Why Being a One-Hit Wonder Isn't a Bad Thing For Indie Game-Makers

A 'New' Version of 'Angry Birds' Is a Sure Thing; a Second Blockbuster Isn't

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It took just two-and-a-half hours for Rovio's "Angry Birds Star Wars" to ascend to the No. 1 paid iPhone app and the top-grossing iPhone app in Apple's U.S. App Store. But the Finland-based game shop is not the venerable hitmaker its billions of downloads and multibillion-dollar valuation would suggest. Despite being the most-successful independent mobile-gaming shop in the world -- and the most-successful company in the industry given Zynga's continued freefall -- Rovio has yet to achieve one of the most elusive milestones in mobile gaming: a second hit.

Angry Birds Star Wars is an instant hit for Rovio.
Angry Birds Star Wars is an instant hit for Rovio.

Mobile gaming is a growth industry. Market-research firm IBISWorld projects social- and mobile-gaming revenue will grow 22 % annually through 2017. But experts agree that determining which games will resonate with the culture remains a difficult task, despite a company having done it before. So far, the solution for independent game-makers has not been to create an equally successful second title, but to get users to download a "new" version of its slightly altered core game.

"The pressure is always on to make sequels as much as possible," said Josh Tsiu, president of game-development studio Robomodo. "In general, there's more of a guarantee that you'll have another hit based off of a sequel than another original."

Translation: It pays to be derivative.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with focusing on one title," said Rovio Senior VP-Marketing Ville Heijari. "When you build a brand and when people love the characters, there's nothing wrong with creating different styles of gameplay around it."

Rovio created more than 50 titles before it came up with Angry Birds, Mr. Heijari said, and none of them became remotely as popular as the Birds franchise. Those titles aren't even available in the App Store or Google Play, as focus has shifted almost entirely to pushing Angry Birds. Of the 11 Rovio iPhone games, the nine most popular in the App Store are all Birds-related, and one, Bad Piggies, is a spinoff.

Rovio's struggle to create a second hit is not unique. App maker Imangi Studios was earning just $40,000 a year from its games until Temple Run became the top grosser in the App Store in early 2012. The game has now been downloaded more than 100 million times, earned more than a million dollars and inspired a physical board game.

OMGPOP's Draw Something became the fastest-growing app in the history of mobile, attracting a million users in nine days and 50 million users in just 50 days, according to CEO Dan Porter. Shortly thereafter, the gaming company was purchased by Zynga for $180 million. But before that , OMGPOP was a fledgling that had made about 35 unsuccessful games and was about to shutter.

Each of these cases illustrates that the path to success in the mobile-gaming world is not about creating exciting new titles, but delivering familiar ones. Temple Run is about a thief running from a hidden temple with a stolen idol, an obvious nod to "Indiana Jones." (One of the game's unlockable characters, Montana Smith, looks just like Indiana Jones and is called "the second-greatest explorer ever.") After that , Imangi Studios launched Temple Run: Brave to promote the new Pixar film. Draw Something is actually a mobile take on Pictionary. And Rovio's latest game is just Lucasfilm characters incorporated into Angry Birds.

Finnish mobile-game maker Supercell is an outlier in the mobile-gaming space in that it has two different games, Clash of Clans and Hay Day, in the top 10 highest-grossing iPhone games. (The company earns $500,000 a day between the two titles, Supercell's General Manager for North America Greg Harper said.) Yet Clash of Clans resembles Playrix's Royal Envoy and Hay Day is a knockoff of Zynga's Farmville.

Mr. Heijari contends that Rovio does have other successful titles. Bad Piggies is the company's fastest-growing, downloaded as many times in one month as Angry Birds was in six. But Bad Piggies is an extension of Angry Birds, and the company's other game, Amazing Alex, involves constructing Rube Goldberg machines in a style and physics engine akin to Birds games.

Rovio's one-app-wonder status may change in 2013 as the company is preparing to roll out multiple new titles, Mr. Heijari said. How innovative they will be is unclear; Mr. Heijari would not disclose the nature of the games or exactly how many would be released.

Fortunately for Rovio, the company's well-being will likely be unaffected if the games flop. It has successfully turned Angry Birds into a multiplatform success -- more than 30% of Rovio's revenue comes from merchandise sales -- and the company will likely be able to sell new versions of the game.

As video-game journalist A.J. Glasser said, "Gamers crave innovation, but they hate everything new."

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