Angry Birds: the origin of the species

The story behind the App Store’s first global gaming smash.

Seemingly overnight, Angry Birds was everywhere. Not just on your iPhone and iPad, but out in the real world, emblazoned across t-shirts, caps, plushies and all manner of other merch.

But before that breakthrough moment in 2009, Angry Birds creator Rovio was a very different company. The Finnish firm had made an astonishing 51 games for pre-iPhone smartphones, as well as making “work for hire” titles for other companies.

And not long before it unleashed the game that would transform its fortunes, it came close to closing down.

Prior to Angry Birds, Rovio worked on games such as Bounce.

Indeed, in a tough transition from the old world of smartphones to the era of the iPhone and the App Store, Rovio had to cut its workforce from 50 to just 12 employees.

“It was time to reboot Rovio and start with a new strategy,” says Angry Birds’ lead programmer, Tuomo Lehtinen. “And iPhone and App Store was a key part in it.”

It struck gold almost immediately. Lehtinen recalls the moment Angry Birds designer Jaakko Iisalo came up with the idea. “One night at home he got this crazy idea of a flock of angry birds ramming through buildings,” he says. “He made a concept picture out of it that was immediately liked in the company. It had some magic in it.”

Our designer got this crazy idea of a flock of angry birds ramming through buildings.

Tuomo Lehtinen, Angry Birds programmer

The original Angry Birds concept designs share many of the features that made the game such a hit.

Rovio had found its new heroes. Red, Blues and Chuck – characters that would go on to become series regulars – were all there, in that first mock-up.

But it was still missing something. The game still needed antagonists, and unusually, the team settled on bright green pigs. Why?

“We needed them to be easily spotted from the buildings,” says Lehtinen. “Also that happened to be the time when swine flu was just going around, so we made them green. Then the story about pigs stealing eggs was added to explain why the birds are angry and why the pigs have to be popped.”

That happend to be the time when swine flu was going around, so we made the pigs green.

Angry Birds’ pigs have become some of the most recognisable villains in gaming.

The first demo of Angry Birds asked players to hold their finger over the birds themselves and “flick” them across the screen. It felt a little clumsy.

“Adding the slingshot helped the game a lot,” says Lehtinen. “Combined with the touchscreen of the iPhone, which was still pretty new at the time, it was simple for anyone to pick up and play.”

A tiny development team of just five people finished the game. It was a smash, of course, and after a string of spin-offs including Seasons, Space, GO, Epic and some fun tie-ins with big brands such as Star Wars™ and Transformers, in 2015 it was time to revisit the original for a proper sequel.

The original game led to a number of spin-offs, including Angry Birds GO! (top) and Angry Birds Epic (bottom).

Angry Birds 2 would reflect just how much the App Store landscape had changed since the first game arrived. “Players were expecting a different kind of experience,” says Angry Birds 2 product lead Måns Wide. “More and more the focus became making a game that was fun forever.”

Angry Birds 2 has seen the original ideas bolstered by new gameplay options.

Even now, Rovio is still adding fun new quirks to the game. New characters like the Hatchlings and a steady stream of new features (and hats) make the game feel alive.

Angry Birds 2 has all the hallmarks of a modern, constantly evolving game, and yet the essence of that original title remains. Plenty has changed since Angry Birds flung itself into the world’s consciousness in 2009, but the basic thrill remains the same: smashing things up with a flock of angry avians remains really satisfying.

The world of Angry Birds

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