Angry Birds’ Facebook Launch in Jakarta on Feb. 14
Peter Vesterbacka is serious about standing out in the crowd. Cruising through an ocean of black business suits in a red hooded sweatshirt, this 42-year-old Finn turns heads with his appearance.
After all, it’s not the sort of look you would expect from someone who made Time Magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential People list last year. Vesterbacka is the chief marketing officer of Rovio, the Finnish mobile game developer behind “Angry Birds,” and proud owner of 17 “Angry Birds” sweatshirts, his favorite business attire.
“I’m wearing red for a reason,” Vesterbacka said during an appearance at Jakarta’s Founder Institute on Wednesday. “In marketing, it’s important to stand out.”
It’s an infallible trick; people come up to him and start talking about “Angry Birds,” the addictive mobile game that lets players slingshot a variety of birds at the antagonistic green pigs.
This simple concept is bringing Rovio big bucks. The game, released in 2009, costs 99 cents on Apple’s App Store and sits at more than 500 million downloads across all platforms since last year.
During his short visit to Jakarta, Vesterbacka announced that “Angry Birds” would come to Facebook on Valentine’s Day, in a bid to strive for 1 billion users. The worldwide launch will take place in Jakarta on Feb. 14 and will likely have a life-size game as part of the event.
“Angry Birds” will use Facebook to become even more social, letting players challenge their friends and share their best score.
For Vesterbacka, or “Mighty Eagle” in “Angry Bird” jargon, launching the Facebook app in Jakarta makes sense given Indonesians’ love for social media.
“It’s the Facebook capital of the world,” he said.
But Vesterbacka wants Indonesia to be more than just the launch place of a new app. Future versions of the game will also incorporate Indonesian cultural references like batik.
This won’t be the first time Rovio uses Asian cultural references. Last year, it featured Chinese moon cakes, a traditional dish during the mid-autumn festival, which was welcomed by users.
“It turns out that a lot of players never heard of them [Chinese moon cakes] before,” he said.
“Angry Birds” has come a long way since its App Store debut in December 2009. The game quickly reached 50 million downloads, a number that doubled in just three months thanks to the seasonal versions rolled out regularly.
Rovio had a quiet 2011 with only one release, “Angry Birds Rio,” a tie-in with the animated film “Rio.” Back in the head office, most of the time has been spent on expansion and working on a series of big launches planned for this year, with “Angry Birds” for Facebook just the first. The birds will catapult their way onto new merchandise such as clothes, toys and even cookies. “We are now the most copied brand in China,” Vesterbacka said with some pride.
There is even an unlicensed “Angry Birds” theme park in China where people can play a real-life version of the game. He takes unlicensed products as a good sign.
“It means we are more loved than Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty,” he said.
Disney is both a competitor and something of a role model for Rovio’s expansion. Vesterbacka said it was fascinating how Disney’s global success started with a black-and-white mouse cartoon, followed by more and more characters until the release of “Toy Story” in 1995 by Walt Disney Pictures.
Television is its other competitor in the race for people’s time and attention. Vesterback wants Rovio to become an entertainment giant with a billion fans worldwide.
“We focus on fans, not users or customers, because not all ‘Angry Birds’ lovers have actually played the game,” he said.
Vesterbacka emphasized that the company’s success didn’t happen overnight. “Angry Birds” is the company’s 52nd game and comes after tens of failed and less successful attempts since the company’s foundation in 2003, with only 12 developers. The only exception was “Bounce,” a game for Nokia handsets that enjoyed some popularity. Things began to change when Apple launched the iPhone in 2007.
“The iPhone and the App Store changed everything,” Vesterbacka said, acknowledging Rovio’s debt to Apple for solving developers distribution issues.
The idea of “Angry Birds” came from game designer Jaakko Iisalo. In early versions, it didn’t have any pigs and users struggled to understand the game, but they loved the birds.
Then the swine flu outbreak came and made headlines around the world. Rovio added some sneaky pigs who, according to the story, stole the birds’ eggs, thus making them angry. It took Rovio eight months to finish the first version of “Angry Birds” for Apple’s iOS mobile operating system.
Vesterbacka grew up a gamer and was enamored with anything digital. He dropped out of a marketing major at Finland’s University of Turku in 1989 to work for Hewlett-Packard. There he created Bazaar, a program that connects mobile operators encouraging collaboration on new mobile technologies.
In 2000, he founded Mobile Monday, or MoMo, an informal gathering for people working in Helsinki’s mobile industry. The event soon spread to Tokyo, Silicon Valley and 100 other cities worldwide later on. Vesterbacka also works with Startup Sauna, an accelerator in Helsinki, where he coaches and helps start-ups to make it into the industry.
Vesterbacka said Rovio was brimming with plans, including releasing a new game. But firstit is concentrating on integrating mobile games and entertainment.
“And we plan to add new ‘Angry Birds’ characters, and maybe name them,” Vesterbacka said.
At the moment, the game has around 12 characters, none with names beyond red bird, blue bird, yellow bird or black bird. Vesterbacka also said “Angry Birds” would soon be available on Xbox, PlayStation 3 and Nokia’s new handset, the Asha.
“As a growing company, you have to take advantage of every opportunity,” Vesterbacka said. And that is what Rovio is doing, one bird at a time.