Interview: Pocket God developers bring “anti-social” gameplay to Facebook

Pocket God—the iPhone game that lets you torture worshipping pygmies in an ever increasing number of hilarious ways—is slowly but surely turning into a franchise. In addition to the iPhone game, which is nearing its 50th episode, there’s also an iPad game, and a series of digital comics. And now you can add Facebook to that list. Developer Bolt Creative recently teamed up with Quebec-based Frima Studio to bring the game to the world’s largest social network, and Gamezebo recently had the chance to talk to both Bolt’s Dave Castelnuovo and Frima’s Jake Theis about what it’s like taking a hit mobile game and bringing it to Facebook and why the series could be this generation’s Sonic the Hedgehog.

Why did you bring the game to Facebook in the first place?

Dave – As we’re developing Pocket God we kind of realized that a lot of the appeal of Pocket God is with the humor and the cute characters. And so ever since we had our peak on the App Store we wanted to branch Pocket God out, try to hit new game genres, try to extend what the brand means so that we’re not always pigeonholed to the same kind of sandbox game that it is right now on iOS. So I always thought that, you know, Digital Chocolate came out with Island God, which kind of riffed on some of our ideas, things like shocking people with lightning and stuff. And so I just felt that it would actually make a pretty good Facebook game. So we went around looking for partners. We really believe in not doing something for the sake of doing it. We first had to figure out who’s going to be a good partner? Are we going to have a chance of success with this? And we just happened to run across Frima and they seemed to have a really solid team and a lot of people internally that really know game design and how to market an app like this. So we decided to partner up with them and give them a shot.

Why did you decide to go to an outside partner?

DavePocket God, for us, is more of a lifestyle business. We don’t want to go the typical route of getting funding—and believe me we’ve got a ton of offers for venture capital to try to blow this up to a huge company. But I like working at home. I want to stay with the creative part of it and actually do a lot of the heavy lifting. That’s really where I get the most satisfaction from. And so we’re really trying to leverage licensing in order to expand without having to really expand. So licensing helps us find a company like Frima, do a licensing agreement with Frima, and then bring their expertise—they already have a team that knows this stuff hands-down—so that they can go and they can develop it. Rather than if we were to try to expand I think my role would change drastically and we’d be looking for office space, we’d be spending a lot of time recruiting, we’d be trying to build that expertise from the ground up. And I think our main game Pocket God would probably suffer from that.

What was it about Frima that made you decide on them?

Dave – We met Frima about a year ago, the GDC before last, and they just seemed to be really cool guys. We went to Quebec to meet with them and they showed us a really great time, were really hospitable. We met the project manager that was going to work on it. Helen is great, I felt confident that she going to make sure that things got done and that they were high quality. It just really seemed like Frima was hungry for it and had a lot fo great expertise on their team and that they really wanted to do it and they were fans of Pocket God. Whenever we decide to work with a partner that counts for a lot. Somebody that comes to us and says “hey, we’re fans of Pocket God, we want to do this.” And they talk to us about the things we’re doing right now and we can tell that they’re having a good time with it, rather than a typical biz dev that’s like “oh yeah, I heard about that game and that’s a really good game I’ll have to check it out on my phone sometime.” It just really felt like a high comfort level: they were fans, they understood the property, and we could work with them pretty easily.

What was it like working with an established IP like Pocket God?

Jake – It’s very cool. I think for Frima we kind of do a blend of projects and partnerships with known brands and known developers and we do our own IP. Working for Pocket God on Facebook was kind of an interesting blend in the middle, where it’s an established IP where we had people that were existing fans of the product and had been killing pygmies on their phone for a while. But then we also had this massive opportunity with Facebook to capture a whole new audience, for people to take a look at it, for the friends of people that might have tried it on iPhone; different countries, different markets. It was interesting to have the luxury of an existing fanbase but then also the opportunity to grab a bunch of new people for the game.

Why did you decide to make the Facebook version so similar to the iOS version?

Jake – I think that there’s a pretty entrenched style for the gameplay and I think one of the things that you’ll see from a lot of Facebook games is kind of a rinse-and-repeat, statistics driving the design of the gameplay. Whereas I think with Pocket God we had a unique, evocative gameplay and a much different audience than the people that are playing, say, a farming game or a resource management game. We have a lot of young male customers that are playing the game as opposed to the mythological 42 year old female.

