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Angry Birds, Flocking to Cellphones Everywhere

It sounds like a tough sell: a game that involves catapulting birds at elaborate fortresses constructed by evil pigs.

But Angry Birds, a hit game by Rovio, a small Finnish company, is one of the unlikeliest pop-culture crazes of the year — and perhaps the first to make the leap from cellphone screens to the mainstream.

Angry Birds iPhone app
Source: Apple
Angry Birds iPhone app

Angry Birds, in which the birds seek revenge on the egg-stealing pigs, is meant to be easily played in the checkout line and during other short windows of downtime — but some players have trouble stopping. Rovio says people around the world rack up 200 million minutes of game play each day. (Put another way, that is 16 human-years of bird-throwing every hour.)

The game has inspired parodies, homages and fervent testimonials. Homemade Angry Birds costumes were big hits on Halloween. Conan O’Brien demonstrated the game in a YouTubevideo promoting his new show, and a sketch from an Israeli TV show about a birds-and-pigs peace treaty was popular online. Justin Bieber and other celebrities have professed their love of Angry Birds on social networks.

Games like Angry Birds are reaching a wide audience of players who might never consider buying an Xbox or PlayStation , but are now carrying sophisticated game machines in their pockets — smartphones. Software developers, eager to become the next Rovio, are creating so-called casual games for this crowd, games that are easy to learn and hard to stop playing.

The trajectory of Angry Birds also suggests a larger shift in the entertainment business and in the kinds of brands that can win wide popularity. And unlike many of the best-known console video games — like the classic Super Mario Bros. from Nintendo or the latest in the Call of Duty series, from Activision — cellphone games like Angry Birds are often made by small companies and catch on by word of mouth.

“There’s no more formula,” said James L. McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research who studies digital entertainment. “It doesn’t matter where it starts: a ringtone, a video game, book. It has a shot at the big time.”

On cellphones, he added, “anyone with coding skills, an idea and good characters can catch on without having to spend $100 million on a movie and marketing.”

Anya Richardson, a technical writer and editor in Mulhall, Okla., got swept up in the Angry Birds craze when her 8-year-old son, Roenick, asked for a birthday cake based on the game. Ms. Richardson spent nearly 80 hours crafting a two-tiered concoction that included hand-shaped replicas of the game’s cranky fowl.

“His birthday was in October, but I couldn’t finish the cake until November,” she said.

Her son loved the cake so much that “he never let us cut it,” Ms. Richardson said. “I finally talked him into letting us get rid of it, but he kept most of the bird figures.”

A photo of the cake ricocheted around the Web. “Requests from people who want one have been pouring in on Twitter and via e-mail,” she said.

Jordan Finley, 30, who works at a legal consulting firm in Los Angeles, said he and his boyfriend were such big fans of the game that they decided to create full-bodybird costumes for Halloween.

“It was crazy,” Mr. Finley said. “The people who didn’t recognize it didn’t understand, but people who knew the game loved it. Everyone wanted to take pictures. It felt like being chased by the paparazzi or something.”

Fans of the game took to the streets on Saturday for Angry Birds Day, celebrating its first anniversary. Rovio worked with the Web service Meetup.com to help organize the gatherings in New York, London, Jakarta, Budapest and dozens of other cities, but fans stepped up to lead the gatherings. Rovio says it will create Angry Birds levels for the top 10 cities that celebrate Angry Birds Day.

Although Rovio has released two dozen other mobile games, none have come close to the success of Angry Birds, which cost about $100,000 to make. Since it was released a year ago, 50 million copies have been downloaded, and Applesaid last week that it was the best-selling iPhone app of 2010. The free version of the game for phones running Google’s Android software, released in October, should be producing $1 million a month in advertising revenue by the end of this year, Rovio says.

Peter Vesterbacka, Rovio’s head of business development in North America, said the game was born when a Rovio designer sketched a rough outline of a bright red bird with a furious expression.

“We didn’t know what the game concept would be, but we loved the birds,” he said. “The entire game and storyline was built around the birds.”

Mr. Vesterbacka said the company took notice of the intricate storylines in Pixar films and the popularity of Mario and Luigi, from Super Mario Bros. The stars of Angry Birds do not express themselves much apart from squawks and grunts, but players seem to be connecting with them all the same.

“When thousands of people start dressing up as your characters, you know you’re onto something,” Mr. Vesterbacka said.

Rovio is trying to capitalize on its hit and is working on versions of Angry Birds for gaming consoles and PCs, along with a line of stuffed birds and pigs. It also hopes to spin the franchise into a movie or children’s TV show.

Rovio made a smart choice in making the birds angry, said Jesse Schell, a professor at Carnegie Mellon who studies game design and entertainment technology. “You can smash them into things and it’s O.K.,” he said. “Imagine if they were cute little birds. It might be kind of funny on some level, but most people would probably be a little repulsed.”

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