You see them every day, whether browsing in a store, clicking through the internet or looking at a shelf in your living room, but have you ever wondered what kind of thinking goes into creating a game's cover?
See, at heart, I'm a bit of a design nerd. I often like seeing, and hearing about, the stuff that goes into something more than the thing itself. And with a title's box art often the most iconic and memorable images of a game, I sat down with Charles Bae from Rokkan, a company specialising in marketing and design work for video games (and which works with 2K, Rockstar and Konami, among others), to learn more about the ups and downs of designing a game's cover art and logo.
ART IS DEAD
"The digital age killed box art as we know it today", Bae says. "Rather than using Photoshop as a tool, the industry has somehow put itself in a straight jacket". A reliance on computer graphics, post-production and conservative design has resulted in a formula Bae describes as Hero + Logo = Box Art.
"The actual process of box art creation has remained relatively the same in the past 20 years: compile audience research, create concept sketches, go through focus groups and internal rounds of reviews from key stakeholders (usually too many cooks in the kitchen), and produce the final box art".
Yet for all that work and planning, all the money and meetings spent nailing down concepts, the formula still holds true; the vast majority of games feature a cover that shows the lead character (or a composition of characters) and a logo. Great. Bae says things have gotten so dire that it's now almost taboo to present a publisher with any design that breaks from this tired, clichéd rule.
To show you the "formula" in action, let's look at Bae and Rokkan's first contracted piece of work: the design of the logo and cover for BMX XXX. Rokkan was hired to present an alternative for publishers Acclaim, a fresh look to compete with the company's own internal art team.
"For research, the Rokkan team took photos of signage from adult video stores and strip clubs in NYC (neon and more structural signs), and used that as the basis for the logotype" he says. "The logotype we came up with was a structural and bulky neon sign with thick metal casing".
"What we wanted to do was to convey the behind closed doors feel of going to an adult entertainment venue. So we came up with the idea to have the cover with the neon sign, as the entrance to the strip-club. The box would be a gate fold so you can open the front like a book cover and on the inside you would see the inside of the strip club (strippers and a dude on a BMX bike)."
And having paid these specialists to give the publisher something new, something that didn't look like your run-of-the-mill piece of box art, what did Acclaim go with instead? This. One of the worst covers you'll ever see.
Bae also says that those aghast at the differences between box art from Japan to Europe to North America can blame market research, which has armed publishers with three differing images of what a consumer prefers in each region. It's why, for example, American games feature more generic covers; a publisher may be looking at data which says Japanese or European customers are generally more receptive of a "conceptual or metaphoric" cover, so they dumb down the US version. But nowhere did it say American customers didn't want an "artier" cover, or couldn't understand it, so we end up with disputes like the one we saw with Heavy Rain.
To be fair, though, unlike the rest of us, publishers aren't in this for the art. They're in it for the money, and if a cover needs to be leveraged to help sell a game – by putting a recognisable character on the front – then that's what's going to happen. "Immediacy in conveying the key character of a game is an important factor for marketers when deciding on what the box art is going to be", Bae says, "which is a core reason why we see the same thing over and over again.
It doesn't always have to be like that, however. Two other industries that use/need covers – books and film – get away with using abstract artwork just fine. "The audience for books is much wider than video games", Bae says. "You have teens and adults over age 50 who are reading the same books. Therefore book covers need to appeal to a wider audience. Hence a more conceptual approach that is often times metaphoric of the story, seems to work better than a cover that is literal and targeted to one age group."
Gaming should also take cues from films that fit the "sophisticated, academic, philosophical, classical and intellectual" criteria. This is a generalization, but look at any DVD from the Criterion Collection. This is a prime example of the conceptual cover in film". Judging by the keenness the gaming community has taken to designing its own "Criterion" covers, it's a point many of you agree with.
"I think creating the logo for a game is more fun than creating the art, because we have more creative licence to create a unique logotype" Bae says. "Again, since box art has become a bit formulaic, creating logotype is a more expressive and experimental experience. The logo also stays with the game, on sequels, etc. The logo has a longer shelf-life and is therefore, at least for us, a more enjoyable aspect of the box art."
