It’s a big summer for iam8bit on all fronts. We’re now one week removed from their collaboration with Summer Game Fest to showcase the 10th anniversary of Day of the Devs to a global audience and bring an in-person SGF Play Days press event to life, and we’re just a month away from the launch of their first indie game publishing effort with Escape Academy. Plus, on top of it all, there’s still everything they’re best known for with creativity-led physical runs and special merch drops for new and notable indie games that are releasing throughout the year.
It’s a lot to juggle, and I wanted to know how it’s been going for the team so far. So I sat down with iam8bit founders Jon M. Gibson and Amanda White to have a conversation about the past, present, and future of iam8bit.
Miguel – I think first thing I wanted to talk about generally is how was that Inside Collector’s Edition? How did that go? Because that was a thing that you made!
Jon M. Gibson – [laughs] So you want to know the genesis of it?
TSA – I want the genesis, I want your thoughts about it, like, I want to address the Inside Collector’s Edition in the room. I want to talk about because it’s a weird, wild thing that y’all did.
Jon – I like that turn of phrase: I want to address the elephants… like you’re just talking to elephants.
It kind of started with your idea with your friends [Amanda].
Amanda White – Yeah. So I have some friends who are leather smiths in Canada and they, uh, specialise in bondage gear and for a long time we’ve been talking about how can we collaborate with them? It would be fun to do something a little bit edgy and titillating.
Then the Inside edition came along and we’re like, what could we do here? This could be cool. They kind of dabble in silicon products and so we thought that something silicon could be really cool. Like, how will we do this? So we started conversations and they said, “You know, we’re not exactly the right people for this, but you should look at these other folks.” And so we started talking to other people.
Jon – Yeah, they told us we should look at people who make more sex toys than anything else because we really wanted a very special cadence in quality. We wanted to be able to be specific about things like the skin tone, the jiggliness, and density.
We’ve had a very good relationship with [Inside developer] Playdate for years and the whole intent behind the collaboration was to always do different and weird things that were appropriate, but also, not just do a statue. What if the statue, like, jostled and that kind of things? So it wasn’t like, let’s do something sexy, it was more let’s do something that has like a sculptural quality but it’s a little extra.
Amanda – It’s almost like that. It’s like a jumble of human parts in a way, right? So it has that feeling of skin and muscle and flesh and you know.
Jon – Yeah, it has lots of things poking out, like its just a mass. But it was also made by provocateurs of sex toys, so that got a lot of attention and we realised that that was an opportunity to let people wonder and not tell them. We’re like, what if we just never actually acknowledge what’s inside and we just let it be a thing? Because we’re not gonna make a lot of these. They’re all handcrafted. They’re an outfit in San Diego so we have the benefit of being able to see the facilities and like behind the scenes stuff. So we were tracking the whole process, but yeah, we didn’t tell you what it was inside until you open the box.
It was like a fun opportunity to study.
TSA – So was the idea mainly driven by your team? Or was the team at Playdate giving it a big focus?
Jon – It was very collaborative, because Playdate was game to be wacky about the whole thing. Working with them was really cool, because they’re down to party and, like, try things. They have the benefit of being a really respected developer and having already sold a lot of games, so it wasn’t about money, there was no “we got to do this to make some bucks”. It was more like,”Oh, let’s do something really interesting for the fanbase that exists and reward them for sticking with us”.
But we also all secretly knew that, despite being mysterious about it, that everyone would totally know what it is. If you played the game, you knew what we were doing. You knew why we do it that way, but the people who didn’t play the game? They were the ones that were I think more frustrated, right? Once you get to that point, it’s pretty obvious why we could do this and go that direction.
TSA – Is that something you guys want to do more of you think in terms of going really outside of the box with collaborative efforts like that? Like do you have other kind of like shooting for the moon, weird, artsy things you want to make for games or developers in particular trying to do more creative stuff.
Amanda – I feel like we always do that. I mean, that’s our MO, right? For better or worse. [laughs] You know, we try to raise the bar with everything and push the envelope to do something that people haven’t seen before, that is a challenge to create and bring it to life.
Jon – An indie game that hasn’t really been seen yet or is still building a community, you can’t really support with things that are so crazy, but when you have the benefit of something like, you know, Untitled Goose Game, for instance, it’s the zeitgeist, so we start to look at things like that.
