Developer Takes on Angry Birds in a 'Serious' Way

By Features FOXBusiness

Look out, “Angry Birds”, a new group of ornery animals is looking to take over mobile gaming and expand its own family-friendly brand beyond that platform. Seriously. 

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While the moniker could be a setup for a “Who’s on First” routine, Seriously is the company’s name. Given the pedigree of its founders, it should be taken as such as its first release, “Best Fiends”, launches in the Apple App Store Thursday.

Andrew Stalbow, co-founder and CEO, jokes about the company’s name, saying they want it to be memorable.

“We wanted the name to differentiate us and it has a good sense of humor. It could be a question or a statement.  It was inspired by fun entertainment brands like a Virgin," he said.

All kidding aside, Stalbow is one of several ex-Angry Birds executives who flew the coop to start what he calls a mobile-first entertainment company.  The UK native is based in Santa Monica, CA while Chief Creative Officer Petri Jarvilehto and the design team are in Helsinki, the city where their former employer--game developing rival Rovio-- famously hatched its flying, feisty fowls and agitated avians.

There are obvious comparisons since both games feature animated animals trying to save their loved ones from evil opponents. But the strategy differs from the “Angry Birds” approach both for playing the game and positioning it. 

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First, there’s no charge to download “Best Fiends” while “Angry Birds” charges 99 cents for the app.  

“I think the games market has moved to free-to-play,” the Seriously CEO said in an interview with FOX Business.

“Where we can stand out, in free-to-play the economics are:  95% of people don’t pay and 5% do. We’re in the franchise building business; this is the entrance ramp to our intellectual property. We ultimately value the 95% of people who don’t pay, too. I think we’ve built a game that’s really fun whether you don’t pay or you do," he said.

In other words, Seriously is looking at revenue streams beyond in-app purchases of additional powers to speed up the process of evolving the initially cute and cuddly protagonists into even more fiendish and powerful ones. Then they are better able to more quickly beat the clock in defeating the evil, voracious slugs that have not only taken friends and family hostage but have essentially taken over the world of Minutia.

In “Best Fiends” matching colored objects “powers up” the good guys so they deliver a more powerful blow. All of this is done to inject personality and empathy with the fiends, creating a back story in a puzzle game similar to a “Bejeweled” or “Candy Crush” but one that offers a richly rendered setting.

Stalbow emphasizes plot and character development (attaining powers through achievements in the puzzle game) are central to the “Best Fiends” experience, whereas anyone of any age who has played “Angry Birds” knows you don’t need to know the storyline to slingshot bomb-dropping and kamikaze birds onto structures sheltering those smiling green pigs. This focus on creating characters people care about it is part of a broader strategy by which the game developer plans to take over the entertainment world.

“We have lots of interesting ideas in building out the franchise through books and videos but as a small company, we’re focused on making the game amazing right now…The Hollywood community is intrigued by what we’re doing, making mobile first entertainment company,”  Stalbow, who once served as Senior VP for Mobile at Fox Digital Entertainment, representing the studio’s TV and film properties said.

Success in a Sea of Failure

The big question is: Can Seriously succeed where many app makers and content providers have failed?

“I think it’s too early to tell,”  media and technology analyst Rich Greenfield with BTIG in New York said. 

But Greenfield said he is impressed with the company's multi-platform strategy thus far. 

"It’s an ambitious idea, exciting to watch. Starting with the game and with content on YouTube, and building animated content around it. It’s a smart, logical approach and others can learn from it.”

Greenfield likes what he’s seen from the “Best Fiends” demo, but wouldn’t make a call before it hits the market. 

“It seems like a cool game but whether it’s not just ‘Candy Crush’ in size but has legs (extended popularity and growth), there’s no visibility," he said.

The analyst notes other mobile and social game makers such as Zynga (ZNGA) and King Digital Entertainment (KING) have been unsuccessful in their efforts to build sustainable IP beyond games.

The key for Seriously, like all startups, will be in the early execution and frankly whether the game and its quirky critter characters catch on. The game is fun and easy to pick up, a bonus for attracting all ages and for getting players to return.  Sometimes no cash investment can equal a low threshold for learning a game before moving on to a different app.

The game could get a big boost for its debut if the gatekeepers at Apple’s App Store highlight it as one of the Best New Games given top billing in the virtual marketplace. Other app developers have said the endorsement boosts reach exponentially and can be make or break a launch.

Seriously has planned two sequels and the lean team of 14 plans to draw on their experiences, and no doubt their contacts, gained from years working at Fox, Rovio, and game design shops that were acquired by Walt Disney and Zynga.

Stalbow himself spearheaded a move to partner the Fox film “Rio” with “Angry Birds” before making the career leap to Rovio where he helped forge a partnership with Lucasfilm that led to the “Angry Birds Star Wars” games.

Seriously has already struck some deals, raising $5 million in seed financing from Upfront Ventures, Sunstone Capital, and Daher Capital.

“Best Fiends” also has an altruistic aspect through a partnership with Malaria No More. One fiendish character is a mosquito—a good guy, who as Stalbow puts it, “gave up his blood sucking ways and now drinks coconut water” and he has become a mascot for the non-profit. When players unlock the ability to play with him you can then access the partner’s site.

The pieces for the puzzle game and franchise have all been digitally put into place, now comes the test. Will “Best Fiends” expand beyond its setting in the world of Minutia? Stalbow said simply, and optimistically before the launch, “If we can build a big platform that’s interesting to people, the money will follow.”

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