Rovio Entertainment’s Ville Heijari Talks Marketing for Mobile Games

1/30/13Follow @jpruth

Even with its addictive gameplay and wacky characters, turning “Angry Birds” into a popular franchise required sizable doses of marketing savvy. And for Finland’s Rovio Entertainment, that meant merchandise—everything from stuffed animals to toothbrushes, some 25,000 products strong.

Ville Heijari, senior vice president of brand marketing for Rovio, dropped by the A List Summit in New York on Tuesday to talk about his company’s strategy for driving attention to its content beyond mobile platforms.

He was joined by CEOs from Newzoo in the Netherlands, New York’s Funtactix, and Appy Entertainment in Carlsbad, CA, who came together with other industry executives at the New Yorker Hotel to discuss marketing for mobile games ahead of this week’s Mobile Gaming USA East conference.

Though the quick rise of “Angry Birds” in popular culture might make Rovio seem like an overnight success, neither the game nor the company were instant hits, Heijari said. Rovio, founded in 2003 under the name Relude, emerged much like other startups: “Three guys abandoned their university studies to make mobile games,” Heijari said.

In those days, many mobile games were Java-based and ran on devices that could barely qualify as feature phones by today’s standards. Attracting consumers back then to mobile games meant leaping over numerous hurdles. “You couldn’t get your games out for sale anywhere unless you went through [mobile] operators and different stakeholders,” Heijari said. “At the same time, the audience didn’t know they could download content to their devices.”

Titles such as “Tetris” populated the mobile games landscape early on, but Rovio’s co-founders wanted to create better games that people would play longer. Early titles from Rovio included a survival horror game called “Darkest Fear,” and the company grew to more than 50 employees by 2007.

Rovio teamed up with Lucasfilm to release the "Angry Birds Star Wars" tie-in game in 2012.

Fortunes changed for Rovio in the grueling global recession that followed. Heijari said the company shrank to 10 full-time employees in 2009 when “Angry Birds” debuted.

Although Rovio developed an early reputation as a third-party developer, it had no recognition among consumers. Working with British game publisher Chillingo got “Angry Birds” noticed on the Apple App Store, but media back home went on the attack when the game launched.

“In Finland it was devastating,” he said. “The reviews were like ‘It’s average, the characters are not interesting, the sound design is annoying, and everything is wrong.’”

Rovio reached out to gaming communities across central Europe to build momentum for “Angry Birds” in Sweden, Denmark and other countries. With some persistence—and catchy content—“Angry Birds” developed a following that helped it get featured by Apple in the British App Store, which Heijari called the turning point. “That was the second largest market after the U.S.,” he said. “It went to No. 1 in the UK.”

With newfound popularity came a new set of challenges. Rovio gives away updated … Next Page »

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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