A customer will face over 100 different games when walking into a GameStop. There are more than 3,700 games currently on Steam and more than 6,200 on the PlayStation Network.
And behind each of these is a team wanting its game to stand out. Often, that means spending tens, if not hundreds, of hours perfecting the first thing many players see: the game's box art.
Using four recognizable covers as examples, we recently tracked down artists, developers and publisher representatives to explain why individual covers look the way they do, how they come together and what different shapes they take before finally reaching customers.
When Insomniac Games works with an external studio to create box art, it makes a list of adjectives to describe the game. Design studio ilovedust found "intensity" and "fun in the end times" on the list for Sunset Overdrive, Insomniac's 2014 Xbox exclusive.
Asked how to make cover art unique, Insomniac Creative Director Marcus Smith says there are two main factors the developer considers. "There are rows and rows of games at every store," Smith explains, "so ideally your cover stands out against the sea of characters standing in a mid shot looking solemn." The other important factor in creating cover art, he says, is selling the audience on a fantasy they can buy into.
Ilovedust creates cover art that is right in line with Sunset Overdrive's over-the-top design. Everything jumps off the page, from the onomatopoeia firing from the Scab's gun, to the main character brandishing one of the game's insane weapons in the viewer's face.
"It was clear from the beginning that [ilovedust] understood the spirit of the game," Smith says. One of Microsoft's art directors recommended the studio. Though Insomniac had heard "safer" pitches from artists it knew, the team was impressed with the quality of ideas ilovedust offered. Based in Portsmouth, England, ilovedust's client list includes Nike and UPS.
"We were the guys that took the chance and flew all the way from England [to Insomniac's HQ in Burbank, California] to present our concepts in person," says Ollie Munden, lead designer at ilovedust.
Before settling on a final design, ilovedust experimented with various approaches like this one seen here.
The process began with Insomniac, Microsoft and ilovedust speaking about individual ideas for Sunset's cover. Insomniac wanted art that looked "kinetic," Smith says, and that showcased story elements.
Early drafts featured a "cut and paste" style, a direction present in early promotional material for the game's 2013 announcement. This style was supposed to allude to the mass marketing used by in-game corporation and antagonist, Fizzco. Similar to adding a movie’s enemy alongside the hero on a film poster. But Insomniac wanted a cover that was more literal, so ilovedust changed the style to better reflect what a player could expect from gameplay.
The cover needed to convey that this new game was "clearly a very fun, dynamic and vibrant world," says ilovedust illustrator Chris Clancy. "The cover is packed out to show the many different aspects of the game and to be as informal as possible."
Sunset's cover came in three iterations, "followed by a mind-numbingly large number of smaller tweaks," Smith says. The first iteration sent ilovedust in several different design directions.
"They had things that were simple and iconic; they had graphic design treatments; they had covers that focused on the world more and covers that focused more on individual characters," Smith says.
"We went through endless rounds of early sketches."
"We went through endless rounds of early sketches," Munden says, admitting that, ironically, one of the earliest versions was very similar to the final cover.
The second iteration saw the two talking about the different directions and figuring out what worked. From there, Insomniac was able to explain to ilovedust what needed to be changed, allowing them to return with directions "that were more defined."
"Often times these things come down to comments like, 'we love the character's action from option B,'" Smith says, "'but the expression from option A, and the environment from option C, but make it all look more ‘vibrant'" — this is the kind of direction that makes artists hate us," he jokes.
One of the main areas of alteration was the featured character. Smith explains it was difficult to find a proper style in a game that allows players to look however they want.
Another discarded design
"His look is actually something we feel we had some input into, which is great," Munden says. "Insomniac [was] really open to our suggestions on how he should look."
Smith admits that there was a point when Insomniac became too protective of what it felt was right for the cover, when it didn’t allow ilovedust enough creative freedom. But ilovedust presented the developer with such great work, he says, the artists were able to gain Insomniac’s trust.
"That was a good lesson. Give your creative partners the room to bring their point of view to the table," Smith says, explaining that the cover was made better when Insomniac allowed ilovedust more influence.
The cover exists now as Insomniac wanted. It's kinetic, like a moment suspended in time. The cover's intricate details are intriguing and invite players to be curious in Sunset's chaotic world.
"It all worked out in the end," Clancy says, "even with half-shaved Mohawk hero hair."
Five-thousand and four-hundred-sixty-two miles away from Insomniac in Burbank sits Gothenburg, Sweden, home of Dennaton Games and its 2012 release, Hotline Miami. The game is a violent experience that begins simply by looking at the cover art by painter and Gothenburg resident Niklas Åkerblad.
Awash with bright colors, the game's masked protagonist, Jacket, stands on the cover with an axe in one hand, a blood-splattered woman in the other, surrounded by suit-clad enemies. Palm trees decorate the distance and the viscera of a recently-deceased adversary litters the ground below. Presumably, the cover shows the moments before the remaining foes meet a similar fate — the moments before Jacket presses X to retry.
