GamesBeat

Angry Birds Star Wars tests just how far those funny birds can fly (interview)

Rovio's Peter Vesterbacka

Mobile-game juggernaut Angry Birds has been downloaded more than a billion times, and publisher Rovio isn’t done with it yet. The company launched Angry Birds Star Wars on mobile devices last Friday, and it also debuted a whole line of Hasbro-made toys featuring mash-ups of Angry Birds and Star Wars characters. The double-barreled launch shows that the feathered franchise’s slingshot gameplay can be applied to just about any theme, and Rovio could very well have an endless series on its hands — as long as fans don’t get tired of it.

Rovio launched its fourth Angry Birds title this year as part of its ambition to turn its characters into the next Mickey Mouse. Peter Vesterbacka, chief marketing officer of the Helsinki-based outfit, said in an interview with GamesBeat that Rovio hasn’t hit a wall yet when it comes to growth. In fact, he said the company no longer thinks of itself as just a game maker. Like Disney, Rovio is shooting to become a broad entertainment organization. Here’s a transcript of our edited interview.

Angry Birds Star Wars

GamesBeat: So how long has this been in the making for you?

Peter Vesterbacka: The contract was finalized in March. We work pretty fast. We got the physical products out in record time. When we first talked to Hasbro, they said it was impossible, but then they surprised us and themselves. We got them out sooner and in much bigger volume than we thought. It’s been a great experience from that perspective. It was very fast. We’ve been working on the game about a year.

GamesBeat: What’s unique about the design of this game?

Vesterbacka: We’ve taken the best of Angry Birds with the best of Star Wars and merged it in a very organic way. If you have your Luke bird, it’s like the traditional red bird, but now it has a lightsaber. Or Han Solo meets the yellow bird with lasers. One thing we used, as an example, now the pigs also shoot lasers in some levels. When you then use the lightsaber, you can deflect the lasers. It’s these funny little details from the movies that [make it fun]. In the Star Wars movies, you always see the lasers bouncing left and right and going everywhere. We made sure you can see that in the game. There’s an amazing attention to detail. We worked very closely with Lucas.

GamesBeat: I like the stormtrooper piggies.

Vesterbacka: Yeah! They’re funny. That’s what we loved about the collaboration. It’s peanut butter and jelly. It works. Everything fits. You see a lot of very forced collaborations, but this is just fun.

GamesBeat: Now you have four games a year coming out. Do you think you’re going to maintain that pace?

Vesterbacka: Yeah. It’s a good pace. Next year we’ll probably do four, maybe five.

Angry Birds Star Wars 2GamesBeat: Amazing Alex was a new intellectual property that you launched. Are you encouraged by the sales results, or does it suggest you should do more Angry Birds-all-the-time stuff?

Vesterbacka: I’d say it’s a bit of both. On one side, we’re very happy with the numbers for Alex. If you look at it as a new franchise, totally new everything, from that perspective it’s very good. But if you compare it to when we do a new Angry Birds game, those numbers are … a bit bigger.

Still, we always have to think about when we launched Angry Birds. We have flyers saying something like, “Angry Birds: 500,000 downloads!” Now it’s like, “Really? How could we have thought that was anything?” But, at the time, it was a big deal. When I first talked about how we were going to get 100 million downloads, everyone at the company thought I was crazy. Outside the company too. One-hundred million? Only Tetris had done that. Now it’s like a footnote.

Look at our Bad Piggies launch. We launched on the 27th [of September]. It’s been number one until now, when we bumped it down with Angry Birds Star Wars. The amazing launch is part of the Angry Birds universe — it piggybacks on that — but it’s off to a much faster start than Angry Birds. That’s also true for Amazing Alex. We have more downloads than we did for the original Angry Birds at this point. So everything is relative.

With Alex, we don’t have 100 million downloads yet, but we need to keep our history in mind. We made 51 games before Angry Birds. Not all of them were Angry Birds. On the one hand, we’re happy, but on the other hand, we’re always hungry for more. We need to keep that hunger.

