The Success Formula of Angry Birds

The Success Formula of Angry Birds

If you’re not familiar with Angry Birds, it’s currently one of the most popular mobile games. It has been download over 50 million times; over 200 million minutes are spent playing the game every day. The game has everything that you’d expect of a successful mobile game.

I’ve heard people ascribe the success of Angry Birds to luck. I’ve also heard others state that they didn’t think Angry Birds would cost much to develop. But it’s all BS. Angry Birds success is not do to luck and it wasn’t cheap to develop. In fact, according to this interview, Angry Birds cost over \$100k to develop the initial version.

The Sunday Telegraph in London wrote an article detailing the company, Rovio. I want to highlight some excerpts:

One night about two years ago, a Finnish video games designer called Jaakko Iisalo found himself home alone with time on his hands. His wife had gone out for the evening and, as usual, when there was nothing requiring his immediate attention, the 30 year-old settled down in front of his games console.

His employer, a small mobile games developer called Rovio, was short of funds and had recently drawn up a make-or-break business plan, which, essentially, involved developing a game for the hot new gadget of the day: Apple’s iPhone.

Rovio needed a solution and the iPhone provided one. After the phone’s launch in 2007, Rovio realised that their industry was about to change completely. For the first time, users from all over the world would be able to download games from the same place: Apple’s online App Store. So a manufacturer only had to produce one version of a game, reducing costs dramatically.

Ahh, so they noticed a change in their market. Mark Cuban wrote about this before: “Look for uncertainty and change in your business.” That was their first move to success.

What would hit the spot? Iisalo knew it had to be something fun, something with a strong central character. Suddenly, an idea began to form in his head.

“As soon as I saw those characters I liked them,” recalls Niklas Hed, Rovio’s co-founder. “Straight away, I had a feeling that I wanted to play the game.”

They built a game that tells a story. The protagonists are little birds that have funny angry facial expressions, the antagonists are evil green pigs who apparently stole the birds’ eggs. Seth Cohen would agree that this is important.

One of the things that makes the game so popular is its simplicity. Taking advantage of Apple’s touch screen technology, Angry Birds doesn’t require the player to master any controls. In fact, there are hardly any instructions at all; once the game starts, a child can work out what to do.

They’ve made the game simple. People love simple games. I think that’s what’s made Tetris and Bejeweled so successful, and that’s what’s making some iPhone games successful. People love simplicity because it’s inviting. It doesn’t take much brainpower to figure out. You can just open up the game start playing for a few minutes and then quit.

These people haven’t become successful by accident. Angry Birds was the product of a very deliberate strategy - devised by Niklas Hed and his cousin, Rovio’s CEO, Mikael - that combined business acumen with technical expertise.

“This was our most calculated game,” says Niklas - an intent 30 year-old, with blond hair and a whispy goatee beard - when we sit down to talk in one corner of the office.

“We had done 50 games before Angry Birds. We knew we were able to make the best games in the world, but the problem was that you had to do loads of versions to support all the different handsets. So our development time and overheads were getting worse and worse.”

Rovio was perfectly positioned to take advantage. It had learnt a lot from the triumphs and failures of its past games. It also had copious notes from focus groups it had organised over the years, during which Niklas and his colleagues had watched people playing games from behind a glass screen and recorded what the players found difficult, what excited them, what they found boring.

The information from these sessions had then been used to produce a blueprint of the “perfect” mobile game. The checklist ran to several thousand words, but, one of the main things they learnt was that each level had to feel achievable.

So they had a lot of experience. They watched and analyzed their customers; they took notes. They persisted in the development of their games.

Finally, and crucially, Rovio put together a remarkably canny strategy for getting to the top of the iPhone chart. This was where Mikael Hed’s commercial nous - a business degree from Tulane University in New Orleans and years working for his entrepreneur father - paid off.

If they wanted to get noticed among all the competing apps (there were 160,000 at the time) he realised they would need a strong brand; to put a face to their product. Which is why the game was called Angry Birds and not, for example, “Catapult”.

“We recognised what we were building,” Mikael tells me, with the same intent manner as his cousin, when we speak later in the day. “We looked at the App Store and realised the power of the brand.” Apple chose products with a clear identity as their “Featured Apps” and these in turn, enjoyed massive sales.

They noticed the importance of marketing and branding. These catapult games have been around for awhile. They noticed what Apple liked and built a strong brand.

“Everything was aimed at eliminating luck,” he says during a tour of the office. “You could make a game according to your own tunnel vision and then, fingers crossed, if you get lucky, people will pick it up. But we didn’t want to depend on luck.”

Finally, they eliminated luck.

In summary, Rovio did the following:

  1. Noticed an emerging change in the market.
  2. Told a story.
  3. Built a strong brand.
  4. Marketed.
  5. Made a simple and intuitive product.
  6. Leveraged their years of experience.
  7. Analyzed customer behavior.
  8. Persisted.
  9. Spent a lot of money.
  10. Eliminated luck.

Reads like a textbook case for success.

You might also enjoy:

  1. So You Want to Become Rich?
  2. Luck II
  3. Luck Surface Area

Tweet me: @jprichardson


If you made it this far, you should follow me on Twitter.  


Proudly built with Sky