Thinking Outside the Box

Are games art? Dunno, but their covers are

So, a feature about game boxes. Why? Because they're more important than you might think. They're the last line of attack for publishers desperate to crowbar your money out of your hands. Imagine: you've seen the advertising campaigns, read the reviews, looked at all the screenshots and watched all the trailers. Yet still you find yourself in your local games store without even a hint of a clue of what game you're going to exchange your cash for. This is when the boxes start dancing for your attention.

The front cover represents a great equaliser at the point of sale. (Obviously, film licences and established franchises have an advantage, but we're ignoring them for the sake of this argument, as it's precisely because of this otherwise level playing field that they've grown so ubiquitous in recent years.) There are other considerations, of course - price and merchandising space will also have a say - but this is a real chance for the opportunists to capture the wavering consumer.


You can warble on all you like about how staggeringly wonderful your product is on the back of the box, and garnish it with all manner of improbably airbrushed 'screenshots', but it's all for nowt if no one ever picks up the goddamn thing because the front cover is as aesthetically pleasing as a bulldog in lipstick. And in that respect, the art of the videogame box makes for a truly fascinating case study (ha!), because rich and poor publishers alike all have the same space - a single side of a DVD box - to shout about their game. It wasn't always like this, however...

Back in the early '90s, when home computer games came in cardboard boxes, a cheap attention-grabbing trick used by publishers was to randomly increase the size of the box so that it towered over its rivals - sometimes by over 50% (some Psygnosis boxes, for example, weren't too far off the size of an Xbox 360). Although it must have worked, because the larger boxes soon became standard on platforms such as the Amiga, it proved a deeply unpopular tactic with space-starved punters, and once the chic PSOne CD cases triumphed over the fat, unwieldy N64 boxes, the industry never looked back.

Size no longer matters. A good cover is now the only safety net for desperate publishers hoping that the impulse buyer will pick their Ninjabread Man over that copy of Zack & Wiki. So it's no surprise to learn that publishers spend inordinate amounts of time tailoring the cover art of each game specifically for each region. Sometimes the differences are minute (Nintendo always 'angrify' Kirby for Western releases, for example) and at other times quite dramatic (possibly the most famous being Sony's Ico - the beautiful Japanese artwork of the PAL box was discarded in favour of a horrendously generic picture of some ugly dude with a sword in the US).


Indeed, in general, it seems to be that Far Eastern regions get the gorgeous concept artwork and North American punters are lumbered with the less subtle 'man pointing a gun at you' approach, with Europe falling, just as it does geographically, between the two extremes.

But why would this be? The obvious answer is that publishers adjust their covers to reflect what's more likely to appeal from culture to culture, but that doesn't explain why it's the way it is. For our money, the differences in each region's approach reflect the different ways in which the perception of games, as an entertainment medium, has evolved from continent to continent. Each region adheres to what the audience thinks a game box should look like. Japanese covers might look truly bizarre and exotic to us, but as frequent travellers out east, we can tell you in no uncertain terms that the reverse is also true.

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