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A Cognitive Teardown of Angry Birds 220

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the i-really-hate-birds dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "The 50 million individuals who have downloaded 'Angry Birds' play roughly 200 million minutes of the game a day, which translates into 1.2 billion hours a year, more than ten times the 100 million hours spent creating Wikipedia over the entire life span of the online encyclopedia. Why is this seemly simple game so massively compelling? Charles L. Mauro performs a cognitive teardown of the user experience of Angry Birds and concludes that the game is engaging, in fact addictive, due to the carefully scripted expansion of the user's mental model of the strategy component and incremental increases in problem/solution methodology. The birds are packed with clever behaviors that expand the user's mental model at just the point when game-level complexity is increased ... For example, why are tiny bananas suddenly strewn about in some play sequences and not in others? Why do the houses containing pigs shake ever so slightly at the beginning of each game play sequence? Why is the game's play space showing a cross section of underground rocks and dirt? One can spend a lot of time processing these little clues, consciously or subconsciously. 'Creating truly engaging software experiences is far more complex than one might assume, even in the simplest of computer games,' writes Mauro. 'You go Birds! Your success certainly makes others Angry and envious.'"
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A Cognitive Teardown of Angry Birds

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  • Snake (Score:5, Funny)

    by supersloshy (1273442) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @02:18PM (#38002060)

    Can we just agree that Angry Birds is the new "Snake" and move on?

    • by ThePeices (635180)

      What is "Snake" ?

      • A game people played at their telephones before the smartphones era.

      • by hedwards (940851)

        I assume he means nibbles.

        • Although I always though Gorillas was more fun.

          • Re:Snake (Score:4, Interesting)

            by PaladinAlpha (645879) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @05:20PM (#38004726)

            OT, but I owe almost my entire programming career to Gorillas; it was just complex enough for an 8-year-old to make 'cool' modifications to.

            The first 'development cycle' of my life was changing the explosion radius of the bananas (nuclear bananas, yeah!) and encountering dissatisfaction with the result -- the game drew a series of concentric, colored ellipses to represent the explosion, and then the same series with background color to erase them (and the damaged terrain). The ellipse-drawing library function in QBasic (understandably) has aliasing problems such that drawing radius 1, then 2, then 3, and so forth would miss some pixels which fell between the lines of the ellipses, leaving unsightly floating particles. I can't remember how I fixed it, but I think it was drawing horizontally-bounded background-colored lines down the vertical axis of the largest ellipse.

            Anyway, that was the most fun I'd ever had, at the time. Now I think about that old, silly program and... want to go write a Gorillas clone *grin*. It wouldn't be the same with modern tools, though -- there was a lot of charm in that old, slow VESA pixel-juggling.

    • by ackthpt (218170)

      Can we just agree that Angry Birds is the new "Snake" and move on?

      Puts me more in the mind of Castles of Doctor Creep [wikipedia.org] or Pharaoh's Curse [wikipedia.org] games, which involved a certain measure of puzzle solving, on and off screen. Love to see these come back, particular Dr. Creep.

  • because? (Score:5, Informative)

    by sammyF70 (1154563) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @02:20PM (#38002082) Homepage Journal
    "Why do the houses containing pigs shake ever so slightly at the beginning of each game play sequence? " because box2D or whatever engine Angry Birds uses needs to stabilize the simulation? Meh .. maybe I'm just too prosaic.
    • Re:because? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by nepka (2501324) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @02:32PM (#38002248)
      It's exactly for that reason. It's always funny when people try to find some deeper reason in simple things, over-analyzing things.
      • Re:because? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Forbman (794277) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @03:42PM (#38003100)

        But from a cognition standpoint, those little bits of motion attract our attention, and make us go "Hmm...I wonder...". Sure, many of us in this particular audience realize the structure sometimes needing a few moments to stabilize is a consequence of the dynamic behavior of the physics engine, but we're not the rest of everyone else who gets sucked into it. That was the point of the article.

        And it is some or all of those little other things, intended to do so by the developers or not, that suck more of us in to this version of a game archetype compared to other versions.

