To the outside observer, mobile game development often seems like a straightforward affair. For an industry giant like Rovio, the assumption goes even one step further, that the whole process is managed by such a well-oiled machine that it just sort of happens.

Even adding a partner like Hasbro to the equation for the unlikely marriage of two powerful brands in Angry Birds Transformers doesn’t seem like it could take that much more effort, since it’s just another spoke in the mighty Angry Birds wheel.

The truth is a bit more involved.

The Spark

As Angry Birds Transformers Executive Producer Mika Rahko recalls, there wasn’t one eureka moment that gave birth to the game. Rovio and Hasbro had ongoing talks about a partnership, with neither side stepping to the forefront early on.

“It was somewhere in the middle, although I think it was Hasbro who did the initial concepts or mock-ups on how the mash-up could look,” Rahko said to Gamezebo via Skype. “I know that it didn’t move forward for a while, maybe a year or something. Then when we started to talk about it, it was really just one workshop that we had together with Hasbro where we started to just talk about what would the mash-up even look like, and we started from the head of the birds, because at that point we didn’t even know whether we wanted to be bipeds or birds. So we started from the head of Optimus Prime. Once we nailed that, people’s eyes lit up when they saw it, like okay, that’s it.”

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He readily admits that there could have been some skepticism over how the two franchises could be merged together, but the character designs were able to win over any doubters.

“Together with Hasbro’s artists, we started to test different poses, like what if we put this mash-up robot head, with Red and Optimus Prime on top of the robot, standing poses and stuff like that,” Rahko said. “The first ones just really fell into place, and the characters in the game look pretty much exactly as they did in those first mock-ups. It was very natural in the end, even though it is a partnership that doesn’t cross your mind the first time you think about Angry Birds and Transformers. But once we got those characters and those poses, and Optimus Prime/Red together, both in the robot form and in the truck, it felt natural.”

In the finished product, the characters feel fully realized, incorporating personality elements from both bird (or pig) and bot. That’s likely because combining the two very different IPs ended up as the easiest part of the game’s creation.

The Mis-steps

Angry Birds Transformers is best classified as a side-scrolling shooter, yet there are gameplay mechanics that recall even the earliest Angry Birds titles. As players blast their way through each stage, there are numerous structures in the background they can use to take out pigs by knocking rocks down on top of them or blowing them up with dynamite.

It’s an ingenious way to entice gamers with the classic and the new at the same time, but it didn’t start out that way. Rovio was originally interested in something a lot more like the kart racing game Angry Birds Go!, and its partner was intrigued by the idea too.

“That was kind of Hasbro’s interest at the time as well, that we would do more driving gameplay with some battling and shooting as part of it,” Rahko said. “So we set out to do a 3D game where the camera would be behind the characters, and you would be driving and then shooting some targets and stuff. Our first prototypes were actually track-based, where the camera was behind the character, and you were driving, and then suddenly some targets popped up and you shot them.”

The problem with that approach was that there was too much going on for a casual game, with players asked to worry about driving, shooting and eventually, transforming. The next idea was a lane-based approach with different things to do in each lane. That still proved less than satisfactory, because the character designs that had the principals so excited were wasted when you were looking at them from behind.

A breakthrough came when someone suggested that the camera be moved 90 degrees to one side, though the person who came up with that idea wasn’t a Rovio employee.

The Middlemen

“To be honest, I think that successful games are a success because part skill and part luck, really,” Angry Birds Game Director Nick Harper said.

exient-logoHe would know. As Studio Director for UK-based gaming company Exient, Harper understands how a lucky break can sometimes be essential in capitalizing on a great opportunity — even one that begins with someone else’s misfortune.

“I think the conversation about doing an Angry Birds game came around about October 2013,” Harper said “At that point, there were only about five or six of us in the studio because we had just formed it. But there was another games company in Leamington Spa, where we are, that was called Blitz Games Studios. They did a lot of console games and stuff like that, and those guys just went into liquidation at the same time that Rovio was talking to Exient about doing what at the time was Angry Birds Go! Transformers. That’s what we were told it was going to be. So because they were all looking for work, and we got about 20 or so of those guys, they grew our studio from the five of us to about 25, and then we had a team that was ready to do this game.”

