无论是在坐飞机、地铁的途中，还是在超市排队买单时，我们随处都能看到不少人在玩《愤怒的小鸟》（游戏邦注：它已成为继《英雄本色》之后的又一芬兰电子游戏代表作）。这款手机游戏目前下载量已经超过3.5亿次，它的遍及度如此之高并不令人意外。该游戏芬兰开发商Rovio最广为人知的面孔当属号称“通关神鹰”的Peter Vesterbacka（游戏邦注：他是在这款游戏成为热门大作之后才正式加入了Rovio团队），但鲜有人了解这款游戏背后的核心创意人员——创造了小鸟、游戏概念的Jaakko isalo。
我们之前没有广告旗帜，如果你观察我们的销售高峰，就会发现这与其他App Store开发商没有什么不同。当苹果注意到我们的时候，我们就在App Store挂出了旗帜广告，然后销售就一路飙升。我们确实花了不少时间让游戏在应用商店获得曝光度。
这个产业看起来非常不错。芬兰游戏产业之前的代表作是《英雄本色》，后来沉寂了一段时间，但最近又开始复兴了。不少开发团队已经推出了一系列叫座的好游戏，例如Housemarque的《Super Stardust HD》，以及RedLynx的《Trials HD》。
《Alan Wake》（游戏邦注：由Remedy Entertainment开发）也是一款好游戏。数字渠道为这里的游戏产业打开了一扇大门，在我看来，这一行的情况发展前景很乐观。政府部门也逐渐意识到应该加强对游戏行业的扶持力度。
Meet the man behind Angry Birds
Jaakko Iisalo tells us how Rovio made the world’s most successful mobile game.
No matter if you’re in an aeroplane, on the Tube or waiting in the queue at the supermarket, people everywhere are playing Angry Birds. With over 300 million downloads racked up to date, the series’ ubiquity should be no surprise. The public face of Rovio, the Finnish studio behind Angry Birds, is often the ‘mighty eagle’ Peter Vesterbacka, who joined the company after the avian-themed physics challenge became a hit. Little is known of the game’s small development team and of thirtysomething Jaakko Iisalo, who created both the birds and the game’s concept.
As with so many people who comprise the Scandinavian game industry, Iisalo got his start in the demoscene composing tracker music, creating graphics and writing code, before moving on to designing games. Now he’s one of the creative forces behind a franchise that has become Finland’s biggest videogame export since Max Payne. We sit down with Iisalo as he takes some time off from his busy schedule in his hometown of Helsinki.
You worked as a musician and graphic artist during the late ’90s and early 2000s – when did videogames enter the picture?
I’ve always loved games. I’ve got about 60 boardgames at home and I own every console out there. I was a huge Nintendo fan as a child. Kids in school had a nickname for me: ‘Nintendo-Jaska’. I remember that when we went on this school field trip, the girls were teasing me that I wasn’t going to able to play games for a while, but then I got a Game Boy, so problem solved.
I kind of missed the PlayStation era and I came back into gaming via the GameCube – and I’ve always played games on the PC. I do play all the modern games like Dragon Age II and Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare, but they just require so much time, which I don’t have.
Do you think there’s any particular Nintendo influence in your design work for Angry Birds?
I think Angry Birds is very Nintendo-like in many ways. Nintendo’s games are always easily approachable and they tend to be quite relaxed and happy by nature. Their games always concentrate on the core gameplay mechanic and making sure that the gameplay experience is an enjoyable one, so the way Nintendo makes games is the way I want to make games as well.
How did you come up with the game concept at the heart of Angry Birds?
We had a really small team and simply set out to make the best game we could. We had the opportunity to make one more game, as Rovio didn’t have any more money left.
I pitched lots of ideas when we thought about what kind of game we wanted to make. I had dozens and dozens of game ideas with various characters. The birds were originally part of a different concept. I had created a piece of concept art featuring the birds – which everybody loved at the studio – so we settled on using them.
The way that I design games is by drawing pictures. I have to see how the game looks in order to understand it. I try to visualise the gameplay for myself, and drawing it helps. It gives me a feel for what the game’s about. We spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of game we could make that could be a hit. We looked at a lot of games on the web, such as Flash-based games, and we studied what kind of games people liked to play. We wanted to minimise the risks, so to speak, and go with what seemed to work for people. Two-dimensional physics-based games were really popular at the time, especially the kind of games where you launched something in the air.
So we decided on that genre and then put the birds that everyone liked into the game. We got the publishing deal for Angry Birds based on that single piece of concept art.
What was the logic in pitting birds against pigs? And why did you design the birds to work as projectiles – surely they can fly?
