[Independent studios are having tough times, but 260-person strong Frima tells our own Christian Nutt about its attempts to break out with Pocket God: Anti-Social for Facebook and more.]

How do you take an existing property and make it work as an Facebook game? Frima Studio, based in Quebec City, has some ideas about it. The studio launched Pocket God on Facebook last month, in collaboration with its original developers Bolt Creative, which have made a success of it on iOS devices.

The title is set on a remote island where "you are the all-powerful god that rules over the primitive islanders", and you have to control the elements to accomplish objectives -- it currently has just over 150,000 monthly active users on Facebook.

The studio, which has been around since 2003 and employs 260 people, has worked on a variety of platforms, from iPhone to Wii to Facebook and PlayStation Minis.

In this interview, Steve Couture, CEO and co-founder, and Jake Theis, senior brand director, discuss the conversion of the iOS version of Pocket God to a social title and the success the studio has found working on PlayStation Minis.

Making an iPhone Game Social... Or Anti-Social?

Did you develop this version internally at Frima?

SC: Yep, totally. In collaboration with Bolt -- it's the brand holder, but they don’t have the expertise in terms of Facebook game development. So we build the concepts with them and we build, we program, and create the art assets all internally here in our Quebec studio.

To what extent do you carry over anything from the iPhone version?

JT: I think the pygmy characters, and the island and a lot of the visuals, and the sound and feel carries over from the original version. And I think it departs in some ways in that, as a Facebook game, it’s a free game and you want to kind of sit down and play. Whereas the iPad or iPod game is a purchase game. Also, it borrows some of the different powers and some of the different functionality from the original game.

SC: So we try to bring some social components in the game. You know you play the game on Facebook -- it’s on a social network -- so we try to have your friends playing with you at some point. It’s not a multiplayer game, but we wanted to add some social component.

One of the most satisfying things is that you are able to create a pygmy with the name of some of your friends and sacrifice them in some really funky ways, and then it appears on the session of gameplay of your friends.

We try to bring this kind of social component [and] create this viral effect for the game itself. And actually we see it’s getting more and more popular, and so people try to sacrifice their friends. Actually it’s not really why, but that’s part of the reason why the game is called Pocket God: Anti-Social.

An anti-social game?

SC: [laughs] Exactly! This is the official Facebook game title, this is Pocket God: Anti-Social.

As people become more and more familiar with social games, you can start to subvert the way they work.

JT: Yep, and it seems to be working; we’re happy with the results so far. I think one of the big game design challenges – to speak to your earlier point – was we had this big, invested Pocket God user base that was excited about the brand.

They had played it on all these different platforms other than Facebook, up to that point. To convert them over while, at the same time, getting people that are existing Facebook game players to come in and have those two audiences mesh is the most exciting part.

SC: Pocket God for iPhone, it used a lot of the features from the iPhone. So you can use the gravity by rotating your iPhone, and you drag the pygmies with your fingers. So we cannot reproduce this kind of mechanic, because you cannot rotate your laptop to create a gravity effect on your game.

So we try to reproduce our mechanics with some simple, yet addictive components. We try to reproduce the fun factor of the iPhone, but without some important features of the iPhone, and I think we succeeded at that. The game is as fun as the iPhone version, plus we have some social (or anti-social) components to it.

JT: It’s fun seeing which powers people react to. We were laughing before the meeting at the stats; we can track how many pygmies have been killed in the game.

SC: How many pygmies we killed already?

JT: Seven million pygmies in a month so far that have been killed in the game.

Audiences Converge, Diverge

As you launched this as a service on Facebook, that’s when you start to find out what the audience craves. You talked about the existing audience from the iPhone game coming in along with a new audience. Has the direction things have gone surprised you at all?

JT: A little bit. The game designers were excited that the powers that they liked were well received. In our game the tar pit power is really fun and people like dropping pygmies into the tar pit on the island, and that’s one that’s been popular. There’s been a lot of powers that are new to the game that I think existing Pocket God fans are getting to explore and play around with, and it’s all new to a large segment of the audience.

One of the cool stats that’s come out of our data is that over 80 percent of our users have played the game twice. It's good that people have sampled it, and tried it, and then come back to it to play again.

SC: Yeah, because for this kind of free to play model, most of the time people just open the game for one time. But honestly, the thing that makes me a little nervous when we launch a game was the transition of the mechanics.

On the iPhone, it’s really fun just to take your pygmy with your finger and just throw them in the air and it’s really well developed. The feel of that cannot be the same on Facebook, with a Flash game on a PC.

