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Neverending story: The making of Pocket God

The game that keeps on giving
Neverending story: The making of Pocket God

There have been many great games for iPhone and iPod touch, but few of them are inherently shaped by the digital distribution opportunities of the App Store as Pocket God.

The so-called ‘island torture simulator' sees you as the all-powerful god ruling over your tribe of primitive islanders, who you can feed to the sharks, throw into a volcano, or strike with lightning to name just a few of the available powers.

The reason it’s sold over a million units however are the regular updates - to date 23 - that see new features added on a near weekly basis. Not only does it keep the loyal fanbase interested, but it brings in new players too.

We caught up with Dave Castlenuovo, programmer and Bolt Creative co-founder, to find out more about how the game was made and is being supported.

Pocket Gamer: Before we get into the details of Pocket God, can you explain about your career prior to Bolt Creative?

Dave Castlenuovo: My career started at a small development shop where I earned $20k a year. I had dropped out of university the year before and had no idea what my market value was but I was just happy to be working in the industry at the time.

My first project was a fighting game called Clay Fighter which I ported from the Super Nintendo to the Sega Genesis. The time I spent there was actually really fun (despite being paid like an indentured servant).

They basically threw a bunch of poorly translated hardware manuals at me, gave me the SNES version of the game, and told me to figure it out. I love this kind of freedom.

Over the next eight years, I jumped from studio to studio before finally leaving the game industry to become a flash contractor in the San Francisco area.

I started Bolt Creative soon after that to work on large scale flash games and applications. At our peak, we had 10 employees and worked on projects for Sony, Yahoo, some online gambling companies and many startups that fizzled in a blaze of glory.

Even though we were doing pretty well, the idea of running the company and managing people didn't appeal to me so I downsized and started consulting out of my home. My last flash project is World Golf Tour which I still consult on.

Do you think this experience shaped Pocket God?

Absolutely. I missed working on an actual game device and when Apple released the iPhone SDK and terms that are incredibly friendly to indie developers, I knew I would regret it if I didn't jump on it right away.

About the actual development experience, Pocket God is all about experimentation and being a little edgy. This is the type of project I wish I could have done early in my career.

Can you explain the inspiration behind Pocket God?

We are big fans of Adult Swim and South Park so we thought it would be neat to do something with the same kind of humour. The original idea was to crank out a project in a week and build a code base that we could use on a real game.

Allan [Dye - Pocket God’s designer/artist] and I looked to some flash projects we developed in the past to provide a basic functionality template so we didn't have to spend too much time trying to figure out what the core experience would be.

The island theme seemed to fit well with what we wanted to build and we pushed the sick humor toward the end of the first update by allowing you to drown the characters.

When did you realise the idea was sufficiently strong?

It took about five or six updates for us to realise it could stand on its own.

At the very start we received a huge amount of feedback about it being cool but there not being enough to do.

We’ve always been really conscious of this and even went so far as to dedicate an update called “Just give us 5 minutes”. We billed it as a secret unlockable update and not many people were able to unlock the secret.

The funny thing about it, all you needed to do was play the game for five minutes in order to unlock it. The reward was a firework show and pygmies celebrating the fact that you persevered with five minutes of Pocket God without turning it off.

Once we got more updates under our belt however, the feedback started turning from 'There’s not enough to do', to 'You should charge more', to now there are articles that suggest we should start charging for updates with the new 3.0 OS in-app purchase functionality.

Were the regular updates always part of the plan?

Not to this extent. We figured we would reach out to people for suggestions and would update semi-regularly, but the weekly updates only came after people started complaining about there not being enough to do.

I committed to doing weekly updates for the first month but we never had the guts to slow down and risk our standing. It was always, “the next three updates will be weekly releases, but then we’ll probably go to bi-weekly or even monthly after that”.

The problem was, every week I spoke about the same next three updates until we were finally forced to slow down (after 14 updates), when a few of our updates ran into approval issues.

Is there anything you wanted to include but for whatever reason it hasn't yet fit in?

We were thinking about doing a crossover with Baby Shaker but felt it would be in bad form. (Although I’m sure you guys can appreciate a dry sense of humour, my wife says I need to add a “just kidding” here.)

When did you realise you had created something special?

When we saw a You Tube video of a mom that made a Pocket God-stuffed animal for their kid. That was pretty cool.

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome?

My own Attention Deficit Disorder.

I don’t have ADD in real life but when it comes to working on my own projects I can very easily get involved in working on elaborate systems and end up being side tracked by a new idea before the original one was completed.

Can you give a rough breakdown of the development time and any significant tools used?