        Also, read up on the design of casinos... there's a reason why they all basically look, feel, smell and sound alike. Or grocery or department store layouts...

      • Re:because? (Score:4, Informative)

        by shadowrat (1069614) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @03:42PM (#38003114)
        It's still a valid observation and worth noting. The author may or may not know that the shaking is due to the physics engine equalizing. His point is that it's interesting to users. Most people who play the game are not game developers. they have no experience with physics engines. They see random behavior and their brain churns it over and over again and again trying to correlate it with something. Consequently they are engaged in the game. Its technically a bug or a glitch, but it's a serendipitous one.
    • Re:because? (Score:4, Funny)

      by grub (11606) <slashdot@grub.net> on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @02:47PM (#38002440) Homepage Journal
      Very rarely parts of some houses will just fall on their own after the initial shake.
      Presumably we're to read into that that the developers had poor toilet training and had sexual fantasies about their mothers and cat.
    • It could be an accidental discovery, but keeping the shake in the beginning of the levels is a conscious design decision by Rovio. The game could have easily implemented the engine without the initial shake, but they decided that it added to the look and feel of the game.

      Angry Birds isn't successful because of a big profound idea. It is the attention detail and little things that add up to make a highly polished and interactive experience.

    • "Why do the houses containing pigs shake ever so slightly at the beginning of each game play sequence? "

      But not all of them shake and not on every board. They are using exagerated weakness to lure the user into specific attack points. This would be for the stupid people who didn't bother to check out the walk through's for every board on Machinima, you tube etc. Then again maybe it is just buggy code. Who knows but that game is damn fun to play and hard to put down. They need to come out with the cluster bomb bird for those really hard to crack fortresses. The blue guys just can't hack it.

  • It takes no thought and works for clearing my head during a commute when I don't have the energy to think about work. Just like every other iphone game, nothing specific about angry birds here. It was just one of the first good ones.

    • But why was it "Angry Birds" instead of "Alternative minigame X"? That's the point of writing articles/researching topics like this. What made Angry Birds the winner and not something else? In many cases its simply Marketing or Timing that win the pot but it doesn't mean it can't be fun to investigate deeper reasons.
  • by Spazmania (174582) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @02:23PM (#38002124) Homepage

    If a waking lifetime is around 450,000 hours then at 1,200,000,000 hours Angry Birds consumes nearly 2,700 lifetimes per year.

    • by spicate (667270)

      If a waking lifetime is around 450,000 hours then at 1,200,000,000 hours Angry Birds consumes nearly 2,700 lifetimes per year.

      That brings up an important question: is it better to be dead or to live out a normal lifespan doing nothing but playing Angry Birds? I'm leaning toward the former.

    • by longacre (1090157) *
      Or 694,444 Kardashians.
      • I think you are on to something there. As a unit of measure, each 30 minutes of wasted time should be referred to as a "Kardashian". The same length of time as their show.
    • If a waking lifetime is around 450,000 hours then at 1,200,000,000 hours Angry Birds consumes nearly 2,700 lifetimes per year.

      Tetris was a Soviet plot to undermine American productivity (and has consumed orders of magnitude more time and money than any other game).
      The Swedes just stole a free flash game and drew some pigs and birds.

    • by Burning1 (204959)

      That's assuming that Angry Birds provides no value or negative value to the players life. If we're ignoring the benefits, the same argument may be made about sex or sleep.

  • In other words, (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Baloroth (2370816) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @02:24PM (#38002140)

    It's a pretty well made game. Lots of visual clues, depth of strategy, and a smooth learning curve. Really, while hard to do, it's not that hard to analyze. "Mental model of the strategy component"? I'm thinking your just trying to justify a degree there.

    Now, if you can take that and make a good game, I'd be impressed. Just saying in long, complex sentences with technical words what any decent game reviewer can tell you already is not impressive. Or news.

    Oh, and the crappy plays on words are definitely not making me like this story any better.

