A lesson in play

This lesson has been developed as an assessment task for Online Games, Play and Gamification. It is levelled at non-gamers, to provide them an overview of the online game industry and game theory through the analysis of Angry Birds.

game image of red bird, pig and egg At the end of this lesson participants will have an understanding of the significance of the online game industry and what makes the game Angry Birds so successful.

A. Jones




Big Bro and Pig by Rovio - (Instructional purposes - under Educational copyright exemption)

Our need to play


The need to play

Stop for a moment to think about the word ‘play’. It is an activity that we encourage in childhood but which often has a negative connotation in adulthood as is seen as non work and therefore unproductive. Despite the binary interpretation of work versus play we create games to satisfy the human need to play to suit all ages.  

One of the earliest theorists on play defined it as “A free activity standing quite consciously outside ordinary life as being not serious, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.” (Huizinga, 1949).

Play should not be seen as 'non-work' as playing games is integral to how we learn, interact and spend leisure time (Brabazon, 2016). The aim of this course is to encourage you to embrace your need to play, especially if you have used digital media solely as as a work tool and rediscover the joy of play.

The Industry

The Industry

Based on Huizinga’s definition it would be easy to trivialise play and the digital game industry as not serious, yet, by anyone's definition it is serious business when an industry is on a trajectory to increase its value to 90 Billion by 2020. 

The industry is also fluid, and therefore provides new opportunities influenced by new technology. An example is the dramatic increase in smartphone use - shifting the mode of game play from dedicated game consoles to mobile devices. The ability for users to download games to their mobile devices situates games that are app-based and casual in a position of growth. 

Graph by Business Insider (Instructional purposes - under Educational copyright exemption)

Angry Birds

Angry Birds - The Game


On the surface, Angry Birds is a casual game with a light narrative, uncomplicated characters and simple rules. The storyline and character motivation is that the birds are angry because the green pigs have stolen and hidden their eggs. The birds destroy the green pigs hideouts to retrieve their eggs. As a player, you assist the birds by slingshotting them at various structures in order to demolish the structures, kill the pigs and rescue the eggs.

Casual games

Casual games are relatively simple games, distributed through Social Media, the Internet, mobile and smartphones. The demographic of casual game players is largely gender equal, with more females (73%) spending on paid games. Most casual gamers are older, with 62% over the age of 35. (Harrigan, 2015).

Due to their simplicity, casual games are easier to develop than complex MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) genre games so represent a faster track to market for starting up as a game developer.

Characteristics of Casual Games:

  • simple graphics and mechanics
  • usually browser or app-based
  • free or cost very little

(Anable, 2013)

Angry Birds - Casual Game characteristics

Angry Birds is mobile app based, has a simple Cartoon-like visual design, simple navigation and quick play. One game level can be achieved in a short amount of time, or simply reloaded.


Angry Birds was developed and released in 2009 by Rovio, a Finnish game development company. The concept was the brain child of Jaakko Iisalo, one of Rovio's designers who was tasked with helping them develop a product to prevent Rovio from business failure. He sketched a series of birds in photoshop and presented them to management. 

“As soon as I saw those characters I liked them,” ...“Straight away, I had a feeling that I wanted to play the game.” 

Niklas Hed, co-founder, Rovio

Rovio had a strategy to gain leverage from the first Apple iphone release just two years prior. They also had gained a lot of experience from the 50 plus less successful games they had developed prior to 2009 and had amassed copious notes from focus group sessions. They knew what was going to make a successful game, they just needed a concept.

Bird sketches author unknown, (Instructional purposes - under Educational copyright exemption)

Impact and importance

Since it’s launch in 2009 downloads of Angry Birds have reached 3 billion, as at the release of Angry Birds 2 in 2015. (Robertson, 2015). As far as daily playtime - users spend up to 200 million minutes per day. It has maintained its position over the years through releasing new characters and versions as well as merchandise, a TV series and a movie.

It's impact is global however it's importance is not only due to the number of downloads. Angry Birds has been analysed by UX experts and educationalists as a great example of how to design a digital game/resource.

Social and cultural

As a casual game some of the Angry Bird success can be attributed to the fact that it can be picked up and put down easily which makes it a perfect ‘fill-in’ activity for waiting for a train, coffee, friend. Culturally playing Angry Birds fits our busy lives. 

Economic and Industrial

With over 3 billion downloads, Rovio revenue hit $203 million in 2016. In September 2017 the company was floated on the stock exchange, valued at 900 million euro, less than half the expected 2 billion euro.

The revenues are not due to game sales alone. A significant amount of revenue has been generated by spin-offs such as toys, merchandise, the TV series and a movie.

Rovio gives back via its RovioStarts program to support independent developers.

Design and Technical


One of the success point of Angry Birds is that it is intuitive and requires very little instruction to get started. Mauro refers to the initial learning of a games technical schema as the First User Experience or FUE. (Mauro, 2011). The balancing trick with FUE is to make the learning of the technical schema fast due to its simplicity, but also make it complex enough to challenge the user to continue, creating engagement.  Angry Birds achieves this through the simple action of the slingshot combined with the variables of the bird and shelter properties and increasing complexity at each level.