Did you have any difficulties in translating the game to Facebook?

Jake – I think one of the things I would say other than difficulties was opportunity. In terms of taking that initial style of gameplay and also adding in social game mechanics that make sense and use the platform. Like you can summon a pygmy version of your friends and sacrifice them on the island. You can team up with your friends to fight rival gods in the game. And using the aspects of the medium that we thought would make sense for the audience was a great opportunity, but also making sure there’s a game there that we know that they already like.

Dave – I think it’s important to have some kind of consistency between the two. At the very early stage we were talking about doing things like, should we do more of an Island God-type thing where it’s a 3/4 views and you have more of an island that you can decorate, kind of like your farm in FarmVille. But we felt that a lot of the appeal of the sacrifices would be lost and we’d basically just be making a farm clone with our IP and our name. So we wanted to keep it pretty similar, kind of bring something new to Facebook. But really build off of what was successful with the original Pocket God and then slowly mold it into the freemium mechanic where there’s a little bit more of an unlock progression, there’s more social. It’s kind of like a mix. We really wanted to have something classic that people would recognize but at the same time evolve it in the direction of a freemium game.

What has the response been like from existing fans of the franchise?

Dave – There’s different segments of audiences. There’s a couple that are the hardcore audience that says “why do you waste your time on all these different things, I don’t want to play on the PC, you guys should spend more time on Pocket God on iPhone.” But then there’s other guys that once they try out the Facebook game they’re like “wow, this is pretty awesome.” There’s sacrifices that we couldn’t get on the iPhone like the venus flytrap. There’s functionality on Facebook that we couldn’t do on iPhone like customizing your pygmies and dress them up and buy different outfits for them. I think theres definitely two camps of thought out there. But everyone that’s tried the Facebook game so far loves it. And it’s encouraging too that I’m seeing more and more these days new people coming on board and saying “hey there’s this game called Pocket God on Facebook that’s really awesome” and it’s clear that they’ve never even heard of the iPhone game. So it’s cool that we’re reaching a new audience with it as well.

Who were you trying to target with the Facebook game? Existing players or new players?

Dave – Existing players are always going to be part of our launch strategy for any new form that we decide to go into. But I think we never want to just sell to our existing audience because at the end of the day that’s going to end up shrinking our reach, if we’re not getting any new customers. I think that part of the long-term strategy with these new projects, especially Facebook, is that we find new people. We introduce Pocket God to a new audience.

Have you learned anything from the Facebook version of the game that might be incorporated into iOS or future versions of the game?

Dave – I think that the one thing definitely is the next episode that we’re doing for iPhone is “challenge of the gods” and it’s going to be a little bit like the quest system on Facebook. We’re actually going to have challenges for every single episode. So a user is supposed to go through and figure out where are the sacrifices and functionality that were added on episode three when lightning was introduced or episode 10 when the t-rex was introduced. Then you can find all the challenges and sacrifices and then you unlock an idol for that episode. If you unlock them all then you unlock the new idol for episode 49. In that respect it was something that was inspired by what we’re doing on Facebook, it was inspired by people saying that a little bit of a progression system could be cool. And so we decided to bring it back.

How did the freemium model affect the design of the Facebook game?

Jake – The main thing that we wanted to do is the basic game experience we wanted to make very strong and enriching, and that everything in our game you can essentially level to unlock. There’s nothing that is exclusive, monetization only, there’s no way to get it. We wanted to make sure that through hard work people could unlock in-game currency and get all of the different things that are available. But then on the other side we wanted to make sure that if you don’t have the available time to do that, that we could speed things up and have different chunks of content available to players earlier with purchase.

Dave – There’s definitely more of a balancing act to the Facebook game and trying to do a freemium model because at the end of the day if you invest a sizable chunk of money developing a game you have to get paid at the end of the day. So it’s a free game but underneath we still have to figure out ways that people are going to contribute financially to the project. So we kind of have to have some kind of unlock system, we can’t just give everything for free like we do on the iPhone app.

