“I believe that our heavenly father created the monkey because he was disappointed in man.”
- Mark Twain
Monkeys. They are endlessly fascinating. Maybe it’s because they remind us so much of ourselves. We see in them enough of a resemblance to remind us, perhaps, of how far we’ve come. Or maybe just how close we still are. In Hinduism, they are a symbol of attachment. In the Chinese zodiac, vitality. Mayans held them as sacred symbols of artistry. For a group of veteran engineers out of LucasArts, the monkey was the impetus for an identity, a state of mind.
They called themselves MunkyFun, partly in homage to the pantheon of monkeys appearing throughout the history of gaming, but also as a tribute to the Monkey Island games created by Ron Gilbert, Ron Grossman and Tim Schaffer during the halcyon days of the LucasArts’ graphic adventures. Plus, monkeys are funny. The word monkey is funny. What happens when great talent is tempered in the fires of adversity and given an evocative name? A truly inspiring upstart game studio is born.
Game studios are like rock bands. So much is in the name. A band’s name evokes a personality that bleeds into the music. Think about Smashing Pumpkins and The Rolling Stones. The same can be true in games. The personality of a studio often lends itself to the games they produce. Both types of entities, bands and game studios, tend to be ego-driven crucibles of creative energy. Those that are successful, those that have longevity, often form for reasons other than money or stardom. The great bands, like the great game teams, are lovers of their craft who produce for the simple joy of making magic happen. Such is the case with MunkyFun.
LucasArts alumni have spawned so many successful start-ups that one has to imagine what could have been had all that talent been recognized and managed well. MunkyFun founders Nick Pavis, Tim Ramsay and Oren Weizman worked together for years at LucasArts, and, after shipping Star Wars: The Force Unleashed for Xbox360 and PlayStation 3, felt it was time for something new. Their experiences helping to re-build the LucasArts studio amounted to an advance degree in building development teams from the ground up. They knew they had what it takes to create their own team, and they knew it was time to take the next step – to spin off on their own.
“We wanted to focus on fun, both in our games and in the office environment.” says Pavis. “We work in games because we all love playing them, and if we aren’t enjoying making them, that lack of fun will trickle down to the players’ experience.”
MunkyFun was formed by a team of gamers, many coming from a console and PC game background before transitioning into the worlds of iOS and Android. Their challenge was to bring both the look and feel of their early console experiences to mobile. And if you just look at their games, it’s obvious that they’ve risen to that challenge. Thus far, they have created an eclectic assortment of titles – (Bounty Bots™, Knight Storm™, Archetype™, D-Com Mission Alpha™ , Ivory Tiles™ and My Horse™.) – puzzlers, RPG’s, FPS’, even a horse simulation, all notable for their high graphic quality as well as their gameplay.
“The technology has not been a challenge for us;” Pavis says. “It’s all about the games now. The fun. The mobile space has been like the Wild West, and we have been fortunate enough to try out all manner of fun gaming experiences. We have a great prototyping and a gate system for which ideas move forward, and each idea is as different as you could imagine. No idea is a bad idea.”
The prototyping system Pavis speaks of begins with what he calls a Game Jam where they periodically set aside a few weeks to work on internally generated ideas. They start with ten to fifteen concepts on paper, reducing that number down to five based on feedback from the staff and a three point gating process.
“The process is self-governing,” Pavis says. “Because if you can’t convince artists and designers to help create your prototype, then your idea will be starved of resources.”
Each idea/prototype is accountable to three criteria, or gates, in order to pass through the various stages to full green light. First is Second-to-Second Gameplay – a game has to feel right at an interface level, meaning the controls feel good, or the fundamental mechanic of the game is compelling on a moment-to-moment basis. Second is Minute-to-Minute Gameplay – controls are one thing but beyond that feel, what’s the point? What is the player trying to achieve at a micro level? Third is Hour-to-Hour Gameplay – this is the overall objective, the macro gameplay, the value of sticking with a game all the way through. No game is given a green light to move to the next gate without passing successfully through a previous one.
MunkyFun has several games in various prototype phases all the time. This not only ensures their pipeline is full, it keeps their ideas fresh and prevents genre rut – that complacent zone of safety that often bogs a studio down. It also allows for the entire team to be involved in the creative at some level, engendering a sense of ownership, pride and the feeling that one is not just a cog in a machine but a true contributor. At MunkyFun, no matter who you are, your opinion matters.
MunkyFun has enjoyed quite a bit of success of late, but they almost didn’t make it passed their first quarter of existence. Two months after they formed, the great recession kicked in and the U.S. economy took a nosedive. Most major publishers cut back drastically on external development deals or froze spending entirely. MunkyFun was in late stage discussions with several publishers at the time, all of whom pulled the plug on pending negotiations. But MunkyFun pulled through.
“If we thought we were bootstrapping up until that point, we had another thing coming,” says Pavis. “This was really bootstrapping. But sheer grit and resilience surprisingly gets you a long way. It was literally a case of success being defined as not quitting when the odds are against you. You beg, borrow, and steal, and you make it through – somehow.”
Adversity will break or make you. In MunkyFun’s case, they were made. So impressive has been their rise (and their games), that GREE International recently made a $3M investment in MunkyFun as part of their $10M partner fund.
With access to GREE’s global mobile social gaming ecosystem, analytics expertise and user acquisition prowess, MunkyFun is poised to level up a tier or two. They are hiring, releasing a number of new titles this year and have moved into an historic building in San Francisco’s Jackson Square, an old Ghirardelli chocolate factory with exposed brick walls and high arched windows in the heart of advertising gulch. It’s a very cool space.
“We love to innovate and we feel we are getting better at reading what it is our audience wants to play,” Pavis says. “GREE can really help us dive deeper in ways to make free-to-play successful.They understand how to reach and understand that mobile free-to-play gamer, and part of that is making monetization work in a positive way for both us and the player. With both GREE and MunkyFun, it isn’t about how to extract money from players quickly so the game makes some fast cash and dies, but it is about creating games the players want to play and constantly infusing those titles with new content, therefore building a long term relationship with the player.”
The infusion of money and resources that resulted from the GREE deal has really helped MunkyFun to complete its transformation from the scrappy, ramen noodle days of startup hell to a more focused, streamlined and polished organization with a live-ops team, customer service department and analytics teams, designated HR and a finance group. They are now a full-function, self-sufficient studio capable of self-publishing through the product life-cycle.
When MunkyFun was still young and working on coining its name, one of Pavis’ colleagues said that all good games have at least one monkey. While this may be a stretch, the idea itself was something they were all able to latch onto. Sometimes all you need is a spark, an angle, a manifesto to spur you on.
“Do we have monkeys?” Pavis says. “Of course we do! In fact, in Bounty Bots, you can only autofire by strapping a monkey in and letting him go crazy – just a little bit of extra silly. We are firm believers in having fun and just monkeying around, especially when it comes to our games!”
MunkyFun may have grown up a little, but they’re still scrappy. They’re not subsisting on freeze-dried ramen anymore, but that singular, hungry focus is still alive. You can feel it in their studio. And you can see it in their games.