    • by alphatel (1450715) *
      After playing for 20 minutes I was bored. Really, how does this compare to a truly great game? The fact that it is fun and caught on is about as important as Tetris. You aren't a world-minded guru because you do it better than someone else. And jealousy generated from my corner of the room is zilch.
      • by Baloroth (2370816)

        Never said it was a great game (I haven't even played it, for the record), merely that it seems like it was very well made from a gameplay point of view. There are plenty of games out there that fail at that (mostly by being either too easy or too hard). Angry Birds seems like it's right in the middle: easy enough for casual players, but with enough challenge to keep people engaged. That is not easy.

        And difficulty/complexity curves can be even harder, if you add anything beyond a mediocre level of complexi

      • by nepka (2501324)

        After playing for 20 minutes I was bored. Really, how does this compare to a truly great game? The fact that it is fun and caught on is about as important as Tetris. You aren't a world-minded guru because you do it better than someone else. And jealousy generated from my corner of the room is zilch.

        It's not made to compete with traditional PC or console games. It's made for mobile phones, and for those it's an excellent game. You can launch it quickly, the levels don't really take that long to play (great for quickly playing with phone when you're waiting for something) and the physics make it fun. I can't really think of other mobile phone games which would be more fun and suiting. Maybe some tower defense games, but those aren't as quick to play as levels take a long time. You basically need to paus

        • by alphatel (1450715) *
          I liked all these responses to my question. Yes, very much on the Tetris level, a simple portable game for a few minutes of challenge here or there. How it came to be as popular as Tetris, is a whole other analysis for the next game examiner to dwell on.
      • Um. If you're only playing games to show off.. no wonder you get bored. Try playing games for your own entertainment, not your ego.

        Are you saying Tetris isn't a great game? WTF. There are some amazing Tetris players out there too. To me a grade A Tetris player is as impresive as someone who does Rubik's cubes blindfolded, etc.

      • After 20mins you problem hadn't got very far and didn't see the progression of complexity of levels and the the extra bird types, I though it was boring really the first couple of times I tried it, but then it really hooked me
        • How about if we're bored after 5-10 hours?

          Then again, I liked Lemmings, probably about 20 hours of that; but never cared for Tetris.

        • by lgw (121541)

          I got bored when the twitch skill dominated the puzzle solving - a few hours in, I guess. When randomly firing birds became a the optimal strategy due to my inability to aim the little fuckers with pixel accuracy, I stopped playing.

    • It's a pretty well made game. Lots of visual clues, depth of strategy, and a smooth learning curve. Really, while hard to do, it's not that hard to analyze. "Mental model of the strategy component"? I'm thinking your just trying to justify a degree there.

      I agree about the visual clues and learning curve, but it's one of the shallowest games I've ever played. It compares well to Pac-Man in that regard, but not to many games in the post-arcade era.

    • "It's a pretty well made game."

      Angry birds is a clone of flash games that had been around for ages, the thing that angry birds got right was just sheer aesthetics that launched it into the statosphere. It has nothing to do with 'well made game' has everything to do with the bird aesthetic.

      Check out crush the castle (the games angry bird copied) below:

      http://armorgames.com/play/3614/crush-the-castle [armorgames.com]

  • by vlm (69642)

    more than ten times the 100 million hours spent creating Wikipedia over the entire life span of the online encyclopedia

    Well, there were 200 million hours spent, but they were deleted as not-noteworthy

  • Although I played it for a while, it always seemed to me like an impeded game of tanks. Not being able to enter an angle and power just became frustrating. My fat finger wasn't an accurate way to control avian ordnance whilst stood on a packed train so I gave up. I'd say i got some of my "life" back; but that isn't possible when commuting to and from work.
  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @02:36PM (#38002292)

    The birds are packed with clever behaviors that expand the user's mental model at just the point when game-level complexity is increased ...

    Translation: The game gets harder as you go along.

