Summary:

Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds, has a huge hit on its hands — 200 million downloads and ambitious plans for toys, animated series and even a movie. But is the company really thinking about the future . . . or just trying to cash in while it can?

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Rovio is on a tear right now. In just a couple of years, the Finnish games company behind Angry Birds has gone from being just another developer to owning one of the hottest properties on the planet. The game itself has now been downloaded more than 200 million times — a level of success that has helped the business raise $42 million to fund further expansion plans.

On the back of its investment, Rovio boss Peter Vesterbacka (his job title is actually “Mighty Eagle,” but I can’t bring myself to say that out loud) has been talking a lot recently, most recently at the Inspire Conference in London, outlining those plans. And they are certainly ambitious. For starters, he wants to get into the business of ”hiring and acquiring”; in addition, he wants to move more heavily into animation (in fact, last week Rovio bought Finnish animation studio Kombo). And if that wasn’t enough, he also says he wants to make the company the most popular entertainment brand in China in 2012.

You may well ask: China? Well, it’s a huge market, and Vesterbacka thinks that the development of Angry Birds–related films, animated series, plush toys and other goods can help it become an entertainment franchise that apes the level of success of, say, Hello Kitty.

You can’t blame Rovio for wanting to cash in on its success, of course — not least because striking gold wasn’t luck but part of a long-term plan to create a monster hit that very nearly failed to pay off. Indeed, the company had made 51 games before it made Angry Birds, a process that saw them come close to bankruptcy at points (this in-depth piece from Wired UK gives plenty of background).

But even though it has a huge success on its hands, is this a short-sighted answer to the question of “where next”? After all, all these plans, however grand, are essentially about one thing: exploiting Angry Birds. Seemingly unstoppable brands can get milked to within an inch of their life. For example: The original makers of Cabbage Patch Kids went bankrupt, despite wild early success; and Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog was a smash that rapidly became a cultural touch point — yet failed to help the company in the longer term.

In order to have lasting success, the chances are that Rovio needs to try and use the success of Angry Birds to breed another huge hit — to build an empire. That’s the model that other top companies have followed to develop broad, highly successful media properties. Nintendo used the success of Mario and the NES to build a platform that kept it going forward, creating new hardware and franchises like Zelda and Pokemon. A toy company like Hasbro, which started with Mr. Potato Head, reinvested in new ideas, created new hits and slowly built itself into a giant that now dominates toys, board games and action figures.

I’m sure that Vesterbacka and his team are well aware that fads run rampant in toys and games. But in order to make something that really lasts, they must make sure that when the next Angry Birds comes along — whatever it is — they are the ones who made it.

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