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Defectors aim to create next 'Angry Birds'

John D. Sutter, CNN
Tuomas Erikoinen drew
Tuomas Erikoinen drew "Angry Birds." Now he's trying to make a new hit at a company called Boomlagoon.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Two former "Angry Birds" workers are starting their own gaming company
  • One of the men drew characters in the now-famous app while working for Rovio
  • Boomlagoon, the new company, hopes to put out a game later this year

Helsinki, Finland (CNN) -- Tuomas Erikoinen, the man who drew the hit "Angry Birds" app, doesn't really resent his creation.

He's just bored with it.

He sees the game's grumpy, ball-shaped, wingless birds everywhere he goes, their furrowed brows staring him down. Here in Finland's capital, where "Angry Birds" began, Erikoinen's drawings have been turned into T-shirts, "plushie" stuffed animals and two brands of soft drinks -- Tropic and Paradise.

An "Angry Birds" theme park opened nearby in May. The official mascot at a recent international hockey tournament here was a moody white bird that carried a stick and twirled around on skates.

There was a time when Erikoinen -- a smiley 26-year-old who always wears a fedora, is obsessed with birds and grew up on a farm with pigs -- relished all the attention his drawings received. He once took a girlfriend to a mall in Helsinki just in hopes she would be impressed with how many stores carried recreations of his birds. (She wasn't.) But Erikoinen recently left Rovio, the Finnish company that employed him when he helped create the wildly addictive "Angry Birds" franchise, to try to start something new.

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"It was like, 'Hey, that's mine! It's mine!' It's like, 'Woohoo!'" he said of seeing the Angry Birds characters at first. "But then it was everywhere and it didn't feel like anything anymore." He added, jokingly: "Eventually we'll all live in 'Angry Birds' houses and drive 'Angry Birds' cars."

He's done with birds. Now it's on to kitchen creatures.

Photos: Inside the Finnish company that makes 'Angry Birds'

Boomlagoon -- Erikoinen's new venture with another former Rovio worker, Antti Sten, 32, who managed Rovio's server architecture -- plans to release a HTML5 Web game featuring non-angry characters that have oven mitts and frying pans on their heads.

The pair are revealing only the earliest of details about the game because their plans could change. For now, they say their new effort will be a real-time, multiplayer game that's ultimately about a battle between two groups of characters. It's like "World of Warcraft," but cartoony, they said. The drawing at the top of this post is the first sketch they've released of the characters, which are goofier and less circular than the Angry Birds -- and all of which, at least for now, use kitchenware as fashion accessories or weapons.

"I want to create something that isn't already there, which is also appealing in a way," Erikoinen said in an interview in a shared, ground-floor conference room at Boomlagoon's new offices in a nondescript brick building in Helsinki. "Something that is instantly addictive -- as in "Angry Birds." But not the same thing as that."

What's so addictive about 'Angry Birds'?

That, of course, is easier said than done. In trying to create a new hit, the two men at Boomlagoon are leaning heavily on their experiences at Rovio, a company that made 51 relatively unsuccessful games and almost went bankrupt before coming up with "Angry Birds" in 2009. They know their success is far from assured, but they figure why not try.

"To be honest, I'd be happy if our game was just successful enough to keep our jobs and make a good salary," Erikoinen said, "but of course I aim for much more."

"Even if I'm shooting for the stars, 'Angry Birds' might be in a totally different galaxy," he added before disagreeing with himself: "But it might be as big as 'Angry Birds.'"

Here are five factors the pair hopes will make the yet-to-be-named game a success:

Focus on the characters:

One reason "Angry Birds" is a hit -- the apps have been downloaded a total of 1 billion times -- is that the characters are quirky and memorable, Erikoinen said.

Photos: Rovio's failed games

At one point in the creative process, the birds were more "goofy" than angry, but that changed because frustrated birds seemed more expected, he said. After settling on the birds' look, the game's developers -- there were 12 in all, including Erikoinen, who was the lead artist -- invented a story about the birds being mad at pigs that stole their eggs.

Erikoinen, who lives alone in a modest, one-bedroom apartment with a sauna attached to the bathroom, is filling notebooks with random sketches in hopes of creating another cartoon that is just as compelling as that now-ubiquitous red bird.

"I've been drawing from Day One, when I was born," he said. (He reads Donald Duck comic books when he eats dinner and owns more than 350 editions).

The first drawings of the new game look a lot like that ball-shaped bird. Some were little more than spheres with heavy eyebrows. Over time, however, Erikoinen kept experimenting. One day he was cooking while drawing and thought, hey, maybe creating characters with spatulas, frying pans and oven mitts would be fun.

His method is spontaneous trial and error.

Make it easy to start, hard to stop:

"It's easy to start but difficult to put down, you know?" That's how Rovio spokeswoman Sara Antila described one key to "Angry Birds' " success.

But that wasn't always the case. The opening screen for early "Angry Birds" prototypes featured a pile of birds on the ground. Players were supposed to know that they needed to touch the birds and then flick them across the screen, at pigs that were hiding in buildings on the other side of the game board. That was way too confusing, Rovio employees said, so the company added a slingshot.

"Everybody knows how to use a slingshot," said Ville Heijari, a vice president at the company. "You just pull back."

Similarly, Erikoinen and Sten want their game to be easy to start and hard to stop. It's going to be more complicated than "Angry Birds," they said. But it's easy enough that you don't have to spend all that much time with it if you don't want to. As Erikoinen put it: "You can go do a battle for like five minutes and then go, like, take a dump."

Have fun with it:

When Erikoinen and Sten joined Rovio, it was the kind of place where the small group of employees played weekly poker tournaments. As the company grew, the gamelike work atmosphere became more stilted, they said. (Both made it clear, however, that they harbor no ill will toward Rovio). Erikoinen and Sten became friends at those poker tournaments, and they want to be sure their new two-person venture stays true to the sentiment that work should be fun. As an embodiment of this ethos, the meeting table in their small, one-room office, with views of pine trees, will be a poker table.

If they make it with this game, they plan to go to Las Vegas to celebrate.

Both are pretty obsessed with games in their personal lives, too. Sten, who is the technical member of the duo, has two televisions and two gaming console systems in his living room so that he and his wife can play at the same time. Their first date, he said, was basically held over video games. They own 200 to 300 titles.

Sten and Erikoinen want to take their gamelike passions into the workplace, too.

Sounds are important:

It's the kind of thing you probably don't notice, but it makes a difference. Listen to the sounds in "Angry Birds." The bids' maniacal chatter sounds like the munchkins in "The Wizard of Oz." The pigs sound kind of like a garbage disposal. And that song! Anyone who's spent any time playing "Angry Birds" can identify its carnival theme music.

Erikoinen's voice is actually one of those behind the pig and bird sounds in the game. He and a few other Rovio employees sat around a table with a microphone in the middle -- and then they challenged each other to make the goofiest, most nonsensical animal sounds possible. Perhaps Erikoinen channeled some sort of childhood memory of growing up on a farm with pigs in a town in southeastern Finland. Or maybe it was the whimsical atmosphere. But he says the sounds couldn't have come out more perfectly.

"The need to have this gibberish sound when they talk," he said. "We'll try to make it a bit different."

If it doesn't work, try again:

Rovio was founded in 2003, but it was more than 50 games and six years later before the company was able to come up with its blockbuster title. Lots of things had to line up for it to do so -- the smartphone app market was peaking; Apple had introduced its App Store; "app" was a word people actually used (and overused) in 2009 and 2010.

But the company also was willing to keep trying in the face of failure.

Erikoinen and Sten want that tenacious to guide their gaming company, too. Erikoinen, in particular, recalls working on Rovio's many games that preceded "Angry Birds" -- including one about a bouncing red ball that looks somewhat like an Angry Bird without a beak. "It was just bouncing around," he said. "It only had eyes."

Asked why this game, called "Bounce," didn't take off, Erikoinen wasn't sure.

Maybe it was too hard to play, he said. Maybe a few people really liked the game but, for some reason, they never told their friends about it and it never caught on.

Truth is: "I don't really know," he said.

This was also the case with another Rovio game he worked on, called "Totomi." "It was hard to get into, (but) once you did you got addicted," he said.

The Boomlagoon co-founders are realistic about the fact that some games make millions and others flop -- and there's quite a bit of luck that goes into the successes.

That's why, if the first game isn't an immediate hit, they plan to make another.

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