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Angry Birds: From idle distraction to worldwide entertainment franchise

Rovio's Peter Vesterbacka on how Rovio conquered the world, and why there's still so much mileage left in the IP

Rovio's marketing mastermind Peter Vesterbacka has been unveiling some of the secrets of Angry Birds' phenomenal success to a rapt crowd at GDC, telling the audience that his company is far from finished with the the lovable avians and their porcine foes.

Unsurprisingly, Vesterbacka finds great importance in marketing. Having a great game is not enough to guarantee a hit, he believes. Great marketing will be the key to unlock the door to profit.

It's hard to believe that the IP, which counts both world and industry leaders among its fans, is not much more than a year old. Last year when Vesterbacka presented at GDC, he notes, his audience was considerably smaller.

Much has changed.

Not too long ago, the Finn believes, mobile development was akin to the policies of the Soviet Union. Platform holders arbitrarily decided on which games would hit handsets - the over-complicated purchase methods involved in downloading meaning that hardly any users ever went far beyond what came in the box. However, "the iPhone changed everything."

By democratising the process and allowing games of merit to succeed in the App Store, the market was blown wide open.

Not that it worked in Rovio's favour immediately. Angry Birds isn't the company's most widespread title - that honour belongs to Bounce, a puzzle title which was shipped with 250 million Nokia handsets. Great penetration, says Vesterbacka, but not much room for profit.

With Angry Birds, the company hit the magic formula - a compulsively moreish mechanic, combined with succinct, quality production values. A touch of first class marketing and a juggernaut was set in motion.

Having said that, Vesterbacka issues a sobering reminder. Rovio has spent next to nothing on advertising. Aside from a recent spot in the ad break of the Superbowl, paid for by Angry Birds Rio partners 20th Century Fox, almost all marketing has taken place on Twitter, Facebook and the App Store itself.

It was, he acknowledges, something of a perfect storm - the right idea at the right time. The company even got a break from the misfortune of Sweden's most famous skier. When she fell during the Vancouver winter Olypmics and had to sit out the rest of the competition with an injury, she told press that the time hadn't been wasted. What had she been doing instead? Why, playing Angry Birds, of course. Not long after, Angry Birds was the number one App Store purchase in Sweden.

That sort of happy success is probably not something which comes along twice for any company, so how to make the most of it?

Well, already Angry Birds is more than just a game. The range of plush toys launched last year already has sales in excess of two million. The aforementioned Angry Birds: Rio is being made into a full-length feature film by Fox.

In Vesterbacka's words: "Angry birds is more than a game. We're building a next generation entertainment franchise."

However, Vesterbacka also exercises admirable caution. In a none-too-subtle dig at Zynga, he points out that Rovio didn't want Angry Birds plastered all over Walmart. Retail and marketing partners need to chosen with care - overexposure is just as deadly as no coverage at all. Content is not disposable - when you have a golden goose, you're careful not to cook it.

Where do the bounds lie for Angry Birds? If Vesterbacka is to be believed, they're some way off.

Things have changed, he says, from the days when phones were a place to air a second-rate offshoot from an IP which has succeeded elsewhere. The predictions which were bandied around for so many years about the potential of the mobile market have come true - mobile is where the IP is made, not where it goes to die.

Vesterbacka's summary is unequivocal. "Smartphones," he says, "are now the centre of gravity for all entertainment."

There's undoubtedly some hubris to that statement, Vesterbacka is not a man short on confidence, but there's a very good reason for that, and it's a reason we've not seen the last of just yet.

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Dan Pearson

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