Pocket God, from Bolt Creative, is sitting comfortably in the top 10 best-seller list in the App Store, because of the game’s unique concept, entertainment value and it’s $0.99 price tag. We caught up with busy developer Dave Castelnuovo, to see how he’s managing to keep up with PG’s weekly updates.
1. First, tell me a bit about Bolt Creative. How long have you been in business and why did you decide to develop for the iPhone?
Although I began my career in traditional game console development, I started Bolt Creative in 2001 as a Flash development studio that specialized in Flash games and applications. After three years I realized that the day-to-day duties of managing a company wasn’t satisfying to me so I decided to change gears and work from home while bringing in external contractors depending on the needs of each project.
It was always my dream to self publish my own game and in October 2008 I decided to get into iPhone development. I felt at the time (and still feel) that the iPhone is the best opportunity for small independent teams.
2. What do you think of the new 3.0 SDK? Got any ideas who you might change your apps to take advantage of all the new features?
We will take it slow with the new 3.0 SDK. A big portion of our audience is kids with iPod touches and $9.95 is an expensive update for them. We want to make sure we aren’t putting any of our customers in a situation where they have to pay for the right to continue updating our game.
I do think that 3.0 is a great step forward for the platform though. I’m glad that Apple took the initiative in creating a platform for paid downloadable content rather than let every developer create their own system. We will probably not use it for Pocket God (I promised we will never charge for updates) but we may use it for other games. Push notifications is something I can see us using.
3. You have developed a number of apps. If there a trait your apps share and if so what would it be?
I would say Pocket God is our first real app, the other two apps were stepping stones in order to get enough of an engine in place where we wouldn’t need to spend three-months development time for any one game. It’s always been our strategy to release a series of apps, each with a limited time budget, that would advance and pay for engine development until one of our ideas caught on.
4. Pocket God has gotten a lot of attention lately. How did you come up with the idea of an episodic game and how long do you plan to keep updating it?
It came out of the fact that we released Pocket God with a limited amount of development time and in order to keep people interested, we needed to add new features quickly. The ideas for episodes came out of the fact that we wanted new users to know that we released a new update by just looking at our icon rather than having to read through a long product description.
5. Are apps too cheap? Pocket God is only $0.99. Do you think, devs have “trained” buyers to pay as little as possible for good-quality games.
I don’t think apps are too cheap, in fact I think it protects the market for small independent developers who want to self publish. Obviously cheap apps sell better than expensive ones but if you think about a small unknown development team, they will want to do anything to get their name out there including offer their game at the lowest possible price. A two person team can do pretty well at this price point even if they don’t have a #1 selling app, but they aren’t going to get rich either.
I do think this price point puts a lot of pressure on bigger game companies to justify their existence. They simply can’t exist in a $0.99 market. However, if they want to release a $4.99 app, they better provide enough value to justify the higher price.
6. It’s well established that low prices lead to high sales but not necessarily to high profits. What does equate to profit?
Low prices can lead to profit if you don’t have a ton of overhead to deal with. Companies that have an office and employees are having a tough time at this price point, they need to dominate the top 10 to break even. A small two-person team that doesn’t spend too much time on development can break even in the top 50 and make a good profit if they get into the top 10.
7. Apple recently pulled the plug on reviews from people who haven’t even bought the product. That should be helpful, no?
I think this is very helpful because developers were playing games with the earlier review system by trashing other developer’s app that they were in competition with and adding fake good reviews to their own apps. At least with this system you have to support the other dev in order to trash them and they can only pad their own reviews by the number of credit cards they have access to.
8. Bigger companies are entering the biz with bigger budgets, dev teams and marketing. They’re pricing apps at $4.99 and higher. How can you compete against that?
For the iPhone, I don’t think budget has anything to do with it at this point. We have access to the same marketing channels that matter and most of them are free–Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. Paid advertising hasn’t really helped iPhone games but having a full time publicist can definitely increase the chance of getting that Gizmodo article which seems to have the biggest effect on sales.
As far as development, a small team can come up with the same quality of
idea as a big publisher; in fact, a small team might have the edge because their idea doesn’t need to be watered down by the company that is producing the product.
9. Dev cycles will get longer as buyers expect more from apps. What does that mean to Bolt Creative and other companies? Will you look to move your prices up to compensate?
We will try and build off the success of Pocket God by releasing a new $1.99 game, I don’t think the development time will be all that different as long as the development path is organized and we stick to putting time into functionality that will have the biggest impact and not sweating the small stuff. The one thing that is great about working on a two person team is that management is unnecessary. We throw around ideas and then implement it, for a slightly bigger team, a lot of iteration and communication goes into development and that can lengthen the development process.
10. What do you think about the premium section in the App Store that’s being talked about?
I think it’s great. Hopefully it will convince more people to buy an iPhone because it will have major games from major publishers. I don’t think this will interfere in the current app store market because I think the real innovation will still come from independent teams.
Obviously A list games will do very well Final Fantasy, Sonic, etc. I think the B and C list games will be caught in the middle though. They won’t quite have enough to make an impact on the premium store and they will have a tough time competing with a great $0.99-$4.99 game on the normal app store. 11.
11. Evidently, there’s a new clause in the developer contracts that requires developers to offer refunds. What are your thoughts on this?
We only get one or two refunds a day and this was the way it worked in the past, Apple just made it clearer in the development contract. I don’t see a problem unless Apple decides to make it much easier to get refunds.
12. Many devs have concerns about the App Store pricing model. Has it been a problem for you and if so, what do you think is the problem and what’s your solution?
For us it’s not a problem, we always went about our development by releasing on a small budget and being pleasantly surprised if our app does well, if it doesn’t do well, then it’s not a big loss. I would probably have more concerns if we looked for investment and were trying to strike it rich before our app was even released.