    • by Burning1 (204959)

      I once heard an expert level racer describe his strategy for winning as "Brake less, and use the gas more." Yes, the game gets more difficult as you go along.... But how it does so is what's important. If you watch the Extra Credits video, you being to observe that a pretty key part of game design is how the tutorials are incorporated into game-play, and how complexity and difficulty is introduced.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @02:41PM (#38002354) Journal
    You know the standard console games, the dedicated gamers, people who plunk down $2000 on a cool looking case for the PC, constantly looking for more graphics card performance, immersive gaming experience ... And these dev managers kept giving them what they want. Then Wii shows up with rudimentary graphics, trivial gaming strategies, but with a new user interface. Rocks the world and kicks the pants off the traditional gaming platform. Then this angry birds. Seemingly trivial game that a self-described "gamer" would not even deign to take a second look at, and it is played by more people than the population of China! Yeah, yeah, yeah, you can explain it. You deconstruct it. You can do Monday morning quarterbacking and make a cogent theory that describes it well, may be even accurately. But, there were professional software development managers. Working for XBox, and Sony Playstations, constantly looking for new ideas, new games, new strategies, new ways to expand their marketplace... All of them flunked. They did not see Wii coming. They did not see the Angry Birds coming. Why?
    • by 0123456 (636235)

      Working for XBox, and Sony Playstations, constantly looking for new ideas, new games, new strategies, new ways to expand their marketplace... All of them flunked. They did not see Wii coming. They did not see the Angry Birds coming. Why?

      There are lots more casual gamers than dedicated gamers. Casual gamers generally don't buy gaming PCs or game consoles, unless they're cheap.

      As for the Wii, I saw one once. I don't know anyone who owns one.

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      The same reason solitary is the most played game on PC. Popular platform, and after a while a game can feed on its own fame.

      • This. It's just an accessible, well-known game you can kill time/trance out with. People are freaking out about it being some kind of amazing formula to make millions but really it's just what Windows Solitaire has been for so many years. This time someone was able to monetize it, but at this point that lesson isn't useful until the next big platform shift, and even then you'll probably be headed off at the pass by Angry Birds' momentum.
      • Solitary? That some sort of prison game?

        (sorry)

    • Nintendo made a loss. The 3DS tanked and Wii sales are dropping.

      The problem with going after casual users is that they are fickle. I got to buy new games to justify my expensive gaming rig. But a casual player? Here today, gone tomorrow.

      Oh and it is Angry Birds that is hurting Nintendo the most.

    • by jellomizer (103300) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @02:49PM (#38002466)

      Well they target different markets. iPhone games or the Wii are best for casual gamer. Who want a quick fix then get on with their lives.

    • by spicate (667270)

      Seemingly trivial game that a self-described "gamer" would not even deign to take a second look at, and it is played by more people than the population of China!

      The 50 million individuals who have downloaded 'Angry Birds'...

      Population of China is about 1.3 billion. That's some serious software piracy...

  • by Twillerror (536681) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @02:47PM (#38002442) Homepage Journal

    Their is some value in understanding just how powerful iterative learning tied with reward is.

    Of course this is way easier to apply to a game then to real life subjects, but we could try.

    Imagine a computer programming tutorial game. Problems are thrown at your to solve by writing a function, class, whatever. Successful unit tests bring rewards and so on.

    Functions written in the early parts of the game could be used in subsequent challenges if not required. Use of them brings bonuses, achievements, etc. The faster your code runs the better...so replay would include rewriting older versions of your functions as to improve performance.

    There are plenty of games out there for children around school subjects, etc, but I rarely see them marketed at adults. Could modern warfare 3 not actually teach something as the game play goes....seems like language would be a good fit. You have to interact with characters in the game with more and more complicated version of some language to proceed. Start with having to say hi to a guard in whatever language, end the game having to convince him your not a spy.

    I guess the real point is creating a better sense of achievement and combining entertainment to overcome the usual tediousness associated with learning. I liked learning how to code because every time the compiler reported no errors it was like completing a level of angry birds. I can't say the same for economics and for many I'm sure they got no pleasure from cracking a calculus problem.

