Sunday, August 28, 2011

Angry Birds, Peter Vesterbacka and the Uncomfortable Insolance

Vesterbacka´s speech at this year´s Elonmerkki -conference divided opinions. Some thought he was inspiring. Some said he is brave and exemplary. Others- could not take his arrogance. The underlying discussion beneath the day´s speeches had been Finnish design and ways to take it abroad  - marketing. Or, the lack of better Finnish marketing. As Artek´s leader admitted, they are well-known internationally, but  do not know how to capitalize their fame. Vesterbacka knows a thing or two about capitalizing and taking action when the iron is  hot. And he is not afraid to say it out loud, without embarrassment or demure attitude. And this direct pride is not accustomed to in the Finnish landscape. It is... showy.

The Chief Marketing officer of Rovio ( the company responsible for producing "Angry Birds" game into our cultural consciousness) does not bow down in front of his company´s success. He drops facts and numbers like Agent Orange to a Vietnamese field. The audience gasps and smiles uncomfortably. Some cheer.
"Surely this kind of success cannot happen just like that? Surely this kind of success cannot last? Just look at What happened to Nokia- we shouldn´t brag."

The "Angry Birds" has been downloaded approximately 350 million times so far. At the present rate, it is being downloaded 1 million times a day. 200 million minutes are played every day. They have around 130 million active users around the world. According to Vesterbacka, the company is growing faster than YouTube, Google or Facebook (at present). Last year the company´s revenue was a meager 6,5 million euros. This year, they are expecting the number to reach 100 million (euros). Within the next couple of years, they are going public.  Vesterbacka himself was voted the seventh most influential person in the world
(TIME -magazine, April 2011). Interestingly, the international commentators found his reaction to the newly appointed status as "humble". So what is it that made the company so huge?

Before the company made it huge, they were in deep trouble. Money had been burnt by the owners Niklas and Mikael Hed, and something needed to be done. "Angry Birds" was Rovio´s 52. game. There were 51 attempts to make it before the success, and in the beginning, even the birds weren´t that catchy. Game designer Jaakko Iisalo´s pet project was a raw idea that needed a lot of meat for the bones. There were no pigs, there was no slingshot. Besides the brain power of gifted designers, there was also the marketing genius of Peter Vesterbacka, who knew the direction to go for and the measures needed to make the game big. Before the slingshot, the game was not understandable for the average user. Before the pigs, there was no enemy to go against. (Adding the pigs as enemy was also a clever move the in the midst of global swine flu-epidemic). In December 2009 the catapult-puzzle  game was released. By February 2010 it was the top-selling game in both UK and US Apple application stores.

When asked, even Vesterbacka himself does not know the exact reason for the worldwide popularity of the game. He lists the swine flu, the fun and colorful characters, the concurrent rise of the touch-screen smartphones, attention to detail, smart marketing and a cheery game-idea (there are no negative punishments for mistakes).

By now, Rovio´s main goal is to strengthen and widen the brand. There is the cookbook coming, the toys, the film, the shoes, the clothes... Vesterbacka is comparing the brand to the world famous "SpongeBob" -phenomenon, which still (after its creation in 1974) is selling merchandise in the ranges of 4 billion US dollars
annually. The great goal is to be the first entertainment brand with 1 billion fans.This is no small talk, no unassuming muttering, this is plain determination. Will the company make it there?

While focusing on "Angry Birds", it is easy to forget that there is much more happening overall in the Finnish game industry, and Rovio is just the first mega success on the road to many more. According to the recent  Finnish Game Industry  2010-2011 study, the revenues of the whole game industry have grown steadily, and topped 100 million euros last year. The revenues for this year are expected to rise to 165 million euros. In comparison to  game industries in other Scandinavian countries, Finland is now holding the number one spot. In the light of this, it is surprising to learn how little the Finnish government is investing in the education or finance regarding game industry. Preconceived ideas against the field of entertainment?

So what are the possible "next" success stories in the field of Finnish game industry? This year the foreign finance was totaling approximately 60 million euros, from which Rovio took the main cut ( 34 million). The second biggest company to hit the big league was called Supercell, which collected 12 million euros in venture capital from Accel Partners. Also a company called Grand Cru has received 1 million.  According to insiders, much is expected from the oldest Finnish game company Housemarque, when it releases its new version of an old game for Sony  and a puzzlegame for iPad. There is also names like Recoil with its "Rochard" -game and "Trine 2" from Frozenbyte. (On a sidenote, you should check out the soundtrack for Trine1, which features world-class classical players instead of machine-generated pseudo-music. Thank me later.)

Besides Rovio therefore, much is happening in the Finnish game industry at the moment. Although the money might be there, the process to reach glory and fame is still slow and laborious. This does not seem to dispirit the energetic designers. The buzz and drive has spread to other cities outside the capital Helsinki,
and the hopes are high. Who will be the next success in a red shirt? According to Rovio´s brand image, as we have come to associate him, it takes a good idea, some smart marketing and pure courage to try. After all, it was the golden 52. game which took the world by storm. Not the first, not the third. The number 52.

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