We’ll continue doing more Angry Birds, more Bad Piggies, more Amazing Alex, more other things. If you look at Rovio, you could say Angry Birds is our Coke, but we’ll keep doing Sprite and Fanta. Angry Birds is our main brand, but it’s OK to do smaller things. Smaller for us can still be tens of millions.

GamesBeat: So what’s different about how Rovio can launch new titles?

Vesterbacka: We’re learning new things every day. At the same time, we’ve grown a bit. We’re now 500 people. With more people, that always introduces new challenges. But we’re happy with how fast we can move. If you look at last year, we launched one game, Angry Birds Rio. This year, we launched Angry Birds Space, Amazing Alex, Bad Piggies, and Angry Birds Star Wars. We had four big launches, and that’s just the games side. We’ve done tons on the animation side. Merchandising is seeing explosive growth. Everything is growing constantly.

GamesBeat: How do you keep this going? Media people are starting to like the angle of, “Well, this fad has to die out soon.”

Vesterbacka: Well, look at Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse has been around since 1928, and he seems to be still alive and kicking. Hello Kitty, since 1974. Mario, quite a while. Star Wars, 1977, still going strong. There’s always people who speculate about when we’ll do this or that thing. We’re not worried about it. It’s our job to keep it fresh. We’re working closely with Sanrio in Japan, the Hello Kitty guys, and now of course with Lucas. You could also have looked at Star Wars as a fad and argued it wasn’t going anywhere….

Angry Birds Star Wars 3GamesBeat: You could do Angry Birds Star Wars: The Skylanders edition. Put them all together into one massive mash-up.

Vesterbacka: With Skylanders, you could also use the counter-argument: “Hey, it’s just a fad. How many plastic toys can you buy?” But I love what the Skylanders guys are doing. It’s a great example of physical and digital together. That’s the kind of stuff Activision should be doing. From our perspective, we’re only getting started. We only have about a billion downloads, and we’re working on the next billion. There’s lot of people on the planet left that still don’t play our games.

GamesBeat: What do you think of the landscape of mobile gaming now, compared to when you started? Every single gaming startup is now a mobile-gaming startup.

Vesterbacka: But we’re not. We’re an entertainment company. We don’t consider ourselves a mobile company or a gaming company at all. Good luck to all the guys in mobile gaming — it’s a great place to be — but it’s another niche.

GamesBeat: It seems like mobile gaming has arrived, though.

Vesterbacka: Absolutely. We were talking about advertising this morning. We’re going after TV. When we meet with the big brands these days, they say, “Let’s meet with the digital team.” I’m always saying, “I don’t care. I want to meet with your physical team. Where’s your physical marketing team?” It’s an irrelevant split.

We’re doing a big campaign now for McDonald’s in China, 1500 restaurants turning the golden arches into slingshots. It’s a whole experience that we’ve built. Yes, there’s a digital component, but it can be physical as well. We have the TV. We have the online. We have everything. It’s massive, and it’s all integrated. This is what’s important, to get to a point where we talk to the people who are doing the real brand campaigns. Not talking to some dinky little digital operation. The industry is growing up.

Angry Birds Star Wars 4GamesBeat: What else is coming for you?

Vesterbacka: Christmas is important for us, so we’re going to have some exciting stuff coming up. Angry Birds Star Wars and all these physical products are a big part of our plan. This is the first year we’ve had such an amazing lineup, with Bad Piggies and everything else, and we still have a few things cooking for original games.

GamesBeat: How come you didn’t buy Lucasfilm?

Vesterbacka: We would have loved to. If we’d had a year or two, we would have been in a better position for it, but Disney beat us to the punch. [Laughs] We have a great partnership with Lucas, though, and I don’t think the Disney acquisition will change it too much. It doesn’t make sense for Disney to mess up a good thing.

We’re still a tiny company from a tiny country, so it’s fun for us to be a part of this. We’re already active in all areas of entertainment, though. We’re making animation. We’re making toys and all kinds of physical products. We’re building activity parks all over the planet. It’s a very good start. The most important thing is we’re having tons of fun every day, and we’re learning every day — from Lucas, from Sanrio, from the best people out there. There’s so much that we can learn and that we’re learning, and it’s fun. Can’t ask for much more than that.