By John D. Sutter, CNN
ESPOO, Finland (CNN) – First, in 2009, there was “Angry Birds.” Then came “Angry Birds Seasons,” which put the birds in Christmas and other holiday scenes. Next was “Angry Birds Rio,” set in South America. Finally, “Angry Birds Space” — set, well, in space.
You get the point. Minus a few changes in scenery, all these wildly popular games from the Finnish company Rovio are essentially the same: Players slingshot disgruntled, wingless birds across a screen, hoping to take down the cartoon pigs that stole their eggs.
Meanwhile, Rovio has marketed “Angry Birds” cookbooks, theme parks, sweatshirts, plush toys, soda brands and a soon-to-be TV show based on this bird-pig drama.
In a business sense, it has worked. The apps have been downloaded 1 billion times, and 30% of the company’s revenue comes from toys and other items. In 2011, Rovio reported earnings of $106 million, which impressed some financial analysts.
But when will it finally decide to invent something new?
Maybe quite soon, Ville Heijari, Rovio’s vice president of franchise development, said in a recent interview at the company’s waterside headquarters in a suburb of Helsinki.
Heijari said Rovio has exhausted nearly all its options for marketing those now-ubiquitous ticked-off avians. Now the company has a team of designers working to create new prototype games that could be the company’s sophomore franchise hit.
That will be no easy task. Rovio produced 51 failed apps and nearly went out of business before coming up with “Angry Birds” in 2009. The company was founded in 2003.
Heijari wore a red “Angry Birds” sweatshirt to the interview, which took place in a room where cartoon birds and pigs were plastered on nearly every available surface.
He spoke with CNN about the company’s troubled history, its future and what makes “Angry Birds” so wildly popular with its fans. The following is an edited transcript:
CNN: How long have you been with Rovio?
Heijari: I’ve been here for a bit less than two years … I joined on board with the success of “Angry Birds.” And it kind of got out of hand. (laughs)
CNN: Has it been just wild to see it grow so quickly?
Heijari: About halfway through 2010, it started to feel like something really unique.
CNN: Were people surprised by the success?
Heijari: I don’t know. It felt like the game itself had a lot going for it. … The brand has started to live a life of its own. A lot of people who have become fans of the brand, they create all these different things. Lots of different fan art — like “Angry Birds” cakes. They create all different things around it. There are fan animations and so on. That has been the surprising part — the impact that it has had. The commercial success of just the game and products, that hasn’t been that surprising. It’s something we put a lot of work into. But then like everything else around it — that never stops to surprise you.
CNN: What’s the most interesting piece of fan art that someone sent in?
Heijari: One of the most memorable ones was a playable cake. So it was like an actual cake. It had a whole “Angry Birds” level made out of marzipan and waffles or something like that. Biscuits. And then there was an actual slingshot and you shot like birds into the cake to cut it into pieces I presume. That sort of imagination — it’s just somewhere out there.
The most surprising thing is how it’s everywhere. These things come from India and Malaysia and the Middle East. Of course, a lot of them (come) from North America. But from the most bizarre places in the world. The brand is somehow out there.
CNN: Can you give me a sense of what kinds of “Angry Birds” products are out there, other than the apps and online games?
Heijari: I would say that at this point we broadly have everything covered, but we’re still working on building up on that. For example, the theme park thing. We’re collaborating with this one theme park here in Finland, but then the whole point is how do we sort of create something that’s different from a traditional theme park. We’re actually working with a Finnish manufacturer called Lappset. They specialize in making outdoor sports and playground equipment. We’re thinking about how can we build activity parks. Kids play video games, but how can we also encourage them to move and exercise and so on? … How do we bridge the digital game experience with this physical location?
CNN: Is there anything you haven’t gone for? You have a TV show in production, right?
