When I was a kid, my Kindle Fire was my gateway into the world of mobile gaming. From “Minecraft: Pocket Edition” to “Plants vs Zombies” and even “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” I played a lot of mobile games during what could be considered the medium’s golden era. But above all of these games, there was one series that reigned supreme for me: “Angry Birds.” I would play through the levels with my dad, taking turns when one had us stumped. “Angry Birds” was also a game all of my friends could play since there wasn’t the need for a console, leading to long discussions on the playground about what bird was the best or what mechanics the game could add next. However, when I went back to play the games in a fit of lockdown boredom, I was shocked to find that none of the original games (pre-2013) were available. A quick search revealed that the developers had pulled these games from all online storefronts in July of 2019 — but why? How could one of the most popular mobile games of all time just suddenly disappear?
Finding the answer to this question requires a bit of context. The concept of the mainline “Angry Birds” games is quite simple: A group of evil green piggies led by King Pig has stolen eggs from a group of multicolored birds, angering them. The player must fling the birds from a slingshot, lining up their shots correctly to pop piggies in their bases while using as few birds as possible. Each bird also has its own special ability, adding an element of strategy to your attacks.
The game’s developer Rovio would continue to innovate on this formula by adding new birds and mechanics to subsequent entries in the series. Starting with the release of the first game “Angry Birds” in 2009, Rovio would go on to publish seven games based around the core mechanic of flinging birds and poppin’ piggies over the next four years. These games included hits like “Angry Birds Space” and “Angry Birds Star Wars,” which expanded on the original game with new mechanics such as gravity fields, force pushes and lightsabers.
The craze for Angry Birds was everywhere during the early 2010s. From plushes to cheesy t-shirts (a few of which I rocked in elementary school) and even an animated series, the franchise established a force of fowl in both the mobile gaming market and popular culture. As their prominence continued to grow, Rovio began to branch into new game genres to keep its hold on the mobile game market. They experimented with role playing games, a few racing games and even bubble pop games. 2015 saw the release of “Angry Birds 2”, which was touted as the first true sequel to the original game. While past games in the series had an upfront cost of 99 cents, this game was free-to-play. However, the game used a heart system, meaning that failing a level too many times would lock you out from playing the game until your hearts recharged. Hearts could also be regenerated by watching an ad or using an in-game currency that could be purchased with real money.
This move to a ‘freemium’ model was common at the time, and is how most mobile games operate today. Along with this change, Rovio began to focus more on their side games, including several match-three style games (much like “Candy Crush Saga”) that are full of microtransactions. The original “Angry Birds” was even retrofitted to fit this new model of monetization, adding purchasable powerups and annoying ads. Gone were the days of single-purchase games. Angry Birds may have just been following the trend of the mobile game market, but it was still sad to see a series that had been so influential fall into line with a debatably scummy practice.
The Angry Birds games are merely a few titles in a sea of freemium games in the app store. It’s no surprise that developers would want to move in this direction. Free-to-play games like Candy Crush make a killing from in-app purchases, with players spending over 4 million dollars per day on the game in 2018. A look at the “Top Grossing” games shows a plethora of other games that have profited from the freemium model as well. It’s hard to justify making your app a one-time purchase when there could be so much money made from players who are willing to pay for multiple items in-game. This allure has had an impact on the mobile games market that seems to have changed the landscape for good, changing the Angry Birds games I once knew and loved into piggy banks for Rovio.
All of Rovio’s changes came to a head in 2019 when they suddenly removed all Angry Birds games from before 2016 (aka the ones before their monetization streak began) from app stores. The removal came without warning: One day the games were available to play, and the next they were just gone. This caused an outcry among fans, causing #BringBack2012 (a reference to the “classic” era of Angry Birds games) to trend on Twitter. Rovio initially responded to the backlash by claiming that they had chosen to focus on their newer (and coincidentally more profitable) titles rather than keeping their older games up to date.
It wasn’t until June of 2021 that Rovio would release an official apology in the form of a blog post. Along with the apology, they committed to rebuilding as many of the games as they could to keep up with the requirements of modern devices. There have been several update posts since then detailing progress on a remake of the first game, showing screenshots and explaining their development process. These updates have brought some bad news as well: the licensed games, “Angry Birds Star Wars” and “Angry Birds Rio” would not be returning. This means that the only way to experience these games today — unless you still have them downloaded — is through their releases on consoles.
As promising as it is to see Rovio working to bring some of their beloved games back, it is a bit disheartening when considering why they were removed from app stores in the first place. Rovio’s attention shifted to chasing trends and away from the games that they had built their success upon. While the need to diversify their games was inevitable, the lengths they went to when doing so has turned their brand into something almost unrecognizable. Maybe I’m getting a bit too emotional about a phone game where you fling birds at pigs, but Angry Birds was a big part of my childhood and it’s disappointing to see that touchstone of nostalgia disappear. I hope that the re-release of “Angry Birds” will bring back some of the enjoyment I once had with the game and allow me to forget why I lost it in the first place.
Daily Arts Contributor Hunter Bishop can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.