It was easy for me to pick Jami Laes out in a crowd, even among the 150,000 attendees at the 2014 International CES tech tradeshow last week in Las Vegas. He was the guy wearing the bright red Angry Birds hoodie. And why not? Angry Birds has given his Helsinki-based company, Rovio Entertainment, a path to instant recognition.
The mobile game series has been downloaded nearly 2 billion times, and a video cartoon series has seen more than 1 billion downloads in just seven months. It falls on Laes, Rovio’s executive vice president of games, to keep this juggernaut going. Many in the game industry have questioned whether Rovio can do that, given the popularity of other mobile games that are making good headway in dethroning the birds, like Supercell’s Clash of Clans and King’s Candy Crush Saga.
But Rovio is a company with more than 800 people, and less than half are making games. What are all of those birdies doing?
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with Laes.
GamesBeat: The Angry Birds movie seems like an interesting project.
Jami Laes: Of course. Storytelling has always been at the core of Rovio — telling stories, building worlds and characters. Animation and video have been at our heart since very early on, using cinematic trailers to show what this is all about, this epic battle between the pigs and the birds. Once we saw how well our fan base responded to our in-game video channel, the Angry Birds Toons series we created, it was a no-brainer.
GamesBeat: You said you got more than a billion views in a very short time.
Laes: About seven months. The Toons validated it for us, that we want to take the birds and the pigs to the big screen, the silver screen, and check that box as far as becoming an entertainment company and breaking out of the mold of just being a mobile games developer, although we’ve been more than that for a number of years.
GamesBeat: You haven’t broken anything new out for a while in terms of financial performance, but I take it that the merchandising and other parts of the brand are a big part of your business.
Laes: No, we haven’t broken any financials per se. What we announced at Slush is that we’ve passed more than two billion downloads combined for all our games, and we’ve continued to draw more since then. We haven’t broken out anything big because we’ve been building a lot of things in 2013, and in the previous years. We’re building the organization, building new capabilities, new processes, so that we can have a bigger emphasis on fulfilling that dream of becoming an entertainment powerhouse.
You’re going to see a lot of things this year and next year, leading in to the movie, where we take the birds and the pigs to the next level. There will be more variety to what we do with them, in games and in other business areas we operate in. It’ll validate Angry Birds as a long-lasting franchise.
At the same time, the bedrock of the company is our focus on building new stuff. In the next couple of years you’ll see new things come out of Rovio. We want to have a balanced diet — birds, pigs, and more. The way we see it, there is no brand, and yet there’s nothing but the brand, in a Zen type of way. Angry Birds is the most important thing for us, but it can’t be the only thing for us.
GamesBeat: At the Slush event in Helsinki, I think you guys said you had more than 800 employees?
Laes: Something like that.
GamesBeat: It reminded me of how large Riot Games has become on the strength of League of Legends.
Laes: How big are they now?
GamesBeat: They have more than 1,000 people and just one game.
Laes: True. But I’m sure they have a lot of community people and the like. It’s more of a multiplayer game. That requires a big set of people in all those areas.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting how entertainment companies can be built on just one giant hit. Then the challenge is to come up with that second one.
Laes: That’s one of the reasons why Rovio decided, a couple of years ago, to break out of just building the next mobile game, and the one after that. The 52nd game or the 53rd game. Our focus on that one brand resonated so well — taking that to different places and different platforms and different forms of entertainment and different products completely, rather than purely focusing on being a games developer.
GamesBeat: Are more than half of your employees still game developers?
Laes: No, I think less than half are working on games now. But games will always be at the core of Rovio. That’s our heritage. The majority of the folks who have come from different industries to work on different areas of our business, they all experienced the game as their first encounter with the brand. When it comes to future franchises, they’ll most likely see the light of day from the games department, rather than another area of our business.
GamesBeat: What’s the reaction been like when it comes to Angry Birds moving to 3D, to a new part of gaming?
Laes: The reaction’s been very good. We were worried about the hardcore fans and what they would think about building a completely new genre, a completely new gameplay pattern. The slingshot is there at the start, but it’s a very tiny part of the gameplay. Going 3D is a very different visual style for the game. But the reception has been very good, both from critics and consumers. The game has been performing well.
There were a couple of negative voices about us going free-to-play, but it feels kind of weird, the idea that we’re not allowed to do the same thing that everyone else is doing. [laughs] We have a huge brand like Angry Birds. Of course, we want to take it easy and do it the right way, so it benefits the player and benefits us. It’s a win-win for everyone. Even if they don’t spend money, people feel like it’s the best time they’ve spent in a game, and if they do spend money, they feel like it’s the best money they’ve spent. It’s a positive experience.
GamesBeat: Some people think the brand is shallow. How do you respond to that? How deep can you go with Angry Birds as a brand — how many places you can take it?
Laes: I definitely think the brand isn’t shallow at all. There’s an epic duopoly, an epic battle that’s always ensuing between the birds and the pigs. What we’ve done with Angry Birds Toons is to go deeper into the characters and the story, to shed more light on what makes them tick. Why is Chuck so obsessed with speed? Why is Red the most angry one of them? Why is Matilda the caring, motherly one? Why does Bomb explode sometimes when he’s usually so calm? Likewise the different kinds of pigs and what kind of community they have. We’ve seen tens of different types of pigs. The original flock is only about 12 characters as far as the birds. There’s a lot of depth and variety to the characters and the world we can create.
If you think about some other evergreen franchises, it’s not like they had so much going for them in the beginning either. You have a character that resonates. You have a world that makes sense and that’s interesting. Then you take it from there, peeling away the layers of the onion and telling stories that resonate with the fans and making the world a richer place.
When you have an inherent conflict and interesting characters, lovable characters, you always have a big canvas that can let you tell all kinds of stories. The conflict at the heart of it is where all those interesting narratives come from.
GamesBeat: The interactivity of technology has been an interesting theme here at CES. You guys went down the road toward this sort of digital toy with Telepods. Do you see that as an opportunity, having Angry Birds take advantage of new technology?
Laes: Definitely. With the Telepods, we’ve taken — even the first time, we had Angry Birds Magic earlier, where you could slide pigs on top of the iPad screen. We’ve toyed around with the physical-digital connection before. We’ve had codes and so on that you can register. But Telepods are the next generation of physical-digital interaction, that connection between the game and the physical world.
It’s a good start, but I think there’s so much more we can do to bridge the physical world – physical play and physical locations — with digital interactive play in a whole new way going forward. It’s even more interesting with a mobile user base than it is in the confined living room space.
GamesBeat: What’s your biggest technology hurdle or the challenge that stands in the way of your vision for where gaming is going to go?
Laes: For us, the biggest challenge is that we want to build bigger games that have higher fidelity, but represent a bigger download. On mobile networks it takes time and it’s not a convenient experience to get that download right away. We want to build games that require connectivity as you continue to play the game, to have that back end connection and cloud processing and so on available. It’s about the mobile connection, when people are on the subway or in an elevator or something like that and want to continue to have a seamless experience. Before we get to a point where the cloud is always available, always reachable with high bandwidth, that puts a limit on the kind of gaming experiences we can build on mobile. There’s enough pixels, enough power, enough fidelity to build great games on mobile, with great UI and great controls and so on. But building that long-lasting server-backed experience right now is pretty difficult on mobile.