Ken Levine Makes A Great Argument For The Much Maligned BioShock Infinite Cover

In another life I worked in magazines and I distinctly remember a handful of rules being followed to the absolute letter. The first was this: cover art featuring some kind of human being was valued above all. A human being making eye contact? Even better. This is the reason why you're more likely to see game magazine with a soldier plastered on it as opposed to a car.

Another little rule was guns. Magazine covers with guns tended to sell better than covers without guns. This sounds terrible, but it was a rule hammered into me from the day I started working in magazines till the day I left. There were multiple other rules, mostly built around coverlines, and the different types of coverlines — where they were positioned, what they said, etc.

But the main point was this: a game magazine featuring a human being with a gun, making eye contact or sporting some sort of focused gaze, was always the ideal. If you decided to do a cover for, say, Call of Duty or Mass Effect. You always breathed a big sigh of relief when something like this came through...

So when people started making a massive fuss about how BioShock Infinite's cover was terrible, blah blah blah, I instantly thought back to my days working in magazines. How I always wanted to do something insane and outrageous with cover art, but how I always reigned myself in. It would have been self-indulgent. The most important thing about covers is that people see them, first and foremost. The second most important thing is that the audience understood what that image meant.

So when Ken Levine was asked about BioShock Infinite's cover — asked to 'explain himself' by Wired — he gave, almost to the letter, the precise explanation I would have expected him to make. BioShock Infinite's cover is for the person who hasn't necessarily followed every single detail of game's conception. It's for the person who doesn't know what BioShock Infinite is, and that's as it should be.

I looked at the cover art for BioShock 1, which I was heavily involved with and love, I adored. And I tried to step back and say, if I’m just some guy, some frat guy, I love games but don’t pay attention to them... if I saw the cover of that box, what would I think? And I would think, this is a game about a robot and a little girl. That’s what I would think. I was trying to be honest with myself. Trust me, I was heavily involved with the creation of those characters and I love them.
Would I buy that game if I had 60 bucks and I bought three games a year… would I even pick up the box? I went back to the box for System Shock 1, which was obviously incredibly important — that game was incredibly influential on me, System Shock 2 was the first game I ever made. I remember I picked it up… looked at it and I said, I have no idea what this game is. And I didn’t have a lot of money back then. So, back on the shelf. And I was a gamer.
I wanted the uninformed, the person who doesn’t read IGN... to pick up the box and say, okay, this looks kind of cool, let me turn it over. Oh, a flying city. Look at this girl, Elizabeth on the back. Look at that creature. And start to read about it, start to think about it.

I agree completely. In addition, I'm pretty sure that the team has something a little different planned for an Special Edition 2K and Irrational decides to release alongside the game. The original BioShock, I'm sure, was most likely successful in spite of its cover, not because of it. I think it makes sense that Ken Levine and his team wants to maximise the potential sales of the game in-store. It's certainly not something worth complaining about.

Ken Levine Explains BioShock Infinite‘s Bland Box Art [Wired]


    Is the stereotypical frat guy gamer going to appreciate something like Bioshock when he actually does buy it though? Besides, the Bioshock franchise is so well ingrained already that most people know what kind of game they'll be getting in Infinite, so the box art may as well reflect that.

    You could probably make box art for The Walking Dead that apes the likes of Dead Rising, but what would that achieve. Maybe dupe a few buyers who'll be disappointed by game itself, and probably disappoint a whole lot of people that actually appreciate its different take on the genre.

      See I don't like that argument because it assumes that because someone hasn't followed a game's development on the same level they won't enjoy it on the same level, which is wrong I think.

        It's the argument that everyone was expecting. The problem is that it's bioshock. If the next final fantasy featured similar artwork, that argument wouldn't fly. People would lose their shit. (Actually that explains why all the american covers have humans and the jap/aus boxes have logos) i personally like the new bioshocks cover, but I can see why people are upset. It's just as likely that the frat boy mentality might be "hmm another call of duty clone... Fuck that I already bought black ops2". I don't know about you, but I'm more intrigued by a game that doesn't feature war hero #367 doing his "I'm a serious dude ready to be serious" face on the box. Remember ico in the US? It didn't sell well 'despite' hero with serious face holding weapon pose.

        That's not what I'm advocating at all, Mark.

        I'm simply saying that the original Bioshock featured a cover that reflected its different play style and focus, and became enough of a success to spawn a franchise, so why is the third entry any less likely to succeed if it also reflects its nature, given that people are more likely to have an accurate idea of what the series is about?

