Dave talks about his game, Pocket God
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Interviewer: I’m here at the San Francisco Game Developers Conference and with me today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?
Dave: How you doing? My name is Dave Castelnuovo, and I made a game called Pocket God. We were number one in the Apps Store for a while and sold over 2.3 million units. It’s a little game where you take these little pygmy guys and drown them and skewer them with spears and light them on fire and do all kinds of really fun, mean things.
Interviewer: What inspired you to make the game?
Dave: Basically, we were just trying to get into the market in any way that we could. We wanted to do these short little projects. Pocket God was never meant to be a huge success. It was just meant to be a short little weakling project that we could have run with, that we could entertain ourselves by doing really extreme, kind of funny things. It just ended up that there’s lots of people, like me, that like that same kind of extreme fun.
Interviewer: So, while you’re developing it, you were having a lot of fun during the process then.
Dave: Right. Exactly. And I think that’s an important part of it is, you know, I think companies and people that go out there to try and capture the market, that doesn’t really work. You try and second guess. You’re not going to get as big of an emotional reaction out of just entertaining yourself. You should be your primary customer, and if you can entertain yourself during the development process, then chances are there’s going to be a lot of people like you that will also get into it.
Interviewer: How long did the development process take to get it done?
Dave: Well, the first iteration was only a week. So, we did it between Christmas and New Years of 2008, but then we’ve been putting in almost a year and a half of just straight seven day a week of 12 to 16 hour day work sessions since then.
Interviewer: So, after the first iteration then, what did you go about doing? Did you submit it to the Apps Store? Did you test it on people? How did that work?
Dave: Well, we just put it out there, and quite frankly my goal was to not really get bogged down in terms of trying second guessing people and waiting on stuff and trying to figure out: will this work; will this not work? Our strategy was just put it out there and get through it. See what happens and then just iterate and try something else.
Interviewer: So, you were thinking about doing other games, too?
Dave: No, no. Pocket God was originally meant to just be a stepping stone onto a more sophisticated game, a traditional game, and we’re kind of lucky that it took off because our traditional game probably wouldn’t have done nearly as well.
Interviewer: So, you released the game on the Apps Store. What happens?
Dave: So, when it came out, we were really hoped that it would do well. We hoped that it would sell, maybe, 200 copies a day. We kind of felt like, well what if nobody wanted it?
Interviewer: That’s ambitious.
Dave: Yeah, I know. That’s ambitious. That’s decent. If you can get, like, a 200 unit a day hit, you’re doing pretty well. I mean, that’s really decent. And then, we just started seeing it grow from there. A lot of people were giving us some negative feedback at first, and it really forced us to get out there and get into the community building and talk to people. And that was actually the best thing that could have happened.
I’m a developer. I don’t really spend a lot of time with social media, like Facebook or Twitter or anything like that. But Pocket God kind of forced me to get out there and forced me to put myself out there, my personality out there and to be kind of genuine with people. And that’s, I think, what made the biggest impact with Pocket God.
Interviewer: Can you talk about what kind of negative feedback were you getting? Was it just on the game play itself or just some of the issues, like sometimes it wasn’t as polished?
Dave: Well, before I did Pocket God I did a couple of other projects just to test the market and learn the SDK. The first one I spent 10 hours on. The second one I spent about two days on, and so granted they weren’t the most sophisticated apps in the world, but when people looked at Pocket God they looked at these other apps and they said, “Well, the creator probably doesn’t have a very good reputation. They’re probably not going to support this. I wouldn’t buy it, you know. It looks like one of those games that they are trying to sell you on the promise of future updates and most likely they’re not going to follow through on it.”
So, it was kind of like a turning point for us where this dream of being able to work out of our homes and work on our own creative was at risk.
Interviewer: And so, you put yourself out there. That’s pretty different. Did you do that before, or is that the first time you did it? What were some of the challenges and just being comfortable with that?
Dave: Well, I mean, I consider myself kind of an introvert, and quite honestly it was challenging to put myself out there like that. But I’m a fan of real, genuine comedy and real, genuine personality. I’m a fan of Howard Stern, and he is about as open as you can possibly get. I’ve talked to him about all of his personal life, so I really felt like I didn’t want to be a marketer. I didn’t want to try and sell people. I think people are resistant to that anyway, so I just wanted to put myself out there and let people decide and just be more interesting rather than try to tell people to buy the game.
Interviewer: And so, you had a Twitter account and you just tweeted to that, or what were some of the things that you mentioned?
Dave: Well, originally we got on Touch Arcade, and we just started really working with that, developing one-on-one relationships with people, you know, making friends. My thought is if you know somebody, if your friend is in a band or something, you’re going to go see him and you’re going to try to tell everybody about him.
