I have recently been hosting a series of fireside chats at Storm8 (maker of F2P mobile games such as Candy Blast Mania and Restaurant Story 2). My guests are people who have made large contributions to mobile game development and want to give back to the community by sharing their thoughts on best practices.
My first chat was Peter Vesterbacka. His job title is ‘Mighty Eagle’ at Rovio Entertainment, which really means that he’s heading efforts to find new key partners and grow the brand.
I started by asking how their company managed to become the first to launch a piece of software via an announcement made from the International Space Station.
Peter explained that while initially brainstorming for ideas for the launch of Angry Birds Space, they were considering all things “space,” including candy brands, toys, and monuments. They pursued several of the more promising high-risk opportunities, hoping one of them would pay off. In the end, the game was launched together with help from the Space Needle in Seattle (which was turned into a giant slingshot for the occasion) as well as NASA.
Other examples of large-scale stunts included turning the skyline of Shanghai green for the launch of Bad Piggies, or organizing a concert in Moscow’s Red Square. He explained that their goal was to “own” a color for those brands: green for the pigs, red for the bird. This made brand recognition easier and created a potential narrative for tie-ins that would not normally connect with the brand. For example, it facilitated the leap in thinking that Red Square could be used as a way to promote an update to Angry Birds that focused on the red bird. In this view, the game’s characters (the birds and the pigs), are not simply protagonists, but means to create awareness.
Building a brand strategy
Vesterbacka explained that the reason behind such stunts is because Rovio’s approach is all about the brand. In 2016, the company is focusing their effort to promote the animated movie. The company managed to gather 40 million views for the trailer via their own in-game and social channels, much more than expected via traditional channels. Basically, the company thinks of their games, movies, consumer products, and publicity stunts as ways to promote their brand, rather than as separate business entities. Part of the reason for this is, unlike the music and the movie industry, game developers have not figured out how to make hits consistently. He explained that this strategy enables them to be more iterative, and then go all in once they find a hit.
Brand as a competitive advantage
Every day, hundreds of games are released. Supply exceeds demand. Games can stand out via various means, but Vesterbacka explained that he sees brand development as a long-term advantage. Rather than betting on one offering, it enables building awareness and then iterating via many different categories. Launching a game and doing marketing stunts is not a separate activity. It’s part of sustaining the business.
In his view, the company should try to have an offering for everyone, regardless of age or gender demographics. For example, Angry Birds Go is the company’s take on the Cars category that is dominated by Disney, extending their brand so that it can reach this market. Their recent efforts with Stella are more skewed towards categories like Disney Princesses. For the launch of their new game Love Rocks, the creation of the three teaser videos was as much about promoting the game as it was to explain the brand’s identity: “Not a bird game.”
Vesterbacka explained that expansion needs to cater for cultural aspects as well. The company has a brand-centric take on doing soft launches. It can’t simply be for user acquisition or a localization effort. Making a game for China requires promotion from local celebrities, working partners and doing local promotion.
For example, Angry Birds Fight is a game that was built for the Japanese market in mind. It was developed by Kiteretsu, a local developer that had a lot of success with the Zookeeper Battle series. But the game was developed in a way that could be scaled internationally. The company has satellite offices in Tokyo, Shanghai, Seoul and Santa Monica, where they hire locals to help them understand the market. If those games are successful locally, they will then be scaled.
Few brands enjoy the brand awareness of the Angry Birds franchise. In achieving large-scale publicity stunts, Rovio has demonstrated that a mobile game developer can grow their product not only via traditional marketing but, in fact, grow new categories and reach even further. Whether or not the brand-centric model is appropriate for most games, it is valuable to reflect on how to make sure your game resonates with as many fans as it deserves.