Hotline Miami’s original cover art
Back when the game was in development, Åkerblad let his friends, Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin, both Dennaton developers, work in his apartment. When the team started thinking about cover art, it originally looked to artists who had worked on B-grade horror films from the '70s. When it couldn't find one they agreed upon, Åkerblad was there and offered to do the art himself.
"They didn't know what they wanted, so I tried to feel them out," Åkerblad says. After finding a draft that Dennaton was happy with, the cover took him about three days to do, painting digitally.
Hotline Miami juxtaposes vibrance with violence, coming at players with blinding colors, gratuitous gore and an electronic soundtrack with low-end you can feel in your chest. Åkerblad worked to create his own version of Dennaton's world and found it easy to translate these themes by going off of what was present in the code.
"You're not painting the game — you're interpreting the [game's] style in your own style," Åkerblad says.
"The game is violent and the game is very like, 80s kitschy," he explains. "It's obvious, so you just go for these things." He cites Silent Hill as an influence, teaching him he could create something that is simultaneously beautiful and troubling.
For the game’s Japanese release, Dennaton took a different approach.
The neon colors, white blazers and even how Jacket holds the woman are all ways Åkerblad tried to capture Hotline Miami's 80s setting. And the corpse at the bottom? He believes the more extreme, the better.
"Instead of having just a body that's a little bit hurt in front of him, you totally fucking shred it," Åkerblad says.
"When you show violence, you got to make it what it really is, not just an [entertainment] factor," he explains. "I think that it's actually time to intellectualize violence." Åkerblad believes that it is necessary to be honest with its nature, saying it's "soggy and messy and disturbing."
When creating cover art, Åkerblad believes it's acceptable to take liberties with a piece, as long as it maintains the essence of the game. It’s almost as if the artist is creating a portrait for the title. He believes that giving the art honesty is more important than trying to "manipulate" what is going on in a consumer's mind.
Speaking to Åkerblad, it's clear he’s a cerebral person. He put a lot of thought into his cover for Hotline Miami and the message it carries. He captures the game's mood and also sets the tone for a game that makes players think about violence by presenting them with nothing but.
When Octodad: Dadliest Catch stumbled onto digital storefronts in January of 2014, it told the story of an unlikely protagonist: an octopus trying to maintain his disguise as a human being and live a normal man's life. Chris Stallman, art lead for developer Young Horses, recently walked through his process of designing Octodad's cover art for Polygon:
Young Horses started its design with this family group shot.
"The name Octodad alone wasn't enough to tell anyone what the game is about. Is it an octopus family man with octopus children? Does he have eight kids? Are there eight dads? By having Octodad with his family it communicates that this octopus man in a suit has a human family and, at least on the surface, they are happy.
"I knew that I wanted to include the entire family in the picture because Octodad's main focus as a character is living an idyllic life with his family. Something that looked like a family portrait, I felt, was a good way to communicate that. So I started by posing out the game assets in a staged family photo, took a screenshot, and put it into a document that was the correct dimensions for box art.
"I then brought in the Octodad logo and started to move it and the family around to find a layout that felt nice. Putting the logo in the center was working well.
Out of frame here, Tommy’s feet aren’t touching the ground.
"Tommy started to feel distant and cut off from the family and the logo placement was only helping this. So I decided to cheat a little and move him up higher. He is actually floating off the ground, but it is cropped such that it isn't noticeable.
"The logo was then placed above the family so as not to cover Tommy's face. I also added a guide for the placement of the branding bar and the game rating so I could figure out final placement of the family and the logo.
"We could keep to a simple backdrop, like one found in a portrait studio, or we could place the family somewhere at home. A simple backdrop is boring so I looked around the house until I found a place that made sense to me, and that became the corner of the backyard.
"The tree could be used to frame the family, and the background was simple enough without too much competing detail to draw the eye away from the family. So I captured an image that was large enough that it could also be used in a horizontal banner and dropped it in.
The final Octodad box art
"To finish the image, I resized the background so that the tree and birdhouse would better frame the family. I also wanted to keep Stacy's hair from overlapping the tree trunk so that her silhouette would read and not get lost. The Octodad logo was moved up a bit because I didn't like it barely sitting on Octodad's head. Finally, I added the Young Horses' logo in the bottom right corner to finish the image.
"Then it was just a matter or reusing the logo, family and background to create images in the correct dimensions for the different storefronts.
"Unfortunately, there were some layouts that had me go back on some of the choices I made. Stacy's hair had to overlay the tree trunk in a few of the banners, and the logo is sitting directly on Octodad's head in the square one. But overall, I think things worked out pretty well."
Scanning over a group of game covers, it's easy to notice familiar trends. Bold men stand at the forefront, often with a weapon in their hands, coming toward the viewer mid-attack. It's easy to see this all as formulaic, unless you're Charles Bae, in which case you know that this is a system that’s proven to work.
