Rovio Entertainment’s Angry Birds franchise is huge — it sold 8 million copies on Christmas day alone. You can find the games on phones, tablets, and even consoles. And you can barely walk outside without seeing its brightly colored mascots plastered on all sorts of merchandise. So who in their right mind would leave that all behind?
Last year, we found three of them: Tuomas Erikoinen, Ilkka Halila, and Antti Stén. They all left their jobs at Rovio to form Boomlagoon, a new independent mobile-game studio based in Helsinki, Finland. Its first title, Noble Nutlings, is out now for free for iOS devices.
So what’s the biggest difference between working on a game at Rovio versus at a startup like Boomlagoon?
“Now we added a ‘chief’ to the beginning of our titles, so that makes a huge difference,” joked chief creative officer Tuomas Erikoinen to GamesBeat. “I was one of the lead artists in Rovio, and I’m basically handling the art and also the audio part and much of the design [for Boomlagoon].”
Chief technical officer Ilkka Halila chimed in. “It’s a lot of the same: I was programmer then, and I’m still programming,” he said. “But obviously, there’s so much more to do as well. We all take part in designing and just generally running a company. And there’s a lot of stuff. It’s a really good learning experience, though. I like it this way.”
Building from experience
“I was [at Rovio] from the beginning, so it was really valuable to see the growth from 10 people to 300 or so,” said Erikoinen. “And to kind of see how it affects the company, the people within the company, and how the bigger corporate [culture] works.”
For Erikoinen, one of the hardest parts of working in a smaller studio was breaking the development habits he formed at Rovio.
“[It was things] like following certain types of standards when it comes to creating art — whether you need to keep it in a necessary format, have them always in a certain place for the marketing department or the merchandising department or whatever,” he said. “I still do that, but I basically do it just for me at this point.”
The team is careful of how many more people it plans to bring on board, hoping to expand to a total of five or six employees in the near future and perhaps as much as 10 by the year’s end. They just have to find the right people.
“When the company is growing really fast, you pretty much have to have clear hierarchies and probably get some bureaucracy in between there, and [this] kind of … stagnates things and makes things more formal,” said Halila. “But I think you can dodge that if you’re more sort of careful of hiring and only hire really excellent people who fit into the culture, instead of going for some kind of hyper expansion quickly.”
With its current three-man roster, Boomlagoon developed Noble Nutlings in a span of around two-and-a-half months. It doesn’t stray too far from many other mobiles games: Levels take only seconds to complete, and it grades you at the end with either a one-, two-, or three-star rating. It even has its own cast of animal mascots known as “nutlings.” Unlike their previous work at Rovio, however, Noble Nutlings is free with optional in-app purchases.
“We had some arguments with each other whether it should be premium or freemium,” said Erikoinen. “But we decided to go with freemium because that’s kind of our business plan. And we really need to learn about the whole freemium thing. Our background comes from Rovio, so basically we’ve done only premium stuff, and now we need to learn about the freemium [model].”
Creating the first game
The squirrel-like “nutlings” weren’t always destined to build carts and race through scenic routes. The trio scratched its original proposal of developing with HTML5 (citing some “issues”) and switched to Unity to specifically target mobile devices. At one point, Boomlagoon’s first project resembled more of a role-playing game where the animals carried swords made of carrots and wore “funny hats.”
“But that was almost too hardcore of a game to start out with,” said Erikoinen. “We didn’t really have a team for that, so we needed to come up with yet another type of game, and we just kind of sat down one evening at the office and brainstormed our ideas. And then we just came up with [Noble Nutlings]. And we still wanted to use the same characters.”
The nutlings lost some of their personality during this phase. In earlier prototypes, each animal had specific attributes: Sydney (the blue one) was quick but didn’t do a lot of damage, Lemmy (yellow) could use his bouncing abilities to attack enemies, and Abe (brown) was the strongest fighter of them all. None of this is present in Noble Nutlings. But if the game is successful, the team hopes to flesh out its characters in future releases.
“I’d like to see it as a big family of games — not just one game and we move on to something completely different,” said Erikoinen. “But that’s pretty much up to gamers themselves, whether they like the characters and all the environment and that kind of stuff. If they don’t, then we just kind of have to scrap it and figure out why they didn’t like it and make new ones.”