Tyne & Wear

Is it 'game over' for box artwork?

Grand Theft Auto V cover Image copyright Getty Images

To gamers, the artwork on their favourite titles is as recognisable as the front of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or Dark Side of the Moon is to music fans. But as digital downloads eat into physical sales, will it suffer the same fate as the album cover?

For many, the colourful images evoke another world - a reminder of countless hours spent escaping the hum-drum of everyday life.

But as the click of a button and near-instant download replaces a trek to the High Street, is the importance placed on sleeve artwork going by the wayside?

"Great cover art does touch people," says Jonathan Gordon, editor of gamesTM magazine and website. "It adds a lot to the character of the game and the best examples are being thought of more highly.

"Resistance 3 on the PS3 was a big, breakthrough moment. It was designed by Olly Moss, a famous graphic designer. You've also got Grand Theft Auto, which has a style of its own and the Final Fantasy series artwork by Yoshitaka Amano is iconic."

In a move towards greater interaction with fans, a number of titles now offer a choice of artwork.

The team behind BioShock Infinite made several alternative covers available for download, while others have had similarly novel ideas.

"Some games have reversible sleeves," Gordon explains. "With Mass Effect 3 you can play as a male or female character so the cover has the male on one side, but if you take it out and flip it over you get a cover with the female character."

Image copyright Insomniac
Image caption Post-apocalyptic first-person shooter Resistance 3 had cover art by Olly Moss
Image copyright Irrational Games
Image caption This alternative cover for BioShock Infinite featured the floating city of Columbia

The design and marketing process is being put under the spotlight at the Game On 2.0 exhibition at Newcastle's Centre For Life.

Billed as the world's biggest collection of playable computer games from the past 60 years, it also features concept art and packaging from titles such as Uncharted, Tomb Raider and Pokémon.

Among those taking part is Gateshead-based Atomhawk, which has designed covers for titles such as Little Big Planet 3, Wheelman and Dead Island, as well as concept art for box-office blockbusters Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor.

Founder Ron Ashtiani says the painstaking process of creating a cover can play a crucial role in a game's success.

"Box art is your shop-front for the game. If you don't get people to come inside then it doesn't work.

"I think the quality has increased massively. Back in the 80s and 90s you would have a company that would have a mate who was an illustrator and get them to do some artwork.

"Now it's a proper process-driven model of working."

Image copyright Sony Computer Entertainment Europe
Image caption Little Big Planet 3's cover conveys the game's sense of fun

Leon Hurley, executive news editor at the gamesradar+ website, believes the popularity of digital downloads will only eat further into the market share of physical sales.

"I have to say that I'm quite pro-digital. As long as I can see the film/read the book/hear the music, I've no great emotional attachment to any physical thing.

"I read almost exclusively on Kindle via my phone for example. Physical stuff's ubiquity was driven by necessity, not love. It was the only option.

"Digital's only going to become more convenient, more wide reaching and more accessible with cloud-based things, for example streaming. I've used Chrome and Google Docs for years because all my stuff is wherever I am. As long as I can log in I've got my content."

So what does that shift mean? After all, if a game does not need a box then surely you do not need box art.

"There'll still be art, just not on a box," Hurley adds. "Covers might not be a thing anymore, but there's still plenty of imagery and art for music. It's just not on a dust cover - it's on phone lock screens and PC desktops."

Walter Lorenz, studio marketing director of game developer Reflections, a Ubisoft studio based in Newcastle responsible for Assassin's Creed Syndicate, Watch_Dogs and Tom Clancy's The Division, agrees imagery will remain important even if it is not in the form of a traditional cover.

"Before the proliferation of gaming journalism and magazines, a lot of people would pick up a game based on the strength of the box art not really knowing whether it was good or whether the developer was experienced.

"The box either spoke to you or it didn't. That was one of the main selling points back in the 80s. That changed with TV advertising. Strong box art was not so important.

"With downloads it's very important again, it's the first image that greets you on [digital game store] Steam, it sets the conversation.

"If it doesn't draw you in, people will not watch your trailer."

Image copyright Ubisoft
Image caption Tom Clancy's The Division, due for release later this year, is set in New York in the aftermath of a pandemic

And, he adds, it is still very much needed as part of the wider marketing of titles.

"When you first present a game you usually have box art - or key art as it is also called - as well as screenshots and a trailer.

"Campaigns usually last one or two years and you need one iconic image throughout. You always rely on that piece of art to evoke emotions in the target audience whether that's on banner ads, a website or elsewhere.

"Digital is more fractured than traditional media. You have bloggers, Twitter and Instagram, and Facebook Messenger is supposed to be a new channel for advertisers.

"Artwork can be used across a number of formats but no matter where it appears, it has to have a strong message."

So will it be 'game over' for box art any time soon?

Not according to Lorenz: "You can still find all the big launches in bricks and mortar stores. Digital exclusives are not yet the norm."

And gamesTM's Mr Gordon agrees.

"In much the same way as vinyl has had a revival, boxed copies of games will still hold a value for people who want to hold something in their hands.

"So long as there are players who like that, it will survive."

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