The initial game was developed in a week between Christmas and New Years [2008].

The first 10 or so updates took two days each to develop. It currently takes a full week (or more) for each update because the code base has been expanded on so rapidly.

What we really need to do is take a month or so to refactor the engine and make it more streamlined but that unfortunately conflicts with our update schedule.

As far as tools go, Allan uses Flash for all his design work. All the characters are done in vector format so we can scale them really easily and reuse bits for icons and promo materials. We also use Flash for layouts and animation. I wrote some scripts that pull the animation information out of Flash into a format that I can read in the game.

We rolled all our own tools and try to sneak in a couple of improvements with each update. It used to be very painful but the process has gotten a lot better over the last month or so.

How many more updates do you have planned?

I think we have a ton of updates still in us. As long as people are still interested in purchasing the app, we will still be making updates.

Our secret plan is to eventually implement every single play mechanic from the App Store into Pocket God. That way a user really only needs to buy Pocket God. We will then hold the App Store for ransom and ask all developers for 20 percent of their sales in order to keep Pocket God out of their territory.

Pocket God got a lot of viral interest so did you try to nurture this?

It actually happened pretty organically. We didn't seek out anyone to do reviews for the game, we just responded to email requests for promo codes.

Instead of growing up to be a rock star or DJ, it seems like a lot of kids want to grow up to become video game journalists. Most of these kids get blown off by app developers because each app only gets 50 promo codes per update.

Because of our update schedule, we have 50 promo codes per week and can be really loose with how we give them out. These kids really appreciate it when you reach out to them and they are very effective advocates.

You've been quoted that developers get too focused on small details to the exclusion of seeing a project as a whole. How do you think that philosophy has helped you?

Yes, I do believe this. I'm not quite saying attention to detail is rubbish, but in my career I've seen many cases where people debate an issue to death that doesn’t end up making a difference in the end product.

A lot of companies get held up on this and they end up spending a lot more time and money than they originally anticipated.

In the case of Pocket God, it simply helped us get the project done. Like I said before, if the initial development had taken three or four weeks to complete, I would have probably gotten distracted by a new idea or too focused on my client work to finish the game.

It also helps us keep cranking out updates on a near weekly basis. We come up with a concept and run with it immediately. There is a little bit of time to iterate but the art that Allan delivers is pretty much the art that gets shipped.

In the last day before submission, we have a prioritised list of issues. We look at that list and only hit the items that are must-haves. The rest we kick to an update where we have more time or wait to see if someone comments about it. We find that some items we thought were a big deal are not actually noticed by end users. Developers on the other hand, could probably pick apart the app fairly easily.

What was the thing that surprised you most about the reaction to Pocket God?

I'm surprised by all of it. I'm surprised by its success. I'm surprised we are still working on it and it’s still going strong. I'm surprised that kids love it so much they curse us and call us liars when our updates get delayed.

Here’s a funny comment we received when one of our updates had approval difficulties. This is my favourite comment.

"u guys should have some shame. u should be punished and ashamed for not getting the update on time. instead of replying to when it will be out and getting it out quicker u just concentrate on other stuff like wall paper contests really a pity."

After this, I really have some shame (although I was not punished).

Pocket God isn't really a game, more a play thing. Do you think developers are too focused traditional game concepts?

I don’t know if they are too focused on that. There are a lot of developers that are experimenting with things like voodoo dolls, rag doll physics toys, and other KRAPPS.

I think the issue is they are developing an entertainment app or a game and moving right onto the next project rather than expanding on the apps that people are interested in. Especially with games, I typically complete a game I really like in two to three hours and am left wanting more.

When they add updates, they usually add leader boards or user interface changes but why not add more levels?

I’m glad to see that some devs are coming around to this. Harbor Master is looking to add levels and new mechanics every week. Minigore is committing to doing episodic content as well.

Which part of Pocket God are you most happy with?

I’m really happy with the process of developing Pocket God. It’s been really enjoyable and many times we would catch ourselves laughing out loud when we saw the various tortures fully implemented for the first time.

When you consider future projects, does the success of Pocket God make you more or less ambitious?

The success of Pocket God is a major distraction when thinking about what we're doing for our next game.

It’s almost impossible to get the same level of success as Pocket God. We want to keep our team small so we can’t be more ambitious in terms of the amount of content we will be creating but it does open up new ideas we wouldn’t have explored in the past.

Thanks to Dave for his time.

Pocket God is available from the App Store priced 99c or 59p.

And check out our other Making of interviews such as

Doodle Jump


Real Racing


Space Invaders Infinity Gene

Toy Bot Diaries

Zen Bound