    • by jomama717 (779243)
      In lieu of mod points... those are fantastic ideas - very thought provoking.
    • by romiz (757548)
      This is the idea behiind Ribbon Hero [ribbonhero.com], a game designed to learn to use the ribbon interface of Microsoft Office.
    • by pz (113803)

      In a similar vein, I've often wondered how accurate and extensive the medical knowledge I've gained over the years of watching ER, House, and the other medical dramas on television is. From time to time, I check on things that are said, and usually they're right, if sometimes over-dramatized. But then, would that not be a good way to educate the general public about medical issues? Or, really, anything? I don't know the symptoms of stroke from those stupid acronym signs on the subway (PACE? HELP? STROKE

  • by tsa (15680)

    From one of TFAs: "The developers at Rovio took existing gameplay, presented it in a unique style, and sold it to people who would never have looked twice at Crush the Castle or the games from which it had been derived." So Rovio is just like Apple then! Maybe Rovio's boss should be the new Steve Jobs.

  • This. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Slutticus (1237534) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @03:30PM (#38002962)

    "seconds are consumed as the pigs teeter, slide and roll off planks or are crushed under slow falling debris. "

    This, this and this. There is something very satisfying about watching a structure teeter at the brink and then fall over in a spectacle of smashing debris.
    Also, the other day i figured out that i could topple a tower by timing a bird strike to correspond with the pendular motion of the structure after an initial strike. It blew my shit away....that realization.....the satisfaction of that......the simplicity of it.... It's a good simple game, can't we just enjoy it?

  • by Swanktastic (109747) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @03:38PM (#38003064)

    While it is interesting to see a UI expert dissect a piece of software, this piece reminds me a bit of folks who do analysis of lottery ticket numbers and then try to convince us that the winners are geniuses. We all know of a bazillion games that are similar shoot-projectile-random-result games (golf, bowling, Bloons, Peggle, Darts) and why they are addictive. Angry Birds is good, but the amazing success probably has more to do with social mania than UI design. OH, and hitching your corporate bandwagon to the iOS.

    • by Lehk228 (705449)
      it's not just the game mechanics, it's the pacing of the game, the timing, and the theme. it came out when there was demand for a good mobile game, it was easy enough for novices but with the stars it can be played a little harder core if desired, and it's cute theme attracted people who would never consider a "blow up the barricaded terrorists" game with exactly the same mechanics except with cannon balls, bolas, rockets, and hand grenades
  • by CycleFreak (99646) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @04:03PM (#38003422)

    I installed on my Android tablet (Acer Iconia, btw). I have not played games since Quake II - yeah, I'm old(er). But I thought I'd try it out just to see what all the hype was about.

    Here's why I keep playing it: Learning the game was fast and the controls are intuitive. I can fire it up in seconds, play a few levels and be done. I don't feel like I need to invest hours in it just to get good at it. But the game itself is actually enjoyable and satisfying to play. Look, after a day of stress at work, I don't really want to "work" at playing a game. I want to relax and have some fun. The graphics are well done and the sounds made by the birds and pigs are humorous. Even after playing it for weeks, I still giggle a little at the sound effects.

    But really, the biggest thing is that the game is good for time-fill rather than time-suck. Also, let's face it: There are millions (billions?) more people who are not "gamers" than there are "gamers". (Too many quotes? Possibly.)

  • by Digital Vomit (891734) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @04:18PM (#38003654) Homepage Journal
    Cool. It's literary criticism for games, where anything can mean anything.
  • by Kamiza Ikioi (893310) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @05:43PM (#38005160) Homepage

    "For example, why are tiny bananas suddenly strewn about in some play sequences and not in others? Why do the houses containing pigs shake ever so slightly at the beginning of each game play sequence? Why is the game's play space showing a cross section of underground rocks and dirt?"

    Add another proof to the Connoisseur conjecture - http://xkcd.com/915/ [xkcd.com]

  • by Chelloveck (14643) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @05:47PM (#38005234) Homepage
    They're missing the real reason for the success of Angry Birds: The music is a hypnotic ear-worm with mind-control properties. That, and you get to smash things. No one is safe from such a devious combination!

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