As you’re reading this, people next to you on the bus or the subway platform are playing Angry Birds. The game, launched by a tiny Finnish company only two years ago, has transfixed the world with its angry – but cute – birds launching pigs. Its new game is based in space. But Peter Vesterbacka, Angry Birds’ creative director, aims even higher: he wants to get the whole world exercising, with Angry Birds of course.
Peter Vesterbacka’s title is Mighty Eagle. In human-speak, it means that he’s the guru behind the Angry Birds games. Metro met Vesterbacka, as usual clad in an Angry Birds hoodie, at the Finnish Embassy in London.
In which ways is the new Angry Birds game better than the previous one?
Of course, I’d say that all our games are good. But the new game has a different take on the Angry Birds universe. We take the birds to space, so there’s different gravity. You have to think about how to make the birds to around the planets and hit the pigs. There are some elements that are very familiar, but it’s also a whole new take on the classic Angry Birds game.
…and Angry Birds Space are more than a game, correct?
Yes. We’re about all forms of entertainment. With the launch of Angry Birds Space we’re also launching an Angry Birds toys, T-shirts, comics and candy, which will be available at Walmart. People will walk into a store and get the whole Angry Birds experience. You can’t avoid it. You can’t get in and out of a Walmart without seeing Angry Birds. For us, Angry Birds Space isn’t just about launching the game. It’s the launch of a completely new franchise.
Extremely busy people spend hours playing Angry Birds. What does that tell you about human psychology?
It’s a very easy game to pick up, but it’s also a pretty tough game to master. Many people who play golf also play Angry Birds: there’s strategy, different birds, different capabilities. It’s an intelligent game in that way. It doesn’t depend on having the fastest reflexes. It has even been proven that Angry Birds helps keep your brain fit; among other things, it’s useful for people with Alzheimer’s disease. If you look at busy people: everybody is busy nowadays. Angry Birds is a break that allows you to get away, even if it’s just for a few minutes, so they can then get back and focus on their task. It’s a very healthy habit. It's like vacations: people in Nordic countries take long vacations, but when they work their productivity is very high. Angry Birds, and vacations, is like doing maintenance on yourself.
Recently The Atlantic magazine calculated that Angry Birds costs the US alone $1.5 billion in lost productivity each year. Do you feel guilty about that?
That’s bullshit. You can make these kinds of studies, but it’s not like people are always working. Look at the proportions. People play Angry Birds for perhaps two hours a month, they spend four hours watching videos on mobile devices, they spend 20-30 hours per month on their home computers – but they spend 158.5 hours per month watching TV. And when you watch TV you lean back and watch the screen. When you play Angry Birds you lean forward and engage your brain. You’re active, not passive.
So, what you’re saying is that Angry Birds is not a waste of time but a way of re-charging one’s brain?
Absolutely. Playing games is actually a very good thing to do. Do you know why in Finland boys speak better English than girls? Because they play more games, and the games are in English. It’s not that they decided to speak better English; it happened by accident. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t make learning fun, and games like Angry Birds do that. Incidentally, it’s the same reason we’re launching the Angry Birds activity parks: why not make physical activity fun? You can go for a five-kilometer run, which is fine, but not everyone thinks it’s fun. With our activity parks we want to make physical activity a fun thing to do. We want the Angry Birds activity parks to be all over cities, all over the planet so you can easily walk or ride your bike to one. They won’t be like traditional theme parks – one theme park on every continent, and you have to take a plane there. Then you waste even more time standing in line for a ride that lasts two minutes. We want to surprise and delight the fans, but also engage the fans in activity. Going to a theme park is passive, whereas in an Angry Birds park you’ll be part of the activity.
And how will the parks be connected to the game?
All Angry Birds parks will be called Angry Birds Magical Places. When you go to a park, you’ll earn power-ups in the game or have special capabilities only at the activity park. There’s an incentive that if you play the game, you should visit one of our activity parks because you’ll earn power-ups and capabilities. In a nice way, it motivates kids to go outside and play. And we don’t see anything wrong with them playing Angry Birds while at the same time learning about physics, as they will in our new game.
When did you know that you were onto something?
Angry Birds was our 52nd game. The first time we knew that we were onto something was when Niklas, one of our co-founders, went home to his parents for Christmas. He showed Angry Birds to his mother. Usually when we showed things to our parents they’d go, ‘ok, that’s nice’ and hand the mobile phone back. But this time, Niklas didn’t get his phone back. His mother played Angry Birds the whole Christmas. That was a very strong indication, because she never played games. But even if you create a great game, it’s a very competitive market, so you never know what will happen. There are lots of great games out there that never make it. If you’re serious about making games, you need to be serious about marketing. At Rovio we take our games very seriously, and we take our marketing very seriously. Now, with our new game being located in space, we did the launch from the International Space Station, together with NASA. That’s a way of making sure that everybody on the planet knows about it.
How much time do you spend playing Angry Birds every day?
It’s obviously very important to understand the business you’re in, so of course I play a lot. I’ve played through all the levels, which is important. But I also play a lot of other games, not only on the iPhone and iPad but also online and on consoles.
Speaking of branding: your wife gained worldwide attention when she wore an Angry Birds dress to a gala dinner at the palace of the President of Finland. Is she the real Angry Birds devotee in your household?
The whole family is in it, and we’re all fans. Our kids, who are six and eight, play it too. They’re a good test market! My wife’s dress went everywhere. I was in Japan the week after, and everybody had seen the dress, even people who’d never heard of Angry Birds. But it also shows the power of the brand. We’re now the most copied brand in China, which means we’re the most loved brand in China. That’s not too bad in two years!
So, a dress as viral marketing?
Yes. We believe in doing things differently. We don’t spend any money on traditional advertising. We're all about doing special events, like launching Angry Birds Space in space with NASA. No other game has other been launched in space. We thought, “why not?” And, of course, working with NASA means that Angry Birds Space is also very educational, and that’s the reason we’ve teamed up with National Geographic as well. Angry Birds now has the best-selling physics book on Amazon. It shows that the brand goes from the game to animation to books. We only care about two things: the fans and the brand.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Everywhere. But the secret is that you have to be a bit crazy. We want to change the world, and you have to be a bit crazy to believe that you can. A lot of people thought we were crazy when we said we wanted to get 100 million downloads, but we now have 700 million downloads and are probably even crazier. But that’s the attitude of the whole team, asking “why not?” “Why can’t we launch a game in space? Of course we can.” We think big, and think about how we can surprise our fans. It can be my wife’s dress or the launch of the new game. And I think we’re changing marketing in the process.
So, no billboards?
Right. Many of the olds players say, “let’s take $100 million and throw it at TV and hope that it works”. Especially when you don’t have $100 million to throw at TV you have to be smarter. We’re a tiny company, 300 people from a tiny country. By necessity, we have to do things differently and smarter. In the end marketing is not about the money. And when I travel around the world I notice the change. For example, when I was in Indonesia I met a tiny startup. By watching us, they had decided that they didn’t have to be based in Silicon Valley to launch a technology company – or even in the US. So, they created a kind of Angry Birds in Jakarta. I said, “If we can do it, you can do it.”
In other words, thinking crazy is not crazy?
Exactly. You don’t have to be crazy, but it helps.