2014 is an important year for Angry Birds and its publisher Rovio, it’s fair to say.
Angry Birds was one of the first big mainstream mobile-gaming success stories in the app store era, but in 2013 it had to share the limelight with more lucrative freemium games like Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans.
Rovio is already playing in those waters with its Angry Birds Go! karting game, which launched in December. 2014 will see new games: the female-slanted Angry Birds Stella as well as fantasy-themed Angry Birds Epic, which is about to soft-launch in a handful of countries.
When I meet Rovio’s ‘Mighty Eagle’ Peter Vesterbacka at the SXSW conference, he’s enthusiastic about the latter game, which will be the latest expansion of Angry Birds into a new gameplay genre – although details remain under wraps for a few more days.
He’s also willing to respond to some of the criticism that has come Rovio’s way in recent times, including the distinctly-mixed critical reception for Angry Birds Go! with its timers restricting how much people can play in a single session, and the plethora of ways to pay via in-app purchases.
“It’s more on the journalists side. If you look at how the fans have taken to the game, I don’t think we’ve seen a massive wave of negativity. It’s been fine,” he says.
“Of course, any time you change something, you get criticism. But at the same time, we have to change things to make them better, even if some people think it’s worse. We’re running a business, so it can’t be all free all of the time.”
Actually, the app store ratings support him: Angry Birds Go! currently has 4.5 and 4-star ratings (out of five) in Apple’s App Store and Android’s Google Play store, which suggests fans are enjoying it, even if many journalists didn’t.
Rovio is currently working on an update for the game including new icy ’Sub Zero’ tracks, as well as gameplay and user-interface tweaks. I sense Vesterbacka’s views on the company’s update strategy won’t endear him to some of those gaming purists.
“The point here is that unlike Mario Kart, Angry Birds Go! is a game that will get better and better and better over time,” he says, while admitting that some features could have been added more quickly after the game’s initial launch.
“Multiplayer and challenges? A lot of this stuff could have been there earlier. We know we need to get it there. But this is why a lot of these games will give things like Mario Kart a really good run for their money. We will keep improving them. They will get better, because all the games are a work in progress.”
What about the shift towards freemium gaming, though? It’s a risk for Angry Birds for several reasons. First, because the brand has lots of young fans, which means Rovio has to tread extra-carefully over how in-app purchases are integrated and promoted to its players.
Second, because the Angry Birds fanbase has come to expect generosity from the publisher, which continues to release new, free level packs for its older games – including the original Angry Birds, which recently got 15 more levels more than four years after it launched.
In 2014, Rovio is transitioning into a freemium-focused business – for games, at least – while trying not to alienate a community of more than 260m players who grew to love Angry Birds based on paying small, one-off download fees then getting seemingly-unlimited free updates.
“It’s pretty clear that free-to-play as a model monetises the best, but no matter what model you use, you have to make great games,” says Vesterbacka, when I ask about the risks of going freemium.
“It is what it is. It’s the most efficient model out there for sure. But I would say that it’s also a good model for the fans: you don’t need to spend any money unless you want to, and unless you enjoy the experience.”
Vesterbacka thinks there is room to innovate within the free-to-play model, citing Rovio’s work on bridging the digital and physical worlds with its partnership with Hasbro to make ‘Telepod’ toys.
Released for Angry Birds Star Wars II and then for Angry Birds Go! they are standalone toys – characters and cars – which can also be scanned in to make those characters available to play in the games.
In the first month on sale last year, the Angry Birds Star Wars II Telepods sold more than 1m units, although neither company has provided updated sales figures since.
“We can do a lot more with this, but it’s a good start. We’ve sold a lot of those, and that’s one way to monetise,” says Vesterbacka. “You can play with them like any toy, but the integration with the game is pretty good.”
There will be Telepods for Angry Birds Stella, announced earlier this year as a new offshoot for the franchise, starring existing pink bird Stella alongside a new cast of her friends.
Angry Birds for girls? It could be a controversial move – the obvious parallel is Lego and its Lego Friends range – because Angry Birds is already a unisex brand. Is there a danger that Angry Birds Stella will be seen as an unnecessary pinkified ghetto for female players?
“It’s not Angry Birds for girls, but if you look at how boys and girls play, there’s a lot more social gameplay in how girls play together. So one theme is that there are differences in how boys and girls play, and that’s just how it is,” says Vesterbacka.
“We will try to create an experience that will be fun for everybody, just like all Angry Birds games, but maybe some more of the gameplay patterns will be more attractive to a female audience. It’s way too simple to say it’s just Angry Birds for Girls though: we are not into enforcing these stereotypes.”
The toy retail business may be a factor here, too: many shops stock existing Angry Birds products in the boys’ aisles. Stella may be partly a calculated attempt to carve out a space for Angry Birds on the girls’ aisles too.
The most interesting aspect of Angry Birds in 2014 for me, though, isn’t the games or the merchandise. It’s Angry Birds Toons, which launched early in 2013 as an in-app distribution channel for Rovio’s first cartoon series.
There’s a big Toons button on the homescreen of every Angry Birds game now – plus the Toons.tv website – and in September last year, Rovio announced that the channel had reached 1bn total views seven months after launching.
Some TV companies have woken up to the potential: National Geographic and The Jim Henson Company are two of the firms making shows available through Angry Birds Toons, for example. Yet many others in the broadcasting world seem unaware of the fact that Rovio is quietly creating…
“Cartoon Network for the third screen!” grins Vesterbacka, who agrees that Angry Birds Toons remains under the radar for many children’s entertainment companies, despite becoming essentially a global children’s TV network, delivered through apps with hundreds of millions of active users.
“This is the interesting thing: we’re creating a massive audience, but maybe the traditional people are not getting it. Perhaps it’s too different: it’s in the games, although we have the website now as well,” he says.
The tablet is the key device, though. “Many parents know that this [he taps his tablet] is the first screen. This is where kids, and all of us, consume games, video, everything. And it’s going to be even more so going forward. It’s super-obvious,” he says.
“Years ago, we’d still be talking about the whole ‘battle for the living room’ but really who cares? We are already in all the other rooms! This tablet moves around: sometimes it’s in the living room, the bedroom, bathroom…”
My own experience as a parent bears this out: my children see Angry Birds Toons as simply another place they can find stuff to watch: it’s an equivalent source in their minds to iPlayer or Netflix. A point that, when I make it, has Vesterbacka nodding vigorously.
“Most people think Angry Birds is a game, but when you look at it from a six year-old’s perspective, it’s alongside BBC iPlayer or Netflix too,” he says, tapping his tablet again.
“It’s going to be more and more obvious for everybody that you have to be here, but we have barely scratched the surface of what this means. We always say we are not building Angry Birds for 100 days but for 100 years, and it will be very interesting to see how consumption changes with these devices.”
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