Exient is the kind of company that helps form the secret backbone of the video games industry, tackling contract work for other developers or publishers, often for specific platforms. Put another way, you didn’t play an Exient game if you own Madden NFL 06 on Xbox 360, but you did if you have it for Nintendo DS. You won’t see their name or logo pop up when you launch Angry Birds Transformers even though they did the bulk of the development, with Rahko and others on-site to coordinate. More importantly, Exient had already done Angry Birds Go! for Rovio, and Harper says that they were initially contacted to work in the Transformers as an add-on or expansion pack for that game.

His memories of the early gameplay concepts are similar to Rahko’s, as he describes a paper prototype with a racetrack similar to Baby Park from Mario Kart, but with towers that had targets the robots could shoot. It worked almost like a board game at that stage, but it didn’t end up working once the team converted it back into a digital prototype.

“It sucked,” Harper said. “It was just really awful. It was completely chaotic, nobody knew what was going on, and we couldn’t tell what was happening. The car experience wasn’t great either, because it was trying to simplify the driving experience from what we had in Angry Birds Go!, and we didn’t want to just reproduce that. We thought, what’s the point?”

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The developers focused in on the most entertaining part of the game, which was playing as a robot and tapping things to shoot. Done from a traditional 3D gaming angle led to confusion since the targets would zoom by the player so fast, as well as look bad “because you’re looking at the robot’s bum all the time.”

Harper’s solution was to turn the action sideways instead, placing the targets in the background. All he had to do then was hope everyone else was equally enthused by the idea.

“It was our initiative, our prototyping process that really led us to that call,” Harper said. “Then we had to present it to Rovio, to hopefully get their buy-in, because you know they could have turned around and said, ‘Well this isn’t what we wanted, we wanted a driving game.’ Fortunately, when we showed them the demo, I think they could see the value in it, even though it was really basic at this point, and they said, ‘Yeah, this looks pretty cool, actually, go with it.’”

The story still doesn’t end there, because the dev team still had to tackle one of the fundamental challenges of any Transformers game: how do you make both robot and vehicle gameplay compelling?

The Truth About Transformers

“That was the hardest part to solve when it came to the core gameplay, really,” Rahko said. “We of course played a lot of the previous Transformers titles as well, and I think it’s fair to say that all of them have struggled with that a little bit. It’s hard to make core gameplay that uses both of those well, but in a way that it’s not overwhelming either.”

Harper uses the word “horrific” to describe the three months it took to figure out how to incorporate the vehicle modes in an organic way, and he thinks he knows why that is a struggle for game designers.

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“If you look at the Transformers cartoons or the movies, the guy who writes the scripts completely controls whether it’s a robot or in car form, whatever is going on,” he said. “Whereas in a video game, you have freedom to do what you like. Imagine the Transformer goes into an elevator as a robot, and that works fine, but then suddenly the player goes, ‘I’m going to turn him into a car,’ and you’ve got a car trapped in a lift, and it’s going to suck. In a movie, it works great, because obviously he’s going to be a car if he’s driving along a highway. But in a game you can actually go, ‘No, I’m just going to run along this highway, even though it’s going to take me five hours to get to my destination.’”

Early experiments included having separate lanes for robot and vehicle play, with a flick or swipe mechanic that would transform the character and switch it between lanes. In vehicle mode, gameplay was similar to 2D, physics-based driving games, while the robots still had plenty of things to blast while running.

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To force players to switch lanes, the developers inserted big, indestructible hazards in the robot lane, which to them made it obvious that turning into a car was necessary.

“The thing that we didn’t realize, of course, is that when we put this in the hands of consumers, they just wanted to blow everything up,” Harper said. “So what happened was, you’d walk along as a robot shooting everything and having a great time, and then there’d be this big hazard on the robot lane to force them to become a car, and they would keep shooting and would just walk straight into it. We ended up scrapping everything completely and merging it back into one lane.”

The final solution was simply to have something that would damage or destroy the characters if they didn’t transform, which ended up as the falling monoliths found in the game today.

“We just tested how it feels about using it as a dodge,” Rahko said. “You transform, you get a little boost, and it felt good, pretty much instantly when we implemented it.”

