The 8lb Gorilla Paradox

8lbEA just announced the formation of a new micro-studio called 8lb Gorilla.  The studio will create games for the $0.99 iPhone market and hopes to pump out a new game on a near-monthly basis.

On the Surface

I love the clever name and that their logo isn’t a too-cute miniature primate.  I can see why EA went for this idea.  Tiny teams produce runaway hits on the App Store on a regular basis (FlightControl, Wurdle, iShoot, Field Runners, Trism, to name a few) and EA certainly has talent that would be eager to be thrown into this initiative.

As long as development costs are kept down and the team produces an occasional hit, this model could be reasonably profitable.  In addition, it’s a fantastic proving ground for good ideas.  A tiny game that took a month to develop could, in some cases, be expanded into a full blown game and released on multiple platforms (think Tower of Goo / World of Goo).

The Paradox (I use the terms loosely)

I imagine that EA’s dream is that the studio produces regular runaway hits.  This would actually be the worst case scenario for EA.  If tiny teams produce these hits, it won’t be long before they realize they could make a lot more money by leaving EA and self publishing on the iPhone.  The micro-studio would become a wound through which EA would bleed its best talent.

And clearly, if the 8lb Gorilla doesn’t carry its own weight by at least breaking even, EA is unlikely to keep it running for very long.

Alternative Outcomes

There are certainly ways, however, in which this could be a success story for EA.  8lb Gorilla might turn out to be EA’s rapid prototyping R&D lab, not in itself profitable, but generating ideas for larger games that turn a big profit.

It’s also possible that games produced by 8lb Gorilla would owe much of their success to EA’s marketing muscle, something that individual contributors simply don’t have access to.  EA might still bleed a little talent at first but it would quickly become clear the 8lb Gorilla can’t survive in the jungle without the 800lb Gorilla sitting next to it.

A Parting Thought

Another way in which the 8lb Gorilla can thrive is to take away the incentive for talent to leave.  What if you needed to take a pay cut to join the 8lb Gorilla team, but a significant part of the profits from each game came back as a bonus to the team that made it?  Magilla Gorilla could make $100k a year working on Madden 2012, but he could also make $50k a year working on little games and end up with a $150k bonus at the end of a good year.  If EA could make this model work it has the potential to become a major talent magnet.

13 Responses to “The 8lb Gorilla Paradox”

  1. Gustav Dahl Says:

    I know this has nothing to do with the written post, but I just want to let you know, Ron Carmel, that I am really looking forward to meet you at UNF Game Development Camp in Denmark in a few weeks. I am a big fan of you and can’t wait to see what you are going to show us at the camp. For those who don’t know what I am talking about; it’s a Summer camp for young students in Denmark where you make a computer game from scratch in 10 days. Last year we did it in the Open Source Blender engine, so I assume we’ll do the same this year.

  2. Adam B. Says:

    Another way that 8lb Gorilla could succeed would be if EA didn’t let it become an entirely separate team. If EA let the studio be a place where their current developers could work on smaller game ideas in between larger projects, there would be no single team that could break away. Also, from a consumer standpoint, we could see ideas that EA’s top developers have, but aren’t quite feature-length games. Incorporating your marketing and bonus ideas, their developers would have real incentive to work through 8lb Gorilla when they have a great, but small idea.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think EA is currently set up to handle a system like this, but it could be an interesting method that would let fans of certain developers to see more work from their idols.

  3. Monogamie Says:

    Hi 2D Boy/Man. Loved your take on the announcement.

    Only time will tell how this experiment unfolds, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the ‘indie model’ described above became progressively more common across the industry in the upcoming years.

    It would only be fair game (bad pun unintended).

  4. Sebastian Says:

    Interesting perspective. As far as the parting though goes.. I somehow doubt EA (or any other major game studio) would provide a financial incentive that is worth staying part of a corporate conglomerate instead of going indie. It would of course be a wonderful thing if major studios made aforementioned model work, but right now, it seems implausible. One can dream though, yes?

  5. Sslaxx Says:

    I don’t follow the bit about 8lb becoming a wound for EA. The people at 8lb might decide to leave EA if they feel they could be more successful as independents, true. But they might anyway.

    As a threat to 2D Boy? Is it? And if it isn’t, why not?

  6. LostOverThere Says:

    Great read. It seems that small development teams regularly come up with the most innovative and inspiring products, so I’ll be interested in seeing what they can produce.

  7. elecorn Says:

    I don’t think you guys understand. EA will have hits because they have the marketing power of EA. If the dev team decides to go indie, they’ll just get lost in the noise like everyone else.

    Also, EA has an incredible bonus program. The devs will most likely make way more money in bonuses and beneifts in addition to salary than they’re likely to make on their own in the iTunes store.

    Sure, you see indie hits every know and then on iTunes, but for every hit, there are dozens of games that are often better and just get lost in the noise.

    If you want to make money, you need marketing. And that’s one thing EA does REALLY well.

  8. lafe Says:

    im at a dev camp too!

    when im back, im making an ipod touch app!

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  10. axcho Says:

    Wow. This is fascinating. I’ll be very curious to see how this goes for EA.

    I’m definitely in favor of the indie approach, but if I were at a big company like EA I’d want to be part of a small “rapid prototyping R&D lab” like you describe. In fact, I’d want to be doing that even if I were on my own, completely indie, just an R&D lab for the rest of the game industry, whoever wants to use the ideas that are generated.

  11. josh hulgan Says:

    I can’t stand EA. In fact i HATE EA. But i agree on that… Im working in the iphone app market at the moment.

  12. Jack Says:

    I can see two primary driving forces behind this:

    1 – As you suggested, 8lb Gorilla becoming EA’s rapid prototyping lab. To be honest, I think ALL major AAA developers need a team like this, to keep fresh ideas coming through. It’s exactly the kind of thing that Experimental Gameplay turned out to be good for – you try a whole bunch of stuff, without fear that most of it will fail, and when something works, you pass it off to a team to make a full game out of it, confident in the knowledge that there’s already some public interest in the idea.

    2 – From what I understand, there are several platforms (iPhone, mobile gaming in general, casual web games, digitally-distributed “indie” games (whatever that means in the context of an EA studio)) where the profit margins aren’t great, and as such you need a mechanic for keeping the production costs down. By keeping teams small and product cycles short, you can do that. It’s the big companies learning from the business models of the little indie companies.

    What I’ll be interested in, if this gets off the ground, is whether teams working in an indie-style, when funded and marketed by big companies like EA, can compete with actual indie companies on their own terms. It’s possible that the indie dev model, combined with EA’s marketing clout, could really put the squeeze on the ability of indie games to get noticed or make money. If that happened, how many indie game developers would quit being indie in order to apply for jobs at 8lb Gorilla? Far from EA losing employees to go start indie companies, they might find indie companies queuing up to sign with them…

  13. phnord Says:

    Perhaps EA is being selfless by trying to promote quality game development in the iPhone community…. *snickers*

    Sorry – I couldn’t make it through that with a straight face.