Two billion downloads? We’re just getting started, says Angry Birds creator Rovio

Angry Birds

Rovio staff stick out from the crowd at industry events, and it’s not just because they all wear those bright red Angry Birds hoodies. It’s because the Finnish firm represents ‘the one per cent’ in mobile – while most indies struggle to make ends meet, Rovio is one of the most solvent game creators on the planet. Angry Birds, in all of its forms, has been downloaded two billion times, and it has become a merchandising phenomenon, birthing a non-games division of Rovio which is now just as important as its studio.

And yet Rovio’s CMO and ‘mighty eagle’ Peter Vesterbacka remains approachable and rather unassuming, if you ignore that bright crimson hoodie. He is sympathetic when we talk about how difficult it is for mobile developers to get noticed right now – “We’ve been there,” he nods in recognition – and its recently-launched publishing label seeks to redress that balance a little. The studio is picking up a handful of games to release through Rovio Stars per year in an effort to place good quality mobile games in front of its colossal global audience. After the Big Indie Pitch event this week in London, we discussed the state of the mobile market, public perception of free-to-play and what Rovio does next, two billion downloads later.

Do you think what’s been happening here today at the Big Indie Pitch is a reflection of mobile games in general? A flood of indies desperately trying to ‘make it’, with few destined to succeed?
I think that’s been true in games forever, not just in mobile. The thing that makes it even more so in mobile is that one guy can create a great game and one or two guys can actually get into the space. It’s not like you get that on PS4. I think that that’s also what makes mobile exciting – you can try new ideas and you can see lots of innovation. I always feel that mobile is the centre of gravity because of that.

Of course you see variations of stuff that’s already out there – and you could argue that everything is a variation of what’s come before – but there is that indie spirit and that’s super-good.

It feels like there’s a bit of a divide between those looking to make money from mobile and those who want to make the best game they can. Do you feel that tension?
I think there is a lot of tension there but there’s also maybe more visibility as there’s a few very vocal people that think of ‘real games’ as being on ‘real’ systems like consoles and they are played by ‘real gamers’.

Rovio’s Angry Birds Go took its familiar characters for a spin as a free-to-play kart racing game.

Why do you think that attitude still exists?
I think that it’s a very tribal thing. If you’re a real gamer and you play on real consoles then you have to hate casual games, and free-to-play is really evil and going to destroy gaming. My thing here is relax, maybe it’s not so serious. Okay, maybe we haven’t had critically-acclaimed free-to-play games but I would also say that the games media is also more about ‘real games’ too.

What I love is that every day someone comes up to me and says ‘I don’t play games, but I do play Angry Birds.’ Or my wife never plays games but she plays Angry Birds. We have two billion plus downloads and hundreds of millions of people playing our games and if you ask most of them if they are gamers they’ll tell you that they’re not.

Is that going to change or do you feel there will always be a divide in this sense?
There will always be a divide. Before it was fashionable to hate casual games and I always think that it’s a pretty crap distinction, between ‘real’ and ‘casual’ games. One thing we should never lose track of is that it’s for the fans. You have to be very serious about that. In other companies you hear that the customer is always right, but when you look at the reality there are so many companies out there whose customer service totally sucks. There’s a disconnect there. We’re growing very fast and we need to get better in so many areas – we’re learning every day – but we always have to listen to our fans and then make sure that we remember why we’re making games.

Free-to-play, as a model and game design philosophy, still gets a lot of criticism from a lot of indies, not to mention players. Do you feel it’s warranted?
It’s great that with free-to-play that there’s no investment there, you can try stuff for free and maybe spend some money and reward developers that way. I would say that’s a much better experience and much better model than going and spending 50 or 60 bucks on a piece of plastic and be disappointed.

What’s interesting is that if you invest 50-60 bucks of your hard-earned money in a game, then you’re invested. Then the barrier to criticise what you bought is much higher. With free-to-play it’s nothing apart from a bit of time to download it. So then the commitment to start with is super-low and it also makes the barrier to criticise super-low.

