It’s one of the best-selling apps of all time. It’s the title that heralded in a new level of success for casual games, with gameplay mechanics everyone and their mother understands. It’s the brand that spawned a legacy, however annoying it might be. And it’s the franchise that gave birth to countless toys, spin-off sequels, a movie, and a small number of retirees.
But: how did Angry Birds do it?
A Look Back in Time
Let’s face it: no one would mind creating the next Angry Birds. Even if your heart belongs to more traditional, serious videogames, there’s no denying its success and the benefits said success has provided to its developers. In fact, Rovio – the creators of the hit series – have been valued by analysts to be worth anywhere between $6 billion and $9 billion.
The original Angry Birds has been neatly summarized on Wikipedia as “The first game released in the series. It primarily involves shooting birds into pigs’ fortresses.” It first came onto the market in 2009, at a time when games like FarmVille and Mob Wars were extremely popular on Facebook.
Put simply, the landscape of videogames was changing: the development, consumption, and business approaches were all becoming rapidly different to what we saw on home consoles and PC gaming. The demographic was now much less constrained, as were the barriers for entry as mobile phone gaming became increasingly more available and acceptable.
A New Contender Enters The Ring
Taking note of this, Rovio released Angry Birds in December 2009. Along with Plants vs Zombies, which was released six months prior, Angry Birds quickly shot to the top of the charts in the App Store. Its easy-to-understand rules, as well as the clever use of physics, cute characters, price, and ability to be enjoyed in extremely short bursts, appealed to many iPhone users.
At the same time, games like Doodle Jump (Android, iPhone) and Plants vs Zombies (Android, iPhone) were a massive departure from the first era of iOS gaming; they were more professional, polished, and genuinely resembled something you wanted to play – rather than something you would only play because your smartphone was handy.
The previous generation of mobile phone games were severely technically limited. Not just that, but they were often marred by shoddy design principles and execution. There were exceptions to the rule (Doom RPG being a notably critically acclaimed J2ME title), but for the most part people were being asked to pay upwards of five bucks for titles which paled in comparison to what could be found on dedicated mobile platforms (such as the PSP and Nintendo DS).
Titles like Doodle Jump and Plants vs Zombies were definitely taking advantage of the increased technical capabilities of smartphone platforms. They were polished, extremely well thought-out, gently ramped up difficulty as the player progressed, and generally had the hallmarks of a cared-for console game.
While these are definitely significant factors in their success, the core gameplay could have been achieved on any mobile phone released five years before the iPhone (in a much-more scaled down presentation, of course).
Despite the fact that Rovio existed as a company since 2003, they had mostly financed their efforts with the help of various investors, as well as the profits from many of their mobile games. They didn’t become a particularly recognizable name in the industry until Angry Birds, their fifty-second game, happened to gain mainstream success.
There was no huge marketing push behind their efforts, and the company still only consisted of a relatively small number of individuals (compared to the 800 now working there).
Reflections and Moving Forward
As the most successful releases in any medium will generally shape the standards of the industry, it’s not surprising that many smartphone games – even those created in bedrooms with little to no external help – now manage to rival Angry Birds in terms of production values and entertainment.
The game became a success because of holes in the industry at the time. Everyone had a smartphone, but there were very few great games that were suited to being played on one. Even the games which were gathering steam in the early days of iOS gaming – titles like Labyrinth (Android, iPhone), Line Rider iRide, and Quordy – all resembled casual shareware titles that you’d have found online at the time. They were ok, and so were their graphics – but just ok.
Angry Birds was one of the first titles to consider what it would take to create a truly enjoyable mobile gaming experience for phones. It combined casual gameplay with fantastic visuals to nearly-instantly dominate the gaming market. In other words, the things that made it special were the things that other developers were missing.
These principles have always existed in marketing, and they always will. There will always be opportunities for growth by finding what others are missing, and by paying attention to the things that others won’t pay any mind to.
So what are those gaps in the current gaming marketplace? We’ll probably only really know in retrospect, like we do with every trend. Square Enix recently announced that they’ll be producing a full-length Final Fantasy for mobile devices, Final Fantasy Mobius (Android, iPhone). Likewise, it appears that Nintendo is planning to focus its future efforts almost exclusively on a hybrid-mobile device, tentatively titled the NX.
Perhaps we’ll look back in 10 years and see that the next shift was the appearance of console-quality games which were exclusively designed for mobile platforms?
Best of Luck, Kids
The opportunity for innovation will always be there. It’s what drives any industry, by avoiding stagnation. People always want to know what the next big leap will be, and as an app developer you can have a say.
The challenge is in balancing the effort required to produce entire games with the risk of possibly alienating audiences. Do you think you can find the happy medium?