A Twitter Conversation With NASA Led To Angry Birds Space

Angry Birds Space, Rovio Mobile’s first genuinely new game in a year, has some humble origins.

The idea for Angry Birds Space actually originated in a challenge NASA made to Rovio nearly a year ago on Twitter. Asserting that smartphones today have more computing power than the machines that powered the lunar landing in 1969, NASA said it would help Rovio launch birds if pigs could fly in space. (Yes, really.)

A year later, it’s really happening. The Finnish mobile gaming juggernaut attached a giant Angry Birds slingshot to the Seattle Space Needle yesterday and had an astronaut demo the game from the International Space Station two weeks ago. NASA scientists even helped out in designing the physics-engine for the new game.

Inventiveness and spontaneity have made Rovio the company it is today. Hardly anyone working there has a deep marketing background and yet Rovio is pulling off stunts on the Space Needle — for free (thanks to T-Mobile).

“It helps to be a bit crazy,” says the company’s chief marketing officer and Mighty Eagle Peter Vesterbacka. “We’re naive enough not to know what we can’t do.”

The crazy seems to be working. Rovio is probably the most unorthodox mobile gaming company in the industry given its history, revenue mix and ownership. Over time, the company is actually becoming less reliant on pure gaming revenue as it pulls in cash from licensing, merchandising and books. A film and animated shorts are in the works too.

The company plans four more totally new games this year, not counting the usual seasonal releases and the versions of Angry Birds that show up on other platforms like Facebook and Chrome Web Store.

“We want to make Angry Birds a permanent part of pop culture,” Vesterbacka says. He adds, “Last year was about building the infrastructure, and this year we’ll be doing five new games.”

Would this finally include a game from the pig’s perspective? “Maybe. That’s not a bad guess,” he says.

Rovio also has a very unique ownership structure as a family-owned business, given the company’s long history of making 52 failed games before producing Angry Birds and its Scandinavian roots. Kaj Hed, who is the father of Rovio chief executive Mikael Hed, owns close to 70 percent of the company, giving him the power to block outcomes like a sale.

That father-son dynamic has caused tension from time to time over the years. In 2005, the current CEO Mikael Hed left out of a disagreement with his father about how to grow the company and didn’t return until four years later when he was able to lay the groundwork for Angry Birds’ launch in December 2009. The $42 million round the company raised last year was even dubbed the “father liquidity” round by one insider, as the proceeds largely went to cash Kaj Hed out, according to several sources with knowledge of the terms.

“We’re 100 percent sure he’ll do the right thing,” Vesterbacka said of Kaj Hed. “He’s great. He’s very strategic. He’s very smart and he knows what he’s doing.”

As for this year, it’s all about stepping up Rovio’s reach into other mediums and its capacity to produce more games. Last year the company sold 25 million plush toys, ranging from $5 to $99 and it earns a single-digit percentage revenue share from those sales.

The Angry Birds Space launch is also coupled with all kinds of merchandise including a National Geographic book about space and a special edition of News Corp.’s iPad magazine The Daily that explains the development of the game. There’s also a load of Angry Birds Space-themed apparel, plush toys, phones and fruit snacks that are coming to Walmart soon. Hidden on the price tags and packaging are clues that unlock extra levels in the game.

“This is the first time ever that you have a mobile-originated game launching with a full line-up of merchandise at Walmart,” Vesterbacka says. “It’s like a bigger launch than a movie.”

Plus, the company is still an advertising juggernaut with more than 10 billion impressions per month, a number that’s sure to rise with the launch of Angry Birds Space. (I hear the effective cost per thousand impressions for a casual mobile game generally runs from $0.20 to $0.50, so a back of the envelope calculation suggests $2 to $5 million a month in pure ad revenue.)

Rovio is also ramping up in China, where the company has just four employees. While it’s often difficult to build a profitable mobile app business in China because of piracy, jailbroken phones and fragmentation, Vesterbacka is optimistic.

“We’re not there yet, but we’re the most copied brand and most loved brand in China,” he says. “You should be very, very concerned if you don’t have copies in China. That means that there is no interest.” The game is already pre-installed on Lenovo tablets and many kinds of Nokia devices there.

Then there’s the Facebook version of Angry Birds, which is up to 18.1 million monthly active users. Daily active users are holding at around 2.5 million players, putting it just behind EA’s Sims Social on app tracking service AppData.

Vesterbacka says that he’s not worried about exhausting the Angry Birds brand and going the way of Pokemon or Mighty Morphin Power Rangers as a passing childhood fad. He says Angry Birds is a universal brand, not just one for children.

“We don’t feel like we’re anywhere even close. On my way to the U.K., I bumped into four people who had never heard of Angry Birds,” he says. “We’re just scratching the surface. Not everybody knows about Angry Birds and there are 7 billion people on the planet.”

And why stop at Earth?