I was a little nervous to see the reactions of the player regarding the new mechanics. And finally people understand that it’s not an iPhone that they have on their hands, and actually nobody seems to criticize the way it works.

And we see that most of the people use the actual mechanics, like the flick one is really good and most of the people are using it to kill their pygmies. So it works well. Even if it’s different from the iPhone version, people seem to adapt their interactions and their play patterns to the medium, but that’s a good thing for us.

How much of the process was wrangling with the idea of getting this game into this new platform, and how much of it was actually executing on that once you’ve sorted out sort of the direction you wanted to go?

JT: I think that people had expectations for what Pocket God should be, and there’s certain kinds of tentpoles that you have to lean on if you’re doing a Pocket God game.

And I think there’re also certain expectations that people have when they play Facebook game; that a Facebook game is going to have the ability to incorporate your friends, that a Facebook game is going to have solo play options, but then also options for you to interact with other players. So I think we were kind of making sure that we had both.

SC: And the progression is different [with] leveling. There are some important features that are on most of the Facebook games that you don’t see on iPhone games, so it’s quite different and people want to see these.

JT: Yeah. For instance, we have a shared quest system going out, where you and your friends will be able to team up together to complete missions in game, and complete different quests and fight different island gods in the game. So it’s something that really borrows from the social game space.

How often do you consult with Bolt? How much freedom did you have? How often do they have a say into what goes into the game?

JT: They’re an active part of the game design process and we want to make sure that they’re happy, that their intellectual property is being used in a way that is happy to them. And to be honest, they’re full of good ideas, so we like to hear all the good ideas that they come out with and then pretend like we came up with them. [laughs] They’ve been a really good partner to deal with.

SC: Yeah, it’s really fun to work with these guys. They have a super nice intellectual property, and they are still two guys working together, and it’s still small and really reactive team. So that’s really fun to work on that with.

JT: Yeah they’re… [Bolt co-founder] Dave [Castelnuovo] I think is our power user, he probably plays Pocket God on Facebook more than anyone else. [laughs]

Finding Success with PlayStation Minis

What else have you worked on recently besides Pocket God?

SC: Recently just before Christmas we launched a PSP Minis game called A Space Shooter For 2 Bucks! It’s a Mini on the PlayStation Network. And we’re really proud of it, we got some really good reviews for that one, too. So we launched two titles just before Christmas last year, and both of them are doing really well.

It's always interesting to hear which platforms and development choices and styles that independent studios are working with. It sounds like you guys spread out pretty far in today’s market. There are a lot of opportunities, but it seems like it’s a bit tough to make the most of them.

JT: Yeah, I think we benefit from a really strong R&D team. I think it’s something where if we see a market opportunity or we see a good partnership or -- like with Pocket God -- seeing a good license opportunity or code development opportunity out there, we have the ability to kind of march out and see that only one; we don’t look at platform as a barrier.

SC: Exactly. And on the other end, we’re building business.

When you started it was probably more important to build relationships with publishers and platform holders and stuff. Do you find that that has changed for you since we’ve moved forward into platforms like the iOS, Android, and Facebook?

SC: No. Actually, it just makes easier for us to publish our own games on one side. On the other side, it makes it easier for all new developers. So for us, what’s paying more is our relationship with some people that have a big audience. Like for example, when we launched A Space Shooter For 2 Bucks!, Sony was a good partner on this project and pushed the title really well, so it generated a good success.

Basically what I want to say to that is the most important thing is the relationship you have with the people that own some eyeballs. And launching an iPhone title by yourself without marketing it or without a real audience is getting more and more difficult.

And... we see on the market some companies that had some really successful products launched by a really small team without any marketing efforts. But they are…

JT: Exceptions?

SC: Huge exceptions, when you look at the iPhone market.

Are you satisfied with the Minis program on the PlayStation?

SC: [Pauses to think] Yes. [laughs] It’s interesting because you can bring your idea on both the PSP and the PlayStation 3. And it’s not that complicated to launch a title. It’s not as easy as on an iPhone, but you don’t have a big entry barrier to launch a small title and it’s a really good way to test an IP. So it’s an interesting program, and it’s getting better and better.

We launched a zombie title [Zombie Tycoon] – that was the first Mini we launched – and then we launched A Wizard’s Odyssey, we launched Young Thor, and now A Space Shooter For 2 Bucks!

Some of them have done really well, like our zombie title has made good numbers, and A Space Shooter is [doing] really good for the Minis. We can recuperate our investments really rapidly.

JT: The exciting thing is that you can take an idea to market quickly and have a large audience, potentially, for that product.