The last time a bunch of angry avians raked in millions of dollars, they were trying to rip apart a luscious ‘Tippi’ Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s innocuously titled, The Birds. That film grossed about 11 million dollars back in 1963. Last year, Rovio, a video game developer based in Finland, announced that revenues for Angry Birds, the hit game it launched in 2009 (which, incidentally, shares nothing with the Hitchcock flick besides, well, angry birds), jumped from $10 million to $100 million in a year. Not bad for a video game that involves colourful birds, grinning green pigs, flying debris and little else.
Did we say hit? We beg your pardon. We meant eye-popping-heart-thumping-groundbreaking-ultra-mega-super-duper blockbuster hit, the kind that would make Aamir Khan go green with envy. The total number of copies downloaded? About 700 million – and inching slowly but surely to the 1 billion mark.
Angry Birds is now more than a teeny little video game – it’s a part of pop culture, something iconic, which only rolls by every couple of decades or so. British Prime Minister David Cameron and pop sensation Justin Bieber are fans, while author Salman Rushdie proclaims he is ‘something of a master at Angry Birds’; back home, Indian game-makers are giving the game a desi twist with titles like Angry Anna (you launch Anna Hazare from a slingshot onto our esteemed Prime Minister) and Angry Brides (allegedly an anti-dowry game. Go figure); Angry Birds merchandise is inundating everything from Walmart stores across the world to Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar market (fake Angry Birds tees sell for 200 bucks a pop); also, a 52-epiode TV series is due later this year, with a full-length feature film out sometime in 2013.
And this is just the beginning of the story. Rovio’s chief managing officer, Peter Vesterbacka, created waves with his recent statement that Rovio’s goal is to be "much bigger" than its role model, Disney – a $24 billion media company. "We have stopped looking at ourselves as a game company. For us, it’s about making Angry Birds available everywhere," he declared.
Why IS Angry Birds so addictive? And what – just what – is the secret sauce that made it the phenomenon that it is today?
The basic premise of the game is dumb simplistic. You use a slingshot to lob a series of kamikaze birds onto gormless green pigs who have taken refuge in easily collapsible structures made of wood, glass and stone after stealing the birds’ eggs. The end. Oh, and you rack up points, of course. There’s no plot, no characters, no sense of adventure, no nothing. Heck, those stupid little birds don’t even have wings. So… why?
Much of Angry Birds’ success story lies in the timing of its release in 2009, just two years after the launch of Apple’s revolutionary iPhone with a touchscreen that changed mobile gaming forever. Angry Birds took full advantage of the iPhone’s big touchscreen.
There were no controls to master, no complex instructions to follow. One swipe of the finger was all it took to start playing. "It’s all about the simplicity. You don’t have to think too much," says Yashraj Vakil, COO of Red Digital, a digital services company that operates in platforms like social gaming among others. "Pick up a bird, aim, shoot, rinse, repeat. That’s all there is to it," he says. This principle is true of any addictive casual game, even iconic ones like Space Invaders and Pac-Man.
But getting millions of people hooked to a game takes more than just simplicity. Angry Birds manipulates basic human psychology and draws on cognitive sciences in a way that few other games do, feels Dr Sunil Mittal, chairman of the Cosmos Institute of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, New Delhi. "Let’s say you’re learning something. Driving, for instance. You need some effort and time before your brain forms a cognitive map. The more complex the task, the more difficult it is for the brain to create this map," he says. The simpler the task, the faster you form a mental schema.
"If it’s too simple, you get bored. But Angry Birds gradually keeps increasing the difficulty level, keeps challenging you and keeps rewarding you on every successful pass. Even as you play, you are subtly learning about bird behaviour, unlocking birds with special powers and figuring out the right trajectories to effectively pop the maximum number of pigs. Gradually, the cognitive map in your brain starts expanding at just the right pace."
Angry Birds is also a terrific manipulator of the brain’s dopamine system, says Mittal. Remember how good it feels when you eat a big piece of chocolate? Or have sex? That’s your brain releasing dopamine, which it does when something happens that is usually followed by some kind of reward. In Angry Birds, this reward would be crashing structures, popping pigs and getting bonus points, once you fire a bird from the slingshot. And then, there’s the anticipation of not knowing what exactly will happen when a bird hits a particular spot – no structure demolishes the same way even when you hit a bird multiple times in the same place. You can keep trying to finish a level many times without success – till suddenly, you win. This uncertainly creates tension; the brain craves release and it makes you want to do whatever it is that creates that release – launch more birds!
The leisurely pace at which the game plays is another key reason why you’re addicted: the birds don’t rocket to the pigs the moment you fire them. Instead, they arc gracefully across the sky leaving visible trajectories; and when they hit, structures fall apart slowly, giving you time to absorb your doing, to revel in the destruction. "If everything were to happen quickly, you wouldn’t have time to think, learn, strategise and form mental maps," adds Mittal. "The fact that it is not fast and frenzied like a lot of demolition games plays a crucial role in making it addictive."
Next time someone says you’re wasting time playing Angry Birds, tell them you’re just giving your brain a workout.