So, we wanted to try and go in public places, public forums like Touch Arcade, meet as many people as we could, get them to know us as people rather than a company and allow that to build this grass roots movement. So, we really worked the forums for a long time. I would put a developer diary on the forums. Then, it evolved more into a blog. We started doing a blog. I think the way that we market our application is a little bit different in the fact that we put more of a spotlight on our community and what they’re doing than what we’re doing.
We don’t send people to a website that has screen shots and videos and marketing language. We basically show them, here’s some kid that did this really crazy video because he loves Pocket God so much. Here’s this mom that created a stuffed animal pygmy for her kid because they just can’t get enough. Here’s this parent that’s watching their one-year-old know how to open up the iPhone and get into Pocket God, and they’re proud of the fact that she’s drowning pygmies and tossing them in the volcano. So, we want to basically show how crazy our fans are about the game, so don’t take our word for it take their word for it. You know what I mean?
Interviewer: Some of the stories you mentioned; it sounds like parents are playing with their kids. Is that a big part of it, or is it mainly adults?
Dave: We’re a pretty wide range. I would say the strongest demo for us is probably junior high school-high school getting into college. Some adults love it as well. They can’t get enough of it. Then, there’s what I call the edgy parents, parents that give their $500 device to their three-year-old and they’re like, “I don’t know if I should be worried that my kid loves to skewer pygmies.”
Interviewer: Aside from that, were you also updating the game itself, or were you focusing more on the community aspects?
Dave: I would say it’s about 50-50, you know. Community is definitely a big part of what we do, but for the first 14 updates – we did weekly updates – our schedule would go like, Tuesday sleep in, Wednesday start thinking about what are we going to do this week; what kind of wacky idea do we have. Thursday, Friday start investigating technology, all day Saturday pump it out, Sunday do bug fixes in cement and Monday get back to our client work.
Keep in mind, for the first 14 updates we were releasing real functionality not just bug fixes and text changes but real functionality every single week. At the same time I had 60 hour or plus a week client work. Allen, my partner, had his clients that he was working on. So, we were just really, really busy. We saw that we had a little of a wave. We weren’t secure enough yet where we wanted to quit our jobs, so we just put everything that we had behind this. And we really tried to just build that wave as big as we could.
Interviewer: You also worked with the new trend of games as a service; well not you, but games as a service thing even for the iPhone.
Dave: Yeah. I guess so. At first, we called it episodic micro game. It’s just these little touches of interactivity, like part of a sandbox and we evolved it to the point where we have mini games and different types of things where we’re starting to put in purchases where we offer them skin packs. But, yeah, it’s kind of like an extended development process. It’s like there is no end. As long as Pocket God does well, we’ll still be adding content and it’s for your original 99 cent price point.
Interviewer: So, a lot of indies are working on their game on the side, and they got their main job. When did you decide to just go all the way with Pocket God?
Dave: Well, basically it just kept on getting harder and harder in order to do my client work. And a lot at the beginning we were able to do updates every single week. At first, it was like, an update took me a day. Then, all of a sudden, it started taking two days. Then, all of a sudden, it took a week. Then, all of a sudden, it took a week and a half. So, I had to start pulling back days from my consulting work, and finally it was at the point where there was just no way I could do anything but Pocket God. And now, we’re completely wrapped up in it.
Interviewer: Were you number one before you decided to go all the way with Pocket God, or how did that work?
Dave: Yeah. We were actually number one for a while before we started to go all the way, and to be fair it wasn’t just the financial thing. The client side work was for worldgolftour.com. They’re really great people, and I was there since the very beginning. I really wanted to stick around and help them out as much as I possibly could. So, I really made an effort to, at least, spend a couple days a week even after we were number one, at least, spend one day a week. But then finally it just got too much, and I left them in a good position. They totally understood. So, it just ended up being the right time to split off from them.
Interviewer: Once you became number one, what were your thoughts? Were you a little concerned that it might just peak and then go down, or how were you going to keep that going?
Dave: I think that happens the entire way. So, when we actually got into the top 100, we were like, “Oh wow. I can’t believe this happened. When’s the other shoe going to drop? When are we going to fall right out?” And then, we got up to 55 and we were like, “Wow, this is awesome.” Then, we slipped back down to 60. Then, we were like, “OK, that’s it. Our reign is done.”
And then, all of a sudden, we hit 50, and we jumped up to number two. The whole process, until we were in the top 25 for four months or so, it was continuously checking the Apps Store, continuously checking our ranking, just like every five seconds, kind of a paranoia that is hard to get over with.
Interviewer: So, now you’re working on this full-time. Are you thinking about doing another game on top of this while you’re working on this game? You know, that’s the strategy that some companies have followed and then some companies have just gone on all the way with one game.
Dave: Well, the whole thing with our strategy is I don’t want to create a company out of it. I don’t want to take all the revenue that we made and spill it into another game that could possibly fail, and then, all of a sudden, we’re out of the industry. We want to be really careful about the growth. I’m actually not much of a company builder. I like working in my home. I like peace and quiet. I like keeping things small, so we’re really going to focus on that.
