Chances are if you own a mobile phone, use the Internet or really just breathe oxygen, you’ve heard of Angry Birds. In an massively and increasingly popular mobile game landscape this cutesy puzzle game, originally released in 2009, has taken the world by storm selling numbers never seen before, being ported to pretty much anything with a screen and spawning a popular line of merchandise. It has catapulted Finnish developer Rovio from a small contract developer to a media empire, with their ego ballooning at a similar pace. With this admirable success comes the speculation from various corners that this is where the video game industry will start to take queues from and that it shows how the real money isn’t in multi-million dollar console blockbusters but in small mobile games that don’t cost much to develop or purchase. Mobile games as a whole is a much bigger discussion which will be had in another post but Angry Birds goes beyond being simply a mobile game and is a force unto itself. Respected gaming journalists say that the hardcore ignores and decries Angry Birds at our own peril and that to turn a blind eye to it is trying to shut out where things could end up going. I think there’s wisdom to be taken from that but I also think while it’s time to stop ignoring Angry Birds, it’s also important to remember that one game’s unique level of success does not necessarily represent a trend, nor does it erase a past formula that has worked for a long time.
Having played Angry Birds on the PC through Chrome, my impressions are fairly flat. It’s a competently made physics puzzle game with a cute aesthetic and hits the most important design point for mobile games which is that it’s easy to pick up quickly and play in short sessions. It does nothing innovative or that other games haven’t arguably done better before, nor is it a genre that’s particularly challenging from a creative point of view. No one is certain why this particular title became so popular when there are a bazillion clones out there, including many similar titles that came out before it. Personally, like FarmVille before I think Rovio just managed to hit a magic sweet spot with the cartoony graphics, a simple and easy to remember title, levels that are easy to understand but later can become hard to master and happened to release right when mobile gaming was starting its revolutionary period. In other words, they made a good game but also got incredibly lucky. As reductive as that sounds, there is still no denying that a lot of design chops went into this game and Rovio is to be commended for that.
The theory posed by some is that Angry Birds is showing that people like myself who like hardcore games with depth and complexity need to stop ignoring it because it’s not what most people want and it’s showing that the money’s in simpler titles. I can see where one would form that opinion but there’s a couple of kinks. Firstly, I don’t think anyone in the hardcore community is ignoring Angry Birds. We all know what it is and chances are we’ve played it. The thing is, it’s over two years old now and it didn’t hit critical mass until 2010. Hardcore gamers move between titles quickly because well, we’re hardcore gamers. To say that we’re ignoring a product because we aren’t talking about it this far into its life cycle is to say that we aren’t doing what we as a community do. In a world where games generally have flash in the pan life spans, it is impressive that Angry Birds still keeps the public consciousness at large so engaged after all this time. But hardcore gamers are not the mainstream public and saying that sites which cater to us should be focusing on this game is like saying that USA Today should have a section dedicated to theoretical physics. It’s just not what we as a community are interested in and even though more enthusiast sites are covering mobile games, they’re covering the new ones.
Secondly and more importantly, who can name another title on iOS that has sold anywhere close to the number that Angry Birds has? I’ll give you a hint: There isn’t one. This is the same argument that people used with FarmVille as proof that Facebook was the future of all video games. Except that nothing comes close to FarmVille’s numbers, not even the myriad of other Ville games released by the same developer since. While its success is admirable, it’s only a trend if it continues with other titles as well. Sure, there’s tons of other very successful games on iOS but nothing has been able to touch Angry Birds’ numbers and there’s nothing on the horizon that looks like it will. That’s not a trend people, that’s a fluke. Given that Rovio seems to be doubling down on the franchise and hasn’t even made a whisper about doing something else–despite having made enough money to absorb numerous flops–they don’t seem confident that the public at large will take to something new and different. They know that people aren’t buying Angry Birds because it’s a Rovio game, they’re buying it because it’s Angry Birds. If they can’t attach that name to another product, they’re basically starting with zero brand awareness again. Mojang, who released the amazing breakout PC hit Minecraft has has the same problem with the multiple new projects they’ve announced. Everyone out there knows Minecraft, no one really knows Mojang and Minecraft’s awareness is not going to be what drives sales of their next release. Since Minecraft also has a large hardcore gamer community with it, I’d say Rovio’s challenges are even greater since most of their players are people who wouldn’t call themselves gamers at all and say, follow the developers on Twitter.
This is not to deny the success of Angry Birds. It’s monumental and having even a sliver of the money this small Finnish company has amassed in such a short time would be considered massive success by any aspiring game developer. The CEO of Rovio will be the first to tell you that I’m sure. However, I think many people are overestimating just how big an impact this will have on the industry as a whole and that this represents a shift in public mindshare that just isn’t there yet. If we start seeing even half a dozen titles a year sell at this level, then I think we have something to talk about. Until then, we’ve got a single middling puzzle game that has done extremely well and while that’s something to observe, it’s evidence of only one thing that we already knew: Sometimes, certain single things achieve massive success. For Rovio to claim that they understand the gaming industry better than Nintendo does is incredibly arrogant and frankly, they haven’t earned the right to make such statements yet. If their next game does as well as Angry Birds, I may be inclined to say they’ve got something right. However, one title’s success does not a trend represent. Angry Birds is an important game but it as yet represents nothing in the long term. When it does, you can be sure the hardcore community will start talking about it again.