Some people think that Angry Birds is too big. Like a meme that everyone has seen on the internet. Since 2009, the games with these cute birds that take their anger out on pigs in fortresses have been downloaded more than four billion times.
That’s about half the people on the planet, unless of course there’s some fellow who downloaded the game a billion times for fun. And it’s not enough for Rovio. That’s why the company is experimenting with new technologies and new ways to make Angry Birds more accessible to the rest of the world.
The company is working on its second Angry Birds movie, and it recently showed an augmented reality version of the Angry Birds: Isle of Pigs on smartphones. The idea is to take the game to innovative platforms that can make it feel as fresh as when we first saw it.
I spoke with Kati Levoranta, CEO of Rovio, and Alexandre Pelletier-Normand, executive vice president and head of the game division at Rovio. at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: You have a new AR game out, right?
Kati Levoranta: Yeah, how did it feel?
GamesBeat: It was good. It seemed pretty similar to the Magic Leap demo I tried out.
Alexandre Pelletier-Normand: It’s based on the same level, yeah. But in AR it gives a different experience. It’s more accessible as well.
GamesBeat: How big of an investment is that? Is AR a big thing on your radar?
Levoranta: It’s one of the things we’re exploring as part of our future of gaming strategy pillar. We’re looking at AR and MR. We want to be ready when it seems like the time is right.
GamesBeat: At this point you can spread things across a number of platforms. You don’t have to pick a particular AR platform.
Pelletier-Normand: You need to start somewhere. For us, when we started working on the game, we wanted to focus on one platform, on ARKit, so we could focus more on the content. But now that it’s out we’re investigating what we can do with Google as well.
GamesBeat: I know Magic Leap isn’t selling these things in very large numbers. But is there some value that comes back to you as far as learning how to make this kind of game?
Pelletier-Normand: Yes. As Kati pointed out, we have a whole pillar of our strategy around exploring the future of gaming. When you do this, when you’re part of the people who are shaping the market, not just following after a while, you need to take some risks. You need to be able to explore those different platforms with some investment. As you pointed out yourself, the investment we did with the Magic Leap means we have something we can deploy on different AR and VR platforms.
Levoranta: And again, we can be ready when things start moving.
GamesBeat: Did you look at Hatch the same way?
Levoranta: We’ve been investing in Hatch already for many years, first in Rovio and then as its own stand-alone company. Rovio owns 80 percent of Hatch. What Hatch has been developing is a cloud-based streaming service that could be one way, in the future, of playing games. We’re exploring that as well.
GamesBeat: It seems like Google endorsed that as well today.
Levoranta: Yeah! They came out with a piece of news, definitely.
GamesBeat: What are you most excited about right now, putting the most resources into?
Levoranta: At this point in time — first of all, if you look at Rovio, we identify ourselves as a games-first entertainment company. Games are very much at the core. That’s where most of our resources are going at the moment, and it will continue to be that way. We’re focusing on developing new games. We’ve put more effort into that over the last year, and we came out with a game release in January. [Angry Birds Dream Blast] launched a few months ago. It’s been developing very well.
At the same time, we have some very good existing games. Angry Birds 2 was our best-performing game last year. It did really, really well. It grew 49 percent year-on-year. That’s the other part of the gaming business, of course. You want to make sure that your top games, your existing games, are run as services, with great new content and events and other campaigns, things player can enjoy for a longer period of time. That’s the essence of the gaming side.
Of course, we also have the movie sequel coming in August. That’s a big thing for the brand licensing unit, which is handling the merchandising as well. We’re expecting to see a nice boost for our licensing business through the movie. Then, at the end of the year, we’ll have the 10th anniversary of Angry Birds. That’ll be a nice celebration.
We’ve said publicly that we plan to launch two new games this year. One has been launched, and in the second half of the year we’re looking to launch another game. It’s an exciting time.
GamesBeat: What’s the reach for Angry Birds like now?
Levoranta: The first Angry Birds game came out in 2009, in December. It’s been almost 10 years. As far as reach, more than 4 billion downloads. The brand awareness is on the level of 97 percent globally. It’s a well-recognized brand out there. Millions of people play the games every day. Brands aren’t born just like that. You have to work a lot to get an IP to the level of a brand.
GamesBeat: Are you still putting a significant amount of activity into new IP?
Pelletier-Normand: We have a healthy portfolio of games in development right now. We have 13 games in development. Some of them are building on Angry Birds, trying to make that brand evolve, but about half of them are attempts at doing new things. Not only new IP, but also new genres that we haven’t worked with in the past.
GamesBeat: Are you doing all of that in-house, inside Rovio?
Pelletier-Normand: Not everything. We do some work with external partners like Resolution Games. But most of it is done internally.
GamesBeat: Did you see the new Black Mirror Bandersnatch project, the choose-your-own-adventure Netflix movie? There’s a new company coming out as a startup called Dorian that’s raised a couple million dollars. They think there’s going to be a new category of immersive fiction, as they call it. It’s interactive — it’s not a TV show — but it makes use of game technology for storytelling that’s maybe aimed at a broader market than just gamers. I thought that might be interesting for a company like yours, where it seems like you’ve reached all the gamers out there, but there are still a lot of people who aren’t playing. I think there’s something like games that could be done, that’s more broadly appealing than what we have now.
Levoranta: What do you think that could be for us?
GamesBeat: You have something that reaches so many people through games, but you’re also interested in doing things like movies that are going to reach people that aren’t already hooked on games.
Levoranta: It could be that the brand is so versatile that it works for many different kinds of solutions and technologies. It’s a whole family brand. There’s something for every member of the family, the games and the movies and the products and the animation.
GamesBeat: If you had an Angry Birds movie that had choices….
Levoranta: Yeah, what kind of ending you wanted to see.
Pelletier-Normand: We’re exploring things like that.
GamesBeat: There’s another category people are investing in, digital humans. Epic Games does super-realistic human faces. They’re going to push that tomorrow. Another group is spinning out of that, and from VR, to create believable AI characters. They might or might not be used in games. One of them spun out of Oculus Story Studios, which was first a VR company, and now they’re working in digital humans. You combine that with these kinds of “choices” games and you could get something that Netflix or Google might be interested in funding, something beyond traditional gaming, but using game technology in some way to advance entertainment.
Levoranta: It’s an interesting approach to the technology. As you say, there are still tons of people who aren’t gamers per se. How do you reach those people? You may need something different. We’ve reached 4 billion people over many years, but if you could get there in one year, that would be pretty great. That’s a pretty big number.
GamesBeat: Is there anything else that’s looking big for Rovio?
Levoranta: Like I outlined in the beginning, this is an exciting year for us. We’re looking forward to seeing things come alive over the next few months. Angry Birds is really delivering the brand promise to its fans this year.
GamesBeat: You can still defy the people who think Angry Birds is too ubiquitous?
Levoranta: I’m sure there are still people who want to spend time with the brand. We see it in our figures, that this is the case. We were just in Los Angeles the other day doing the screening with Sony. It’s even funnier than the first one.
If you look at the 10 years that Angry Birds has existed, how much it has evolved, how many new things that have happened since the first classic game, people aren’t getting tired of this. There isn’t too much Angry Birds. It’s quite the opposite of that. We just keep bringing new stuff and interesting content for our fans. It proves that they want to have more. In Angry Birds 2, there’s so much new stuff all the time, and fans love it. There can’t be too much Angry Birds, I don’t think.