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screen from Angry Birds video game Image: Rovio via Polygon

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Angry Birds continued influencing games long after its big moment

It feels like forever ago, but Angry Birds was once the most popular mobile game

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Crush the Castle is a physics-based Flash game from Armor Games, where players fling rocks at ramshackle castles on the brink of tipping over. It came out in April 2009 to little fan-fare. And then there was Angry Birds. Eight months later, Finnish developer Rovio Entertainment released the birds-vs-pigs game — a similar premise to Crush the Castle, wherein birds fling themselves at increasingly complex structures, knocking out pigs in the process.

Smartphones were still new technology, and game makers were figuring out how to create for touchscreens and cater to an audience eager software that showcased their expensive new investments. Crush the Castle made its iOS debut in 2010, after Angry Birds, but despite delivering on a unique idea — the flinging mechanic, with its precise, tactile controls. It’s visuals were lacking, though; it was bland and dark, with a generic medieval aesthetic. Angry Birds got to smartphones first with its flashy, fun iteration on Crush the Castle, and the iconic birds stuck.

Angry Birds just worked on the iPhone, thanks to easy controls. The tactile feel — launching a bird by dragging and aiming a finger back as if the player was operating a slingshot — made it easy to play and hard to master, with levels scaling up as players made progress. Plus, it had a slapstick humor that appealed to a wide audience. Before there was Untitled Goose Game’s mischievous goose, wingless birds were the devious ones.

“At the time of Angry Bird’s release, developers were still exploring what kind of games would suit the mobile platform,” Rovio chief marketing officer Ville Heijari told Polygon. “Angry Birds really embraced the touch-based nature of new smart devices and presented players with bite-sized gameplay experiences that could be picked up easily. That is something that has remained at the core of mobile gaming — these intuitive, instantly engaging game experiences.”

Angry Birds was released in December 2009, a release date that sets it just barely outside of this decade, but we can’t ignore its influence over the past 10 years. Angry Birds designer Jaakko Iisalo said the game was out for three months before it got featured on the iOS App Store — “suddenly the game went viral,” he wrote in The Guardian in 2016. The initial goal was 100 million sales. “Then we hit two billion,” he wrote. Credit the 99 cent price tag, a revelation when most portable games still cost $30. A lot of people bought it without thinking. Heijari said the game’s success inspired developers “to focus on the mobile platform.”

How the iPhone changed mobile games in the 2010s

The iPhone changed mobile gaming. The iOS App Store, released in 2008, put everything — even third party apps — in a single storefront, one that all iPhone users had access to. It made finding new games to play easy, curated choices added often. (There are downsides to this, too, though: Apple has sole discretion on what appeared on the store.) More importantly, it reduced the friction of player’s spending money and game makers collecting data, both of which were (and continue to be) equally important to the market.

Success on the iOS App Store (and on other mobile platforms) demonstrated how powerful a mobile game could be. The mobile game industry still has its non-believers (ahem, “hardcore” gamers), but Angry Birds was a lesson in how a game could transcend its platform. Angry Birds the game became Angry Birds the franchise. Now, there’s more than two dozen Angry Birds games. There are sneakers. Multiple Angry Birds movies. There are toys, cookbooks, licensed snacks, a theme parks, and TV shows. Peak Angry Birds excitement has, of course, since passed, but, for a moment, it locked into the world’s desire for something. Distraction? Simplicity? In 2012, the writer Sam Anderson wrote in the New York Times that Angry Birds is our generation’s Tetris, “the string of prayer beads that our entire culture can twiddle in moments of rapture or anxiety — economic, political, or existential.”

Angry Birds, and games like it, became embedded in the in between moments, waiting in lines or riding on trains as we hurl birds at makeshift castles — over and over and over again. Angry Birds starts out easy, with structures blowing over like cards. But when the game progresses, it gets progressively harder; wood turns to heavier stone, pigs get helmets for protection, and structures get increasingly complex. Each level is different, and it’s not like a slot machine. You can figure out the ways of game, figure out the weak points of the structures and how to best reach the pigs. It’s hard, and developer Rovio keeps you playing by blurring luck and skill.

And so Angry Birds made its way onto all our phones, which taught us another lesson in existential dread — that our phones, even our games, are watching us. With smartphones, companies had easy access to lots of data, even information a user might not expect. In January 2014, Angry Birds was named as a “leaky” app the National Security Agency and the Government Communication Headquarters wanted to exploit to extract data from users.

“Something as vague and banal-sounding as ‘gameplay data’ is not as obviously salacious as the types of personal data collection we know we should be scandalized by,” the writer Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote for Vox in 2019. “Nobody’s getting your Social Security number from Angry Birds. Nobody’s getting your private messages.”

But Tiffany argued that players should be worried — that gameplay data could give companies value and telling information about its players, like how and when they’re spending their money. Developers can use this information to find more players to spend more money on their games, which is particularly nefarious when these games, designed for people to spend money easily, are marketed towards kids.

Angry Birds itself didn’t have egregious microtransactions, but Angry Birds 2 did. Despite 10 million downloads in a week, Angry Birds 2 was despised by a lot of players for its microtransactions, which have been described as “mildly infuriating” to an “embarrassing cash-grab.” It’s been more than four years since Angry Birds 2 was released, and the fury over its microtransaction system hasn’t necessarily impacted the game’s long-term success. Analytics company Sensor Tower Store Intelligence reported Angry Birds 2 earned “more than $116 million globally” in 2018. Fifty percent of that revenue was from those in-app purchases, more than its revenue the year prior. And that’s not including the success of Angry Birds as a whole.

“We have always looked for new avenues for the Angry Birds brand, seeing how far we can take it,” Heijari told Polygon. “That has lead to great mobile games, but also to selling 1.8 billion consumer products worldwide, and two animated feature films. We always have a tendency to take things too far, doing things that surprise people [...] but we’re still searching for the limit for Angry Birds.”

People are no longer talking about Angry Birds like they used to. Mobile games like Pokémon Go and Fortnite are now the zeitgeist. But the numbers suggest that Angry Birds still has its claws in plenty of players, continually feeding this now gigantic franchise. Of course, It’s changed a lot since 2009. Some of the games and merchandise would be hardly recognizable as part of the original game — but the most iconic part is still on that big ol’ red bird, a character that’s marked itself as an important part of game history — not just the mobile kind.

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