Rovio rethinks the mobile gaming biz, Samsung mocks it



Rovio Entertainment's long-awaited Angry Birds Toons is finally coming to a television near you--maybe. The 52-episode animated series, which fleshes out the saga of the blockbuster mobile game's title characters and the Bad Piggies who stole their eggs, will premiere March 16 on selected television networks overseas and expand a day later to some video-on-demand platforms, including Comcast's Xfinity on Demand in the U.S. More importantly, it will screen across every title in the Angry Birds franchise: Beginning this weekend, Rovio will add a "Toons" button to all game homescreens, in one fell swoop creating a direct video distribution channel that reaches all 1.7 billion gamers worldwide who've ever downloaded an Angry Birds release.

Think about that: A potential viewing audience of 1.7 billion. CBS's NCIS, the top-rated series in primetime television, drew a comparatively paltry audience of just 20.8 million American viewers last week. It's no wonder that Andrew Stalbow, Rovio's executive vice president of strategic partnerships, told Forbes that adding video players to its titles will turbo-charge the firm's transition from game developer to full-fledged entertainment powerhouse. "With this major update, the game isn't just a game, but a game and a video channel," Stalbow said. "It's a bold move for us and allows us to reach our fans through all connected devices. Our strategy has always been to treat our game launches as services, always adding new value. This is the biggest update we've done yet."

Because Angry Birds Toons hasn't premiered, it's impossible to know if the series is any good, but Rovio's animation chief Nick Dorra has cited inspirations like the Looney Toons and Tom & Jerry franchises, which is definitely promising. Rovio's previous track record also speaks for itself. So assuming Angry Birds Toons is indeed worth watching, and if even a small percentage of those 1.7 billion gamers tune in as new episodes debut each week, the nature of mobile gaming--and mobile entertainment as a whole--could change dramatically. It's easy to imagine Temple Run, Cut the Rope, Pocket God and other all-time bestselling games spinning off animated series of their own, sidestepping traditional broadcast and video platforms in favor of in-app distribution, a model that awards developers complete creative and financial control. But there's also no rule stating that only Rovio animated properties can run inside Rovio titles--the publisher could open its in-game video network to other content partners in and out of the mobile segment, building a true multimedia empire with a massive global audience. Stay tuned.

Rovio isn't the only company exploring the cross-promotional capabilities of the mobile gaming platform. Earlier this year, Samsung Electronics teamed with ad agency 72andSunny for a series of tongue-in-cheek television commercials spotlighting its enterprise-ready smartphones through the prism of a fictional game development startup at work on a mobile title dubbed Unicorn Apocalypse. I personally found the campaign not only irritatingly unfunny but also condescending, trafficking in cartoonish, "Look at these pathetic nerds!" stereotyping that would embarrass even CBS's execrable Big Bang Theory. Samsung didn't stop at a television campaign, however: It also sponsored a contest to create a real-life Android version of Unicorn Apocalypse. That game, developed by contest winner Liquid Gameworks, is now available for download from Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Play--and it stinks as much as the commercials. 

This shouldn't come as a surprise. A kitschy name like Unicorn Apocalypse doesn't inspire much confidence, and the commercials depict the fictional developer team as buffoons. But Samsung spent millions on the campaign, giving Unicorn Apocalypse the kind of mainstream exposure typically afforded to mass-market products like beer, soda and pizza, not mobile apps. So why not build an awesome game that capitalizes on that exposure? Why release something so profoundly mediocre at all? And why would you ever want to suggest that professionals who choose Samsung products over other smartphones are total incompetents? The Unicorn Apocalypse campaign may portray mobile game development in an unflattering light, but Samsung comes off looking far worse.--Jason