I’ve always been a bit strange with my ideas [laughs]. I thought that having something a bit offbeat and unexpected would be a good thing. In this case that meant using the birds as projectiles, which I thought was something that would be weird in a good way. Once we settled on having a game where you shoot at something, everything came together quickly. We required an enemy and for some reason I’ve been drawing pigs for a long time. When my mother saw Angry Birds, she wasn’t too surprised; she just said that I’ve been drawing pigs since I was in school. So when we thought about enemies for the birds, the pigs came in quite naturally. I tried to make them a bit less piglike, which is why they’re green and feature round ears. I like cute, but I didn’t want them to be too obviously cute. I always try to avoid doing what people expect or doing something that’s very familiar. You always have to try to come up with some kind of new twist on things, even if it’s just some small thing.
Rovio had shipped 51 games prior to Angry Birds, and you had worked on some of those, as well as on several mobile games at other companies. What did you learn from those games that you were able to utilise in Angry Birds?
Well, by making games, you learn the realities of game development and you gain the knowhow of what works and what doesn’t. I was a graphic artist on most of those games, while others did the gameplay design.
I consider myself a hardcore gamer, and in the casual space you have to learn certain realities. You have to make things incredibly simple – you have to present mechanics that are immediately obvious. Even simple gameplay mechanics can be very confusing for casual players.
Very few players even look at the tutorials we have in the game. They just tap the screen to get to the action. It’s challenging to even explain the basics, such as how the little blue bird splits into three when you tap the screen. People don’t even get that – I so often see players just launching the blue bird and never tapping again to split it up! [Laughs.] When you see the game, you immediately have to understand how it works.
Is that why you added the slingshot?
Yes. We didn’t originally have it in the game. I thought we were fine just having an onscreen arrow that you used to launch the bird.
That sounds like a very Scandinavian, non-visual, engineer type of approach.
True, but even when we put the slingshot in, I kept thinking how that would make sense and fit into the bigger picture. Then again, everybody understands how a slingshot works; you don’t have to explain it.
One of the most important visual elements in Angry Birds is the flight path of the previously launched bird, which stays onscreen and helps players to adjust the following bird’s path. Was this something that was always part of the design?
No, that’s another feature that we didn’t have from the beginning. The team came up with that, just as it did with the arrow button that allows you to skip to the next level. We didn’t have that in before our programmer came up with it. In hindsight, it seems like such an obvious thing to have, something that allows you to quickly get to the next level, but while making games you end up working in a bubble of sorts and don’t always realise the obvious.
Rovio has released constant updates and new levels for Angry Birds, while retaining a high level of quality. Can you still keep the gameplay experience fresh without losing the simplicity?
It’s getting tougher when there are so many new levels published, but we don’t just churn them out. Every single level we create has to have an idea or some sort of unique gimmick behind it. It can be something very little, such as a visual element that we repeat and sort of turn into the level’s theme to give it a unique personality.
Sometimes you just come up with an idea, but mostly it really comes from trying out different things. You just keep iterating and finding elements that you can turn into a new type of gameplay. Every episode we bring out has to offer something unique – new materials such as the sand and balloons in Angry Birds Rio, for example, and the snow in the Angry Birds Seasons Christmas episode.
Every level also has an ideal way of completing it so that you can attain all three stars. For the casual gamers, they don’t care – they just want to get to the next level – but if you’re one of the hardcore out there, you can go for the three stars [on each level].
What were your expectations for Angry Birds when its development was finished?
I was just happy that I finally got to make a game that I felt good about. That was enough for me. A videogame is a personal thing, but it’s also a commercial product, so you hope others like what you have created.
When you make a game, you get to a point where it finally becomes fun to play. When we made the game and people in the office started playing it, they stuck with it for at least 15 minutes at a time and others would gather to see someone playing. Then everybody starts to play it and really like it – and then you know you’re on to something. I remember that before we shipped, our COO Niklas Hed gave the game to his mother to try out. She never plays games, but she played it for hours and she loved it.
We had very little user-testing. We just made a game that we all liked. We really emphasised extremely accurate touchscreen controls because we definitely didn’t want to have any sort of onscreen joypad. I hate those. The amount of downloads we’ve gotten is crazy. I thought one million downloads was amazing. Then you get to 100 million and it just keeps going… It’s difficult for me to grasp. When I’m at the office or at home, nothing’s really changed; you just keep working away. I love making games, so of course it’s a great feeling when others enjoy your work.
Is there any formula or checklist of features that increases your chance of success on mobile? How much is success due to happenstance and how much is it due to manipulating platforms such as the App Store?