With both robot and vehicle gameplay finally licked, all that was left was to figure out a way to tie it all together.

The Metagame

Like Angry Birds Go!, Angry Birds Transformers is a free-to-play title, with all of the questions about proper monetization, length of play session and pace of progression that come with the form.

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“We approached that by doing a Flash prototype of the whole metagame,” Rahko said. “It was the first time we did that process, and it was quite nice for us because we were able to iterate on it very quickly. But we really set out to do a game where you don’t have to spend any money. We wanted to be very generous when it comes to the game economy so that you don’t feel that restricted if you don’t have the currency. I think that we reached the metagame that we wanted quite early on; it was maybe already like the fourth month of development, and this was about a 10-month project.”

Harper adds that the Flash prototype had no core gameplay at all, but simply a red or blue circle that would represent Red as Optimus Prime. As the devs moved it along, they would accept missions and either succeed or fail, receiving the corresponding rewards. That led to the current system of upgrades and unlocks, with the game’s monetization aided by the option for players to watch videos that either double the amount of coins they receive or increase the amount of time friends’ characters can be summoned to help.

To test out the endgame, Harper says he simply plays with a regular account and spends no premium currency, figuring that’s the only way to really tell what things are like for users who play on a consistent basis but spend little or no money. Even then, there’s still a certain amount of uncertainty.

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“It’s really hard, because you think if we get this wrong, like if I get to rank 150 or something and I go, ‘God, it all goes wrong at that point,’ what can I do?” Harper said. “But it’s the only way that you can genuinely empathize, I think, with the audience who’s going through exactly that same path. That’s why I say it’s difficult, because it’s kind of nerve-wracking, like we don’t know what’s going to happen when we hit rank 200. I do know some people have gotten there already, and it seems okay. It was impossible for us to get there naturally to find out.”

Players appear to be just fine with the monetization and endgame, as Angry Birds Transformers has consistently ranked between about 100 and 17 among all games in the U.S. App Store for the past three months. That leaves us with just one more party we haven’t discussed.

The Stakeholder

Early in the development cycle, Rovio did all of the communicating with Hasbro. That saved Exient from being caught in-between the two companies if there were disagreements about the direction of the characters or the game, though Rahko says those were few and far between.

“In general, it was just really good to work with them,” he said. “They gave us a lot of freedom, and they trusted our ability to shape an amazing game, which we did. They were really open with all of the ideas and fast on approvals and everything, so yeah, it was all good. I was also super happy when we came up with the idea of going full-on 80s with a lot of the marketing and stuff. Hasbro loved the idea, and provided us with a lot of reference material from the original cartoon series, and music and so on. It just worked.”

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Now that the game has been out for several months, Exient does more of the day-to-day dealing with Hasbro. Harper mentions that the employees his team acquired from Blitz included several big Transformers fans, so they have people on staff who can prevent them from making any serious blunders when it comes to the brand.

The Future

As Hasbro has toys to sell, it has some say in what characters players can expect to see in future updates to Angry Birds Transformers. There are easily dozens, possibly hundreds of Robots in Disguise who haven’t made their way into the game yet, and while some Angry Birds characters are already doing double duty in mash-ups, there are others, like The Blues, still waiting for the right match.

“There will be new characters that are based on Angry Birds that have not been seen in the game but also some that are already existing in the game as another mash-up character,” Rahko said. “We definitely want to extend the character palette that’s in the game. It’s kind of the main driver, at least for me, playing the game, just seeing that character matrix, I want to fill it up.”

There are other surprises that could pop up too, thanks to the game’s circuitous path to reach its current form.

“There’s a stealth mode in there, where we had this idea that if you became a car, you were a robot in disguise, the enemies didn’t realize that you were a threat,” Harper said. “It’s probably still in the game, to be honest. The main code is definitely still in there. We constantly ask ourselves, what can we do, can we resurrect that somehow? We might use it as an Energon ability or something like that in the future.”

That’s the assumption about mobile game development, the idea that a title like this is never really a final version, that really is true. As long as people keep playing it, there should be numerous opportunities for skill and luck to keep colliding on Angry Birds Transformers before it’s all said and done.