Game developer Freeverse suffers massive downsizing

Freeverse Games staff

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.

Images of Freeverse staff in happier times from Crain’s New York Business
Mobile

The iPad Mini, Apple’s tiny tablet, makes a return with powerful specs

Apple has finally revealed the iPad Mini. With all-new and upgraded specs, support for the Apple Pencil, and a fantastically inclusive price, here's everything you need to know about the iPad Mini.
Movies & TV

These are the best movies on Hulu right now (March 2019)

From dramas to blockbusters, Hulu offers some great films to its subscribers. Check out the best movies on Hulu, whether you're into charming adventure tales or gruesome horror stories.
Gaming

These are the must-have games that every Xbox One owner needs

More than four years into its life span, Microsoft's latest console is finally coming into its own. From Cuphead to Halo 5, the best Xbox One games offer something for players of every type.
Gaming

The best Wii games, from Super Mario Galaxy to Zelda: Skyward Sword

Nintendo shook up the gaming world with the Wii and its unique control scheme. Here are our picks for the best Wii games -- just don't blame us for having too many Mario titles on the list.
Music

Apple Music vs. Spotify: Which service is the streaming king?

Apple Music is giving Spotify a run for its money, but which service is best for you? In our Apple Music vs. Spotify showdown, we compare and contrast all we know about the two streaming music services.
Mobile

The Apple iPad Air is the power-packed tablet for everyone

The iPad Air is the less serious cousin to Apple's iPad Pro range, and it's the perfect addition to your coffee table. But it's no less powerful. Here's everything you need to know about the iPad Air.
Mobile

Apple’s new iPads are hardly new at all. Don’t waste your money

It has taken Apple four years to get around to updating the iPad Mini line, but the new iPad Mini is virtually identical to its predecessor. It’s joined by a confusing iPad Air with no obvious target audience. Is Apple just trying to sell…
Deals

This is the one thing you need to do before giving your child a smart phone or tablet

Monitoring your kids' digital habits can be a challenge in today’s high-tech age, but great parental control software like Qustodio gives parents a much-needed advantage Read on to find out how you can protect your child from online…
Movies & TV

Apple bet big on TV and movie projects. Here’s what we know about them so far

Apple has an ambitious slate of original programming it has been developing in recent years, so will the March 25 event finally reveal when — and where — we will be able to see some of these TV shows and movies?
Mobile

How to choose an iPad in 2019: A practical guide to Apple’s tablets

Selecting an iPad from Apple's lineup can be intimidating, but it doesn't have to be. Our comprehensive guide should put the numbers and specs in practical, easy-to-understand terms. Find your ideal iPad with the help of our guide.
Mobile

These voice-changing apps will have you punking friends and family like a pro

Have you ever wanted to call your friends as Darth Vader or Alvin from the Chipmunks? If you want to play a prank on your friends, we have the best voice-changer apps for iOS and Android, whether you want to record audio or make a call.
Mobile

iPad Air vs. iPad Mini: Which new tablet from Apple is best for you?

Apple has unveiled two new iPad models, including a new iPad Air and a new iPad Mini. Both devices have a lot to offer. But which iPad is right for your needs? We put the iPad Air and iPad Mini to the test to find out.
Deals

The best Apple AirPods alternatives for Android, Windows, and iOS devices

Apple AirPods, nice as they are, aren't the only game in town. Other makers are offering their own truly wireless earbuds, and if you're looking to buy a pair of high-end in-ear headphones, we've got the best AirPod alternatives on the…
Mobile

Even older Apple Watches could be effective at spotting heart conditions

The Apple Watch Series 4 is known for detecting heart conditions like atrial fibrillation thanks to having an electrocardiograph feature. It turns out that older Apple Watches could be effective at tracking AFib, too.