The visuals for Angry Birds also appear simple on first pass. The characters are cartoon-like, the shelters simple structures of lean-to materials and the landscapes mostly static backgrounds with pop up sets for trees. However if you look carefully there is a lot more happening visually. The other 'non' game items, cakes, rocks, trees and small animations that are incidental to the game play, but create a richer visual experience. There are two factors essential to good visual design in games exemplified in Angry Birds:

First, the visual design must be memorable and second, it must convey the desired attributes of the game play model.

(Mauro, 2011)


Behind the scenes the game features a physics engine to calculate the shot and impact using variables such as the type of bird and basic rules of physics (mass, gravity and velocity) to material (wood, glass, steel or brick) to ensure consistency of pig-shelter demolition. (Kendall, 2015)


Although the casual gamer is interested in a quick fix, the developers of Angry Birds have resisted pushing the game into a fast pace. The user is given immediate feedback via the dotted trajectory line and a pause after each shot provides enough time for reflection and to formulate an alternative to the slingshot draw, force and direction for the next shot - ie error correction. The pressure is thereby taken off the user taking 'aim' - giving them a sense of control, which reduces frustration and extends their engagement.

in the context of Angry Birds, success is bound up in slowing down that which could be fast, erasing that which is easily renewable, and making visual that which is mysterious and memorable.

(Mauro, 2011)

The success of Angry Birds is no happy accident, the developers were armed with years of user experience data, had a comic and memorable concept and thoughtfully built the game mechanics to maximise engagement.

Angry Birds - play clip

This clip shows the simplicity of play, where the user slingshots the birds to demolish the bad pig's shelter. 

Note: the feedback given to the user via the dotted trajectory line.


The characters each have various properties that govern their flight and impact.

The Birds

The user is also presented with boost options, triggered by a finger tap whilst the bird is mid-air to speed up the trajectory (Chuck), clone into three (the Blues) or explode (Bomb). Gradually the gamer learns how to use these properties to the best effect in demolishing the structures and squashing the green pigs.

The Pigs

The pigs role is to steal eggs, cook and eat them. The pigs have very little intelligence other than to build elaborate structures to shelter and conceal their stash of eggs from the Angry Birds. Each pig is worth 5000 points, with more available if their accessories, hats etc. are also destroyed.


The Angry Bird sound track, like the game itself, seems on first listening to be simple. However, "soundscapes carry meaning" (Tay, 2017) we can hear in the Angry Birds main sound track the chirping of birds and the light tinkling of glass but the track does not denote violently demolishing structures and squashing pigs. The sounds are reminiscent of the Key-Stone Cops slapstick soundtrack. The soundscape plays a part in prolonging the immersion of the user as sound is "fundamental to immersion in films and video games" (Shafer, 2007).

The sound track also cleverly avoids repetition for passive listeners (parents) who may influence the user to turn the game off.

The sound track is medium paced, does not appear to increase tempo and panic the user, rather, keeps them trotting along on their quest to kill pigs “one of the key differences between film sound and gaming sound is that the player in a game may use sound to act or change the outcomes of a situation” (Shafer, 2007).


Due to its employment of the basic laws of physics Angry Birds has been well used by educators to explain physics and mathematics principles.

(Moore-Russo, 2015)


Anable, A. (2013). Casual Games, Time Management, and the Work of Affect. A Journal of Gender, New Media and Technology. Retrieved from http://adanewmedia.org/2013/6/issue2-anable/

Gross, A (2014). What Angry Birds Can Teach Enterprises About Critical Data. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/insights/2014/02/angry-birds-can-teach-enterprises-critical-data/

Kendall, Paul (2011) Angry Birds: the story behind iPhone’s gaming phenomenon. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/video-games/8303173/Angry-Birds-the-story-behind-iPhones-gaming-phenomenon.html

Mauro, C. (2011). Mauro New Media website blog post: Why Angry Birds is so successful and popular: a cognitive teardown of the user experience. Retrieved from https://www.mauronewmedia.com/blog/why-angry-birds-is-so-successful-a-cognitive-teardown-of-the-user-experience/

Moore-Russo, D., Diletti, J., Strzelec, J. et al. (2015) Digital Experiences in Mathematics Education Vol 1, Issue 2-3 : pp107-132. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40751-015-0008-y


Price Waterhouse Coopers Global website, Social and casual gaming is transforming the global video games market retrieved from:  https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/industries/entertainment-media/outlook/segment-insights/video-games.html

Robertson, A. (2015) 'Angry Birds 2' Arrives 6 Years And 3 Billion Downloads After First Game Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/andyrobertson/2015/07/16/angry-birds-2/#3de3d77d702d


Soetendorp, R. and Meletti, B. Education, copyrightuser.org retrieved from: http://www.copyrightuser.org/understand/exceptions/education/

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