Dec 9, 2010 10:00 PM by Alison Haynes
NEW YORK (AP) - The slaughter of some 3 trillion pigs is the kind of thing that's usually met with outrage.
But Angry Birds, the extremely popular smart phone app, is a pop culture sensation, addicting mobile users at a rate nearly as impressive as the body count that its animated slingshot birds are racking up against their swine enemy.
Some 12 million copies of the 99-cent version of Angry Birds have been downloaded, with another 30 million downloads of its free app, which makes money through advertising. Peter Vesterbacka, head of development in North America for Rovio, the Finnish maker of Angry Birds, says the iPhone version of the game accounts for 65 million minutes of playtime every day - a total, he notes, that rivals the daily U.S. prime-time TV audience.
Even those who don't have an iPad or touch-screen phone have likely noticed the Angry Birds infestation by peering over the shoulder of an entranced subway rider or handing out candy on Halloween to a toddler decked out as a curiously irritated avian creature.
At a time when few TV shows, movies or albums are able to puncture the increasingly diffuse world of pop culture, a quirky little mobile phone game has become a widespread hit. And its universe is rapidly expanding.
On Saturday, the Angry Birds flock will be palpable. The one-year anniversary of the game's debut has been dubbed "Angry Birds Day." Around the world, hundreds of people are planning to congregate to celebrate their fondness for a silly diversion where birds do ceaseless battle with pigs.
"It's grown to the point where enough people know what it is and have played it. People talk about it. It's a common point of social interaction," says Thomas Way, associate professor of computing sciences at Villanova University. "It fulfills some kind of pleasure center in our brain. These days, we're going through tough times economically. There's this need for an outlet."
Though seemingly innocuous, Angry Birds has a subtle importance, Way believes. Like the game Pong did for computers, he sees Angry Birds as greasing the wheels for mobile technology.
"We are where we are technologically because of games and the games industry," says Way. "They've been the driving force behind technological development."
Rovio, the company behind Angry Birds, was founded in 2003 by three Finnish technology students - Niklas Hed, Jarno Vakevainen and Kim Dikert - who are interested in mobile gaming. They've since released more than 30 games, but none are as successful as Angry Birds.
Angry Birds began with a kind of mock-up by Rovio game designer Jaakko Iisalo. The company liked his round, cross-eyed bird characters and decided to build a game around them.
CEO Mikael Hed knew they had something special when, before the game was released, his cousin Niklas' mother became so intrigued, she played it for an hour, delaying her planned dinner party.
"We never dared to hope that it would do so well," says Mikael Hed.
Hed believes a number of qualities have led to Angry Birds' success. It's colorful and soothing and easily understood. It's a physics-based game, so movements are consistent. It's playable in short durations, with dozens of brief levels. Mastering a level wins you three stars, but users can beat a level with less than perfection - just one or two stars.
"You don't have to be very good to feel good about the game," says Hed. "People love those characters and the Angry Birds world and the sounds that they make."
It's won some famous fans, too. Before his TBS show debuted, Conan O'Brien made a Web video where he bragged of reaching an early level. On the "Late Late Show," actor Jon Hamm recommended the game to Craig Ferguson: "Get ready to waste some time, my friend." Even author Salman Rushdie has said he's "something of a master" at the game.
More than 2.3 million people have watched the YouTube video "Angry Birds Peace Treaty," a live-action sketch where a lawyer tries to broker a truce between the birds and the pigs, whose antagonism is based on the pigs stealing the birds' eggs. (As Hamm wryly noted of the game's narrative: "It makes perfect sense.")
Following a seasonal Halloween version of the game, a Christmas Angry Birds has been released, with each level opened like a day on an advent calendar. (The pigs, who wear various protective headgear, don Santa hats in this version.)
An Angry Birds 2 is due soon. It's moving to consoles like the Wii, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Rovio is also looking into making it available on Windows, the Chrome browser and Facebook. Plush toys of the birds have been released and are selling months ahead of inventory. Rovio now has 40 employees and is hiring more.
Rovio is also contemplating expansion into TV and film. Hed says he's spent a large amount of time "exploring these areas."
"There's a lot more Angry Birds," he says.
On Saturday, Angry Birds fans will dress up like their favorite characters and share in their mutual addiction.
"The game itself is played in a very solitary way," says Chris Blechschmidt, a Meetup.com "evangelist" who organized the event with Rovio. "It's an independent game: Play by yourself, block out everything else in the world when you play it, literally designed to make you ignore everything else in your life."
But, Blechschmidt says, people are proud of their connection to the "cheerfulness and frivolity of the game."
"People are latching on to the idea that something can come from nothing."