When Melbourne studios Firemint and IronMonkey came together under the hybrid moniker of Firemonkeys in July this year, there were a few scoffs at the name from the local game media. But Rob Murray, founder of Firemint and now Firemonkeys’ executive producer, insists it was a no-brainer.
“It’s a better name than either of the previous ones!” says Murray.
“That’s right!” Tony Lay, co-founder of IronMonkey and now Firemonkeys’ general manager, agrees with a chuckle. “We explored different names for about three months, but I always imagined that if we stood in front of people and said, ‘Hi, we are Rob And Tony Development!’ everyone would go, ‘Why didn’t you just go with Firemonkeys?’
Not two months after the merger, Murray was on a stage in San Francisco at Apple’s iPhone 5 conference, standing beneath Firemonkeys’ new logo. He was advertising the technological capabilities of both the iPhone 5 and Firemonkeys’ upcoming Real Racing 3. But in a sense, Murray was also collecting Lay’s and his own winnings from over a decade of gambling that mobile game development was worth taking seriously.
While Firemonkeys has only existed since July of this year, then, it has two parallel histories stretching back almost a decade to when both Murray and Lay, in their own ways, placed their bets on a forthcoming mobile gaming boom.
“It was 2003 when we started growing and getting more people in,” Murray explains about Firemint’s origins. Then adds: “By ‘growing’, I mean it was more than just me.”
The company, having grown to three people, began work on various mobile phone titles, often without any mention in the credits. “We were just what you’d call a ‘work for hire’ studio. They’d commission some work, and we’d develop it.”
Through the early 2000s, Firemint began to make a name for itself as one of the few studios to take mobile game development seriously. Murray was adamant that mobile would be the next big platform for gaming, but it was a boom that he had to wait patiently for.
“We were early in on mobile,” says Murray. “There were very few developers around the world that started as early as we did, building up a studio [focused on mobile]. Before [the iPhone], it was lots of carriers, lots of different handsets to deal with, very little interest from consumers; it wasn’t a very respected medium. As much as we pushed everything we could from it and respected our medium, it wasn’t working on the market.”
Of course, iPhone changed everything. The Firemint team began working on Real Racing in 2008, hoping to close the production value gap between consoles and mobile handsets, and show just what the new generation of smartphones was capable of. But it was a personal project, which Murray spent the 2008 Christmas break working on, that would give Firemint its first original success: Flight Control.
The team put the game on the still-teething App Store in March 2009 to test the waters before Real Racing’s launch. The game exploded in popularity, becoming one of iOS’ foundational games, and helping to demonstrate the new modes of play that were possible on touchscreen devices. “That was when it really broke open for us,” says Murray.