David Cameron is reportedly an addict; so too are Salman Rushdie and Justin Bieber. The Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, claims it has transformed the lives of officials, "who now know what to do in their free and not-so-free time". What are they on about? Angry Birds, of course. Eighteen months after its launch by a little-known Finnish company, the blockbuster iPhone game has 75 million users globally in its thrall. Some predict the franchise is on course to become a 21st-century Disney.
A game involving catapulting spherical birds at fortresses built by evil pigs "sounds like a tough sell", says The New York Times. Yet it's by far the biggest-selling app at Apple's App Store and is poised to become the first mobile game "to make the leap from cellphone screens to the mainstream". Backers including Skype founder Niklas Zennstrm, who has just led a $42m funding round maintain its creators are a revolutionary force in gaming, threatening to render console-based games obsolete. Not bad for a game that cost just €100,000 to bring to market, says Wired.
The trio behind developer Rovio ("bonfire" in Finnish) were convinced they were onto a winner the moment they saw the first winningly grumpy cartoon sketch. "People saw this picture and it was just magical," says Niklas Hed, who founded the company with his cousin, Mikael, in 2003. At first, the birds furiously battled featureless blobs; but then swine flu hit the news, so the targets became sickly green pigs. When test players said they didn't understand why the "docile-looking swine" deserved such aggression, the team invented the back story of the pigs stealing the birds' eggs.
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The masterstroke was to tailor the game to smartphones, which the Heds, and their partner Peter Vesterbacka (pictured), foresaw was set to become a new mass medium. The game had to be easy to learn, but devilishly hard to master. Niklas knew they'd cracked it when his mother burned a Christmas turkey because she was so distracted. Rovio's coffers are now swelling with cuddly toy spin-offs and film tie-ups.
Critics contend that Angry Birds is a pop craze whose fall will be as swift as its rise (see below). Yet its creators have proven staying power, notes Gamepro.com. It took 52 attempts before they got their first big hit; when it launched in 2009, they were close to bankruptcy. Although still based in a non-descript block just outside Helsinki, Rovio makes no bones of its global ambitions. Vesterbacka (aka Mighty Eagle') is usually in California "doing what mighty eagles do and exploring potential business partnerships", says Wired. With a "bird whisperer" and "marketing wingman" also in the office, there's plenty for sceptics to scoff at. But the naysayers are the bird-brains, argues Niklas Zennstrm. "Angry Birds is a brand. It's going to stick."
Are there more golden eggs to come?
"I used to think Mark Zuckerberg's achievement with Facebook was a fabulous inspiration to entrepreneurs everywhere," says Luke Johnson in the Financial Times. Now I'm not so sure. I've lost count of the number of business plans I've seen from "digital pioneers" who want to build the next Facebook, Twitter, or Zynga, based on mind-boggling growth assumptions. "I put them all in the shredder." Warp speed businesses that rise in vertiginous fashion usually fall in a similar way. They look like "seemingly unassailable monopolies" until, suddenly, "they are not". The golden rule in this business is that users are fickle.
For the moment, Angry Birds has cult status, says The New York Times at least in terms of the time fans are happy to waste playing it. According to Rovio, some 200 million minutes of game play are racked up each day globally. "Put another way, that is 16 human-years of bird-throwing every hour." Meanwhile, the game has inspired countless parodies and homages: one of YouTube's big hits this year is a sketch from an Israeli comedy show about a birds-and-pigs peace treaty. So far, the numbers seem to match the hype, notes Wired. Estimates put Rovio's total revenues to date at close to €50m, with perhaps 40% of that stemming from activities not directly related to games the toys and other licensing deals.
Still, many will see the Rovio's latest $42m fundraising "as the sign of a frothy market", says Tim Bradshaw on FT.com. Even if the trio achieve their aim of migrating the app across many platforms, it may still end up as a one-hit wonder. Rovio, which claims to have more ideas up its sleeve, hints it's planning an American initial public offering "in the next five years", to give investors a chance to tap into the fastest-growing segment of the video games industry. That should be long enough to determine whether these spherical squawkers, and the golden eggs they're laying, are anything more than a "fluke".
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