What happens when you release a game in the App Store and… it flops? Not much, right? You put your tail between your legs, lick your wounds and soldier on. But what if you’re a gaming giant and your release doesn’t live up to expectations? That’s where Rovio, the Finnish maker of Angry Birds, found themselves in 2015.
Way back when the iPhone and Android phones were in their infancy, Angry Birds was the de facto game for a great many mobile phone users - at one point it held the number one spot for paid iOS apps for 80 days straight. But when the company released Angry Birds 2 in 2015 and, in doing so, switched from a premium to a free-to-play pay model, the game didn’t fare as well as they’d hoped.
Ville Heijari, Rovio’s CMO and ‘Bird Whisperer’, sat down with an audience of 200 mobile marketers at Adjust’s Mobile Spree ‘17 for a poolside chat about the launch of Angry Birds 2, Rovio’s stumbles, and what they eventually did to reset their growth trajectory. Listen to his entire talk below or read on for the rest of the story.
A rocky start
Ville worked for Rovio from 2010 through 2013, but left to work in mobile advertising and spent some time with an independent game studio. He arrived back at Rovio nine months after the launch of Angry Birds 2 and explained what the situation was when he got there:
“It started off quite rocky… in July of 2015 it [the game] had a massive launch. It saw some revenue, but it was really sort of lukewarm and didn’t meet the company’s expectations at all. But what do you do? ...Surely you can’t just ditch Angry Birds 2.”
Checking out the competition
So Rovio did something that made a lot of sense - they looked around to see who had figured it out in mobile gaming. On one side there was Clash of Clans, a multi-player game set in a fantasy world that, in 2015, earned over $1.5m per day. Clans, Ville explained, was deep; engaging, social, not a casual gaming experience at all, but one that players had to invest in. On the other side was Candy Crush Saga - not very deep, but extremely casual and easy for users to pick up at any time. As a puzzle-based game that anyone could get into if they had a few free seconds, Candy Crush boasted over 93 million daily players in 2014.
With this perspective, Ville told the crowd that Rovio had set out to build a game that was super casual, like Candy Crush, but with deep and social elements, like Clash of Clans. Except in doing so, they’d accidentally gone and done the opposite. Whoops.
This discovery helped the team narrow down the parts of the game that needed work. From a design perspective, it wasn’t so much about how Angry Birds 2 looked, but about the product itself:
As a game, it was from day one very accomplished. Really beautiful execution, with a really clear set of game play goals and so on - there was nothing wrong with it. But when you think of an example like a Rubik’s cube, it’s the perfect game. You understand it immediately, it’s very nicely executed, it’s simple. But when you put it down, you don’t think about it. You don’t go to work thinking about that Rubik’s cube. You need to turn this cube into something that you’re emotionally connected to. Something that’s always there, that you can’t put out of your mind. You need to turn the cube into a puppy.
Turning Angry Birds 2 into a puppy
So they turned to the product itself. Rovio didn’t throw ideas at the wall to see what stuck - over the next year a half they began introducing new features to the product, ones they tested and improved upon with rigorous optimization.
They found that a game that progressed through levels just didn’t work. Having users start out on a map where their journey was plotted didn’t combine well with a more open-ended style of play. What people did love, they saw, were their birds. When they began the improvement process, Rovio decided to bank on the characters.
“In the past you saw a map of where you were - today you see your birds. You can upgrade them, choose different game modes, and become more successful in the game based on how much you invest in your birds.”
Next, Rovio introduced hats for the birds. A simple customization option with a huge payoff - some of the gear is exclusive, meaning a user has to grind, investing their time and money, in order to win them.
After that, they sprinkled in multiplayer elements. Tournaments where users could compete against other players added a missing social element.
What followed were a series of daily challenges - including a mode called King Pig Panic - where users have to win certain levels every day (if you don’t, you start all over again). They added in the Tower of Fortune, an elevator containing four choices (which either reward players or cause them to lose everything) which users can visit daily. Finally, they added a win streak function, where players were ranked higher the more games they won in a row. The graph below shows the effect that each iteration of the product had on users’ gem (the unit of currency in Angry Birds 2) spending patterns within the game.
The spikes in dark red and bright red represent user purchases on spending opportunities on the traditional saga map and arena. The grey spikes represent the growth - huge growth - Rovio saw with each new added feature, beginning with the arena win streak at the end of May 2016 and ending with Tower of Fortune in January 2017.
As of now, Angry Birds 2 is Rovio’s most profitable game. In February, VentureBeat announced that Rovio's game division had its best year ever, "with revenue growing 40 percent from €113 million to €159 million in 2016. Games reported an EBIT of €29.6 million, up 640 percent from €4 million a year earlier."
This growth is due to a year and a half of diligent product optimisation. These features go to user segments and cohorts, and they’re very tested. We couldn’t just slap something in there and see if it flies. We had to have very rigorous optimization and testing in every step.
Want to know more about how Rovio went about optimizing these features or how they marketed them to new and existing users? We did too; head back up top to the video to listen to Ville’s entire chat and find out how Rovio turned Angry Birds 2 around for good.
If you like stories from the experts, we featured over a dozen of them at this year's Mobile Spree. Check out how Andy Carvell, CEO of Phiture, creates push notifications with impact here and how the CEO and CMO of Flapper, Paul Malicki, reaches emerging markets here.