Angry Birds and Rovio's plans for world domination

CNET's Roger Cheng visits Rovio's headquarters in Espoo, Finland, to talk about its evolution from a simple mobile gaming company.

Petri Jarvilehto, executive vice president of games, and Ville Heijari, senior vice president of brand marketing, at the reception desk in Rovio's executive offices. Roger Cheng/CNET

ESPOO, Finland -- The executive offices of Angry Birds creator Rovio were exactly how I imagined them.

There were stuffed Angry Birds plush toys everywhere. Flanking the reception desk were Angry Birds versions of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and his Storm Trooper, created for the recent Angry Birds-Star Wars mashup game.

To the left was a short wooden crate blanketed by tiny Angry Birds figurines. To the right was an upright showcase chiller stocked with Angry Birds-themed soda, which recently launched in Finland and now outsells Coke and Pepsi. On the opposite end of the office was a cabinet with Angry Birds books sitting on top, while a large, white bird that doubles as a plush seat cushion sat in the corner. There was a screening room to one side that plays the latest Angry Birds video shorts.

All of it conveyed one message to me: Rovio badly wants to be known as more than a mobile gaming company.

Angry Birds has steadily evolved from the killer app on the iPhone into the gold standard where small mobile gaming can go. Rovio has grown into a marketing and merchandising juggernaut, with the Angry Birds name emblazoned on everything from backpacks to theme parks. At the same time, Rovio has given Finland a new source of pride, displacing struggling Nokia as the marquee name in the country and inspiring legions of college students to aim for the startup world versus the corporate one.

Read: Nokia on the edge: A look at an icon's fight for survival

While it's debatable whether the phenomenon is starting to lose steam, at Rovio's home offices, the feeling is that things are just getting started.

"What we want is an incredible shelf life for everything we do around Angry Birds," said Ville Heijari, senior vice president of brand marketing for Rovio.

Heijari and Petri Jarvilehto, executive vice president of games, met with me at their headquarters to chat about the secret to the company's success as well as plans for the future, or as I put it to them, their ambitions for world domination.

Rovio's collection of Angry Birds merchandising. Roger Cheng/CNET

We sat in Jarvilehto's corner office, situated in an industrial park in Espoo that's occupied by several other big-name technology companies. Jarvilehto sat at his desk, typing at his MacBook and bringing up presentations and videos for us.

Both were lighthearted and welcoming, eager to talk about the company and its future, though careful to not spill some specifics. Both presented an image of a company that's long grown beyond its humble start and is ready to take on bigger challenges.

"The way we see Rovio is we're building an entertainment company," Jarvilehto said. "That's something going forward we see as a huge opportunity and something that nobody else is even trying to play in that space."

One-hit wonder?
It's easy to forget Angry Birds wasn't an overnight hit. Its debut was mediocre at best, and it wasn't until Rovio worked the phones, pushed the word-of-mouth buzz, and slowly got media attention that it finally broke out in a few countries in Europe before topping the charts in the U.S.

Nowadays, the company has multiple Angry Birds games on the top charts, and they are ever aware of it. Scattered throughout the offices are flat-panel televisions displaying the rankings of Rovio's games on the top iOS and Android charts.

It's also a different time, and a far more competitive environment. While its Angry Birds games continue to do well, Rovio's record hasn't been perfect. Amazing Alex, a completely different game from Rovio, debuted strong on the built-in buzz of the company, but failed to hold its ranking and is considered a disappointment.

Still, the executives dismissed the criticism that the Angry Bird fad has passed, noting a continual string of hit games.

"You can have a fluke," Heijari said. "But to have a fluke rank high for three years straight? I don't believe in that."

Angry Birds' take on Luke Skywalker, complete with lightsaber. Roger Cheng/CNET

The secret to Rovio's sustained success, according to the executives, is the continual updates it provides to its games. The company celebrated its third birthday for the original Angry Birds, still ranked No. 26 in the top paid apps in Apple's App Store, by adding new levels, the Pink Bird from Angry Birds Seasons, and explosive cake. After the launch of every game, Rovio sets a team aside to keep pushing out updates, which Jarvilehto said builds great word of mouth for even an older game.

"It's almost mind-boggling to me that most companies don't do that," he said.

Rovio continues to defy the odds and conventional wisdom that gamers will eventually get burned out with one new hit Angry Birds game after another. When Angry Birds Rio shipped, it became the most successful app at the time. Then came Angry Birds Space, which again vaulted Rovio back on top, and in November, it launched Angry Birds Star Wars, which took just two and a half hours to climb to the top of the paid apps chart on the iOS App Store, where it remains today.

"People keep asking us, 'how do we top this?'" Jarvilehto said. "We've been pretty good at pushing ourselves hard to outdo ourselves."

When asked about Rovio's ability to create other games beyond the core Angry Birds franchise, Jarvilehto pointed to Bad Piggies as a spinoff that's a different kind of game. The company will support it and create sequels, hoping to create a separate franchise out of pigs that it has done with birds.

Entertainment juggernaut
Rovio, of course, has become so much more than a series of games. Angry Birds apparel, candy, soda, and theme parks are turning into common sights.

Rovio no longer launches an Angry Birds game without significant licensing and merchandising deals in place. When Angry Birds Space launched, the accompanying lineup of toys were available the same day. With Angry Birds Star Wars, Rovio has a bigger deal with Hasbro to bring out a wide assortment of toys and other consumer goods.

"They are becoming large-scale entertainment launches," Jarvilehto said.

Earlier this month, the company said "Despicable Me" producer John Cohen would produce the long-rumored Angry Birds movie with a goal of getting it in the theaters by the summer of 2016.

A movie would build on the work Rovio has already done with its animated shorts. Alongside developers, the company has bulked up its staff of animators as it aims to get a weekly series of Angry Birds shorts each week, setting the groundwork for longer projects. The company already boasts the largest animation studio in Finland, and its YouTube channel has 316,000 subscribers and nearly 900 million video views.

The Angry Birds franchise at this point may reach more people than its Espoo neighbor Nokia, which has long been the pride of Finland. But Heijari was reluctant to draw comparisons, adding only that he was happy to be part of a growing community of tech companies in the area.

Still, in the local tech scene, Rovio is the big dog. And its executives have hinted that it's only getting started.

"We'll do bigger things," Jarvilehto said. "We'll do different things."

 

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