Heijari: I don’t think we have a pop song. (laughs) And I don’t think we necessarily want to go there. With the whole success of “Angry Birds,” we’ve started to reinvent ourselves as an entertainment company. We’re at this sort of crossroads. It’s like, OK, we have this successful game. So we could have easily started to create the next game, but instead we started building the brand and fleshing out the characters and running with that. How do we create a whole broad entertainment offering around this brand? We already do. We do games, we do animations, we do our own merchandise, we work with licensers to create more merchandise, and we have sort of accomplished all these things ourselves.
We already see ourselves as an entertainment company rather than a games studio.
CNN: Are there plans to develop another game?
Heijari: We actually just announced our next game, which is a property we purchased and are rebranding and are releasing pretty soon actually.
CNN: Can you tell me about it?
Heijari: It’s called Amazing Alex. It has this character who builds these chain reactions, like Rube Goldberg machines. It’s based on a really acclaimed game that released last year. We purchased the property. We really like the game. It was really successful, but it never got a big audience. So we acquired the property and we did some re-branding to make it, from our point of view, more universally appealing in a global perspective. Now we’re really excited to bring it again to the market. It was highly praised but it never got the audience it deserved. With the sort of audience we have for “Angry Birds,” we’ll see what we can do.
CNN: Are there plans for Rovio to develop its own new game? A non-“Angry Birds” game?
Heijari: Oh yes, we have projects in the pipeline. But nothing we can announce just yet.
CNN: When would you expect that game to come out?
Heijari: Still this year we will see more Rovio games. I can’t really talk too much about them at this point.
CNN: What’s the reason the company has waited so long to produce a second game — or a completely different kind of game from “Angry Birds”?
Heijari: The bulk of our work has gone into expanding on all fronts. And, unfortunately, our game studio started very small, and we have been hiring and building teams. We are building more efficient units to produce more games. We haven’t really wanted to rush the market or flood it with too many games. “Angry Birds” has been our top focus and top priority. And we don’t see them as disposable games. When “Angry Birds” was introduced and launched in December 2009, it had like 63 levels — 63 different puzzles. Now, just the original game, it has 250 or 300 levels. We’ve been bringing this free content — new updates, new themes, new secret levels to discover. From our point of view, it’s more of a service than just a game. Games and mobile games in particular have been accused of being cheap and sort of disposable, whereas console games are (seen as) infinitely more valuable. This digital distribution channel enables this: You can have a game that’s an ongoing service. You can keep playing it. You can keep it fresh, in that sense.
In 2010, “Angry Birds” was getting a lot of traction and momentum on the market. And then we released “Angry Birds Seasons” as a sort of spin-off product. The main reason was not like, “Hey, let’s milk more money from another game.” It’s more of a marketing thing. We wanted to make a game to create special things for Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter and so on. But not all of those holidays are necessarily celebrated everywhere. We wanted to make a global brand. So in this way at least we give our consumers a choice. If they’re offended by something, they don’t have to purchase it.
CNN: What do you think is so compelling or so addictive about the game?
Heijari: It’s like a very, very direct experience. It’s direct controls and instant gratification. You get a sort of gut feeling. You get positive feedback from the game.
On top of that, you have characters. You have all the audio design and the visual design that’s sort of — it’s easily approachable but still it has a quirky personality.
If you have family-oriented entertainment properties, everything is often like supercute and it doesn’t necessarily have like any kind of edge to it. But our birds are angry. It’s different in that sense.
CNN: Who came up with that idea, that the birds would be angry?
Heijari: It was one of our game designers, Jaakko Iisalo. He had a concept. The game concept was a bit complicated but he had the characters in a really rough sketch form. Everyone looked at the sketch and said, “Hey, forget about the game concept, but who are these guys?” It was a really crude sketch with a lot of energy going on — dust clouds going on. Everybody got a really positive feeling. “Let’s use these characters. They look grumpy enough to destroy something.”
CNN: Did the characters go through different versions?
