This month marks the four-year anniversary of the release of "Angry Birds." Since then, the game’s developer has been flying high, and Rovio Entertainment has practically become a household name — at least, a topic of countless playground conversations.
But it wasn't always a smooth trajectory for the team based in Espoo, the second-largest city in Finland with a population of about 248,000. While it may seem as if Rovio was an overnight success with its mega-hit iPhone game featuring birds being flung across the screen, the company celebrated its 10th anniversary last week.
It took Rovio six years, 51 games and a brush with near-bankruptcy to find its breakout title, according to Wired U.K. And that underscores the challenge the company faces in sustaining its success. If Rovio aims to create the next Walt Disney, as its executives have said, it will need more than temperamental birds. Rovio may have found its Mickey Mouse, but Disney also had "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Pinocchio," "Dumbo" and "Bambi" — all released in the span of five years.
Rovio was founded on Nov. 24, 2003, according to Ville Heijari, a former executive at the company. The Finnish game company, run by cousins Mikael and Niklas Hed, used to be called Relude. In those early years, Rovio crafted some pretty successful games for Electronic Arts and Namco, but none on the scale of what would come next.
When "Angry Birds" came out in 2009, it was one of the first killer apps for the iPhone. More than a billion downloads later, the Angry Birds franchise is an institution. Rovio has parlayed the app’s success into spin-off games, cartoons and a feature film slated for release in 2016. Last week, Rovio rewarded fans of the original with an update that includes new features and 30 additional levels.
There are more than a dozen Angry Birds-related iPhone apps, and they often perform exceptionally well. Rovio's attempt to create a new franchise didn't quite take off. "Amazing Alex" did well when it came out, but the puzzle game was quickly forgotten. The app hasn't been updated in more than a year. A Rovio spokesman didn't respond to a request for comment.
Nokia was once the pride of Finnish tech. Rovio has captured a lot of the excitement in Finland, along with Supercell, the game company behind "Clash of Clans" that sold a majority stake to Japan’s SoftBank in October. Other startups in town are soaking up the residual benefits as investors from Russia and elsewhere pour in.
Rovio's hit machine is showing no sign of losing altitude, but 10 years in, the company’s adolescent years are over. The Finns will need to find their Snow White.