iam8bit wants physical video games to be as cool as vinyl

Physical video games are going the way of vinyl. Over the past few years especially, we’ve seen the march towards an all-digital era pick up the pace. GameStop is struggling to stay open, services like Xbox Game Pass encourage us to trade individual purchases for a digital subscription, and new consoles like the Xbox Series S don’t include a disc drive at all. In the same way that few people buy CDs in 2021, it’s likely that we won’t see entertainment centers lined with plastic game cases as commonly as we used to.

Iam8bit isn’t ready to let go of that era just yet. The entertainment company has made a name for itself by keeping physical gaming products alive. It creates elaborate packages for indies like Untitled Goose Game and Mutazione, which were previously only released digitally. It’s also well-known for producing stunning vinyl soundtracks, including a four-LP Persona 5 release. It’s even getting into the tabletop space now, with its first-ever board game. While other companies shy away from physical goods, iam8bit is making them more appealing than ever.

I spoke to iam8bit creators Jon Gibson and Amanda White to find out why the company is so committed to keeping physical games alive. The duo explained that vinyl records and game discs are more closely linked than you might think.

Something nostalgic

In 2005, iam8bit began as a pop culture art show, which featured art based on 80s video games. While that style of show is common nowadays, it was the first of its time at that point. The event sprung out of an era of LA warehouse art parties, where art-goers could grab a $5 beer (never mind that the spaces didn’t have liquor licenses) or buy a piece of art right off the wall for $20.

“There was this underground art scene happening in LA at a time where art galleries were fancy pants, where a Monopoly guy with a monocle was dropping $100,000 on art,” Gibson tells Digital Trends. “There was just nothing for us. Nothing for someone who wanted something nostalgic that they celebrated or held dear. Iam8bit was a version of that, but put into a proper gallery where artists were assigned to remix 80s games.”

That was a start for the brand, but iam8bit only began to turn into an actual company once Jon Gibson, a former games journalist who organized the early art shows, met film producer Amanda White. The two became friends just as iam8bit started getting commissioned by companies like Nintendo and Capcom for marketing projects. Some of its earliest gigs involved making art for limited-edition Mega Man 9 press kits and producing underground Street Fighter fan events.

Gibson and White capitalized on that momentum, turning iam8bit into a full business and settling into a proper office (a dream space the two found during a location scout for a Dead Rising 2 project). Since then, the company’s business has expanded beyond art shows and marketing projects. It has become a go-to spot for gaming enthusiasts who want to get their hands on specially crafted games and vinyl.

It takes the essence of those underground LA art shows — where anyone could pluck a painting off a wall for $20 — and applies it to gaming.

Keep it physical

It may seem like iam8bit’s focus on physical video games and vinyl is a bit of an odd couple, but those two worlds share a lot of similarities. White compares the act of crate digging for records to the old days of popping into a used game store like Funcoland and rifling through cartridges. The vinyl aspect of the business is especially important for Amanda White, who says that the customization aspect of records allows them to add more depth to a listening experience.

“When we started thinking about this idea of physical gaming goods and gaming music came up as an option, vinyl seemed like the only cool thing we could do,” White tells Digital Trends. “It’s not just the music itself. It’s the jacket, the texture, the card stock, the treatments, etc. They can all come together to form a robust commentary around the music.”

The vinyl boxset for the Persona 5 soundtrack.

You can see that philosophy at play in any of the company’s record releases. The Persona 5 soundtrack comes in a gorgeous four vinyl package complete with stickers, a Phantom Thieves calling card, and record sleeves based on different characters. Similarly, the company is gearing up to release a record based around Blaseball, a browser-based baseball simulator that contains no music of its own. The album was entirely recorded by The Garages, a real band based on the game’s Seattle-based team, who wrote and recorded a sort of interpretive soundtrack to the game in around four weeks. The package contains official “Blaseball cards” that fans can trade.

For fans, packages like this can amplify their relationship to the games themselves. They provide supplemental material that deepens a game’s world. Gibson sees that same potential in physical games too.

“A friend recently said ‘What happened to audio commentaries on movies?’” Gibson says. “Streaming has ruined it! Our education about film has been depleted. Something similar can be said for physical games and vinyl. Things like liner notes and instruction booklets and all these accouterments lend something to our endearment with a particular game that you just don’t get from digital.”

Everything that's included in the iam8bit physical release of Spiritfarer.

Just as iam8bit creates elaborate vinyl collections, its game offerings are similarly robust. Its latest release is for Spiritfarer, a hit indie title about a ferry master who helps the deceased cross over to the other side. The package comes with postcards depicting the game’s various locations, stickers featuring its characters, and a 96-page digital artbook. For those who loved Spiritfarer when it dropped in 2020, the package allows fans to further admire and appreciate its art design outside of the game.

Gibson and White only plan to double down on their love of tangible goods; iam8bit just launched a Kickstarter for its first-ever tabletop game, Dustbiters. The two-player card game is a Mad Max-style desert battle where players build a convoy of weaponized cars. The game is designed by a team of indie darlings who previously worked on games like Minit, Disk Room, and Broforce.

While iam8bit has evolved several times in its 16-year run, its mission largely remains the same. From art shows to distributing games, the company has always been about celebrating the media we love in tangible ways. It doesn’t just want players to blaze through a game in a few weeks and never touch it again; it wants us to keep a little piece of it with us long after the credits roll.

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