Rovio’s Angry Birds are seeking a nest in India
Everyone has played Angry Birds or knows about the game. I realized this yesterday when I told my mother I was meeting the guys from Angry Birds and she knew about it, despite never having played the game herself. I believe it when Rovio’s senior vice president for Asia, Henri Holm tells me that Angry Birds is the true “four quadrant” brand. “Boys and girls, men and women, all over, enjoy the Angry Birds gameplay or know about it,” he says.
Rovio’s Angry Birds franchise has been a dream run for a startup that started in 2003 as a guns (game developers) for hire company. There are already more than half-a-dozen games under the brand that have been downloaded over 1.7 billion times across devices and platforms. Today one can play Angry Birds on smart feature phones like Nokia Asha, smartphones, PCs and Macs, consoles – you name it and in all probability, there is a way to play the game. With its burgeoning smartphone growth, Rovio is eyeing to make a nest for itself in India.
Founded as Relude, the company changed its name to Rovio in 2005, which means bonfire in Finnish. They were the team that ported Need For Speed to mobile and ended up creating Bounce for Nokia that became the second most iconic game after Snake on Nokia phones. But that apparently didn’t keep the bonfire kindled for long and the company had to let go of most of its developers. They had that proverbial, one last shot, and the result was Angry Birds that launched in 2009.
It is easier to to say it with confidence with the benefit of hindsight, but Angry Birds had a lot of things going for it to become the success story that it has become. It has a nice narrative about a drove of pigs stealing eggs, which the birds want back, that connects across age groups and sexes. Players have to fling birds from a slingshot to destroy and penetrate the protective structures the pigs have made. It has a repetitive action that makes the game addictive with levels getting complicated as the player proceeds.
“Everyone knows how a slingshot works. We met people in the middle of the Amazonian jungles and they knew about slingshots but they didn’t know much about smartphones,” Holm smilingly tells me. Rovio has continued to introduce new levels frequently, adding birds with new strengths and eventually launching games with completely new levels of physics not seen on any smartphone game earlier. It is not surprising that Angry Birds is being used in some schools to teach the basics of physics. It is not just a game anymore.
“There is real physics behind it. We are aiming at giving our users the best possible experiences and you will see more of it in Go,” Holm says. (Angry Birds Go is the next game that is launching on December 11.) “Angry Birds also has elements of learning,” he adds while pointing out the NASA icon in Angry Birds Space that takes players to a NASA page where they can learn more about the organization.
But there’s more to it when he says Angry Birds is not just a game. As with every successful franchise, there’s a huge opportunity in merchandising and partnerships, and Rovio is making that push in its own unique way. Yes, there are Angry Birds plush toys and apparels (Holm is wearing the trademark red Angry Bird sweatshirt during our meeting), but there’s much more. The biggest of them all being a movie that is scheduled for a summer 2016 release. Rovio has partnered with Bata to sell Angry Birds branded footwear for kids in India, it has tied up with Hasbro for its Telepods and it is looking at places where it could set up Angry Birds activity areas.
“We have Angry Birds activity parks in some countries but we believe that doesn’t work in India. So we are looking at places where families go and spend time together,” says Antti Ohrling, Rovio’s country director in India.
Rovio sees India as an important market. “India is home for us,” Holm says and by that he doesn’t mean setting up a back office here to do the development work, which still happens mostly in Finland.
India makes perfect sense for Rovio. It is the world’s fastest growing smartphone market, which is the medium via which Angry Birds is primarily delivered. There is enough awareness about Angry Birds, which is evident when you see Angry Birds balloons selling on roads in Delhi and elsewhere, none of which, by the way, are official merchandise. Angry Birds has that connect with people in India and it is not lost on Rovio, which has tied up with Hungama as a local partner.
Holm and Ohrling were not willing to divulge any specific plans for India, not because there wasn’t any but probably because it was too early. However, they showed me a promo video Hungama created for them where they had Bollywood stars talking about how they knew about Angry Birds, played it and even pointing out what they liked about the game. (Turns out that the sounds the birds make is quite popular among them and some play it to vent out anger after spending a long day on the sets.)
“One thing I have learnt is you need to target the ‘B and C’ of India to be successful – Bollywood and cricket,” says Ohrling, which is probably a sign of things to come. Rovio had roped in former Guns ‘N Roses’ lead guitarist Slash to cover the theme tune for Angry Birds Space. They had also tied up with Lucasfilm to launch Angry Birds Star Wars.
Rovio is also looking at how it could make a locally contextual game for Angry Birds. Holm shows me they have already created a few in its Angry Birds Seasons – the Mooncake Festival and Year of the Dragon aimed at China and Cherry Blossom for Japan. Who knows, we might have an Angry Birds Diwali or Holi version? Quite possible, I am told.