Inside the ever-expanding studio that makes everything from collectible vinyl soundtracks to limited-edition boxed sets for games
If you're wondering when peak-hype hit for No Man's Sky – perhaps the most hyped game of the last 10 years – it may have been March 3rd. It was announced that the forthcoming space game from a tiny team whose clever tech promised almost limitless adventure was to get a special limited run $150 Explorers Edition – the kind of treatment typically reserved for $100 million uber-franchises. In return for handing over three times the price of a regular retail copy, collectors, completists and savvy eBay-minded buyers would get a hand-painted, cast metal starship replica with an array of customization decals, removable background display, a custom "Traveller's Log" notebook and various other lavishly produced accoutrements (as well as a download code for the game itself).
Given the benefit of hindsight, mixed reviews and now rampant refund requests for No Man's Sky, this kind of treatment seems over the top, even ridiculous – a white elephant typical of an industry in the thrall of the vast profits that can follow a successful pre-order campaign. And had it been the work of an ego-maniacal developer alone, or even its chief benefactor and publisher, Sony Interactive Entertainment, it would be all those things. But the No Man's Sky Explorer's Edition – in all its magenta-and-lime-tinted glory – remains desirable, even collectible, such is the level of inexhaustible geek love that surrounds the scrappy outfit responsible for its existence.
Iam8bit is a company of many identities – at once a creative marketing agency, art exhibitor and retail space in Los Angeles. But above all, it is a fan-fueled nostalgia factory, pumping out premium licensed products – limited run vinyl, custom toys, and screen prints. The company has produced Journey and Uncharted 4 soundtrack releases on custom vinyl, and a range of Monument Valley records, prints, and swag. It is unmatched in the art of producing seductive objects of desire, bathed in (properly licensed) nostalgia.
The studio's retail, shipping, and offices are all housed within the same hip warehouse space, at a central junction in Los Angeles' Echo Park neighborhood. Surrounded by a mix of artisanal juice bars and coffee shops alongside older Latino-owned businesses, the neighborhood has reached peak gentrification: at the corner of their street, a stark, sans-serif billboard created by an L.A. real estate brokerage read, until recently: "Change your life. Sell your property."
The issue of change is one that iam8bit co-owners, Jon M. Gibson and Amanda White, have been thinking about quite a bit lately. "It's an interesting time, because we're in the process of trying to really encapsulate ourselves as a business," White says, sitting across from Gibson as both balance MacBooks in their respective laps. As we talk, White and Gibson are finalizing arrangements for a Dishonored 2 event they're producing for Bethesda at the PAX West gaming convention the following week. A calendar packed full of deadlines for various collaboration projects looms on the wall behind us. "We have so many different kinds of things that we do."
"We're in this strange phase of the company right now where we're doing well, but we're appealing to more and more people," Gibson adds. "And now we have to figure out how to best and most concisely convey what we are to people, because they know us as so many different things." His best attempt yet comes in the form of a metaphor: "We're essentially a company that's like the 2001 baby floating in space, and we're the bubble that contains the baby, making it all warm and gooey," he says. "And that fluid represents nostalgia."
"Pixels in the Eighties were the building blocks for so many rich, lore-laden worlds and characters – but really, that was our imagination filling in the blanks."
The company initially sprung from a 2005 group art show Gibson curated in Los Angeles. "The name 'iam8bit' was a reference to feeling emotionally nostalgic for things that were, well, kinda archaic," he says. "Pixels in the Eighties were the building blocks for so many rich, lore-laden worlds and characters – but really, that was our imagination filling in the blanks."
There's a magic in that – a feeling that's full of scope and sentiment. It was about artists exploring the visual simplicities of Eighties games in stark opposite mediums like paintings and sculptures and weird installations." Gibson says the show was a manifestation of the bold promises of box art – beautifully illustrated renditions of the evocative worlds contained within – but conceived as an art show. It was meant to put each artist's personal relationship with a game on display, rather than a marketing perspective. "Box art is all about selling something, whereas a painting hanging on a wall is all about sharing a highly personal anecdote."
On the strength of the attention iam8bit received as an art show, Gibson says, AAA game publishers and studios quickly came calling, asking him to create alt posters, shirts designs, and mailers for their upcoming game releases. "I was a wreck flying solo," he recalls of the two years he spent running the business alone, prior to meeting White. "Everything was happening so quickly. I couldn't keep up with it, and before it completely careened off the cliff, I met Amanda."
For her part, White hails from various producing roles in the movie biz, including the Joaquin Phoenix mockumentary I'm Still Here, and a documentary called Long Gone, about six tramps hopping trains across America. Her ability to handle big-picture tasks like budgeting, scheduling, and hiring – as well as being creatively involved in every project the company takes on – has helped the company grow in surprising ways. Including various part-timers and freelancers, iam8bit currently employs somewhere between 10 and 20 employees across its creative, production, and shipping departments. The company continues to grow, if somewhat reluctantly; both owners fear a potential day when they may not recognize everyone at the office. "I think that's when we start getting nervous about size, and what kind of business we really want to be running," White says. "We both love being involved and getting our hands dirty."
Given the small empire iam8bit has managed to build, it's clear that what was once a niche space has become much bigger and broader in its appeal. Balancing the gamer-focused product operation with client marketing work has its own difficulty curve, but the former currently accounts for some 60 percent of the company's business, growing 800 percent between 2014 and 2015. "These audiences are particularly passionate and have high standards for the kinds of things they'll invest in, so fortunately, it's been a nice match for us," White says. "We're also fortunate now that we're in a position to only take on projects and to work with people who we absolutely love. So, yes, we definitely do corporate work, but we strive to ensure that its something that stays in line with our vision and goals."
The recently announced Rez Infinite collection – an HD and VR remake of the trippy Dreamcast and PS2 fan favorite – came together over the course of several years. The company created a custom package for the bounty of Rez-branded treasure: a double LP plus a seven-inch vinyl and a 48-page retrospective art book, all sewn together into a fold-out tome that weighs more than three pounds. Though much of it is, not everything iam8bit does resonates with this sort of indie cred. They've dabbled in the digital space, creating the Drake vs. Lil Wayne app for the artists' 2014 concert tour; it allowed for real-time audience participation, whereby users could vote for who they thought "won" each leg of the tour. (They've since spun the app and its technology off into a separate company called Hypeswell.) Though it obviously occupies a very different space, White and Gibson look to Virgin as the type of company they respect and, to an extent, look to emulate, engendering as it does such intense brand loyalty thanks to its attention to detail and quality. "I don't want to fly places that Virgin doesn't fly," Gibson says.
Whether the client is Drake or Undertale creator Toby Fox, the company's goal is to resonate with fans. Their products are the kinds of things you can't buy at GameStop, crafted at a higher quality level (and a higher price point) for discerning consumers, extending the lives of their game experiences and bringing artifacts from virtual worlds into the physical one. Say what you want about them, but iam8bit don't lack for ambition – new niche product areas, greater international presence, and an entrance into the wholesale marketplace are all on the agenda, as well as collaborations with a number of high-profile AAA and indie games. A "short-format game show for nerds" is something they're chomping at the bit to get underway, but they're waiting for the right partner.
"You can do it scrappy, or you can do it right," Gibson says. "That's why Rez costs $75. We could do a scrappy version, but it's not doing it justice. We want to give people something they're gonna remember, not tune out of and move onto the next Twitch stream."