“Where should we introduce the Laser Shark?” Pocket God co-creator Allan Dye on the delicate art of developing a hit iPhone game and it’s comic book spin-off.

Pocket God iconThere’s nothing we love more in life than torturing a couple of pygmies. Whether it’s pushing them around their little tropical habitat or zapping them with lightning, we can be a vengeful god on a wet Monday afternoon! Before you think we have gone completely sociopathic though,  we probably should mention that we don’t actually hunt down indigenous rain forest dwellers in order to bestow physical harm on them, we just do it on our iPhones with the awesome Pocket God game from Bolt Creative. We spoke to the team behind the brilliant comic, Publisher Dave Hedgecock and artist Rollo Mallado, last year, but what about the game itself? With it’s 43rd episode recently released, we got in touch with co-creator Allan Dye to ask, just what is it about torturing pygmies that makes people so happy?!

Why do you think Pocket God has become such a cross-platform hit? Is it just the nature of the game, the fans,  or the marketing of Bolt Creative that has helped it?

AD: I think the core of the success of Pocket God is the cute, hapless pygmy characters that came from a 15 minute brainstorm between Dave and I. At the beginning I sat with him and sketched ideas on printer paper. The idea flowed so naturally, it took us  several internet searches to be convinced we didn’t acccidentally steal the character design.  The very first version of Pocket God didn’t do much, but a ton of people started buying it right away. All we could figure is that they liked the characters and the unique situation where it was your job to love them and be evil to them at the same time. Immediately, we felt an obligation to add more content so we added and added, and ADDED. That generated a ton of good will and die-hard fans who gave good word of mouth (or keyboard). As for marketing, initially we have spent very little…okay NOTHING…instead using free tools like Twitter, Facebook and Blogger to reach out. That worked great and can’t recommend it enough to people with low budgets. People love to read from a personal point of view on these things.  The blog was and still is read pretty extensively. We recently moved it off Blogger to www.boltcreative.com.

Fans have helped a lot too. We have a lot of young kids between 10 and 15 who give us attention on the internet, creating fan art, fan sites and even an extensive forum where they discuss the games and comics. I can’t thank them enough! We always feel an obligation to return the devotion with more content.

And after a year or so of updating Pocket God, we started coming out with new products…the comic being one of them, we started using the original Pocket God loading screen as an advertising space to cross promote. With every Pocket God update, we switch out the ads to let people know there’s a new comic, or update to one of the other games.   I think this cross-promotion worked really really well.

The game is released in episodes/upgrades, how do you go about planning what goes into each upgrade? Do you treat each one as a different entity and start from scratch or is it a constant evolution?
AD: Both. The original idea was that Dave Castelnuovo, the programmer and I, the artist, would use Pocket God as our testing ground to build a game engine from scratch.  So it was a dance between adding what we thought Pocket God needed, and what enhancements the game engine would need to make it happen.

3 years ago, we did weekly updates in addition to our day jobs. Dave would call me on Wednesday and brainstorm what we’d add to Pocket God this week. I’d say “what about hitting pygmies with lightning?” and Dave would say “yeah, I think I can program that addition in a couple days”. Then we’d hit the ground running. I’d try to get him the art by Friday morning, and he’d try to program it Friday and Saturday and we’d test on Sunday and submit.

Now Pocket God is so complicated and jam packed with content, we have to think things out a little more…and people expect more from an update..so it’s not as easy to work so fast and we worry about being repetitive. We are also jumping between other projects, so updates come out slower, but they are usually pretty extensive. We’re hoping to reach episode 50 by the end of this year.

Sometimes the update is based on our trajectory for the game as a whole (Challenge of the Gods) or it’s just based on something we think would be funny at the moment (Two and a Half Pygmies). We might have worked out a general roadmap, but until we have that discussion to decide the next update, we’re never quite sure what we’re going to do next. On a whim we could decide to make a Whitney Houston update. I doubt it, but we could!

I’m a huge fan of the Pocket God comic, how much free reign do the guys get with the characters and do you ever incorporate the comic’s storylines/look into the development of the game or is it always the game influencing the comic?
AD: The basis of the comic came from a very brief pitch we created for a cartoon show (still in the works). The list of characters were default names we hastily added to pygmy labels in the game. We also had this notion that a magic “Gem of LIfe” would be responsible for their ability to die and regenerate, in order to maintain the pygmy sacrificing without permanently killing off all our characters.  We weren’t totally conscious of what we were doing, but we created a very convenient Macguffin to build our plots around.  And now, because of the comic, the Gem of Life is now a major part of our next Pocket God game “the Runs”

Then Ape took these ideas and enhanced them. There was a lot of back and forth right from the beginning. Dave and I were big comic fans and felt this was an opportunity to shape it into something special, so we probably ended up being more hands on than Ape expected.  In the typical process, we get on the phone and brainstorm all the stories, master plan and character development with the writer Jason Burns. He organizes it, and writes an initial draft of each script, sends it to us and then we pass it back and forth with notes until everyone is happy. Jason is great and puts up with the fact that Dave and I having really specific ideas. And then Jason invents entire characters, locations and scenarios, not from the game, that we end up loving and using in the game. We’re lucky Jason still makes time when he has his own pet projects doing well.  Look up “Adults Only” on Funny or Die.