Jake – I think from our side one of the things that’s been really popular with our customer base, and is popular across all Facebook games, is consumable items that give you different rewards. You can pay and get more experience or longer, extended gameplay. In our game we have devotion points, which are essentially your rewards for sacrificing. You can use them to level up and get farther in the game. And people are definitely willing to pay to go faster in our game.

Dave – We had to come up with a system that is similar to energy and experience on FarmVille. So what we did was we came up with something called sacrifice points. And so you get sacrifice points whenever you want to sacrifice a pygmy and you get different sacrifice points based on whether they go into a volcano, or whether you shock them with lightning. And every time you sacrifice them, the pygmies’ devotion, which is sort of like the energy, gets down. And when they’re devotion is zero then there sacrifices aren’t really going to be worth a lot. And so devotion gradually reenergizes throughout the day, and then there’s things like potions that the user can get in order to refresh their devotion so that they can have longer play sessions. And with sacrifice points you can do things like buy new powers, spend it on clothing, things like that.

What do you think it is about the Pocket God phenomenon that makes it so enduring?

Dave – Well, I think the main thing is the humor. I think that when the app first came out we had only put like a week’s worth of development time into the initial update. So you could do not a lot. You could drag them around, throw them in the air, drown them, and that’s it. And I think that that sort of straightforward, mean sense of humor with these cute characters really resonated with a lot of people. I guess we’re all kind of mean and have this tortuous side to us or something. That’s the core of Pocket God. I think that as long as we stay true to that principal—cute characters with an edgy, mean sense of humor on top of it—I think that we can branch into all kinds of different genres. We could do an Animal Crossing-style game, the comic book is doing really well right now. I think we could do like a puzzle platformer, reverse-Lemmings type of game where the object is to kill them rather than save them. I think that as long as the humor is there and the art style is there I think we can expand and experiment with different things.

Jake – It was pretty funny early on when we were putting our ideas together for the Facebook game, he (David) said it would be the first anti-social game. That’s something that we really try to keep in mind. It has that humor but it also has that edge to it.

Dave – Yeah, we want to screw around with your friends. Our next episode for the Pocket God game we’re going to have a pygmy scream piano, where you put them all on these magic pedestal’s and when you hit the pedestal the pygmy screams at a certain pitch. And so you have this four key keyboard that you can play and make songs out of the screams. We also have to stay topical, we just did a Charlie Sheen update where we had this pygmy named Charlie and he says winning a lot and he doesn’t eat food, doesn’t go to sleep. I think that kind of topical humor is also a part of Pocket God that we’d like to keep. We just have to figure out the next YouTube sensation. Like maybe we have a Rebecca Black episode where you have to torture her to get her to shutup.

Can you discuss any future plans/updates?

Dave -With Facebook we have a lot of things planned. We’re probably going to release the next update in a couple weeks, we’re trying to really hit a two or three week schedule between updates. We have a lot of different powers planned, more customizations, more really great social features; the ability to sacrifice your friends, we really want to expand on that sort of thing. We’re still cranking out once a month updates to our iPad game and also the main iPhone game. We have a surprise that we haven’t really announced yet with the iPad game so I would stay tuned to see what kinds of developments happen with that in the next three weeks or so. And then we have a new iOS game that we’re starting to work on that should be out in the Fall time frame. And the comic book.

The comic book is doing great. Actually, sales-wise each day we’re on par with Marvel and DC’s complete library. If you go into the top-grossing section on iTunes for the iPhone sometimes we’re actually ahead of the Marvel app; Spider-Man, Wolverine, Captain America, everybody combined. So the comic book is really doing great. We’re looking to speed up delivery of that to one issue every three weeks, but we have two years worth of story lines already planned out. We’re really working on turning Pocket God into a franchise. When I was growing up and playing Sonic the Hedgehog, I want kids nowadays that are growing up to kind of think of Pocket God in that light.

I think we have something stable. We’ve kind of had our month of being number one in the App Store and with every game you still have that chance but I think we have a really strong foundation right now that we can continue to build off of and I think Pocket God is going to be something that we can do at least one or two games a year and eventually be on every single platform out there.

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