HOW IAM8BIT WENT FROM INDIE ART GALLERIES TO MAJOR BRAND COLLABORATIONS
Equal parts production studio and art gallery, iam8bit is a veritable creative hub. Known for its installations around the gaming industry and video game events — from a Street Fighter-themed app for the Drake vs Lil Wayne tour to, most recently, a Spinch vinyl soundtrack and special edition Switch — iam8bit has evolved quite a bit since it was originally founded in 2005.\
“That whole era was video games becoming, not really a movement, but more accessible,” Jon Gibson, co-owner and founder of iam8bit, tells VENN of the early days of his company. Gibson, at the time, was working as a journalist and screenwriter, as well as a producer on a few games.
“The internet was picking up and becoming a thing, social media wasn’t really around quite yet and since I was meeting all these artists in animation, I was also hanging out with the G4 crowd. Those worlds naturally melded together and I realized there was this drought of video game cultural content,” he says
From that empty space, iam8bit was born. Gibson enlisted his animator friends to create art inspired by video games.
“That whole highfalutin art scene was coming up at the same time young artists were trying to find their way,” says Gibson. “So it seemed like a fun idea to do video games from the 80s and 90s, interpreted through the lens of artists, paintings or sculptures or plush. I knew all my friends would buy that stuff, and I knew my journalist friends would cover it. And it turned into a thing. It was the very first pop culture art show.”
The world of fine art wasn’t immediately receptive, nor was iam8bit’s early work highly respected, but Gibson didn’t intend for his project to become a full-fledged company as he still had a good career writing animation for Nickelodeon and Disney. The idea behind iam8bit quickly took off, however, and requests started to roll in from clients.
“I started getting calls from Capcom and Nintendo and others asking about marketing activities, like ‘Hey, could you work on the new Zelda? Can you work on Street Fighter or Mega Man?’” Gibson recalls. “It started with T-shirt designs and little artist commissions, and iam8bit was an ‘agency’ very quickly.”
That’s when Amanda White, iam8bit’s fellow co-owner, came in. A producer in her own right with titles such as Good Will Hunting on her resume, White brought practical business acumen to help the passionate team working out of Gibson’s backyard become a full-fledged business.
“We were all innovator types, so we needed to constantly figure out how we could make this better, faster, less expensive and cooler,” White says. “That spawned the conversation between Jon and I about how we could turn this into something more traditional in terms of what a business is. A whole bunch of boring stuff, but stuff that makes you a real viable business and someone that big companies can do business with.”
Working together, Gibson and White found complementary strengths that enhanced iam8bit projects and created a unique creative flow. “Making stuff in the video game space doesn’t mean your whole life has to revolve around video games,” says Gibson.
“If you only see yourself in the world of video games, your ideas will become one note or derivative,” White adds. “We take ideas from everywhere in culture; from entertainment, film, life experience, psychology. What inspires us runs the gamut. Somehow, together, we mesh and create perspectives that have not been heard before. I don’t quite know how it happens. It’s magic.”
Taking such a non-linear approach to the creative process helps Gibson and White engage with new clients and projects. While in its early days, iam8bit functioned as an agency or collaborator, over the years the duo created the formula for a new category of business that the gaming market today may take for granted.
As iam8bit and its influence has grown, it’s body of work has extended beyond creating art, though it still has a Los Angeles based art gallery with regularly curated exhibitions. Its merchandise now includes apparel, pins and vinyl, all curated to extend the mythos of the brand each item represents. Examples include its most recent Spinch LP vinyl soundtrack, Persona 5 Royal 3xLP Vinyl soundtrack and a collector’s edition of Ori and the Will of the Wisps. The most recent exhibition at the gallery is DRIFT, featuring handcrafted driftwood sculptures inspired by vintage Disney.
On Feb. 24, iam8bit took home two awards from the fourth annual Making Vinyl Packaging Awards: best 45-RPM (Single) Cover for It’s Bugsnax! and best vinyl gatefold for Battletoads: Smash Hits 2xLP. iam8bit was also runner up for best jazz, classical or spoken-word vinyl (non-deluxe) LP package for its eco-friendly Untitled Goose Game vinyl soundtrack.
The company has also moved into realms outside of merchandise, leaning into providing audiences with memorable experiences, such as creating a True Detective mailer campaign and coordinating the political protest art movement “Fuck Trump.” They’ve also worked with top-tier brands including Nintendo, PlayStation, Activision, Capcom and Machinima, among others.
“The iam8bit team busts their butts to try new things and push the creative envelope, because to us, every product we make is a unique snowflake,” says White.
In the decade and a half since iam8bit launched, the video game and entertainment landscape has shifted dramatically. When iam8bit started, video game art was a revolution. Now, gaming merchandise and eventizing a title’s launch is expected.
“I think the future is in these larger collaborations. I don’t know what those are yet, but when the idea sparks, we’ll figure it out,” White says.
Photo courtesy of iam8bit