Back to us though…Dave has this crazy master plan for the comic. I’ll ask him when we plan to introduce a future character and he’ll say, “Oh that won’t happen until about issue 100.” And I’ll say “Issue 100? Really?”  And his response is, “Yeah, why?”

I get more focused on the individual stories, structure and character logic, and have a little harder time thinking ahead to issue 100. I’m an animator and storyboarder…and for the last script, I thumbed the last three pages to show the writer how I thought the climactic scene should flow. Yes, we can be VERY controlling!

And yes at first it we took elements from the game to build the comic. So the influence flowed only one way.  When the first four comics were written, we’d say “Where should we introduce the Laser Shark?” (which Pocket God shamelessly stole from Austin Powers), “or the T-Rex?” Dave was always adamant we do it smartly though, and not just pay homage to our game without having a really good reason for the story.  When we finally got to our “horror” Pocket God comic episode “Para-Abnormal Activity”, we came up with this really great way the bring in the pygmy ghosts from the Pocket God update “Good Will Haunting”.

But it’s starting to reverse, and the comic story will influence the game more and more. In fact, not only are we integrating the “Runs” (our next PG game) into the Pocket God Comic continuity, we’re using characters that were designed originally for the comic, as opposed to the other way around!

How do you think the growth of the iPad/iPhone and iPod touch is influencing the way people consume games? Do you think there is a different type of gamer who plays on these devices compared to the PS3 XBox gamers? And do you consider that when producing the game?
AD: It’s definitely a different audience on the iOS. There’s some crossover, but it is a source of controversy for us. Dave and I are always debating which way to go.  Who do we want to appeal to more? We always hope to be accepted by the hardcore gamers, but the fact is that we really aren’t yet….at least by the vocal ones.  And of course the iOS and other platforms were really blown up by the casual gamer.  Angry Birds is the major example of a game that a hardcore gamer would probably ignore but is embraced by MILLIONS of people waiting in line at the grocery store. And then, Pocket God is a little too involved for the casual player because it require some thinking and figuring out (unless you are just trying to mess with the little guys and see their cute and scared expressions).

Sometime we steer the game toward casual, sometime toward non-casual. I have a feeling Pocket God will zig zag between the two until we hit on something that takes us to the next level.  Or maybe not. Maybe we’ll just stay on our own ziggy zaggy path!

Where would you like to see Pocket Gods go next? More potential spin-offs like the comics or a stand alone sequel? Do you have any plans to produce `any more iOS games? And what other projects are you working on at the moment (that you can tell us about!)
AD: Well, I’ve already mentioned “The Runs.” It’s based on the Pocket God Update “Crack is Wack.” where we did an homage to the great iOS game, “Canabalt,” by having a pygmy run through an underground hell poplulated by a demon from a Dio album cover.  This was one of the updates we decided this would be a great spinoff …and has been in development for a while.  But if we had known the iOS platform would be so over-run (no pun intended) with running games by the time we released it, we may have picked one of our other ideas. But the fact is, running games are fun and pygmies look very funny running through horrible situations. As a result, though, we felt a huge obligation to make it extra cool and Dave completely gutted the entire idea and made it so the game will look extremely cool, layered, and the levels will have much more interest than your average running game. Now I’m struggling to generate the art that will do it justice.

We’re in full production on it now and hope to release it by the end of March. We hope. It’s had scope creep like you wouldn’t believe because we keep thinking “we have to make it even cooler”. We’re tapping Rolando, the comic artist, to help make short cut scenes because we want to increase the wow factor and start tying the comic more to the game. It’s going to fit into the comic contuity.

As for the comic, Ape  proposed we do a spinoff of the Pocket God comic based on Journey To Uranus. But at the time, working on ONE comic was very time consuming just to get it where we wanted. So the idea of adding a new story, gave me heart palpitations. Dave and I agreed it wasn’t a good idea and might comprimise the main comic.   If anything, we want to keep making a quality focused comic without spreading it, or ourselves, too thin. Maybe we’ll do it in the future, but for now we are focusing on building an epic story for the Pygmies. I look at Jeff Smith’s “Bone” as a model of how a comic went from good to epic. We hope to do that too!

If you fancy checking out the Pocket God comics they are available from their own app, or if you fancy giving the game a go it is downloadable from here. You can follow Allan on Twitter @allandye or for the latest Pocket God updates follow @pocketgod