Hatching an unintentional sequel of monumental proportions
Stockholm, early 2013
“Hey, come have a look!”, Hampus Bankler, the coder at Rovio Sweden shouted and put on a proud smile while sipping from his bird branded coffee mug. “I made Angry Birds in Unity last night”, he explained as we gathered around his desk. After a few clicks, bird textured spheres flew across the screen to crush structures with pig-look-alikes on the other side. We cheered loudly as one pig after another vanished in dust and debris. Just then it was obvious - with this powerful tool in our hands everything was possible.
The promised land
The many years at EA/DICE gave us the opportunity to work at the “cutting edge” of game development, learning both the good and bad sides of the industry. Our job was about polishing the games to perfection, to make them shine. But after years of grit, realistic explosions and massive production scopes, mobile felt more like the promised land. A place to make quick and fun entertainment. Rovio Sweden had just opened up when finding us both on the doorstep. We were ready for a straight walk in the park but really didn’t understand how twisted the path ahead of us would be.
Early on, our studio got to own and make successful updates for the Angry Birds spin-off “Seasons” with Rovio’s internal engine. Meanwhile, internal prototypes made in Unity showed that we were capable of more. We found it hard being creative around seasonal updates and limitations in the old game held us back. In parallel, indications from market intelligence showed big potential in dinosaur themes. So, we finally poured all the components we wanted in one pot. The plan was to make Angry Birds in the Jurassic Age and mix it up with some time traveling, creating it all in the Unity engine. It sounded like the perfect replacement for Seasons. Who knew what it would lead to?
A year lost in time
Two experimental weeks was enough for the two of us and a programmer to build a vertical slice showing what the next generation of Angry Birds could look like. The demo won the initial trust from Finland and bought us time to explore the concept further. Hundreds of time machine sketches, cavemen-pigs, animated cut-scenes, jungle environments and dinosaurs saw the light. After almost a year we were basically ready to go into production when the big axe hit us hard and changed everything. We would now focus on the original Angry Birds world instead of another spin-off. A years work of art was “thrown” away as we adapted to a new direction. Everyone in the team understood it was probably the right decision but addressing it this late was a bit frustrating. Though, game development is many times about adapting, and so we did.
After running full speed ahead again people at HQ in Finland started to get excited about what we were cooking, and pretty quickly someone asked if we were interested in making Angry Birds 2, a true sequel to the most downloaded brand in gaming history. For quite a while there were discussions what to call the game. Calling it Angry Birds 2 meant way higher expectations and stakes, and for a long time we questioned if it was worth taking that route. But calling it Angry Birds 2 also helped the team direct their focus and ambition, and honestly, with totally new gameplay additions and a complete overhaul of the graphics, it played like a sequel. So we went with Angry Birds 2.
Big ambitions for a big audience
Angry Birds 2 became one of the most challenging games in our repertoire because of the high ambitions combined with neverending gameplay on limited hardware. In general, 2D art on mobile is risky. Besides headache, it brought us transparency sorting issues, bad texture compression, performance stalls and loss of memory. In short - more art meant more trouble.
The original game was unique in several ways but also when it came to target groups. It attracted what we like to call the 4Qs: the boys, girls, men and women. Some of Rovio’s latter games had become less inclusive, targeting more of the boys. To reach wide again our game was given a romantic and inviting art direction that laid a great foundation for picking color palettes, creating backgrounds and overall content in the game. The feature film Croods and the gorgeous Rayman games served as great inspiration for the look as well as the Toons episodes made internally by Rovio’s animation studio. But from a technical point of view we couldn’t exclude too many low-end devices. To reach a wide audience it had to run smoothly on iPad 2 and stay within the 100mb app store limit for cellular connections, so we had to be smart around things.
Some ideas didn’t just solve a problem but also added something nice. One example is the situation when a coder shortened loading times by entering the level before the towers were loaded. Instead of hiding the problem we emphasized it by letting the ingenious, handy pigs raise the towers block by block with construction effects (on a side-note, that sparked the title “Under Pigstruction” for the soft launch). Another example is the the depth of field effect we got for free by blurring and scaling down background textures based on distance. Besides keeping memory usage low it also increased readability.
In order to bring more of the pigs expressiveness and humor to the game, two people spent full time building animation rigs, controllers and animations for all our characters. The animations feeded the Artificial Stupidity system that gave life to the pigs, making them react to the world. Selected objects had emotional parameters that affected characters within range. The system was amazing but was hard to notice on mobile screens. To help that we tried a picture-in-picture window, to highlight important events and let the player get more familiar with the small green things on the screen. In respect of the legacy and from a gameplay perspective it was always sensitive adding, moving or removing elements from the game. In the final product many things might have a natural place, but they were never for us until the last polished moment.
The vast amount of levels forced us to find ways to add variation and a sense of progression. Dynamic content was the key. We set up a shader mask system, using the RGB channels of the textures, that would let us relight every scene in real-time. We also took control of effect parameters like swaying and scrolling using values from vertex colors. We used every trick in the book, as long as the game kept running smoothly and didn’t upset the game designers. Overall we wanted to create the sense of a bigger and richer world than in previous Angry Birds games. Of course, there were a lot of other things to improve, like creating a more organic world and adding an expressive and animated UI. Destruction was also a big part of the core game so it was important to nail that feeling. In some ironic way, we went from console game destruction at DICE to mobile game destruction at Rovio. It’s a curse.
We launched a game
In hindsight from a production point of view, we left one triple-A game to build another. Considering we were only four artists and two animators at any given moment during development, each of us needed to cover a lot of areas in order to make this work. None of us had actually used Unity before, so it’s was an incredible challenge but also a great lesson. One have to remember, none of this might have happened if it hadn’t been for that one day when a coder said “I made Angry Birds in Unity last night”. That day proved that anything was possible with Unity. Standing on the other side today, we couldn’t agree more. We launched Angry Birds 2, a game that we are very proud of, and hope that players enjoy and appreciate all the hard work and love we put into it.