Amanda – Cuphead…
Jon – And Cuphead.
Yeah, there’ll be lots of fun projects down the line where you can see the relationships that we have with developers and that can benefit from longer development cycles and creating things that are a little more difficult and crazy.
TSA – So what I’m hearing is a Cuphead sex toy?
Amanda – [laughs]
Jon – We would get in so much trouble with [Studio MDHR] if they heard that right now…
TSA – I mean you guys obviously are pushing the envelope in terms of what your company does, like, you know, indie publishing and stuff, which is a brand new thing for you. How is the process of getting into that field?
Amanda – Good! I mean, Jon and I both love trying new things, things we haven’t done before. We like expanding our capabilities, learning, growing as people in general, and so it’s sort of a very natural evolution to the way the company has expanded over the years. It’s another fun and very dynamic wing to what we have going on already. It seems like a natural thing to me.
Jon – We get bored too. If you keep doing the same thing over and over and over again… So that’s why we’re always trying to, not reinvent the wheel, but take different lanes, stop at the side of the highway and experience nature. The notion of like rinsing and repeating over and over again is not really interesting to us. There’s natural evolution. Also, we’re still making and doing all the things we were doing and having fun with those.
TSA – Yeah, so I was wondering then how have you see the publishing side of things coming into the fold with the physical stuff, Day of the Devs… How do you see the balance of things in a year and beyond? Like, do you want to publish more games more often? Is it a slow and steady thing? What are your goals?
Jon – People for years asked why we don’t publish games, and we were like, “We don’t know what POV we’re going to bring to it.” If we’re going to do it, we’ve got to do it differently than all the people we already work with. We can’t do it the same way as Akapura Games or Annapurna or anyone else, because we like those relationships and Devolver already has that Devolver POV on publishing.
So it took us a while to naturally come to the conclusion of what we could bring to the table, but also, like, the pandemic happened and part of our business is events and experiences and we couldn’t do this anymore….
Amanda – Except today! [laughs]
Jon – [laughs] So you know, we had two years where we have people that we haven’t seen [through the pandemic], and we want to figure out a way to take what you’re doing experientially and plug that perspective on things into games. Can we make those things digital in some way?
So we’ve only really announced Escape Academy, but when you get to see all the other stuff we have signed up, you’ll start to see these natural connection points where a lot of it has to do with experiences, the emotional quality and relationships people have with tactile thing.
Amanda – And the nostalgia that’s created by those interactions.
Jon – When we started going from not doing events to then meeting Mike and Wyatt of Coin Crew and talking to other devs […] and it started naturally coalescing in this way we were like, “Oh, I guess we’re gonna publish games!” But it was also our take on it.
TSA – So what do you see as being the iam8bit signature for published games? What would make Escape Academy and other unannounced things in the future be something someone sees and says, “Oh, that’s an iam8bit game.”
Jon – You know, what’s funny is you have to get media trained when you do interviews, and the main reason is that publicists, like this fine woman over here, give you a series of questions to think about, because we haven’t even thought about those things!
You don’t really like go into a business plan and think about it certain ways, we think about stuff emotionally and what feels right. We like the relationships, we meet the developers, we get along and we become friends and oftentimes we’re already familiar with those folks before we even decided to get into business together and it often just feels good.
Amanda – Well, you’re not becoming friends because you have an ulterior motive to then become business partners, you’re becoming friends and then that sort of evolves as natural expansion of your relationship.
Jon – So in the case of Escape Academy, I met Wyatt and Mike through a mutual friend, we started talking and I asked what they were up to, and they were going through the same thing we were going – events got canceled for us, they were making game machines, and then all of a sudden, we were like “Wait, we’re in the same…. What are you working on right now? How are you…” And they were like “We’re not, but we decided to pivot [to making video games].”
Amanda – It was a natural coalescence because, how many Escape Rooms with experiential type puzzling things have we done in a physical room? And their game is doing that, of course, digitally. Just kind of puts a natural connection to it.
Jon – It’s the same with other stuff that we’re working on. It’s all people that we knew or had conversations with, and it started all falling into line. So we started realise that we’re not really approaching the open market of games that need publishers, it’s more like encouraging things that perhaps need supporting and then evolving and growing something. And that’s where we started realise we can help as a publisher and we can be an ally, and that every game is very different.