Instead of creating a new game ourselves, what we’re looking at is licensing, finding existing teams that may have expertise in the console industry and Facebook and different things. And going with them, creating a partnership and then assisting them in the development of a Pocket God game on another platform, or on another iPhone game with a different genre.
We think that the game lends itself to all kinds of games. The big hook with it is the cute characters and the humor, the mean humor aspect of it. So, we think that it could be a full puzzle platform, or it could be a cool collection of mini games. It could be an animal type game. So, it’s really a question of finding somebody that really believes in the game, believes in the characters and wants to do a good job and handle the management of that piece.
We don’t make as much money in that way in the long run, but it’s really a lifestyle choice for us that we want to keep things small and we want to keep things quiet and we don’t want to blow up fast and then explode like a firecracker.
Interviewer: What suggestions do you have then for other indie game developers who are trying to do their own game, their own either indie game, either on Facebook or iPhone or mobile or something else?
Dave: My advice is to really stay true to yourself. Try and please yourself. If you can get an emotional impact out of yourself and create a game that causes you to laugh or causes you to say, “Wow, that’s awesome”, that’s going to be the strongest kind of reaction that you can get. Keep on looking for that. Keep on looking for things that move you and chances are people that like you are going to be moved as well.
At the end of the day there is a big luck factor. There is a certain aspect of being in the right place at the right time, and the only way that you manage that is by being in it long-term. Don’t iterate like crazy. Don’t sit there and agonize about what color a button needs to be. Get stuff out there quick. See what it does in the real marketplace and then iterate with a new game or with updates, but focus on trying to do things quick. Get out there. Test stuff. Don’t take it too seriously because you might be wrong in terms of what you think the audience’s reaction is going to be but just stay in it long-term.
Interviewer: And so, do you keep trying to make the development still fun at all? Do you still try to keep laughing while you’re developing adding features, or how does that work? Is it now more serious now that you’ve already done all the creative work?
Dave: Well, it’s up and down. To be quite honest, there’s a lot of burnout in terms of working a half and a half for seven days a week, 16 hour days. So, sometimes we’re so tired that we think like, “God, what are we going to do this week? What are we going to do for this next update?” But, there are a lot of things that we laugh at. We just had a dance pack update where we offer seven different dances for the pygmies and we did the “pants on the ground” thing like a week after the viral video went out. That was hilarious.
We just did a story mode, and Allen came up with these really awesome story ideas. There’s one story that he played called “Dancing with the Ars” and another called “Gas Who”, these pygmies doing these cute little things. So, we still find ways of making it fun, but it’s hard. With anything that you’re working on for a year or so, it’s difficult to have that all the time. So, you just have to be realistic with your stuff.
Interviewer: I mean, how do you feel then just waking up every day, working on a project that you’ve done yourself that you’re creating. It’s not really for another client. It’s for your own customers and stuff like that.
Dave: It’s the most satisfying thing that I’ve ever done. I really felt that I had a lot of ideas that I wanted to work on something that would move people. Being in charge of your own destiny, working out of your home, I get to see my wife all day long because I don’t have to work late nights in an office. It’s really, really rewarding and it’s really great.
I would have to stay to anybody out there if they have that inside of them, if they feel like they would want to be an independent developer and want to do the same kind of thing, I would do it. Stop what you’re doing and find some way to do it. The way that I did it was, and I recognize that I have a problem finishing my own projects, was just to set up a little spread. Just say what can I do in 10 hours. I was going to do 10 hours. I’m going to start it and finish it and just get it out of the way.
It doesn’t have to be earth shattering. It doesn’t have to be the first time that anyone’s ever done what you’re thinking about. Just do something. Get it out there, and then when you’re done, try and do something else. But just try and find a way to get out there and do something and finish it and move on to something new. If you can do that, eventually something will hit.
Interviewer: You also had a partner though. A lot of indies will do it alone. Even for your previous projects, have you had partners or was this the first time that you decided to work with someone else?
Dave: Well, in my previous projects, the two that I did were just my own type thing. There’s all kind of different models for success. Some people actually find working with a partner really easy and with a game, especially. Typically, the lines are drawn as programmer and artist.
So, at the minimum you need that kind of configuration, but there’s plenty of projects out there that are just programmers, a programmer that has a decent creative streak. Maybe, you’re a fan of an 8-bit style, an old Atari 2600 type game. You can be a programmer and do a game like that and have a retro feel and end up doing something cool.
There’s a potential for success for anything that you want to do. You don’t know. If people knew what was going to hit, then they would do it, you know what I mean. Go out there and try something. Just try what you believe in. Figure out what your strengths are. If there’s a partner that you feel like you can work with really well, you might want to go the partner route. If you want to do something on your own that’s going to be really worthwhile, do that. It’s just a matter of getting out there and just trying things.
Interviewer: Where can folks find out more information about your game?
Interviewer: Thank you very much.