Anyone who’s been gaming on the Mac platform for a while has fond memories of a burning monkey. That enflamed simian was the host of many casual games with a sense of humor, including Burning Monkey Solitaire, Burning Monkey Casino, and for the Florida retiree in all of us, Burning Monkey Mahjong. Today, it is the rare moment when it’s sad to see an animal not being set on fire: developer Freeverse, creator of the Burning Monkey series as well as many fun games and goofs for Mac, iOS, and Xbox Live, has been radically shrunk by massive layoffs. Most of the original staff is gone, and only a skeleton crew of seven people will remain to support their existing games.
Freeverse was founded twenty years ago, as a Mac-only shareware developer. Their titles were, to be honest, not all that exciting as gameplay experiences — they mostly focused on Mac versions of old-fashioned card and board games, and the occasional simple action title. But Freeverse games had a cheeky sense of humor that was almost unique in the industry. Plenty of companies release casual games with cute artwork, but how many would dare to present players with the absurdist humor of SimStapler, or Jared, Butcher of Song? Dorm rooms across the country shook, or at least wriggled, when Jared opened his mouth and atonal horror came pouring out, and Blockbuster Video adopted him, briefly, as their bizarre mascot.
Gradually, Freeverse developed the design chops to go with their goofy attitude, and the games got much better. Kill Monty was an unsophisticated but gleeful shooter experience, and Wingnuts and Wingnuts 2 were genuinely solid arcade adventures. Wingnuts 2 even won Macworld’s 2006 Eddy Award, and was their runner-up for “game of the year.”
Freeverse soon expanded into publishing, releasing a number of small but shapely titles by other developers, and into Xbox Live Arcade development, porting over Bungie Software’s great Marathon 2: Durandal in memory of the days when Bungie was a fellow gang of Mac devs with a sense of humor. Like many casual game makers, Freeverse found tremendous success creating games for iOS, including the very well-reviewed Moto Chaser and Skee-Ball, the interesting Grunts, and happily, ports of the mind-warping power of Jared and Sim Stapler.
The iOS years were a time of great creating and financial success for the company. Trouble appeared when mobile company ngmoco bought Freeverse for $25 million. Ngmoco announced their intention to bring Freeverse onto a “freemium” model, and to have them release 20 games a year — a schedule that boded ill for any kind of creativity, thoughtfulness, or even basic quality. But while Freeverse’s output ironically slowed under the pressure, they continued to show some of their originality and humor, with an adaptation of bestselling literary parody Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, and the vast outer-space sandbox Warpgate. The latter won terrific reviews, but its triumph was marred with a weird save system that required players to give their information to a third party, exactly the sort of corporate shenanigans that happen when a creative company is taken over by a big publisher with a passion for monetization.
The release of OS X Lion brought more trouble for Freeverse. In July of last year, they announced that rather than solve the technical problems the system update had caused for their older Mac titles, they would simply no longer support a long list of games, including their fiery primate standard-bearer. The press release said they were pulling out of those Mac games so they could continue focusing on iOS development, but it seemed like an ominous sign that they had let their old house go to seed. The rest of 2011 and 2012, saw no further releases.
So the announcement that Freeverse was going to be gutted like a South Bronx tenement in the 70s doesn’t come as a big surprise. But it’s still a sad moment for long-time Mac gamers who always felt warmly about the little burning monkey that could. Ngmoco studios VP Clive Downie says that Freeverse remains “a focused team,” and promises further games under the Freeverse logo. But those will be games developed by the much less interesting ngmoco arm of the company. So pour out some staples on the concrete in memory of the good times we had, and let’s all sing a chorus of something in Spanish, badly, that the spirit of Jared may send Freeverse’s soul upon its journey.