So you might get away with, er, less excellence when you charge more – which is a bit of a paradox, I know – because people feel like they have to defend it.

Free-to-play done well is fine, but there are still a lot of really bad games on the App Store. Do you think that’s a problem? Is this a bubble that’s about to burst and put a lot of people out of business?
It’s very hard to prove there’s any kind of bubble before it bursts. In the end it’s the people that download these games that decide so in some ways the system corrects itself – if you make a crap game nobody downloads it.

We make games that we love to play ourselves. We are not making games just because we need to be in this or that category. With Rovio Stars [its publishing label] we know that for every Angry Birds there are hundreds of thousands of not so successful games, but some of them are fantastic.

We always say to indies – and anybody making games – if you’re serious about making games then you have to be serious about marketing. [Some people think] that you make a game and it’s so super-good that everybody goes to get it. It doesn’t often work like that. And even when it seems like it has, you do a little digging and see that actually the developer has thought about marketing alot, and getting the message out. A lot of people make a game and work with a PR company to put out a press release. That’s not marketing.

Icebreaker was the first game to be released under the publishing label, Rovio Stars.

We’ve been there, so if we can help, we will publish a handful of games under Rovio Stars every year. And they will be games that we love playing ourselves – Icebreaker, Tiny Thief, Juice Cubes and there’s more that we have in the pipeline. We’ll help developers make some money and we know how it is, and we’ll help them be discovered for sure. But we’re not going to publish a hundred games.

Right now we work with a handful of games and make sure we do everything we can to make sure the world knows about those games. It’s not like we want to make a quick buck or start publishing random games. You don’t have to go that many years back to read the annual reports of some publishers that the most important metric was that publisher-so-and-so published 478 games. And another would say they published 350. That’s what’s changed in mobile games – it used to be that the only criteria was number of games – why? Because you were totally dependent on the operators and handset makers. And there were deals that had been made so that if you buy a handset you get 50 games from this publisher. Like, who fucking cares? It’s fifty games, they’re still crap. Why don’t you make it come with 1000 crap games? We’ve been there – there’s no way you can publish hundreds of good games.

So you think that we’ll see a swing back in the direction of quality now? Are those publishers pumping out game after game going to get found out?
Yeah. It’ll be interesting to see how long it’ll be relevant to say how many apps you have in your app store, or how many hundreds of thousands of games. And if you are the third ecosystem and you have to catch up and pay a lot of people to come… I think it’s one of these things that if you make devices, do you want to have 50 crap games pre-loaded or do you want to have one good one? The one good one will always win. It’ll definitely become more about quality.

With this abundance it becomes really tough to create games that have any kind of sustainability. It’s so crowded and noisy that it will become more about quality and it’s very important that one person can create a game and get it out there. That wasn’t the case before.

Angry Birds Star Wars has pushed Rovio’s series further into mainstream consciousness. Where next?

From a game maker perspective it’s great – we have so many more screens we can be on. As an industry we’ve never had more people playing games than we have today. I remember when everybody thought I was crazy saying that we’d get to 100 million downloads with Angry Birds. Now there are lots of people with 100 million downloads. Okay, we have two billion and that’s a crazy number, but it’s interesting to bear in mind that the numbers are so much bigger – 100 million is no longer exceptional, but still tough. The audience is massive and that creates better quality in that you can address much smaller niches. You can create very specific experiences and with the massive number of devices you can still make that into a business.

So what’s next for Rovio? Where do you go after two million downloads, all the merchandise, the Star Wars tie-ins…
Well Nintendo has been very good at, you know, Mario drives a car, Mario goes into space, plays tennis and football and so on. This is what you’ll see more and more of with Angry Birds. Angry Birds Go was a good start for that and now we’re building worlds and bigger experiences. And also I think that free-to-play really allows you to get people at unprecedented numbers.

Ok, we have two billion downloads and it’s a good start. That’s how we view it – it’s still early days on what can be done and with the mass adoption of smartphones you can also start creating new experiences. There are so many people walking around with a smart, connected touch devices that you can create experiences with that in mind and make it more social and more local. I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet.