Angry Birds

Developed in Finland by Rovio Entertainment
Released for mobile phones in 2009; released for numerous other formats in 2010

The concept of “a video game that you can play on the go” or “a video game for people who do not like video games” should immediately invoke the reddest of red flags outside of the Chinese mainland. Back in 1990, we called this mythical non-game “Solitaire“, and Wes Cherry earned no royalties from Microsoft for his non-game, and we left recognition of the best video games of the year to those who were actually making the best games. Tech magazines were not penciling in Solitaire as an atypical Game of the Year candidate and people were not demanding that Wes Cherry “get the respect he deserves”. He recreated a simple card game, inserted it as a freebie in the Windows 3.0 operating system, and we left it at that.

So we arrive at Angry Birds, a product that David Jaffe infamously asserted was one of the best games of 2010. Cast aside that the game was actually released in December of 2009, and that its rise to popularity during the subsequent year has been confused with a proper release date. That widespread popularity is currently unmatched by anything in the history of the industry. And with that popularity, a level of recognition and fame that most in the traditional video game industry would have killed for, silly things have been said. For instance, there’s still an absurd notion that popularity is a sign of product quality, and not the mere case of average people chasing what they can relate to. If you ask these people why they like Angry Birds, you’ll hear all of the same responses. Sometimes, they don’t even bother to defend the product quality, asserting that they were “bored on the bus and needed something to do”…implying as though DoDonPachi Resurrection or Rage HD are things that they cannot download and play on this phone. If they actually like Angry Birds and attest to its product quality, it’s because it’s “easy to learn and difficult to master”. (It’s fun to fancy that Nolan Bushnell set back video games half-a-decade when he made that statement in 1971. Lots and lots of Pong ensued after that declaration.)

News flash: The Street Fighter series is easy to learn and difficult to master. StarCraft: Brood War, is easy to learn and difficult to master. Civilization is easy to learn and difficult to master. A child can pick up any of those games and play them competently, and becoming an expert or a master of these games can take years and decades. That’s because they use intricate and complex systems with subtle nuances that hold up to the intense scrutiny of their best players. Angry Birds is not one of those games. In a few hours and perhaps even minutes, its flaws should be apparent to anyone who has any experience with the long history of commercial video games. It would merely be disingenuous to point out that the ballistics genre is decades old and was done better the day that the first Missile Command arcade cabinet was live for public use in 1980. And if you want to get really picky, the mechanics that define the ballistics genre (where the angle and trajectory of your shot is crucial to success), can be found in 1958’s Tennis for Two and 1962’s SpaceWar!.

The genre proper has been around for at least three decades. Just because developers could not market an archetype for ballistics games that spawned stuffed animals and Saturday morning cartoons does not mean that they never happened. Worms and Gunbound were doing quite well for themselves. But let’s get this straight: I’m not reviewing the game on the matter of whether “it’s popular, so it sucks”. The suck came first and success followed. Angry Birds is a bad game. It’s a bad strategy game, it’s a bad action game, it’s a bad puzzle game, it’s a bad ballistics game. By any criteria, it is a bad game. The consumer’s ignorance of the niche market for ballistics games cannot and will not change that.

Conceptually speaking, Angry Birds is best compared to another famous multi-platform puzzle game: 1991’s Lemmings. Rather than using your specialized, disposable critters in order to construct your means of conquering the environment, you’re out to destroy a race of disgusting green pigs that have stolen unhatched bird eggs and turned them into dinner. (The pigs are just heads. Rovio’s art designers couldn’t be bothered to draw bodies.) The goal is to avenge the deaths of these unborn loved ones, aiming the Angry Birds™ towards the pigs and their fortifications, clearing the game’s sixty-plus levels with the allotted ammunition. (Expansions have upped the number of levels. Not much changes.) Red birds provide basic shots, tiny bluebirds can be split into a spread formation at the tap of a screen, yellow birds and their increased velocity follow the same command input, black birds can be used as grenades, and white birds can be used as both conventional ammunition or a bomber, launching an egg at the ground below as it skies through the playing field. All of these ammunition types provide varying degrees of effectivenes against the wood, stone, and ice materials that compose the fortifications.

Yes, it’s an absurd theme befitting of a product likely inspired by developer Armor Games and their popular 2009 flash game Crush the Castle, itself a ridiculous cacophony of faux medieval machismo. (Although the Birds’ open assault on the pigs’ castles and bunkers eventually works its way to their houses and swimming pools. That’s kind of awkward.)  Premise is not the issue. Execution is. As a bare minimum compliment, the use of color in Angry Birds clearly indicates what is where and how it is falling apart, even in the carnage of destruction. But in the world where aesthetics and mechanics work in tandem to create memorable fictional worlds, this is an ugly game, making itself comfortable on a mobile platform that has become the go-to device for ugly video games. This is “flash animation” at its most average, making liberal use of black outlines as they can be applied to sprites, an art design technique which is subject to imperfect anti-aliasing and the jagged pixels that come with it. As far as one can tell, this was done to absolve the developers from having to make diverse sprites with fluid and memorable animations, sprites that could be applied to a wide range of phones and their wide range of screen resolutions. The few variants of each sprite usually involve a change of emotional state. Birds are either cheering, chirping, or just took a castle to the face. Pigs take black eyes as they sustain damage. In other words, Rovio simply copy-pasted a default sprite and imposed various emotional states on top of it. It’s pretty hard to get excited for that.

Unfortunately, aesthetics are the least of this game’s worries. Let’s discuss the game from a puzzle perspective. It’s been sold to the public as a thinking man’s video game, where you are using ballistics as the means of execution after determining where to fire your ammo. And for that reason, Angry Birds needs a logical (i.e. consistent) physics system that allows the player to recreate both the shot and the subsequent carnage. That is where stumble upon our problem: The physics in Angry Birds are shit. Scratch that, actually. “Shit” implies a failure in intent. Rovio did what they wanted to do. They created a physics system that uses random game variables. You heard it right, the destruction phase in Angry Birds is completely random.

It’s easy to gain the impression that this imprecision stems from the use of a touch screen, where your finger could be “off by one pixel”. But then you get access to levels such as 1-14, 2-9, and 3-1, all of which provide easy shots that can be used as a test chamber for the physics. It’s very easy to figure out what is happening behind the curtain. A number of these levels require the player to fire a single bird and call it a day. In these levels, you will find that your one-hundred separate-yet-equally-accurate blasts will yield one-hundred different outcomes, all varying slightly in the way that the Swineland comes crashing down.

Ballistics games are not supposed to be slot machines. They are supposed to be a science. But even then, this design decision could be okay if the game was transparent in its display of random information. Worms was comfortable in disclosing critical game variables (enemy damage, direction of the wind) over a decade ago. And a couple of years before that, Gorillas allowed the player to control the velocity and angle of his shots by typing in the numbers. Angry Birds does nothing to display these figures. The physics system doesn’t even work properly, where the building materials that compose structures adhere to each other with a consistency akin to magnetic jello. In a testament to the game’s programming, these structures will occasionally fall apart before the player even begins his assault. You think Rovio is giving you access to that information? Hah! You get the bare minimum for visual cues and you will like it.

As one internet critic proclaimed in his personal roast of Civilization V and its artificial intelligence, erratic and indescribable outcomes might as well be random outcomes.* Same thing here. Random outcomes do not work in the delicate nature of puzzle games. The developer’s job is to minimize any and all occurrence of chance so that level designers can institute clever and skilled design properties that are not impacted by chance outcome. This way, you can have one obvious solution, a smattering of lousy solutions, and a couple of smart solutions for players who know their way around the game world. The second you drastically randomize the outcome, you undermine level design. Randomization can work in real-time strategy games, in role-playing games, in match clear puzzle games, but it does not work in the Angry Birds blueprint.

The only question left to ask: Why would Rovio code their game with a significant element of chance?  (This is not some tinfoil theory. If you have further questions, consult level 3-3, which is shaped like a plinko board.)  It’s an easy answer: The long-standing complaint against mobile phone games is that they lack depth. (That is, they suck.) Simple games for simple audiences. It’s a tough market for the majority of mobile phone game developers. That’s not to say that they have trouble turning a profit. The companies making games for these devices simply don’t have the capital to compete with the body of knowledge that has forged the great computer, console, and arcade games.

Rovio didn’t have the money to create a complex game system. Instead, they created the illusion of depth. They created a game where if that boulder keeps in rolling…wait for it…wait for it…there we go. Through this illusion of depth, you attempt to create the illusion of meaningful process. In-tune with modern game design principles, there is no punishment for failure. Levels can be completed in under a minute, and if you mess things up, you get unlimited continues. And this is an easy game to begin with. Only a handful of levels should pose a challenge for any players. Through a system where random physics can significantly alter the outcome, the weakest of weak players will never get hung up. So long as they can aim their ammunition in the correct direction, the system is designed so they will eventually “get it right”.

“But you get bonus points for unused birds! The real goal of Angry Birds is playing for score! If you want to puss out with your one-star solution, go ahead. Me? I’m finding the optimal way out.” That’s the scam, silly!  Without that element of chance, the only thing standing between a “perfect score” and the player is a little bit of practice and their imperfect touch screen. With the primitive level of execution required to manipulate those simple shooting mechanics, players could effortlessly recreate the results of that “world record” video on the internet. The game would quickly cease in captivating its audience. The only panacea would be complex, challenging levels that spit in the face of the target demographic. By sticking luck in the forefront, you can string people just long enough to convince them that their high score was the result of skilled play. But for everyone else, what’s the joy in a game where my own input has little bearing on completion, where I can conquer a level on the twentieth try because “everything just happened to fall my way this time”?

So, there you go. Rovio created a universe where even their own online walkthroughs feature substantial incidents of luck. (Believe me, I giggle at the idea of a developer showing their own fans how to beat the game.) And how better to build confidence amongst weaker players by designing a system where “skill” can come through this luck? And then you will understand why long-time gamers show confusion and bewilderment at the assertion that Angry Birds is “easy to learn and hard to master”. It’s hard to master because, very often, success hinges on luck. For this reason, the most entertaining levels in the game are the ones that play against the random game elements (destruction) and towards what the player can control (accuracy). In this handful of levels, Angry Birds is able to capture a smidgen of the magic that made the Lemmings late-game so endearing. These levels limit the margin for error and force players to get things right on the first try. But even then, it doesn’t occupy the same galaxy as Lemmings, which put players to a timer and punished the player for making mistakes.

“Stop your whining! I like the game! You’re thinking too hard about it! Angry Birds tries to be fun and that’s what it is!” Well, too bad. Your scant knowledge of the medium isn’t the barometer. The barometer is the medium itself. A good video game compares favorably to the history of other good video games, not just the ones you’ve played. We already mentioned Missile Command, Gorillas, Worms, and Crush the Castle, and Gunbound. All of those games vary wildly in finished quality, but I would still choose any of them over Angry Birds, and I am not giving the game bonus points for winning a popularity contest. I suppose that figureheading the rise of mobile phone video games and dominating a market where “fart apps” rule with prejudice is a wonderful success story. But America Online, Pet Rocks, and the Macarena were also “successful”. That doesn’t mean that any of those were works of art. I regret to inform you that the same criteria applies to your mobile gaming love child. Deal with it.