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Mobile Innovation, Angry Birds, and Furry Animals: A Q&A with Peter Vesterbacka

May 2, 2012

Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

One of Time's most influential people, Rovio's Mighty Eagle Peter Vesterbacka recently sat down with Spark's Liya Sharif in his signature red hoodie to chat about innovation, mobile gaming, and of course, Angry Birds and mean pigs. Check out his story below, edited for length and clarity. 


QUALCOMM SPARK: How does entrepreneurship shape innovation and invention?

VESTERBACKA: I think a lot of the innovation happening is coming from the start-ups, from the smaller companies. It’s a little bit like the dinosaurs and the small furry animals, so obviously the small furry animals are the ones that will inherit the planet. I think you see the future corporations, the future big players emerging from that space. That’s where almost all innovation is happening. Most big organizations are fairly incapable of creating disruptive change or disrupting innovation, which is very important for us at Rovio. So we work closely with the start-up community and still consider ourselves a start-up.

Of course we’ve come a long way as a business, but there’s still that mentality of being able to do, you know, pretty much whatever it takes and really go change the world. That’s very much part of the start-up scene and entrepreneurship.

QUALCOMM SPARK: Let’s talk a little about Rovio before Angry Birds — and even Angry Birds Space, which just hit 50 million downloads. I'm sure there were some failures. What made these ventures fail and what made Angry Birds such a success? 

VESTERBACKA: You always learn the most from failure, and we created 51 games before Angry Birds. Angry Birds was the 52nd but I wouldn’t say that everything before that was a failure; it was just that it was under different market conditions. Of course not all of the games were amazing, but some were.

It was just impossible for us, a small start-up, to get them distributed. So when the App Store popped up and all of the sudden we had access to distribution, it was more up to us to make the games successful. We were not dependent on some of the big guys taking a liking to the games. So I think that was the big thing that really changed the market, not only for us, but for a lot of the independent game developers. We started Rovio in 2003, and it took a few years to learn. But again, you learn everyday and then you just need to apply that learning and you know make better games, make better products.

QUALCOMM SPARK: Is everyone on the planet just wasting time playing Angry Birds?

VESTERBACKA: No, people are only playing the game for something like two or three hours a month and at the same time watching TV. In the U.S., people watch TV 158.5 hours every month. So we’re still losing to TV big time but at least we’re beating time spent watching individual TV shows. I think it’s much better to play Angry Birds passively -- you know, (while) leaning back and watching TV.

QUALCOMM SPARK: Everybody always talks about the next big thing. What do you think it means to be iconic? 

VESTERBACKA: What we’re really building is an entertainment franchise, so it’s all about Angry Birds the brand and Angry Birds the characters. People really love the birds and love to hate the pigs, so I think that’s emotion, which is very important in entertainment. You really hate when the pigs are laughing at you because you didn’t clear a level. That’s why we built the game and why people fell in love with the characters. It’s been pretty successful but the way we look at it, we’re only getting started. 

QUALCOMM SPARK: Talk a little bit about the development process. What’s it like building a game?

VESTERBACKA: I think that it’s like any creative process--it’s always a team of people working on all these games. It’s (usually) not a single person creating them. There’s a lot of different talents: somebody needs to write the code, create the art, and do the level design. 

On the mobile side you still can have one- or two-person teams that create amazing games, so it’s not like you have to have massive, massive teams, and I think that’s one of the charms of mobile. You don't have to be one of the big guys to be successful and create amazing games. For us it’s actually a very analytical process, and we try to look at every little detail and get everything right--the characters and the whole user experience. It’s a big process with a lot of creativity. People always think that it’s creative and totally disorganized and all of that, but for us at least, it’s a very, very analytical process.

QUALCOMM SPARK: So it’s art and science.

VESTERBACKA: Absolutely, art and science, and it’s a combination of many, many things. When people look at the game creation process, it probably involves more varied skills and different talent than pretty much any other creative process – so much more than making a movie or music or what have you.

QUALCOMM SPARK: How about console gaming versus mobile gaming?

VESTERBACKA: I think that consoles are interesting, so I don't think the consoles are going away. They are more skewed to hardcore games though, so it’s more about making a conscious decision to sit on the couch and play a console game for hours.

Then you have something like Angry Birds on your phone and you basically have a bit of down time--it can be like 30 seconds or like two minutes--to take your phone and play a level and then you’re done with it. So of course people will play these types of games a lot more than they will play console games, but they are not mutually exclusive.

There’s a lot of interesting new technologies like location-based apps and augmented reality, and I think that we’ll see that a lot of this stuff happening on mobile first. Mobile is clearly the center of gravity when it comes to innovation because it’s moving so much faster. New console generations come out every five or six years nowadays, and mobile phones come out every year or even more rapidly. So it’s really a lot faster and, yes, I expect to see some of these new things in gaming happening first on mobile.

QUALCOMM SPARK: What excites you the most in mobile?

VESTERBACKA: I think just the pure scale of things. We know we’re approaching a billion downloads for Angry Birds and that’s just something that hasn’t been possible before, and then we manage to build the fastest growing brand on the planet on the back of that. So it’s something that you just couldn’t do before.

It’s just an amazing platform, and there are so many smart connected devices out there that you can reach a big, big chunk of the planet with that you couldn’t do with any other gaming platform in history, ever before. That really excites me.


This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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Peter Vesterbacka