NOVEMBER 30, 2010
Why We Can't Stop Playing
Angry Birds is dominating the best-selling-applications charts for Apple's iPhone.
Not since the invention of bacon and eggs has the collision of fowl and swine tasted so good.
A game called Angry Birds is dominating the best-selling-applications charts for Apple's iPhone with a simple, whimsical premise: Players turn different species of scowling birds into projectiles with which to crush a collection of grunting pigs scattered around various ramshackle structures. More than 12 million copies of Angry Birds have been sold since it went on sale late last year, most of them 99-cent downloads for iPhones and iPod touches, according to Rovio Mobile Ltd., the Finnish company that created the game.
Casual games are defined by the ease with which they can be picked up, including by players bewildered by more complex "hardcore games" for PCs and consoles, with their intricate story lines and controls. The category spans early sensations like Tetris, the Russian-made puzzle game for PCs and consoles from the 1980s, to Bejeweled, a decade-old shape-matching game that is still in wide use in mobile devices. The average mobile-game player is 45 years old and nearly as likely to be female as male, according to a survey last year of more than 1,100 customers of AT&T's wireless service sponsored by PopCap Games, the maker of Bejeweled and other titles. When asked where they play mobile games, the top answer from respondents to the survey, conducted by Information Solutions Group, was while waiting for an appointment.
Angry Birds has attracted an unusually high-brow roster of fans. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has said he plays the game on his iPad, according to Andy Payne, chairman of a British games-industry trade group, who spoke to Mr. Cameron at a group dinner in September. (A spokeswoman for the prime minister didn't return a request for comment.) The author Salman Rushdie in a recent radio interview called himself "something of a master at Angry Birds." And comedian Conan O'Brien posted a YouTube video recently to promote his new talk show, in which he boasts that he's on level four of Angry Birds.
Angry Birds falls into a category known in the industry as "physics-based games," in which basic actions like falling and ricocheting provide the underlying challenge and fun of a game. Players use their fingers on the iPhone or iPad's touch-sensing screens to adjust the tension and angle of a slingshot loaded with a bird, with the goal of maximizing the damage the avian missiles cause to the pigs.
Another physics-based game at the top of the App Store's charts is Cut the Rope. Players must figure out how to deliver a piece of candy dangling from various cords into the mouth of a sweet-hungry monster called the Om Nom. Cutting the cords in the proper order swings the candy into the creature's mouth.
Amber Strocel, a 34-year-old stay-at-home mom in Coquitlam, British Columbia, got hooked on Angry Birds a few months ago when she got an iPhone and has often played it while waiting for dinner to cook. Ms. Strocel, who says she hadn't played a game in years before Angry Birds, says she's amused by the game's characters, especially the mix of laughs and grunts that the pigs emit when she fails to hit them with birds. "They kind of kind of mock you," she says. "There's an appeal to that."
Players' infatuation with games like Angry Birds can end as quickly as it starts, often when the novelty of a game's features wears off. Ms. Strocel recently dumped Angry Birds for another reason: She completed all its levels. "It was fun while it lasted," she says.
A Field Guide to Angry Birds
Mikael Hed, chief executive of Angry Birds-developer Rovio, says the game's success is "really the sum of all of its parts," including the edgy-but-cute characters, amusing sound effects and simple rules. Rovio started in early 2009 with a rough idea of the protagonists it wanted to feature—a cast of stern-looking birds. It decided to make the game's villains a group of sickly-looking green pigs, in homage to the swine-flu pandemic then grabbing headlines. The reason the birds are so angry with the pigs, according to the back story of the game, is that the pigs swiped the birds' eggs to cook them up.
Rovio spent about $100,000 on the original Angry Birds and has invested more in new game levels that it offers, free, through updates to the game, a Rovio spokesman says.
Fueled by word of mouth, the game landed on the best-seller chart for Apple's App Store for Finland late last year. In February, when Apple made Angry Birds a staff pick in the U.K. App Store, sales exploded, Mr. Hed says. A couple of months later, the game became a best-selling paid app in the U.S. App Store, he says.
Like many casual games, Angry Birds uses positive reinforcement to make players feel good when they succeed: After a player lays waste to all the pigs on a level of the game, a raucous wave of cheers goes up. Other than the gentle mocking of the pigs, Mr. Hed says, "our game doesn't really punish players."
Game designers say this type of "reward system" is a crucial part of the appeal of casual games like Angry Birds. In Bejeweled 2, for example, players have to align three diamonds, triangles and other shapes next to each other to advance in the game. After a string of successful moves, a baritone voice announces, "Excellent!" or "Awesome!"
"That's a big part of" the game's success, says Jason Kapalka, chief creative officer of PopCap. "You're getting this unambiguous encouragement." PopCap estimates Bejeweled has garnered more than $350 million in sales and sold more than 50 million units since coming out a decade ago.
The length of the typical casual-game-playing session was less than 15 minutes, according to the survey of mobile-phone users. The survey also found that the primary benefit respondents said they got from playing was a "distraction from the issues of daily life."
In the 2008 study, sponsored by PopCap, 134 players were divided into groups playing Bejeweled or other casual games, and a control group that surfed the Internet looking for journal articles. Researchers, who measured the participants' heart rates and brain waves and administered psychological tests, found that game players had significant improvements in their overall mood and reductions in stress levels, according to Carmen Russoniello, director of the Psychophysiology Lab and Biofeedback Clinic at East Carolina University's College of Health and Human Performance in Greenville, N.C., who directed the study.
In a separate study, not sponsored by PopCap, Dr. Russoniello is currently researching whether casual games can be helpful in people suffering from depression and anxiety.
Write to Nick Wingfield at firstname.lastname@example.org
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