With over 200 million downloads as of May 2011, Angry Birds became a modern cultural touchpoint.
That’s incredible considering Angry Birds is by no means a technical feat nor is it an original game; in fact, it’s merely a remix of some old popular games. It’s popular because it wins on familiarity and on story. To wit, here’s a game that has similar play dynamics:
This is Breakout. Steves Jobs and Wozniak wrote this ‘original’ game for Atari. While your instincts may tell you Angry Birds and Breakout are night and day, you’d be wrong. They’re based on the same premise: send a projectile to destroy all of the static objects on a game board before you run out of lives. The game was rather successful and spawned sequels and hundreds of clones. (It’s been on every BlackBerry I’ve ever seen as “Brick Breaker”.)
Here’s another game of the same flavor: bowling.
Suspicious (yet probably still accurate) Internet data suggest that Angry Birds has about the same number of downloads (~200M) as the number of people who have bowled at least once in their lifetimes (~220M). And, given the proclivities of today’s youth, that number is increasingly in favor for the birds.
It leads one to ponder: if it’s basically the same game, why are the Angry Birds so ubiquitous? And yet, the answer is simple: emotion.
At the onset, you’re presented a problem: evil green pigs have stolen eggs from a cacophony of primary-colored kamikaze dodos. The outrage is enough to start a war, severe enough to forgo primal instincts of self preservation and use yourself as munitions; but, more importantly, it’s enough to stir, as the player, your latent need for righteous vengeance. Naturally, you are uniquely suited to aide the birds in their avionic havoc—and for which you are eager to comply.
Just watch the intro:
Damn those pigs. So smug. Ugh!
After this, sending a ball into a bunch of blocks isn’t nearly as exciting. This is because (for the non-autistic among my readership) you relate to anthropomorphic critters better than you can relate to a circle. You may have sympathy for the devil, but certainly not for a ball.
Angry Birds is tried and true gameplay laced with emotion and familiarity: the story is familiar, the physics are familiar, and the only logical leap the game asks of the player is to forget that most birds can fly perfectly well on their own. But, in this case, they require a slingshot and your help, and don’t require a trip down to the bowling alley.
Like bowling and breakout and those before it, Angry Birds has been wildly successful, spawning sequels and dozens of clones. And toys.
But, for my time and money, I’d rather go bowling with friends—they tell better stories.