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If not for Angry Birds, wherefore art thou Rovio?

Four years ago, Rovio has its breakthrough: Angry Birds. The game, in which users catapult volatile birds at blocks hoisting pigs that stole their eggs, has been downloaded more than one billion times. It wasn't always this way.

Four years ago, Rovio has its breakthrough: Angry Birds. The game, in which users catapult volatile birds at blocks hoisting pigs that stole their eggs, has been downloaded more than one billion times -- and 25 percent of those downloads are paid. On average, Angry Birds occupies 200 million minutes of the public's day. It has spawned seven separate properties starring the ball-shaped birds and their pug-nosed adversaries. Angry Birds is the subject of a hit animation series, multiple books and merchandise spanning from USB sticks to partyware. These days, Rovio is content to lap up profits from its flagship game and buy small properties that just need Rovio's spotlight to flourish. It wasn't always this way. Before Rovio was a gaming Goliath it was David, without his slingshot.

Pre-Angry Birds, Rovio was on the brink of bankruptcy, seeking assistance from the Finnish government, which has programs that aid start-ups. Rovio's payroll had shrunk from 50 to 12. Since its founding in 2003 by cousins Mikael and Niklas Hed, the company had developed 51 games, the most successful of which were sold to third parties such as Namco and EA. The games were good but lacked marketing and distribution. Rovio was desperate: it needed a game no one could set down, not even Niklas' own mother, who never played games, regarding them as a stimulus for an underdeveloped mind: child's play. Before Angry Birds was unleashed on the public, Niklas asked his mom what she thought of the game on Thanksgiving 2009: their turkey quickly became a charred and smoking afterthought.

The Heds cashed in on the potential of the iPhone as a universal gaming console with a simple, yet hugely addictive game that featured cute, cuddly characters as desirable to aspiring sketch artists as Pokemon. And, this time around, they accounted for marketing. When sales didn't go according to plan after three months, Rovio targeted smaller countries and partnered with a publisher. It released a YouTube trailer, tacked on 42 levels and added a free version. Suddenly, Angry Birds went from 600 to first in the App Store.

The real genius, however, behind Rovio is its merchandising tactics, which date to Angry Birds' conception. The co-founders' favorite movie is Star Wars -- if you didn't know, there's actually a Star Wars variation on the Angry Birds theme. Sure, the cousins recognized the brilliance of the story, the characters, the direction and the musical score. The "a-ha" moment came when they realized they still possessed Star Wars accessories from their youth -- toys, apparel, lightsabers. The merchandise made Star Wars cool. The same is true of Angry Birds.

In fact, when I want my PocketCake co-workers to know I mean business, I sport my king pig mask and eat hardboiled eggs.

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