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Angry Birds maker Rovio also plans to open branded retail stores in China soon.
Angry Birds maker Rovio also plans to open branded retail stores in China soon.

How Angry Birds became a cultural touchstone Add to ...

To get a sense of the size and scope of the Angry Birds empire, consider the partners its Finnish creators have lined up to promote its latest product launch: Wal-Mart, National Geographic and, er, NASA.

The new game is called Angry Birds Space, and moves the now-familiar Angry Birds concept – use a slingshot to catapult birds at embattled pigs; repeat – into a zero-gravity environment. Wal-Mart is staging a scavenger hunt of sorts that unlocks extra levels for those who buy tie-in whatnots. National Geographic is producing an Angry Birds-themed “educational” book about the wonders of space, and, presumably, of Angry Birds.

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Which brings us to NASA. The space agency, which is short of exciting new ventures just now, had one of their astronauts make a video from the International Space Station: a physics lesson involving a plush Angry Bird and a balloon pig. The results, alas, are inchoate. The astronaut’s dignity seems to have floated off somewhere and he can’t quite find it. (NASA can’t even launch humans into space any more – it outsources that to the Russians – so apparently a wooden slingshot is as good as it’s got.)

What does it take to get NASA, Wal-Mart and National Geographic to hitch their brands to a game that revolves around flinging birds at pigs? It might be the realization that we’re witnessing something that only happens every generation. There have been plenty of iconic, commercially spun games over the years, but only rarely does a game appear that’s potent enough to legitimize a whole new kind of gaming, drive a tie-in industry and become a cultural touchstone. With well over 500 million downloads, Angry Birds has become not just an app, but a driver in the hardware industry. It’s seminal: Twenty-seven years ago, a game called Super Mario Bros. upended expectations and defined an industry, and gave popular culture indelible characters, too. Now, it’s finally got a true heir.

Angry Birds has been with us for less than three years. Originally designed for iPhones, its rise coincided with the widespread adoption of Android phones, which blew the smartphone market open, and, later, iPads and the Android tablets that followed.

In fact, you could say it proved to be the “killer app” of the touch-screen era – the piece of software that brings a piece of new hardware to its full potential. For instance, when the Apple Macintosh appeared, it was regarded as a bit of a toy until desktop-publishing software gave it a purpose. Similarly, Halo was the killer app that turned Microsoft's XBox into a killer product.

In 1985, the Nintendo Entertainment System appeared in North America, and every unit came with a copy of Super Mario Bros. Every 8-year-old who found a Nintendo under the Christmas tree in 1987 was playing the game by Boxing Day. The two products were functionally symbiotic: The original Nintendo was a revelation – home video-game systems had been a sorry affair up to that point – but it was Super Mario’s violent whimsy that made the whole system addictive.

The game was simple enough to pick up and play, hard enough to frustrate for months, simple in storyline yet rich in narrative – after all, an awful lot happens to Mario in dogged pursuit of saving the proverbial princess. In the end, more than 40 million copies were sold – an astounding number for an era where a much smaller slice of the population was playing video games.

Warp ahead to 2009, when the market for touch-screen apps kicked into high gear. Plenty of mobile games had been made, though many top sellers were reworkings of button-based classics like Tetris and Pac-Man. Then along came Angry Birds.

Like Super Mario before it, Angry Birds uses a tiny vocabulary of animations and sound effects to create a world fit to fill imaginations and line store shelves. It doesn’t dally around with plot or dialogue. The storyline is just a premise, offering that a band of green pigs has stolen the birds' eggs, and in so doing, triggered the vendetta the player is about to pursue.

It’s not much, but if you give an audience the right material, they’ll fill in the blanks. The Angry Birds’ wingless, legless helplessness, hell-bent approach to homeland defence and dyspeptic squawking proved hopelessly evocative. (One of the delights of this series is that the protagonists are a little too angry to be entirely sympathetic.) The game’s infuriated bird noises, which sound suspiciously like drunken software engineers, have become as recognizable as the decades-old sound of Mario eating a mushroom.

Moreover, Angry Birds showed consumers that playing games on touch-screen devices doesn’t have to be a derivative experience. The game was built from the ground up for touch screens, replacing button-mashing with one-finger flicks, and it made a compelling proposition for smartphone owners: For a measly dollar, their workaday handset could run an addictive, all-the-rage piece of software which couldn’t be had on any other device. It rebranded smartphones into a place to get great games first, not last. Its price wasn’t in the dollar people spent on the download; it was in the hours of their lives that vanished thereafter.

Rovio, the game’s creator, bullishly predicts that downloads could top two billion by the end of the year. ( Angry Birds Space alone has garnered more than 10 million downloads in less than a week.) The game’s influence on the industry became such that Rovio’s decision not to release Angry Birds Space on Windows phones is being read in the news as a blow to Microsoft’s entire platform.

Angry Birds isn’t just a faddishly popular game; it’s a franchise that’s driving technology. Twenty-seven years from now, Mario might have given up on the princess and settled down with someone a bit more practical, but I’ll wager that the Angry Birds will still be letting their eggs get stolen. With sales like this, they’d be fools not to.

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