The 2009 swine flu pandemic left a whole bunch of misery, achiness, and used tissues in its wake. It also sparked inspiration at a Finnish game studio called Rovio in the form of a green pig. Born out of a need for a nemesis in a new game series the team was planning (and who doesn't hate the flu?), this sickly-looking porker soon became a pop culture and mobile gaming icon alongside its avian nemeses, the titular Angry Birds.
The first Angry Birds game hit the App Store in 2009, and the franchise seemed unstoppable clear through 2012. Sequels and franchise crossovers with Star Wars and Blue Sky Studios' Rio poured steadily onto the App Store and Google Play. The merchandising was borderline insane. Sure, twenty- and- thirty-somethings grew up eating Nintendo cereal, but kids today can buy Angry Birds duct tape.
When the birds were flying their highest, Rovio's chief marketing officer Peter "Mighty Eagle" Vesterbacka made repeated claims that the Angry Birds had the cultural and earning potential of Disney characters and Nintendo's own Super Mario.
"When Mario drives a car, it becomes Mario Kart," he said at Nokia World panel in 2011. "When Mario flies to space it's Mario Galaxy. Our birds will do things, and go to unexpected places."
Fast-forward. It's 2015. The Angry Birds are still well-recognized, and their games still top the App Store and Google Play download charts. But Rovio's profits are floundering. According to the company's posted earnings, it earned 10 million euros (about $10.7 million USD) before interest and taxes in 2014, down from 36.5 million euros earned in 2013. 16% of the 800-person studio was laid off as a consequence.
It's not hard to understand why Rovio's momentum smacked to halt like a sparrow against a window. Nearly every interview conducted with Vesterpacka through 2011 made it obvious Angry Birds' creators were primarily interested in pushing merchandise.
And push they did. In the meantime, the original Angry Birds concept didn't evolve far beyond some physics tweaks (like the zero-G environments in Angry Birds Space), except when Rovio outright "borrowed" from Nintendo's cache of ideas by plopping the birds into a mediocre cart racer.
Rovio neglected a key rule of toy and game development: Kids get bored very easily. That goes double for mobile games, where the next big (free) thing is just an icon-tap away.
That's not to suggest kids are incapable of sticking with a franchise, but that franchise has to evolve and constantly show off something cool and new. Angry Birds has been around for six years, and it's more or less the same property we were introduced to in 2009.
Now consider where the Super Mario franchise was within six years of its debut. We had Super Mario Bros. 3. We had Super Mario World. Both games take Mario to strange new places and change up his environment and his move set. Both games are still regarded as two of the best action titles of all time.
Mario captured our hearts and imaginations by taking us along with him on his journeys across uncharted territories, and that's something the Angry Birds aren't doing for their own audience.
Rovio's not the only mobile game company that's having problems with stagnation. King has been relying on the popularity of its match-three monster Candy Crush Saga since 2012. Japanese mobile game developer GungHo hasn't been able to produce a franchise that matches the popularity of its own match-three puzzler, Puzzle & Dragons.
By contrast, Nintendo (and other early NES / Famicom developers) never relied on Mario alone to pay the bills. It had Donkey Kong. It had The Legend of Zelda. It had Metroid.
Nintendo also had a guaranteed way of making a profit by pricing its NES games at approximately $49.99 each. Most of the games distributed by large mobile publishers like Rovio, King, and GungHo can be downloaded for free in hopes that some players will cough up some cash by way of in-app purchases.
According to figures distributed by Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDR) at Game Developers Conference 2015, about half the people that download free-to-play fare spend small amounts of money on their games. However, only 6% of players spend $10 or more per month on the mobile games they download.
Those are some pretty tumultuous numbers to run a large game studio on, especially as interest in a title cools off. It's no wonder Rovio pumps out Angry Birds titles at a feverish pace without taking much time to innovate on old ideas.
Indies, Chickens, and Llamas
Though it's tempting to regard Rovio's problems as a sign of ongoing trouble in an unsustainable mobile market, that's not exactly true. Mobile games aren't going anywhere, but maybe we can expect a shift in the future - a switch that causes the big-name studios to scale down while smaller studios evolve and thrive thanks to their maneuverability.
The well-publicized success of Hipster Whale's Crossy Road is one example. The two-person team that created the addictive endless hopper learned that people are far more tolerant of advertising if they get to choose when to view video ads, and if they get a reward for choosing to do so. Early in 2015, Hipster Whale reported it made $1 million through these "rewarding" video ads.
One million dollars is chickenfeed to a studio like Rovio, which has hundreds of employees to pay. But it's more than enough to let a small studio carry on long enough to produce and present their next big idea.
Smaller studios also have the flexibility to change and innovate, much like Nintendo did back during Super Mario's NES years. Mika Mobile's Battleheart, a real-time battle /strategy game released in 2011, features a simple concept and simpler graphics. Its 2014 follow up, Battleheart Legacy, takes a big leap forward with a refined battle system, tons of new content, and revised 3D visuals.
Having room to breathe even allows small studios to make art out of well-trod ideas. Alto's Adventure by Snowman is an endless boarding game, a genre that has admittedly been done, and done, and done. But Alto's Adventure is an awesome experience thanks to its soft mountain colors, its sublime soundtrack, its shift from day to night, and even its premise (you're in a race to round up your runaway llamas. Definitely a change from "Score some rad points, dude!").
The Fun is Out There
When you glance at the state of the mobile games market, it's easy to fret about how we're on a collision course with an event as destructive to the industry as the Crash of '83. We see the App Store's top spots taken up by free-to-play titles that feature the same characters and same ideas repackaged over and over in hopes that fans make enough in-app purchases to keep the studio's lights on. We tend to feel jaded and cynical about mobile games as a result, and comment about how today's titles can't hold a blue candle to the games we grew up with on the NES.
But there are actually talented developers expressing new ideas on mobile, even if the resulting games aren't pitched in video ads and commercials. If you're having a hard time finding something unique for your tablet, forget about bird watching and look for some llamas.