But with importance comes difficulty; Charles says that coming up with a logo can be a lot trickier than people would imagine.
"BioShock 2 has the "2" deliberately centred into position. Typesetting the "2" and the "BioShock" text is not as simple as it seems. Careful letter spacing was done to allow the "H" to float in the centre of the logo. With letters of different widths, it's harder than one would think. Obviously the designers on this took a lot of care in positioning the logotype. Whether we agree with the placement of the "2" or not, there is no arguing the finesse and deliberate spacing/positioning."
Phew. One example Bae has less approval for is Capcom's Super Street Fighter IV logo. "Adversely, we have the Super Street Fighter logo that is a throwback to the treatment of the original Super version of SFII. The difference is that the "SUPER" and the general treatment of logo on top of logo, doesn't feel refined or finished. It looks more like a sketch idea for the logo, rather than the final logo. The chrome finish to "SUPER" is really poor and all of the glows and shadows around the type make it look messier than it should be. A little more time and effort would have resulted in the same logo, just in a finished and more polished state."
To illustrate this point, Bae provided a reworked logo Rokkan whipped up. The changes are minimal, but then, minimal changes can often make the biggest difference.
Course, it's not all bad when it comes to games and their artwork. While the majority of regular boxes are bland affairs, many games feature collector's editions that boast different artwork, which is usually more restrained and classy. Think Mass Effect 2, Metal Gear Solid 4 or Bayonetta.
"In the marketer's eyes, conceptual covers may appeal only to hardcore gamers – the select few that will purchase a game with sheer devotion, regardless of what the box cover looks like. This is the reason a 'Collector's Edition' of a game often uses a different, more sophisticated and conceptual cover from the standard retail pack."
Even among standard editions of games, though, there are highlights. You'll no doubt have yours, and I have mine, but we asked the expert, Bae, for his pick of the bunch, with some reasons as to why.
The Grand Theft Auto Series: "By not using a render, they have immediately differentiated the game from all others, and have established a visual language that can stay with the franchise forever."
Left 4 Dead Series: "Finally a photo is on the front of box. The photo of the hand has been treated and stylised successfully in such a way that George A. Romero would be proud. The hand itself is realistic, which enhances our fear of zombies and their cool factor."
Quake Series: "While it's evolved a few times, it still maintains the integrity of the original logo. Not only is the "Q" recognisable but, similar to Left 4 Dead, it's part of a brand system to denote subsequent sequels to the game (the added vertical bar in the "Q" for Quake 2 and 3). A strong and well-designed brand goes a long way. Halo has Quake to thank for their logo."
Katamari Damacy: "I love the original Katamari Damacy cover because it is so anti-box cover. It looks more like a book cover. This is the only game that I've ever purchased at a store because of the cover alone. I had no idea what the game was about, nor had I ever heard of it."
Borderlands: "Ok this is the only game box I will mention that follows the Hero+Logo formula, but is an exception to the rule. The front of box character represents the look of the game (the concept art look being a contributing factor to its appeal). More importantly, the pose and action of the character is expressive and explains to the viewer, the attitude of the people who inhabit the world of Borderlands. They are crazy mofos. The intense red is very aggressive and makes the game jump off the shelves… it has great 'pop factor'".
With the present sticking with the same rules (which you could also call mistakes) as the past, what could the future hold for cover artwork in the video game business?
"The recent fail for game covers such as Heavy Rain and Super Street Fighter IV are prime examples of game publishers getting real-time feedback for the decisions they've made", Charles says. "Now, what they do with the feedback is up to them."
By the time a game's fanbase recoils in horror, it's normally too late to make any changes. With covers revealed late in a game's marketing cycle, a publisher has already signed off on the artwork, and it's probably already being printed somewhere, ready to be slipped into a game box.
"The company that decides to let the fans design the box will be the publisher that will be recognised in taking the first step to making a cover that has the potential to be a great crowd pleaser, and totally buck the system.", Bae says, the increasing penetration of digital game releases providing the perfect opportunity for this.
Then again, the more games become digital, the less they'll need a cover...