GDC 2011: Building the Angry Birds franchise

Rovio's Peter Vesterbacka hosted an entertaining panel on the first day of the 2011 Game Developers Conference here in San Francisco. Rovio's app, Angry Birds, is the runaway hit of Apple's iOS platform, signifying both the potential reach of iOS games and the chance for indie mobile developers to create gigantic hits. Vesterbacka, speaking in his Finnish accent, was almost arrogant at times during his talk, saying that after last year's GDC, Rovio is "a bit more popular now for some reason," and that while people laughed at his predictions of 100 million downloads for the game across all the platforms, Rovio is basically there.

But he was also informative and helpful, and he thanked Apple multiple times during the talk. Rovio's made 52 different mobile games so far, and Vesterbacka credited Apple for changing the tempo around the mobile games market. Before Apple, mobile carriers held all of the power, and carriers both a) wanted a lot of games for their specific platforms, and b) didn't care about the quality. Vesterbacka joked about pitching Angry Birds to a carrier before the App Store: "It's a game where you slingshot birds at three pigs," he said, and then he mimicked the reply to the crowd's laughter: "It's not a poker game? Not interested."

Apple changed all of that, said Vesterbacka, and made the quality of the games matter by giving power to the developers, and through them to the audience. "Apple's not perfect," admitted Vesterbacka, "but much better than what we used to have."

Vesterbacka, wearing an Angry Birds sweatshirt and surrounded by Angry Birds plushies, was bullish on the iOS platform and his development plan of choice. "When you look at gaming," he said, "the center of gravity has definitely moved to mobile." It used to be that other developers would create games for consoles or PC and then move them to mobile, but now it's the other way around; developers create games on mobile, then move them to other platforms. Vesterbacka confirmed that Rovio wants to put Angry Birds on all possible platforms ("what we call the Tetris Strategy internally," he joked). Since the game is now available on PC and Mac, console versions are next. The company has hired a developer formerly with Remedy Entertainment, creators of the Max Payne series, to work in that direction.

Perhaps because his app has been so successful in different forms, Vesterbacka is also convinced that not just one, but all of the business models for mobile games can work. "We don't care. Freemium, ad-supported, paid downloads. They all work," he said. He's also sold on the 99 cent price point (even though Angry Birds actually debuted for more than that). "99 cents is the price of apps," said Vesterbacka firmly, "and there's no point in arguing if that's good or bad for the industry." In-app purchases are a big emphasis for Rovio as well; the Mighty Eagle add-on has seen around a 40 percent adoption rate so far, and Rovio plans to update it in the future with even more functionality, to try to bring that rate up to 50 percent.

As for apps, Rovio is working on a St. Patrick's Day version of Angry Birds Seasons and Angry Birds Rio, a "separate game that just happens to work nicely with a very nice movie," Vesterbacka promised. Vesterbacka also showed off a green plush piggy bank he said was coming soon; if that wasn't enough, he said Rovio has its own Hollywood ambitions: "We are working on our own full feature-length movie."

There was one hiccup in Vesterbacka's world domination plan: just as the Q&A after the panel was ending, someone stepped up to the mic to ask what physics engine Angry Birds used. Vesterbacka replied that Rovio used Box2D, a very versatile open source physics engine used often in iOS development. "Would you be willing to credit it?" the questioner then asked. "I'm Erin Catto," he continued, "the creator of Box 2D." While credit isn't required to use the Box 2D engine, Rovio had used the code in its megahit without even providing a nod in the credits to Catto's work.

"I'd like to talk to you after the panel," said Vesterbacka as the programmer-friendly crowd gave Catto a round of applause. Angry Birds may be a simple game that's taken over the world, but the developers at GDC reminded Rovio in their own way of the platform it started out on.