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'Angry Birds': The Virtual Bird Flu Everyone's Caught

Joe Strike looks into the viral mobile gaming sensation Angry Birds.

Angry Birds is a viral hit. A virus everyone wants. All images courtesy of Rovio.

When it comes to computers there are two kinds of viruses: the ones you don’t want anywhere near your machine (but seem to sneak in there anyway), and the ones you seek out and willingly add because everyone says they’re great.

Angry Birds is an example of the latter: a cheap or free (depending on whether you have an iPhone or an Android) and addictive downloadable game for your mobile device. Since its introduction in 2009 Angry Birds has gone viral, big time; you might say the game is a virtual Bird Flu – but far more benign and a lot more fun.

In case you haven’t played the game (or stood in line behind someone who was), Angry Birds is an ongoing battle of the species, as the aforementioned avians wreak revenge on the swine who’ve swiped their precious eggs. Their method of combat: launching themselves via slingshot at various pig redoubts, with the goal of bringing the oinkers’ fortifications tumbling down on their chubby heads. (In fact, pig and bird alike are body-free, consisting only of heads, which might explain why the wingless birds need a slingshot to attack their enemy.) That such attacks might also crush their captive offspring evidently never occurred to their bird brains.

A good thing it didn’t; if it had, the game’s millions of fans would have missed out on a lot of hand-held entertainment. Angry Birds was first hatched in the mind of Jaakko Iisalo, senior designer at Finland’s Rovio Mobile, a company specializing in games for the mobile market, in the form of a single concept drawing:

“We were going through various proposals for game designs,” recalled Rovio’s CEO Mikael Hed in a 2010 interview. “One of these was a mock screenshot that had some really angry looking round bird characters with no wings and no legs. And they were trudging along the ground with a cloud of dust trailing behind them…We didn't really understand very much about what the game mechanics were like there, but everybody in the room really liked the bird characters. So we set out to design a game around those birds.”

100,000 Euros worth of R&D later, an iPhone-only version of Angry Birds went on sale in Apple’s App Store for the pocket-change price of 99 cents. (Later versions and add-ons cost more.) This first version of the game consisted of three chapters, each containing 21 levels of increasing difficulty players had to defeat before moving onto the next. In each level the goal is the same: slingshot a bird at the pigs’ base, hit its weak point and send the structure tumbling to the ground. As the game progressed, new birds with different abilities appeared, the pigs’ structures grew more elaborate and resistant to attack, and that sweet spot became harder to find – or hit.

Angry Birds Seasons allows fans to celebrate each holiday with more slingshot fun.

Angry Birds quickly became the App Store’s number-one paid application and stayed there for most of 2010; an M.I.T. publication called the game “the largest mobile app success the world has seen so far.” My Senior Video Games Correspondent – my son (and future game design superstar) Benny credits the game’s success to viral word of mouth, “a person telling a person who happens to have a large Twitter following about the game. Several of those people combined with the easy to enter Android Market and App Store equals a lot of sales.”

Update after update followed the game’s initial release, adding features like hidden ‘Golden Eggs’ that unlocked bonus content, or the “Mighty Eagle,” a superbird capable of wiping out uncompleted levels. (The eagle must belong to a strong union – you can only call on him once an hour.) Holiday versions themed to Christmas, Halloween and the like have appeared as well; according to the company there are over 40 different versions of Angry Birds containing some 300 levels in a total.

The cross promotion between Fox's Rio and Rovio's Angry Birds was an easy fit.

No matter the level there are only two factors for the player to control: the amount of stretch applied to the slingshot and its degree of elevation – any combination of which will send the bird hurtling towards a different point on its target. (Later versions include a ‘boost’ feature that rockets a bird in mid-flight to even greater speed or distance.) According to my Correspondent, the birds’ trajectory and subsequent damage to the pigs is generated by a simple ‘physics engine’ – computer software that basically calculates what happens when one object collides with another. Console video games require a high-powered engine to calculate and create the complex interactions taking place onscreen, in real time in their three-dimensional imaginary worlds, but the simply drawn characters and 2D action of Angry Birds are nowhere as difficult to render – which is why you can play it on your smartphone.

There are dozens number of similar, downloadable physics-based games out there built around the simplest ‘ragdoll’ engines; why have none of these gone viral to the degree Angry Birds has?

According to Rovio’s Peter Vesterbacka, it’s the personal touch – both between the company and the fans, and the fans themselves: “One of the things that is very important is that no matter how big the number [of Angry Birds fans] gets, we try to reply to every email, every tweet that people send our way. So that's very, very important, and I think that's also a big reason for the success. If you look at Angry Birds, we did none of the traditional advertising or any of that. It doesn't really make sense for a 99-cent game; you can't make the numbers work.

“We did a lot of word of mouth instead. The whole game, it's all organic growth. So the seven million downloads we've done, they're all organic. And that's something [that] also tells you about the game, that it's the most social game around, because everybody's telling their friends about Angry Birds and asking “which level?” and “found any new golden eggs?” or “which birds are you using?” and all that.”

Considering the game’s popularity, there’s surprisingly little Angry Birds merchandise out there. Apart from the expected plush pigs and birds, iPod cases, T-shirts and a Mattel board game version, its highest profile appearance may have been a tie-in game featuring Blue Sky’s Rio characters in place of the usual angry birds and greedy pigs.

Which is not to say the game hasn’t made an impact in the pop culture world, name-dropped in everything from 30 Rock to The Daily Show; it’s also acquired fans on the order of British Prime Minister David Cameron and author Salman Rushdie (who considers himself “something of a master” at the game). One of its most unusual appearances may have been in puppet form on an Israeli comedy TV show, with supposed peace talks between the birds and the pigs satirizing the country’s negotiations with the Palestinians. (“I wish my father was here,” moans one of the pigs, “he was killed on level 9 of the free version.”)

Rovio obviously wants very much to develop Angry Birds into an ongoing entertainment franchise; part of the reason the company continually introduces new versions and additional levels to the game. “There are a lot of people in Hollywood who seem to think that it would make sense to do movies and TV and so on,” says Vesterbacka, “but we haven't really made up our mind on that.”

What with its Rio tie-in, one might think Fox’s Blue Sky studio would be natural starting point for a possible Angry Birds movie, but a company spokesperson says “nothing I know of or that is known within Fox that we’re going to pursue has to do with Angry Birds.”

In June Rovio announced that former Marvel Studios Chairman David Maisel was joining the company as its “Special Advisor,” with an eye towards developing Birds as an entertainment property. Maisel, who raised some half-billion dollars to help launch Marvel as an independent studio and led the negotiations that culminated in Disney’s purchase of the company, is as heavy a Hollywood hitter as they come. Even he may find it challenging to launch a franchise based on a game that for all its hundreds of levels and dozens of versions, boils down to an endless number of variations on launching a projectile with a virtual slingshot.

Every video game movie to date has been based on console games that offer complex stories, characters and levels – and in all likelihood have much more intensely devoted fan followings than something you play to pass the time while standing on line at the bank.

Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. He has written about animation, sci-fi and fantasy entertainment for the New York Daily News, Newsday and the New York Press. Joe has scripted the Nick Jr. series Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! and taught Mass Communications at New York's St. John's University. He is currently hosting “Interview with an Animator” [animator.interviews.com], a series of audience-attended conversations with noted figures in the animation community at a variety of New York City venues, including the Paley Center for the Media, The Society of Illustrators and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. Joe can be reached via joe@joestrike.com.

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