Upwardly Mobile

The Angry Birds smartphone game seeks new platforms.

Angry Birds iPhone app icon

In Washington, D.C., on Saturday morning, in the Metro Center station, on the Red Line platform, two kids—tweens, perhaps, or teenagers—ducked, jostled, and kicked in a brief moment of karate-type activity. The platform was crowded. Nobody noticed. Apparently, the two were not practiced flash-mob participants: If you are going to create a chain of leap-froggers in a busy subway, overwhelming force is probably a good strategy. But across the world, others joined in more successful, effervescent public demonstrations— such as one in Trafalgar Square, London.

The Saturday-morning flash mobs, or attempts at them, were all in celebration of the first birthday of Angry Birds, the freakishly popular, stupidly simple smartphone game. Its Finnish creator, Rovio, organized the global event and promised to create special new gaming levels for the cities that best-celebrated it. But Angry Birds fans need little such egging on. The absurdist, addictive game is sweeping the globe—and wants to make the jump to bigger, more lucrative screens.

The game works like this. Round, green pigs have stolen eggs from wingless, heavily eyebrowed birds. The birds want to punish the pigs. So the gamer uses her cell-phone touch screen to slingshot the suicidal birds onto the pigs’ ramparts, knocking the structures down and winning points in the process. The style is silly, the game dead simple to start playing and very hard to put down. Rovio says the iPhone version alone now has 65 million minutes of play time per day. That means if Rovio compensated those users at minimum wage, it would cost about $2 billion per year.

By all such metrics the game is highly, highly successful. The founders of Helsinki-based Rovio met at a mobile gaming contest in 2003 and introduced the game last December. It caught on locally, then in Europe, then worldwide—and fast. It reached the No. 1 spot in the U.K. iPhone application store in February, then No. 1 in the United States­­ a few months later. Last week, Apple named it the best-selling app of 2010, with about 30 million iPhone downloads at about $1 a pop. Android, the Google operating system, also has the game available for free, ad-supported download—and about 5 million users have signed up, generating $1 million a month in ad revenue. The g­­ame now has about 50 million downloads total.

With cell phones conquered, the company has its eyes on the rest of the tech world. In the words of one company executive, Angry Birds is “the first example of a brand that was created on the mobile side, and is now going everywhere.” Rovio at first worked like most mobile gaming companies, doing work-for-hire on products for bigger fish, like Electronic Arts. But fierce competition dampens prices for mobile games, and there is only so much you can do with a 2-by-3-inch touch screen. With the runaway success of the game and a cult of personality growing around its grumpy characters, Rovio decided to build a multiplatform brand centered on its celebrity birds.

In the past months, the company has grown to employ more than 30 people, and it is working to bring out new versions of the game—for platforms like Facebook and gaming consoles like PlayStation, Xbox, and Wii. In addition, it is, as they say, “expanding monetization.” First up, Rovio is selling Angry Birds stuffed animals—fuzzy, frowning birds to slingshot at fuzzy, daft pigs in the comfort of one’s own home—and clothing. The ambitions get much bigger after that. Company founders name Pixar—the film production company behind Toy Story and Wall-E—as a role model. And they are in the process of exploring television and film-development deals—a leap no other cell-phone game has made, though numerous video games have.

It just might work. Buyout offers have flooded into Finland. And people—not just regular gamers, but also many casual users—do love the characters. Reviews from the trade press are laudatory, to say the least. (Sample: “A kind of avian fury not seen since that Alfred Hitchcock movie … [The] charm, polish and overall genius should keep a smile on your face.”) Plus, the game has inspired an unusually devoted fan base. Justin Bieber loves it. David Cameron plays it on his iPad. Conan O’Brien showed off the iPad version of the game in a promo. Saturday Night Live mentioned the game in a skit, with Julian Assange promising to hack the game and turn it into Good-Natured Birds. (“How is it? It stinks.”) And the celebrities have nothing on the regular fans—those who make their own Angry Bird costumes, for instance, or try to broker peace treaties between the aggrieved avian and porcine parties.

There is one place, though, where the love for Angry Birds is slightly more complicated: Finland itself. The country boasts a highly educated populous, generous government support for innovation, and a big tech sector. But for years, a single company dominated the field. Mobile giant Nokia once made up some 3.5 percent of Finnish GDP—in the United States, that would mean as much as McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and Citigroup combined. It now makes up just 1.6 percent. And Angry Birds found fame on the iPhone, one of the competitors responsible for sapping Nokia’s market share. Nevertheless, Finns—big consumers of the game, to be sure—are hoping Rovio’s success creates a boomlet in startups. And Rovio itself is thinking sky-high.

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