Mikael Hed, CEO of Finnish game studio Rovio, discusses how their immensely successful iPhone hit, Angry Birds, began with just a simple screenshot of an unhappy bird character.
When a little iPhone game called Angry Birds released late last year, nobody predicted what a massive success it would become. Nearly eight months later, Rovio Mobile's 2D physics puzzler's surpassed the 5 million sales mark, while showing no signs of slowing down. CEO of Rovio, Mikael Hed, discusses the origins of his company and the inspiration for their flagship title, Angry Birds.
GamePro: Can you take us back to how Rovio began and discuss your own involvement within the company?
Mikael Hed: My cousin Nicholas -- who is now the COO -- started it. He and fellow students participated in a competition arranged by Hewlett-Packard and Nokia to make a real-time multiplayer game for mobile phones. They won the competition, and at the end of 2003, officially started making games together.
I actually joined the company twice, the first time in early 2004 back when it was only the three founders. I came in to take care of the business side of things. In 2005 we were the recipient of a small investment, and after that we expanded quite fast to about 25 people.
I left the company shortly after that, but in early 2009 I was asked to join again. When I started in 2009 all the company was doing was work-for-hire stuff, but none of those games were really big enough to sustain the company. We worked with some of the biggest companies in the mobile space for a few years including Electronic Arts and Digital Chocolate.
GP: How did you and the team come up with the concept of Angry Birds, a game where players use a slingshot to launch unhappy birds into structures and enemy pigs?
MH: We were doing work for hire, so our strategy was that it will take a number of titles before we could realistically make one hit. We started taking less contracts to free up our own guys for internally-created projects. Then for the actual game we had a number of proposals coming from the team, and one of them was just this screenshot. Many of the proposals that we got were really well thought out, and then we had this one screenshot of this angry bird character just trudging around on the ground. Everybody in the room really liked the bird characters.
In the first meeting we said 'okay, we should look at this character and come up with gameplay for it.' Prior to this meeting we had set up strict criteria to determine which game we would go with, but we threw that out for the angry bird character.
GP: Aside from the iconic angry bird characters, what inspired the gameplay itself?
MH: The inspiration probably came from other games -- Angry Birds definitely has a mixture of games in it. The most important part inspiration-wise for us were the characters. We started development in March 2009. There were a lot of people in the project throughout development. Probably about 10 people all-in-all. Towards the end we had four or five people. I remember coming back from my summer holidays and thinking that this is really not where I want the game to be. We went back to the original screenshot and asked ourselves where is the spark?
GP: How long after Angry Birds appeared on the App Store did it become obvious that the game was a hit? Was it an immediate shot to the top of the charts?
MH: For us the game released in December 2009, and it went to number one in Finland pretty much overnight. When it was in the top ten people were intrigued by the title and kept buying it. It took until mid-Februrary for Apple to feature the game, and that's what pushed it to number one in the UK. In February it was still number one in the US.
GP: Angry Birds is one of the most successful games released on the App Store, but you're selling it for $0.99. Has the game been as profitable for Rovio as you'd like it to be and how do you feel about the pricing structure of most iPhone games?
MH: I can't complain because we must remember where we started. At first, it was really important to us to get a break. So the price was a means to an end. Angry Birds is so successful there we can expand and make money in many other ways.
GP: What is it exactly about Angry Birds that appeals to so many people across the world?
MH: We originally made it for the iPhone, and we wanted to make a game that uses the touch screen. One of the criteria was that it had to be expandable so we could bring it to the iPhone and other platforms. There's this old wisdom: It has to be easy to pick up and play but hard to master. The "easy to learn" part was really important to us. When you see one screenshot of the game you know what you have to do. Angry Birds is simple, but it still has depth. It has to be so much fun that players want to return to the game over and over again. Angry Birds achieved precisely that.
We get a lot of fan mail. One of our 23 people on staff just answers fan mail, and that's all he does. Once in a while we get something that's really special and we send it around. We like to interact with our fans -- it's really rewarding. A mother of a five-year-old boy sent us some scans, saying that her son had drawn a level for the game, and we actually put the level in the game via an update. Kids often send in drawings of the characters. There's one kid who actually built a castle for the pigs and it's on YouTube where he has this live Angry Birds game.
GP: Can we expect to see any new games coming from Rovio in the foreseeable future?
MH: Angry Birds will be out for several platforms, including the PlayStation Network as a downloadablePlayStation Mini release. Traditionally our focus is on smartphones, but we're looking at covering far more than just that with the game. So no, you won't see a new game very soon because updating Angry Birds is the focus. We are working on a new IP, but it'll be a while before we're ready to reveal it.
GP: Is it more rewarding having a small team developing lower-budget games for mobile platforms or do you eventually hope to expand and begin to tackle larger projects?
MH: Now that our company is growing we can serve multiple platforms at once. We are very good at doing casual games, so for the time being that is the focus. A small team is advantageous when you're operating in a cut-throat market like the App Store, especially when thinking about how intense the competition is there.
We've already seen a bit of a break in the iPhone hardware market thanks to the third generation of iPhones and iPod Touches which had a faster processor and better all-around graphical capabilities.
This story, "The Origins of Angry Birds" was originally published by GamePro.