Heijari: A usual Rovio mobile title took about three or four months to develop. “Angry Birds” took like eight months, so it went into different iterations and polishing.
CNN: I heard there wasn’t a slingshot at the start.
Heijari: Yeah, the slingshot wasn’t there at the beginning. The designers were doing a lot of play testing and people — that’s like one of the key things — people started the game and you had just like birds huddling in the grass. And people were like, “What do I do?” And you were supposed to just, like, flick them somehow. It was easy, but people still had trouble grasping what you had to do immediately. So then the designers added the slingshot.
They thought, well, everybody knows how to use a slingshot. You just pull back.
CNN: Were other animals ever tried?
Heijari: It was always the birds. Then the pigs, they just sort of evolved out of necessity, to have some sort of opponent (for the birds). But the birds were there from the very beginning.
CNN: So the backstory came after?
Heijari: Yeah. And that backstory (that the birds are angry because the pigs stole their eggs) was also necessary. Like, why are the birds angry?
CNN: Were the birds always angry? Were they ever goofy?
Heijari: Yeah, in the first sketch they were like really grumpy looking.
CNN: Rovio had a whole bunch of failed apps before “Angry Birds.” Can you tell me about those?
Heijari: The apps themselves were failures, but the mobile market was a lot different in the early ’00s. Rovio was founded in 2003, and from 2003 to 2008 all development was basically focused on Java games, for more primitive mobile phones. That market was very difficult. There wasn’t a unified marketplace, like what Apple has built for the iOS. Instead, you had to work with operators. You had to work with mobile phone manufacturers. For instance, operators wouldn’t do business with game developers unless you had a massive portfolio of games to sell. If you say, “Hey, I have this one really successful game.” They’re going to say, “Nobody’s buying this. We need like 12 games.”
You didn’t have direct contact with your audience. You had complete sort of dictatorship on the marketplace. It was just really difficult. So I would say in those terms there were a couple of games that weren’t like — I wouldn’t call them failures. There was a series of games called Bounce. These games were preloaded on Nokia devices. In total, during the years, all these different bounce games were installed on over 200 million Nokia phones. That was the era of doing contract work. “Hey make a game for our device and then we will install it on the device.” … It’s another discussion of whether people even discovered the games that were on their phones.
CNN: But Rovio was in a pretty bad spot, right, when “Angry Birds” hit?
Heijari: That’s true. Financially, of course, the marketplace was difficult and the business was likewise difficult. Around the end of 2008 we had to ramp down the Java development. It just wasn’t a feasible business anymore.
CNN: Were there layoffs?
Heijari: At the peak there were 55 or 60 people working at Rovio. And in 2009, when “Angry Birds” started, there were 12 people. So it wasn’t that rosy at the moment.
CNN: Did the company almost fold? Did people think about not pushing forward?
Heijari: If “Angry Birds” wouldn’t have been successful, there would have been a number of questions of whether it makes sense to continue.
CNN: How many people are at the company now?
CNN: With some tech companies people start to wonder if they can be as innovative once they grow — that maybe it’s easiest to come up with new ideas when it’s just a small group of people. That it’s harder to come up with the next thing.
Heijari: It raises questions, like how do you grow without becoming too bureaucratic, and how do you react as quickly as you used to. I would say that what we have is very small tight-knit creative teams that work on different things, for instance new game prototypes.
Ideas still spark from these small teams and that kind of environment. There’s this anything-goes attitude. Instead of locking people down with guidelines — like, no, we only do this thing from now on — we have a lot of different things going on to keep up.
CNN: How small are those groups?
Heijari: Anything from four to 12 people. Teams have their own spaces and small clusters.
CNN: Have people here been able to enjoy the financial success Rovio has had? Or do they still live like it’s a small, up-and-coming company?
Heijari: We’re still building — building the company. So I would say that a lot of the financial success goes into investing for the future.
CNN: So no Bentleys in the parking lot?
Heijari: I don’t think I’ve seen any.