500,000 Apps Interview Series: Dave Castelnuovo, Pocket God
148Apps.com will be interviewing the design and development teams behind the App Store’s top apps over the next few months. Our first interview is with Dave Castelnuovo, lead programmer behind Pocket God. PG has become a multi-media phenomenon in the mobile app industry, spawning weekly episode updates, fan art, a Facebook game and even a line of comic books.
Pocket God was released over two years ago and continues to remain a permanent fixture on the top app charts all over the world, probably directly related to Bolt Creative’s seemingly endless supply of witty updates. Each episode expands on the beloved world populated by hapless pygmies by offering additional awards, cleverly-named challenges, and even more ways to torment the natives. With the latest release, Journey to Uranus, Pocket God takes its population to outer space, exploring the planets of our solar system. Each planet takes cues from ancient Roman mythology, so players can feed the volcano god on Earth or travel high-tech highways on Mercury. Journey to Uranus also offers a new minigame – sort of a game-within-a-game – called Quantum Entanglement.
When I asked Dave where he got his inspiration from, he explained that he’s always had a love of good stories. An avid comic book reader and collector, he explained that he wanted his new line of Pocket God-inspired comic books – just released and already outselling Marvel and DC in the App Store -- to be more than “just a bunch of stories all strung together”. He sees cohesive plot lines tying the series together, with unanswered questions creating a sense of mystery. He admits that the Books category in the App Store is not a big financial draw for any developer compared to the Games category, but this is more of a labor of love than a cash cow.
I asked Dave what kind of education and training he had, and he laughed. He started out studying aerospace engineering at USC but dropped out, mostly due to disinterest. He hooked up with some computer programmers while he was there, however, and they got him interested in programming games. After reading several books he knew enough to get started programming very simple games. Dave now partners almost exclusively with Allen Dye, who handles 99% of the artwork for their projects.
I just had to ask Dave what it was like to realize his team’s app had become a bestselling phenomenon. “It wasn’t expected at all,” he admits. “It was supposed to be a stepping stone to something bigger, maybe a more traditional type of game. As Pocket God was rising through the ranks, both Allen and I kept on waiting for the other shoe to drop.” They checked the ratings constantly during the game’s initial launch, and when it hit #60, they told each other, “well, at least we got up this high, next week we’ll probably sink.” But the sink never happened; even when the game hit #1 they figured it was going to last a day at most. It took awhile for the realization to really sink in – a good six months before the team accepted that this achievement was going to be for the long term.
The team looks back at their first major success with a sense of humility. Dave puts it this way: “We’re blessed and we’re lucky to be in this position; it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. We just happened to choose an idea that resonated with a lot of people.”
He speculates that if his team had had a bigger budget or more time to plan – Dave claims he and Allen developed the original Pocket God concept after only one week of dedicated effort – the game might not have been such a success. This kind of focused work helps counteract Dave’s tendency to get distracted by something else before he can complete a project. Rapid development continues to be typical for Dave and Allen, which doesn’t leave much time for testing with their target user population of ten- to sixteen-year-olds. They do, however, frequently get videos from “edgy parents," starring their preschoolers gleefully electrocuting pygmies on their $500 iPhone. Dave and Allen think this is hilarious, and appreciate the positive feedback they get from their customers.
Pocket God fans have some exciting advancements to look forward to in the near future. Dave has some great ideas on how to leverage the power of cloud computing for syncing game states across multiple devices. There’s also talk of creating a system for fans to create their own storylines and content to share with friends.
In closing, Dave offers the following words of wisdom to people who want to break into the mobile development industry:
“Everyone has an equal chance of success. Big marketing budgets may give people an initial advantage, but at the end of the day, if people like your app, they will buy it and you will find success. Just get out there and try something. The biggest hurdle to get over is just getting it done.”