Co-founder and chief creative officer at the New York-based design company Rokkan, Bae has designed cover art for games such as Dishonored and The Evil Within, as well as done work for companies like American Express.
"No matter how many people say 'it's formulaic' and 'look, here's another hero pose' ... it's proven it works."
"[Cover] art is the total convergence of art and marketing science," Bae says. He explained it is a developer who brings the artistic view for a cover and a publisher who brings the marketing view — two perspectives that often clash. The job of an agency like Rokkan is to take the disparate ideas and mediate them down into one piece "that speaks to the strong key points everyone wants to communicate."
Originally, Rokkan was approached by publisher Bethesda to work on Dishonored's digital marketing campaigns, and the design of the game's cover art was given to a separate company. The other studio did nearly 60 sketches for the cover, none of which Bethesda and the developer, Arkane, were happy with. Reaching a breaking point, Bethesda asked if anyone at Rokkan had gaming experience. Being as Bae was the only one with a gaming background — he had formerly worked at the now-defunct developer Acclaim — he decided he would take on the project.
Dishonored’s final box art takes a zoomed-in approach.
"Luckily, in this scenario, because a previous agency had done so many mock-ups — and no one really liked any of them — we had a fortunate situation where we didn't have to do that many sketches," Bae says. Knowing what Bethesda didn't want, he was able to go in a new direction.
When conceptualizing a game's cover, he explains that each publisher and developer is different in their requests. Working on this particular project, Bae did high-contrast, black-and-white sketches using either pencil or paint. The Montreal-based company Meduzarts handled all the high-resolution final artwork.
Rokkan had its hands on everything from the game's cover art and logo to the DLC key art. Bae was also the creative director on the game's official website and "The Tales From Dunwall" animated shorts.
When asked about any key features that make cover art stand out, Bae explained that people who harp on things looking too similar from box to box are a minority.
"I think that there's this misconception when a consumer — or gamer — looks at a piece of key art ... they say 'Well, that doesn't look hard to do.'"
"It is effective," Bae says. "And no matter how many people say 'it's formulaic' and 'look, here's another hero pose' ... it's proven it works. Gaming key art — and key art in general — stems from advertising," he goes on, citing movie posters as the closest parent to game cover art.
Bae's point is emphasized by BioShock Infinite. When Irrational Games revealed the cover for Infinite in 2012, it was criticized for being generic, lacking the game's complicated themes. It exclusively features the game's protagonist, Booker DeWitt with a shotgun thrown over his shoulder. Looking at the cover alone, one may think that it's simply a standard shooter. But, is that the point?
Speaking to Wired, Infinite's creative director and Irrational co-founder, Ken Levine explained that, outside of dedicated gamers, not many people had heard of the BioShock series. The cover was designed to attract the casual gamer, not "people who read IGN." As of June 2015, BioShock Infinite had sold around 11 million copies.
A zoomed-out look at the art featured on the Dishonored box
"I think that there's this misconception when a consumer — or gamer — looks at a piece of key art or box front and they say 'Well, that doesn't look hard to do,'" Bae says. "'That's just a dude standing in the middle, really nicely silhouetted, and it's just a hero pose.'" But getting a cover to that point takes an extremely long time, during which every detail is scrutinized by developers and publishers — and Bae believes that is the way it should be.
When Bae was working on the cover for Dishonored, he had about five different options for what main character Corvo would be shown standing on before settling on the dismantled Tallboy; a detail that is cropped out of the retail cover for the game.
Bae explains that a lot of the features that become so prevalent in covers are influenced by current trends.
"The industry defines itself," he says, explaining it's possible to draw parallels between things such as poses, color schemes, etc. A popular game's cover may become the zeitgeist for how cover art will look that year.
All of these artists — Bae, Åkerblad, Stallman and ilovedust — create pieces that are unique in their own ways. But there are also countless edits put in by developers and publishers who want to make sure their game is going to appeal to as many players as possible.
"It's a cliché to imagine all of us sitting in a room arguing over the color of the shirt on the guy on the box — a cliché with some basis in fact," says Joe Maris, design director at Microsoft. He explains that this detailing is refining the vision of a game just as much as presenting it.
When so much of a game can be online before reaching retail shelves or digital storefronts, companies such as Microsoft believe it is as important as ever to present a game in as poignant of a way as possible. According to Margis, everything created for a game, whether it’s a level in the game or its merchandising, is "simultaneously clarifying and reinforcing the essential spirit of [the] game."
This theory also carries over to other regions of the world where box art may be altered to appeal to the interests of international players. Covers may be outsourced in an effort to "use artists who understand the sensibilities of that region beyond superficial stereotypes," Margis explains.
A lot lies behind video game cover art. Numerous hands touch a piece, making sure what is captured on the page will effectively sell a game and its world. And these covers often become the first statement on what a developer has created.