Angry Birds, the mobile gaming juggernaut that just passed the 100 million download milestone, is on track to be the most popular mobile app ever. The company just secured $42 million in investment capital, which will be used to bring the game to new platforms (including Facebook and Google) and extend the brand into more traditional media (including the possibility of a feature film). The game, which cost just $140,000 to develop, has already yielded $70 million.
But Rovio, the Finnish company behind the game, isn’t resting on its laurels. At a panel discussion at SXSW last Spring Rovio CEO Peter Vesterbacka all but pronounced console gaming dead, arguing that console games cost too much, both in terms of development and cost to consumer.
But low price point alone doesn’t begin to explain why the game is so popular and addictive. Fortunately, a user experience engineer named Charles Mauro broke down the game in terms of its cognitive appeal. His findings may help explain why users worldwide spend some 200 million hours a day playing Angry Birds:
Just Simple Enough. Mauro’s praises the game for the simplicity of its design and the player interaction. But he’s careful to add that what sets Angry Birds apart is the fact that it brings the necessary elements of engagement to this simplicity. How? By making us think. “It is engaging, in fact addictive, due to the carefully scripted expansion of the user’s mental model of the strategy component and incremental increases in problem/solution methodology.”
All In Due Time. While Angry Birds is by no means a slow game, Mauro points out that the developers didn’t simply make it as fast as was possible. Again, what makes it appealing is that users have some time to contemplate. “This response time of 3-5 seconds, in most user interfaces, brings users to the point of exasperation, but not with Angry Birds. Again, really smart response time management gives the user time to relax and think about how lame they are compared to their 4 year old who is already at the 26th level. It also gives the user time to structure an error correction strategy (more arc, more speed, better strategy) to improve performance on the next shot.”
The Magical Mystery Tour. Like an good form of entertainment, Angry Birds is full of mysteries. “Why are tiny bananas suddenly strewn about in some play sequences and not in others? Why do the houses containing pigs shake ever so slightly at the beginning of each game play sequence? Why is the game’s play space showing a cross section of underground rocks and dirt?” Mauro doesn’t answer these questions because answering them is not the point. The fact that they are present and that users are forced to consider them means that they are more deeply engaged in the experience.
That Sounds About Right. While references to “avian dialogue” may strain Mauro’s credibility a tad, his argument that the audio effects make the game more engaging are sensible, especially if you’ve ever played the game with your device set to mute. “The audio in Angry Birds serves to enhance the user’s experience by mapping tightly to the user’s simple mental model of conflict between the angry birds and the loathsome pigs. This concept, known in film production as ‘action syncing’, provides enhanced levels of the feedback for users at just the right time.”
You’ve Got The Look. Mauro’s least persuasive argument comes when he attempts to explain the visual appeal of the game, which he describes as “a combination of ‘high-camp cartoon’ with a bit of greeting card graphics tossed in for good measure.” After arguing that visual design is as much about the appropriateness of the attributes that are presented as it is about being either good or bad, he falls back on the age-old cliche that you know it when you see it. And with Angry Birds, he most definitely sees it. And, apparently, so do 100 million other users across the globe.
Why Angry Birds Is So Successful And Popular: A Cognitive Teardown Of The User Experience, by Charles L. Mauro