EA 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.
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.