TSA – Yeah. So that idea of like in person, experiential things is really interesting, because you’re publishing Escape Academy, an escape room game, you’re going into the 10th year of Day of the Devs, and I feel like in person events are really starting to be a thing again, hopefully. Does that feel like something that you want to pursue in a more creative, artsy way in the future, making these sort of in person experiences.
Jon – Well, we were and then we couldn’t anymore, and then we are again…
Amanda – I mean, I think I think the evolution for us over the past couple of years is more of a desire to do that as less of a sort of white-label entity and more of a like, we’re doing it ourselves. Right.
So for Day of the Devs, obviously, we are partners Double Fine and Greg from PlayStation Indies, but still, it’s all of our work and time and energy for ourselves, rather than for money, I think that’s what we’re leaning when it comes to experiences or investing in brands we’ve helped to create.
Jon – And also it benefits the industry. We’re helping indie devs to get exposure, like big game are helping little games, and that’s the whole Summer Game Fest model here too. There’s this like triple-A to indie tit for tat balance.
Day of the Devs is getting viewership as a result of people tuning in for something else and it becomes this discovery engine and that’s for the industry as a whole. And it’s the same for SGF – Play Days. We built an ecosystem that wasn’t like a free for all on a convention floor. Everyone gets the same television that’s 65 inches that’s beautiful and 8k and everyone gets whatever peripherals they need, so it’s more about the game than it is about like the pomp and circumstance. It’s more about the community experience of everyone coming together. So it’s like, Square Enix is next to Capcom is next to [email protected] It starts to feel like everyone is in it together and it’s not competitive anymore.
Day of the Devs has the same principle in person too. It’s like the entire industry sponsors, but no one gets more giant logos in places. So, like, please give us your money and we need it to pay for the thing because we operate basically like a charity, but it starts to feel more natural and safer and cooler, more conversational, and the hope here was that you’re sitting out on the couch versus like standing up on a noisy convention floor and the conversations are probably gonna be better.
TSA – Do you feel like that’s a big change? It’s year 10 of Day of the Devs versus year 1. Do you feel like that shift from competitiveness to cooperation has been like a big change or have there been other big changes?
Amanda – Day of the Devs has always been like that. I think it’s more like something like a giant gaming convention versus this [Summer Game Fest – Play Days]. Right?
Jon – I think if you look at a convention, then booths are competing with their decibel levels. They want to be the loudest, the biggest and the brightest, and at some point the decibels gets so loud that the human ear cannot handle it, you can go deaf, and there’s like laws against those kinds of things! So we never want to play that game. We want it to be like hanging out with friends, or making friends. It evens the playing field. Press, developers, and publicists, and marketers; they’re just human beings.
TSA – Do you have any games from the history of Day of the Devs, from year one to now, that you’ve been particularly proud of being able to showcase? Where you were extremely like extra excited about being able to showcase them?
Jon – Greg actually just tweeted a list of the first games that we showed. This was just a small event and one of them was Broken Age – and that kind of had the whole genesis of like, Broken Age, Double Fine’s community – but like, you know, there were enough people here that like maybe we can showcase other games and like help other devs try to find their way.
And I forget that Mercenary Kings from Tribute Games was on that list, and Tribute had just left Ubisoft. Ubisoft basically dissolved the Scott PIlgrim department, and all the key players that formed Tribute were key creatives on the Scott Pilgrim game that clearly built a cult following. Back then it was just like this upheaval from a corporation and Tribute was just starting out, so we were so happy to showcase Mercenary Kings as their like, first effort.
But then looking now with [Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge] which they’re making 10 years later, and it’s like, those are success stories where it’s like they took the risks of starting their own studio, and we wanted to help them out, and they’ve made several games since then, but then totally exploded clearly. They’re really, really good. Which is awesome.
Jon – And that happened a lot! Like, Untitled Goose Game, no-one really knew what that was. There’s hundreds of those stories where everyone is the same, everyone gets the same screen, the same set up and it’s all about discovery and it’s all about what bubbles to the top and giving people opportunities.
You know, we don’t ever know what’s going to like really hit. You make your bets before every Day of the Devs that there’s something really special happening with that game. I wonder if people are gonna see it? But it’s like you’re not shining a spotlight on anyone in particular, and that’s always been the case with it.