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Rovio Mobile is all about physics. The creator of Angry Birds has popularized “physics-based” mobile gaming, helping to push titles that are mostly about applying force to objects to destroy them. At this point, Rovio is pretty good at making games like that.
But when it strays away from the Angry Birds formula, things get a touch hairier. Rovio recently released a spin-off game from the Angry Birds universe called Bad Piggies, and while it can be a fun title, there’s something a bit off about the game, and the physics meant to power it.
Bad Piggies focuses on the green pigs you’ve been destroying for years in Angry Birds, whose quest is always to find and pillage eggs for their breakfast (which is why those birds are so damn angry to begin with). In Rovio’s new game, they’ve got a map to the eggs, but it’s been destroyed, so the pigs need to gather up all the bits and pieces to reconstruct it. To do that, they need to move through side-scrolling levels filled with hills, loops, explosives and other obstacles.
So your job in Bad Piggies is not to destroy things like in Angry Birds, but to create. You need to transport the pigs from one place to another in each level, so you have to build them some kind of means of conveyance, like a cart with wheels or a box tied to balloons. The idea is a cool one – create the proper car, complete with fans, bellows or shaken-up soda bottles to power it, and you can complete each level to earn stars for meeting different conditions.
The trouble with Bad Piggies is that the physics don’t always behave predictably. Drop the same car into the same level from the same place and you may well get two very different results. In many stages, there’s not a lot the player can do to have a meaningful effect on scoring or how the level plays out. You just have to try again, maybe with one minor tweak, until you get what you want (or you get bored).
The physics are predictable, but the outcome is not – and not because you’ve done something differently. That’s where Bad Piggies falls apart, unfortunately.
Why Angry Birds works, but Piggies struggle
For a little perspective, let’s look back at the latest iteration of the Angry Birds line to see why that formula works so well. The Angry Birds formula itself is extremely simple: aim, shoot, destroy. It’s easy to do, it’s easy to see how it works, and it’s easy to calculate how minor adjustments from the player will have a bigger effect on the level at large.
Angry Birds Space is a case study of getting physics right. With that game, Rovio took the tried-and-true Angry Birds formula – shoot birds at buildings to topple them – and added a whole lot more rules. Gravity is the biggest one: planetoids and other celestial bodies have major effects on the trajectories of the birds you fling toward them. Suddenly, instead of just arcing your birds through the air, you have to think about banking them around floating asteroids and other space junk to get them where they need to go.
The original Angry Birds could be considered a puzzle game, perhaps, but at its heart it’s more of an arcade experience. There’s a lot of variability in each level, and it’s rare that you have to reason out the best way to destroy a building, but more about trying different things to achieve different effects. Angry Birds Space requires more planning, more assessing of the situation, and a keener grasp of how the level is going to play havoc with your strategy.
Compare that thinking with Bad Piggies. In Angry Birds Space, even an infinitesimal alteration in aiming, changing trajectory by just a degree or two, can have big consequences. Adjusting your strategy based on feedback is key to the game. Bad Piggies has no such adjustment capability because of the nature of the game. You construct your contraption on a grid, and each square makes up one piece of the contraption. You can’t really fundamentally adjust where it falls beyond a limited extent, or how it will roll or fly. You build it and let it go, like a Pinewood Derby car, and your ability to invest skill into the game is limited. Once you’ve tried the combinations available to you, it’s a matter of waiting for a good run.
Finding the secret to contraptions
In the middle of the two games is Rovio’s title prior to Bad Piggies, Amazing Alex. It’s another game about building contraptions, but they’re more like Rube Goldberg machines that have a specific objective to meet. And really, Amazing Alex’s machines aren’t as fun to make as Bad Piggies’.
But the difference is that Amazing Alex’s machines react much more predictably than those of Bad Piggies, and it seems that Rovio still has a ways to go to find the sweet spot that it achieved in Angry Birds with these new games.
For the moment, though, Rovio seems interested in making games in which players build cool things and then take them into the world, and it’s not an entirely bad idea. Bad Piggies is fun; it’s just not Angry Birds. If Rovio can lock down the secret of what makes those physics-based titles work so well, perhaps it will find a way to make building machines to take advantage of those physics. For the moment, though, the secret remains hidden.