As Rovio Restructures, Angry Bird Alums Launch Lightneer To Build Learning Games

Last week, when Helsinki-based Angry Birds publisher Rovio confirmed it would cut 213 jobs, it also said it would shut down its education division, with some of its education employees forming a spinoff. Today, an educational gaming startup called Lightneer is launching in Helsinki. It is not the spinoff Rovio had referred to. But that doesn’t make it any less infused with Rovio DNA: Lightneer is co-founded and staffed by Rovio alums, and it’s being backed by “Mighty Eagle” Peter Vesterbacka and Niklas Hed, Rovio’s co-founder.

Lightneer CEO Lauri Järvilehto says that the company is in the process of raising a “substantial” seed round that should be closed in coming weeks, and that it will reveal details of its first game by the end of the year, with the first version of the app to launch in 2016.

It’s a startup worth watching considering that collectively this team has to date been involved with some 50 published titles with collective downloads of 3 billion and revenues of nearly $1 billion.

Lightneer is the brainchild of Järvilehto and Lauri Konttori, respectively the co-creator of Rovio’s now-shuttered learning division and the Rovio’s former creative director. The two have been tinkering with the idea of learning through gameplay for years now and have some very firm ideas of what doesn’t work in many “educational” games today.

Järvilehto — who also founded and directed a think tank called the Helsinki Academy of Philosophy — eschews gamification and the concept of standard learning ushered through branded content. He believes both of them are gimmicky. Instead, the concept here seems to be that the process of playing a game will be the learning experience in itself. He says this idea partly came out of the gameplay of Angry Birds itself.

“We don’t need to gamify learning because games are already learning experiences,” he said. If you gave a copy of Angry Birds to a five year-old, that child would learn the process of the game and its increasing complexity by playing it. “If I were to create a spreadsheet of the parameters to play Angry Birds at level 100, for example, there is a substantial amount of information there.”

The somewhat highbrow approach is also carried through in the startup’s name. “The company’s namesake, Lightneer, alludes to a person who combines the audacity and vision of a philosopher with the practicality and grit of an engineer,” the company notes. 

Järvilehto tells me that the idea for the startup was actually four years in the making — in other words, dating to a time when Angry Birds and Rovio were still riding high.

“Lauri and I had an idea about a particular game that we never were able to make at Rovio,” said Järvilehto. It may have been because of Rovio’s fixation on how to further the Angry Birds brand that the pair’s idea never got the green light. “So we developed a bit of a hobby where we met in the evenings and tried to figure out how the game would work anyway.”

He said that the pieces began to “click together” in June of this year after four years of prototyping. After they showed their work to Vesterbacka and Hed, the pair were enthusiastic to back them and get the ball rolling.

“Lightneer was just one of those all too rare opportunities to support something that feels fresh and vital,” said Niklas Hed in a statement.

In addition to giving financial backing, the two Rovio execs are also on Lightneer’s board.

There is a pattern to having games entrepreneurs resurfacing at new ventures. Gaming — as we have seen not just by the fate of Rovio, but also in the ups and downs of companies like King and Zynga — is a very cyclical business, with the success of one hit waning as a new hit comes along. While Rovio continues to search for a way to rekindle its own fire after Angry Birds’ place at the top, it’s not a surprise to see some of the talent moving on to try to create whatever might come next.

But what all of this will really boil down to is if Lightneer can strike gold with a catchy product.

While Järvilehto would not say what the first game will be about, he did describe a card game that could help a person learn and better memorize a series of historical figures that he says will be something that the startup plans to explore “further down the road.”

The other interesting detail about this educational games startup is that it’s not trying to tie up with any educational groups while it’s in development. “One of the fundamental things about us is that we’re going straight to the consumer,” said Järvilehto. “One of our main guidelines is that we need to create a game that stands as a game against the best out there.”