A lot of it’s down to luck and timing. Like I said, we did spend time looking at what was popular on the casual gaming side to try to minimise the risk of failure. I think that’s something you can repeat to some extent. If you look at the success of Tiny Wings – which is a great game – there were quite a few very similar Flash-based games around before it arrived on mobile devices.
Once you find something that seems like people could like it, you have to take that and improve it – make it somehow unique and better than the competition. Of course, that’s not necessarily enough.
We had no advertising banners. If you look at our sales spike, it’s very familiar to anyone who has dealt with the App Store. Once Apple took notice of us and we got the banner in the App Store, our sales skyrocketed. We did spend a lot of time getting there in order to gain that visibility in the store.
You have to have a product that has legs once the initial sales spike is over. Once we knew we’d get that visibility in the store, we created the first story trailer and released it. We tried to take as much advantage of the visibility as we could. You have to have a great idea for a game. It has to have heart and soul. For me, that’s the most important thing. I see a lot of technically great games, but they have no soul and the content is lacking.
The characters in Angry Birds are super-important. I think the characters are almost more important than the game. Of course, nobody would know the characters if it wasn’t for the game, but once it ships and takes off, it’s the characters that are associated with the brand.
You were working at Rovio when it had shrunk to nine people and could only afford to create one more game. Now the company’s grown to over 150 employees and Angry Birds has become a global phenomenon. How has life changed for you professionally?
You know, not that much. Obviously, I don’t know every employee any more. We have our game development area, which is separate from the merchandising and marketing folks. When we only had a few people, communication was far easier and things were more personal, but now we’re more like a well-oiled machine.
I used to create all of the levels myself, but now I have a team creating them. Whenever we have a version of the game shipping on some new device, I still play the builds from beginning to end to make sure that everything is as it should be, as I know the game inside out.
It’s nice to be in an important position, but then you end up doing a lot of random stuff instead of coming up with new ideas, which had me quite miserable for a while. Lately, we’ve been able to accommodate things so that I have more time to be creative and think of new ideas, which I feel great about.
Rovio is staffing up a console development team, presumably to expand Angry Birds’ reach even farther, but will the company ever work on another IP?
It wouldn’t hurt! I’m sure in the long run we want to, but we have to find something that’s going to be really good. Angry Birds is the hot thing right now and pays the bills, so of course we’ll make more. We want to be on every platform – tablets and so on. We want Angry Birds on everything.
I think we are only at the beginning. We can expand the franchise and make different Angry Birds games, kind of like how Mario has expanded into all these different genres. There’s a lot of potential to make different games with these characters and I’m really interested in doing that.
Do you eventually want to work on more traditional videogames on a bigger scale, on Xbox 360 or PS3?
Not really. I’m more into the indie stuff such as Super Meat Boy. I would love to do something along the lines of the PixelJunk games. Triple-A games require hundreds of people and you can’t control every aspect of the game, which is what I want. I’d love to have a small team that could spend a while working on a game.
What would you say are the pros and cons of developing and selling on Android and iPhone?
The iPhone is a closed platform with very few devices and with centralised sales. That makes it easy for us. Developing for Android reminds me of working with Java games back in the day. You have to port the game to machines with different specs and different display sizes, so it’s a more complicated platform to work on.
Then again, it’s an open platform, and there are benefits to that as well. Still, selling on the Android platform is just much more complicated – which is why we give the game away for free on Android platforms and generate our revenue via advertising.
The game development scene in Finland feels vibrant right now, with many new startups and investment coming through thanks to the success of games such as Angry Birds and Trials HD. How do you see the Finnish game industry as a whole?
It looks really good. We had success a while ago with Max Payne, and then we hit a bit of a dry period – but now it seems that we’re on a roll. Quite a few development teams have been able to generate hits, such as Housemarque with Super Stardust HD, and of course Trials HD [developed by RedLynx] has been huge.
Alan Wake [from Remedy Entertainment] was good, too. Digital distribution has really opened the doors here, and, to me, the scene feels really good. The government has also slowly begun to understand that our industry is something that should be supported.
What are Finnish developers doing differently or better than they were before?
Our strength has always been technology, but what really has changed is the attitude. We used to have a bunch of nerds like me making the kind of old-school games we wanted to make without any consideration of the fact that we were working on a commercial product. That’s changed.
We understand that this is a business and that we’re making games for an audience. Now that we have had success stories, developers’ eyes have opened as to what can work out and what can’t.
I keep coming back to the fact that you have to have a game with a soul. Someone has to have a strong vision for what the game is about. You get nowhere by just copying and producing a lifeless clone. There just aren’t a lot of folks out there with fresh, good ideas. Just look at the number of Angry Birds clones that are out there.（source:next-gen）