Pigs can fly
On March 8, 2012, a video showing footage of Angry Birds Space, the fourth and the most recent game in the Angry Birds franchise was released on the Internet. It was presented by NASA astronaut Don Pettit from – gasp – the International Space Station. In the nearly four-minute long video, Pettit demonstrates the concept of microgravity using the familiar pigs and birds from Angry Birds. When it was launched late last month, Angry Birds Space was downloaded more than 10 million times in the first three days itself – when it really wants you to notice something, Rovio flexes its mighty marketing muscle and makes sure you do.
It also makes sure the game is never stagnant – there are now over 300 levels in the original Angry Birds (it launched with 21) and three other games in the franchise itself (Angry Birds Seasons, Rio and Space). This is a game that’s constantly in motion – and constantly in the top spot in app stores. In fact, when Zeptolab’s Cut The Rope knocked off Angry Birds from its top perch in the Apple App Store in 2010, Rovio responded by creating a Halloween version of Angry Birds, which knocked Cut the Rope right off again. Already, a series of new Angry Birds games is being planned through 2012.
“Right from the beginning, Rovio’s strategy was bang on. They didn’t want to take over the world in one giant leap. They did it gradually – one step at a time,” says Karthik Srinivasan, former head of digital strategy at a global digital PR firm. The first version of the game was iPhone-only. Vesterbacka only focused on the local market in Finland. The goal: become number one in the domestic market, then expand further. It paid off. Slowly and steadily, the game climbed to the top spot on the paid apps list in Apple’s App Store. “When that happens,” says Vakil, “you’re home and dry simply because of the immense exposure and the word of mouth you get as a result of the iPhone and the iPad’s popularity.”
In 2010, a free, ad-supported version of the game was released for Google’s Android smartphone platform that is used on more than half the smartphones currently sold in the world. Rovio makes millions of dollars every month through Android alone. “It wouldn’t have been as big if it had been released as, say, an online Web game first,” says Vakil. “They released at the right time on the right platforms.”
What works for the game from a marketing standpoint is that it can’t be slotted into a specific genre like most other games, says Rajesh Kakkar, a media specialist in outdoor advertising. “It appeals to everyone from a seven-year-old to your boss to your grandmother.”
"I don’t know what Angry Birds is!" squawks adman Prahlad Kakkar over the phone when we call him up. We shake our heads in disbelief and proceed to let him know. "There’s a reason for an idiotic game like that to become a global frenzy!" he exclaims.
"Everyone today is filled with rage, an internal sense of inadequacy of being unable to do anything about the corrupt system, bad politicians, bosses and cops. Angry Birds seems like an Orwellian world where the birds, who symbolise individuality and freedom, actually get back at the pigs, unlike in Animal Farm!" he declares triumphantly. "To me, the game seems like a good way to vent your frustration. It’s important to find out what the subliminal signals are with anything that becomes a part of pop culture, you know."
Will it, though? Will we still be talking, reading, discussing, arguing, watching, playing and yes, buying Angry Birds fifty years from now? Will it take its place of pride alongside a Mickey Mouse or a Donald Duck? On its part, Rovio is certainly pushing hard – and smart. In September 2011, for instance, the Window of the World theme park in Changsha, China opened an unlicenced Angry Birds section, which featured a large slingshot that visitors used to launch stuffed versions of the birds at green pig balloons. Anyone else would have sued. Rovio didn’t. Instead, it is working with the theme park to licence the attraction.
"I don’t think any brand has been able to go global so fast ever!" says Rajesh Kakkar. "The only other brand that comes close to making the social impact that Angry Birds has made, I think, is Facebook. But even they took several years."
And then, there’s the fear of being stuck in a rut and dying a slow, painful death. Take the Tomb Raider franchise, for instance, which did Tomb Raider video games, Tomb Raider comic books, Tomb Raider novels, Tomb Raider movies and Tomb Raider theme park rides before the world stopped looking at anything with the words ‘tomb’ and ‘raider’ on it. Rovio might eventually have to stop milking the birds and come up with other titles.
"They have shown they are very good at exploiting a hit, but it all depends on what they do from here," says Srinivasan. "Already, I think they’ve started losing sight of what made the game so successful in the first place – the simplicity. In the latest Angry Birds Space, for example, the simple laws of physics that ruled all the previous games go out of the window. Instead you have to wrap your head around planet orbits and gravity among other things, which affect the way the birds move. It’s confounding."
On our part, we’re just going to sit back and watch as the birds take over. One step at a time.
100 million copies of Angry Birds downloaded to date
200 million minutes of the game played worldwide every day
3 trillion greedy green pigs killed so far
100 billion birds fired from the game’s slingshot
Game for more?
Temple Run: Step into the boots of an intrepid explorer: steal an idol from a temple and flee from demonic monkeys in an endless chase till you either a) die b) run out of battery c) smash your phone to the ground in frustration iOS and Android (free)
Plants vs. Zombies: Use your arsenal of 49 zombie-zapping plants – peashooters, wall-nuts, cherry bombs and more – to mulchify 26 types of zombies before they break down your door.
iOS (approx Rs 150), Android (approx Rs 160)
Cut The Rope: Catch the stars, cut the ropes and avoid various obstacles in your mission to feed the cuddly Om Nom.
iOS and Android (approx Rs 50)
From HT Brunch, April 22
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