Developer Workshop: Bolt Creative

Developer Workshop is a series of profiles exploring the current state of the mobile marketplace from the point of view of the software developers mapping out its future. Each profile focuses on a developer with a compelling story to tell, and offers their perspective on what the industry's doing right, what it's doing wrong and how to make it better. Check out our previous workshops on Shazam, InfoMedia, Viigo, Meet Now Live, Shortcovers, Pint Sized Mobile, Geodelic, Spark of Blue Software, Tarver Games, People Operating Technology and Booyah.

This week FierceDeveloper profiles Bolt Creative, creator of the popular Pocket God app.

Although Apple's App Store has generated a multitude of success stories since its mid-2008 launch, few developers have experienced the sustained momentum of Bolt Creative. First released in January 2009, the startup's 99-cent iPhone and iPod touch application Pocket God--a casual game giving users the opportunity to rule their own remote island, complete with deity-like powers--remains a constant in the App Store's top Paid Apps chart more than a year later, buoyed by over 30 free updates across the last 12 months. Pocket God reached the 2 million download milestone in Jan. 2010; according to Bolt Creative, it's the first premium iPhone app to surpass the 2-million benchmark. The firm adds the title has moved as many as 53,000 units in a single day, with downloads exceeding 100,000 per week throughout the holiday season.

Founded in San Francisco in 2001, Bolt Creative initially created Flash games for the Web, most notably teaming with Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment for the 2003 effort Wheel of Fortune Online. The firm shifted its focus to the iPhone in late 2008, debuting with FWARP!, a face-warping imaging app written in just two days, according to founder and CEO Dave Castelnuovo. Created over the span of about a week between Christmas and New Year's Day 2009, Pocket God appears poised to emerge as a true crossover hit--earlier this month, Bolt Creative announced an agreement with comic book publisher Ape Entertainment to release a four-issue miniseries based on the property. FierceDeveloper spoke with Castelnuovo about the game's popularity, Apple's forthcoming iPad tablet and the value of a sharp sense of humor.



Dave Castelnuovo bolt creativeDave Castelnuovo on the origins of Pocket God: I knew the iPhone was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I recognized it was perfect for what I wanted to do--the platform could support high-level graphics, and Apple would handle the distribution and credit card payments. So I set up some little sprint projects for myself. I did an image-warping program, which was not that big a deal, and a few other projects that took about two days each.

We got in at the right time. This was about six months after the App Store opened to developers. It wasn't too crowded. So we happened to time it right, and with Pocket God, we came up with a cool, accessible idea that people dug. From the start, we wanted to be agile, and draw inspiration from different sources. We thought it would be great if we could be topical like a TV show, like South Park. I think it worked.

Castelnuovo on Pocket God's rise to App Store success: It took about two months to go to No. 1. When we launched, we set up a Google alert to see if anyone was talking about it. People were absolutely ripping us at first--they said "Here's yet another game that falls short," "They want you to buy it based on future promises," "The developers don't have a good reputation," and so on. It bummed us out--our future was being called into question.

We took a couple of steps back before we responded. We said "We're not going to give you guys any bull---- or marketing spin. These posts are putting a fire under our a--. We're going to commit to an update each week." And that post struck a chord with people. They said, "We feel your honesty--we're going to buy it just to support you." With each update, we talked about our struggles, and brought people closer to our experience. We wanted to get feedback, and to get people involved in the game design.

We also talked with all the YouTube reviewers--even the small guys, like high school kids with 10 followers. That worked for us--we developed a strong, grass-roots following. We felt like we were making a connection with people. But we never expected this kind of success. Once Pocket God hit the top 50, it shot up to number two in a week or so.

Castelnuovo on the value of humor: We have to have a good time developing a game so that people have a good time playing it. Sometimes we laugh out loud at what we're doing--we can't believe we're doing this. A mean sense of humor goes a long way.

People respond to these characters. Pocket God is the ultimate casual game--there are no goals, but each week, you unlock a new level. It's something you can whip out, and access the meat of it right away--it's a quick joke. But there's also a lot of depth here. It's not going to get old.

Castelnuovo on the iPad: I think it's great. It looks like a really cool device. It's almost like a game console. I think it'll outperform the Kindle easily. Even at a $500 price point, it's hard to bet against Steve Jobs.

[The iPad] is in our future plans--we definitely want to do a version of Pocket God for it. We want to take the functionality we have now and enhance it. We're already throwing around design ideas. It's not "if" we'll go there, but "when."

Castelnuovo on advice for aspiring developers: Do something that you really enjoy--if you're doing a game just to capture the marketplace, you're going to fail. Think about what's going to make you laugh and give you satisfaction. Look for your own emotional response, and that's your guide to what will work.

Also, don't be surprised if your first game doesn't make it. Take as many shots at the goal as you can, and you'll get there.