        Indeed, it's even more imperative for people that haven't been following development that the cover reflects the content. Leopards wear spots, zebras wear stripes, and no one gets disappointed. Start dressing one as the other and you risk alienating everybody.

        Last edited 10/12/12 7:34 pm

      Its a box cover, get over it

    I have to wonder though - on a shelf with 200+ games with a nearly identical cover, is this really going to work?

    If it was me, I'd write "Mum, Grandma, buy this one!"

    "I wanted the uninformed, the person who doesn’t read IGN… to pick up the box and say, okay, this looks kind of cool, let me turn it over. Oh, a flying city. Look at this girl, Elizabeth on the back."

    Or you could put put all that in the cover art. Say we have Booker swinging in on one of those rail-zipline-things from right of panel, firing on one of those handymen enemies to the left of panel. Elizabeth is nearby, maybe ready to throw a shotgun to Booker has he needs it, and in the background a vista of floating Columbia.

    Sure, it'd be a very busy cover, but it sure as hell would grab people's attention.

    EDIT: or at the very least have Elizabeth sharing the cover. She IS kinda central to the story, after all.

    Last edited 10/12/12 10:14 am

      I have to agree.

      If you want people to see the cool stuff on the back, it makes sense to put some of that on the front.

    Well it's 2012 and if that frat-boy who is happy to go around and call himself a gamer, and is old-enough to appreciate the content of a game like Bioshock: Infinite BUT hasn't had the old line of "Don't judge a book by its cover" drilled into his now what is considered 'mature adult' brain then god help us all.

    Also if you're saying that your game needs to show what it is about with a manly hero with a gun, then I can tell you right now that Bioshock's cover is definitely about the Wild West and not at all about a giant floating city filled with trans-dimensional beings and mutants.

    Something people are failing to acknowledge:

    It's just the damn cover.

    Are we really so desperate for anything Bioshock Infinite that we're going to have a storm over the cover of the game?

    You actually used "blah, blah, blah" in an article? FFS

    It's an argument that simply reflects where the market is right now.

    Nothing wrong with that. It's unfortunate, but it is what it is. I think game prices need to drop worldwide for more games that AREN'T shooters to get attention.

    People now look at a game, and will only go the 'safe bet' because they only have 60-100 (depending on your region) to spend.

    If game prices were HALF of what they are now, people might be more open to picking up the game that looks 'different' to go with their shooter.

    Just a thought.

    I never doubted for a second that Levines explanation for the cover would be exactly as described. I don't have to like though ;)

    Oh to be in a world with nice mimamilist covers with no 'dude with a gun' covers (well at least not every cover) but as others have said, it's just a cover. Hell I'm going PC digital so I don't even get a cover ;)

    Rewind alllllll the way back to Bioshock: OG.

    Did anyone, honestly, have any idea the depth (lol) that game would have? I doubt it.

    I bought it because underwater bee hand robot looked cool.

      To be honest, I thought the game was going to be like A Boy and His Blob, what with a Little Sister on the cover. I was wrong though, and now that I think about it.... I don't like a Boy and His Blob. Why the hell did I buy BioShock?

      Last edited 10/12/12 1:11 pm

    Can we just let Ken Levine run video games now please? He's said more smart things this year alone than most developers ever say in their entire careers.

    "if I’m just some guy, some frat guy, "
    Congrats Kevin, that's your market - people who don't even want to think about your games.

    "I went back to the box for System Shock 1 ... I remember I picked it up… looked at it and I said, I have no idea what this game is."
    I did exactly the same thing. Except I proceeded to LOOK AT THE BACK OF THE BOX.. which explained what the game was. And I bought it (over others on offer), and enjoyed one of the freshest and most interesting experiences of the day. While all the frat guy types weren't even gaming, and weren't supporting the growth of an industry that would readily give them the arse and debase themselves chasing the big money in mainstream markets.

    I'm not bitter, just... hell no, I AM BITTER!

      You were there on the ground floor.

      You don't like that your games are mainstream.

      You deserve to be treated better.

      Your... your fringe is growing...

      And those thick framed glasses with no lenses!

      OH GOD!!!

      -starts chanting-

      One of us. One of us. One of us.



      haha "Gunny"...a Peep Show reference perhaps?

      Anyways, to serious matters: I also dislike how the mainstream industry is now all about pandering to the tools with disposable income instead of the loyal gamers. Most AAA titles are a shadow of their indy counterparts when it comes to content and intelligently treating the gamer.

    Going by that cover alone the games screams America. FUCK YEAH. So I wouldn't buy it. Good thing I don't buy games based on the cover art, I don't buy physical copies of games at all.

      I can see how you've extrapolated that from the burning American flag in the background.

