side,” he told Edge in Paris last week. “And you can really feel that they’re having fun developing the game. That's what I like about it.”
After the initial surprise at his comments had worn off, I began to see why Angry Birds might appeal to a designer like Miyamoto. Its immediacy is an obvious strength, as is the communicability of its conceit. Birds and pigs might not seem like the most natural of enemies, but it barely needs those comic-book panels to convey its basic objective. And on a base level, its physics-powered destruction carries the same childlike joy as scattering Goombas and Koopa Troopas with a Starman. The instant appeal of its character design, too, is very Nintendo. The birds may not have been born of the functional design ethos that informed the creation of Mario and his enemies – though Miyamoto’s most famous designs were partly defined by their limitations – but their appeal is similarly universal.
Yet if the developers had fun making Angry Birds, it often seems to come at the expense of the player. Its trial-and-error systems mean you’re often as likely to complete a level by accident as design. Games like Mario Kart have historically had random elements, but those blue shells are a way to level the playing field, a device to give novices and youngsters a shot at victory against more skilled opponents. You could argue that the natural imprecision of the Wii remote suggests that Miyamoto is now happy to sacrifice accuracy at the altar of accessibility, but the inconsistencies of Angry Birds’ physics – two seemingly identical turns can result in success on one attempt, failure the next – is not something you could imagine Miyamoto standing for.
Nor would you ever see Nintendo introducing something as baldly cynical as the Mighty Eagle. At first glance, Rovio’s level-skip feature wouldn’t seem to be too different from Nintendo’s own Super Guide, but the latter’s inclusion is to help struggling players progress so that they might see the whole game. Rovio simply wants to further monetise its users. At the GDC Smartphone Summit last year, Rovio CEO Peter Vesterbacka claimed that he wanted 50 per cent of players to purchase the Mighty Eagle, which goes some way to explaining Angry Birds’ erratic difficulty curve. Put simply, your average player is not supposed to reach the end unassisted.
In other words, Angry Birds isn’t a very Nintendo-like game at all – which only serves to make Miyamoto’s stance more unlikely. Perhaps his praise stems from a simple desire to reach as wide an audience as possible. There’s a hint of envy in there, too, in his admission to Hookshot that he wished he “had been the one to come up with the idea first… [because] obviously I want to be the one creating the most convincing, surprising game ideas.”
Yet by his own admission, Miyamoto doesn't "have a lot of time" to play mobile games, which suggests his experience of the App Store is limited; those of us who do browse the App Store on a weekly basis will surely concur that Angry Birds is neither the most convincing nor surprising idea, even if it is the most successful.
The truth, then, is that Miyamoto probably couldn’t have conceived Angry Birds. While shareholders might wish otherwise – 600 million downloads and tens of millions of soft toy sales would be just the ticket for Nintendo's ailing finances – Miyamoto shouldn't lose sleep over the fact he didn't think of it first.