Interview: Dave Castelnuovo of Pocket God

In Apple’s growing world of mobile applications, few have stood out like independent developer Bolt Creative and their best-selling Pocket God phenomenon. Selling for the mere pittance of just $.99 through Apple’s iTunes marketplace, this strange mix of simulator meets screensaver has already moved to the top of the charts – and over one million copies – since it was first released, and thanks to a growing fanbase and continuous updates, it looks like we haven’t seen the last of our little Pygmy friends.

One of the iPhone/iPod Touch’s earliest and brightest stars, we sit down with the game’s co-creator Dave Castelnuovo on the project’s success, its surprise controversy, and working with who many call the fastest-growing gaming company in the industry, Apple.

For the full Popzara Impression of Pocket God, just click HERE!  Special credit to Allan Dye for the fantastic artwork!

First of all, congratulations on the success with Pocket God, one of the best-selling and most popular downloadable Apps for the Phone/iPod Touch platform since its release in January of this year. But for those who may be unfamiliar with your work, mind filling in the blanks and explain why we’re so excited?

Hmmm, maybe you guys are just excitable. Just kidding, we hit the lottery with Pocket God and managed to create a really simple experience that has grown to include quite a bit of depth after 20 content updates (with many more updates to come). The game has a wicked sense of humor and has managed to appeal to variety of demographics: high school kids, women, gamers, edgy parents that don’t mind that their 5 year old kids are lighting pygmies on fire in the backseat with their $400 phone.

Pocket God is certainly Bolt Creative’s most ambitious iPhone/iPod Touch release yet, easily the most complex and interactive – not to mention successful. Is there any going back to simple functioning Apps, or has the company found the wild world of fame and fortune just too irresistible?

Pocket God was originally a very non ambitious app. We just started developing for the iPhone in November of last year and knowing full well that I have A.D.D. and can’t hold my interest for more than a week, I developed a couple of titles with a budget of 2 to 3 days each. That January, we decided to let loose and give Pocket God a whopping budget of 1 week to complete for fear that we would move onto something else if it took longer than that.

For future titles, we will be investing more time into the initial development but I hope I’m not distracted with trying to have the same kind of success a second time. I think trying to reproduce success ends up giving the project a lifeless feel. We want to have fun during development. It’s all about the path, not the goal.

A group of Pacific Islanders recently made headlines when they labeled Pocket God offensive to their people, citing cultural insensitivity. When creating the game, did it ever occur to you that there may be a group of people to take offense to its content?

The Pacific Islander controversy took us by surprise. We wanted to make a game with an Island theme and I just don’t know how to go about doing that without including Island references. Although, the fun of the game is that you can be mean to cute characters, I really don’t think any of our fans relate the characters to an existing culture.

With the recent pull of Baby Shaker (among others) did you ever believe such controversy would hit such a simple, whimsical game such as Pocket God?

Well, did think something like this could happen to us, just not with Pacific Islanders. We thought religious groups would be more concerned about our app. In fact, while some religious bloggers have called our game childish, there are a lot of them that really like the game.

Could there be a bit of a trend developing for Apple’s platform, where creators rely on racism or other outrageous tactics for shock value in order to move units? It seems as if this is a hot topic these days for quick and easy attention from the media.

We live in a society where people want to be just a little bit bad. They enjoy watching people do things that are slightly against the grain of society, look at Borat, South Park, and Howard Stern. However, there is a big difference between being offensive in order to get press and doing it in a way that isn’t really offensive to modern sensibilities. For example, if a developer tries to be racist just for shock value, they probably won’t actually sell games because even with today’s edgy sensibilities, racism isn’t funny (unless you’re making fun of a racist). Look at Michael Richards stunt a few years ago. Another point, the iPhone isn’t an open platform. Apple would never allow something that was patently offensive.

Maybe the next update to Pocket God will quiet the critics, as it seems the little guys aren’t sitting around, as there have been several updates to the original App already. We take it the legion of anxious pygmy fans out there looking forward to in the next installments? Plug away!

Like I said above, being offensive to Pacific Islanders is not part of the Pocket God experience. It was easy for us to make adjustments to the game to make it clear to people that our world is not based on a real culture from the Pacific Island region. We changed the statue in the game to reflect more of a fictional world and we stopped calling the Pygmies “Islanders”. Originally we thought the term islanders would be the most generic and safest thing we could call these characters but had no idea that the world islander is sometimes used as an abbreviation of the term Pacific Islander.

Speaking of updates, Apple has just updated their Phone/iPod Touch system software and given App developers better flexibility over DLC (downloadable content) and updates. Given the structure that Bolt Creative took with Pocket God, are there any plans to take advantage of these changes to enhance the experience with micro-updates?

We will continue our update strategy as-is with the new 3.0 firmware. I made a commitment at the very beginning that we would never charge for updates and we plan on sticking with that. However, we are looking into using push notifications so people can challenge their friends to mini contests within Pocket God. We also want to make it clear that we will not be abandoning users that are still using the old firmware. We will still support firmware 2.2 until over 95% of our user base has made the transition to 3.0. If we do use 3.0 features before then, it will be in a way that does not alienate users that haven’t upgraded yet.

Apple has found tremendous success in consolidating the world of mobile Apps and digital game distribution, but it almost seems like this success has been overshadowed by the company’s questionable approval process to actually get software into their iTunes Store. Horror stories have pegged the process scattershot at best and corporate censorship at its most egregious.

Without violating the terms of what we’re sure is an airtight NDA, how would you describe your experience working with Apple?

My experience with working with individuals at Apple has been top notch. Couldn’t be better, they really care about the job they are doing and go above and beyond to do the right thing. The only issue I have with Apple is within the processes (or lack or processes) that are in place. Plus, I realize how hard it is to do what Apple is doing. I think the people that work there really do care and want to do their best to make us developers happy, I just think that they don’t have the complete story from the developers perspective because many developers are afraid to publicly speak about the issues they are having for fear of angering Apple and getting negative treatment.

Because we have to ask, what’s playing in your personal player right now, apart from various Pocket God builds and unmentionables? Have there been any releases on the platform that have really impressed you?

Mecho Wars is great, Azkend, Heavy Mach, Mafia Wars. One thing about these games though, they have a great presentation and are fun but they are way too short. I love Mecho Wars but I finished it in 2 days. There needs to be more games like Zenonia which have tons of game play.

WWell Dave, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today, and we certainly wish you and everyone involved with Pocket God the best of luck in the future. But before we go any parting words of wisdom to aspiring developers who are thinking of staking their own claim in the growing field of digital downloads and mobile Applications?

Don’t second guess the market by trying to figure out what people will like, do something that is fun to develop. Also don’t get in it to be rich, get in it because you have something to share with people. Each app is a lottery ticket, it takes a lot of luck to be successful so make a game where the development itself is rewarding enough that you won’t be too disappointed if it doesn’t do as well as you expect. And if your game doesn’t do well, just move on to the next one without looking back.

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