        Well lets see.
        The flag represents America. The flag being on fire represents America being under attack. If America are the leaders of the free world, than America being under attack represents freedom being under attack.
        The white guy with a gun represents America's armed forces. America's armed forces represents the protector's/saviour's of the free world.
        So in short white guy with gun in front of burning American flags says AMERICA FUCK YEAH.

          So an image of a man you presume is there to "save the free world" as you've interpreted solely from the image of a burning flag is now a blatant indicator of jingoism? It's not as if he's wearing a Captain America costume or has the flag draped over him, or is even wearing its colours.

          By your logic, if our country is ever attacked and we went to defend it, other nations would accuse us of being too in love with ourselves.

          Not exactly a fair (or logical) analysis.

          But I suppose you are free to your own interpretation.

    if I’m just some guy, some frat guy, I love games

    Nope, sorry. His argument is invalid right there. Frat guys and dudebros don't love games. They love trying to prove to everyone that their penis isn't small.

    Seems to me like they're only trying to appeal one type of uninformed buyer though. What about the female gamer, the mum or the teen girl who likes game but is put off by all the dudebro. Couldn't they see a cover of BioShock Infinite with Elizabeth on the front and think, "hey, that looks interesting", and they pick it up, turn it over and start reading more about the game?

    I mean, I get that you can only really aim your video game cover at one demographic, otherwise it would start to get cluttered and just look a mess, but why does that demographic always have to be the "frat boy"?

      Oh, don't worry. They've got girls covered. They splash nothing but pink over the cover and call it a day :3

    It makes sense though. People who follow a games development already know if they want to pick up a game, a box cover isn't going to change that (hopefully) The purpose of a box cover is to attract and inform people who are unfamiliar with your product.
    Really though, I think it's entirely possible that the cover will be reversible, with a more aesthetically pleasing image on the other side. There's no reason not to have this feature since the covers are printed double sided anyway. I think people need to chill out

    Are people really losing their shit this much over box art?

    "We need to be successful to make these types of games, and I think it’s important, and I think the cover is a small price for the hardcore gamer to pay"

    Basically, they feel the risk of losing sales to hardcore gamers via the cover is far less than the opportunity of gaining sales from other gamers via the cover. Unless anyone here flat-out refuses to buy the game because of the cover, that rationale seems sound. Particularly as he is asking you to consider the mass-market-appeal* of the poster to be a non-monetary cost.

    * And how: use the Film Poster trope as a checklist and see how many you can tick

    Last edited 10/12/12 2:54 pm

    I think they just need a reversible cover, you know something for the rest of us that is Bioshock not generic Frat boy shooter.

    Anybody with me here?

    He could have said it was for the dude bro mass market appeal and saved himself the lengthy explanation. There's no shame in the focus group approach.

    I honestly don't care what the cover looks like. The cover's not made for me - 2K already have a guaranteed sale.
    The last cover art I was genuinely impressed by was Borderlands', which I thought was edgy and perfectly summed up the game's aesthetic, tone, and style. It made me more interested in the game. I get that people love the property, and don't like that it has a "generic" cover - but if you care that much, why do you care at all? Aren't you getting it anyway?

      You make a very good point. Why do we care? I suppose it's because we like the look and the feel of the game and it's artistic style we don't want a Halo clone or another COD we want a new Bioshock and the thing that sold me on Bioshock 1 was that it was a spiritual successor to System Shock 2. I never got to play the first one but I did love the 2nd game.

      We want a cover that feels like Bioshock, not a cover that feels like any first person game.

    Hmm reading this I figured I might trawl through my current collection and compare...

    Halo 4 - Armoured Dude holding a gun
    Black Ops II - Shadowy Soldier holding a gun
    Red Dead Redemption - Cowboy holding a gun
    Assassins Creed Brotherhood - Hooded figure holding a knife
    Fall of Cybertron - Optimus Prime holding a gun (at least there's some other character on the cover unlike the first game)
    Deus Ex: Human Revolution - Keanu Reeves holding a gun
    Battlefield 3 - Nighttime soldier holding a gun
    Vanquish - Super flying gundam robot dude holding a gun
    Gears of War 3 - Several NFL Linebackers holding guns with chainsaws on them
    Dead Rising 2: Off the Record - Frank West holding a baseball bat

    It's not all bad though, several games break free of the stereotype. I note the cover to Banjo Kazooie Nuts & Bolts shows the protagonist holding a spanner

    Also the covers to the GTA games (with their comic book panels) are really good; and I have a bunch that are just logo only; Alan Wake, Saints Row the Third

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