How Much Do Game Covers Really Matter?
Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky.
I don’t remember the last time I walked into a gaming retailer, looked at a pretty box, and thought, “I must have this!”
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Unless of course I knew exactly what was in that pretty box, in which case it wasn’t the pretty box that made me want what was inside it. This also says a lot about why I’m currently single.
Pretty boxes are created to attract people to them, and most gamers would be quite content to purchase a blank piece of paper as the cover of a box if it included their favourite game inside. And so, the idea here is that those people who would be attracted by the pretty boxes are either inherently not gamers, or prone to falling prey to pretty boxes.
These are the types of people who will pay serious money for a game that has an alien from James Cameron’s Aliens on the cover, because Aliens… and we all know the folly of that action.
Recently there’s been some discourse on the subject of game covers, specifically related to two games coming out this year which have female protagonists. (Incidentally both of these games feature protagonists voiced by Troy Baker. Random factoid ahoy!) I want to talk about both of these games in this article, explaining what the problem or issue was, and why it’s retarded. Because it is retarded, if you ask me. Which you haven’t. But… let’s just go with it, okay?
The first game I want to talk about is The Last Of Us. Now, while it’s difficult for me not to draw comparisons to I Am Legend, only with a white man instead of Will Smith and a small girl instead of Sam, that ever lovable female dog, I do remember what the covers of both the movie (spoiler: it was based on a book) and the book looked like. So when I look at the cover for The Last of Us, I don’t really see the problem.
However, the problem, apparently, is that the female you see in this picture, your AI companion through the game, Ellie (or: A young Ellen Page — seriously, why is Sony so hard for Juno in the first place?), was not meant to be on the cover at all. At least, not as far as the publishers are concerned. The developers of The Last of Us, Naughty Dog, had to fight tooth and nail in order to reach approval status, for that box art. And why? Is Sam not on the cover of the movie version of I Am Legend? A companion character who is more than a companion in a game (not sexual, I
hope promise) frankly deserves to be on the cover of a game’s box. Because after all, they are as much stars of the game as the protagonist.
If anything, as my next example will describe, sometimes they are the stars of the game.
But before we get to that, let’s first note that eventually Naughty Dog managed to reach a consensus and Ellie will be appearing on the cover of The Last Of Us, which has pleased fans of the series immensely. Now I’m going to ask you to assume that you have no knowledge of what The Last Of Us is, nor what to expect from it. You are simply strolling through a videogame retailer and stumble upon this box in the PS3 section. How would you interpret that box art, and would it tempt you to part with your hard-earned cash for the game?
Be realistic here. I’m asking you to assume you know nothing of The Last Of Us, Naughty Dog or Ellen Page. Nothing whatsoever. What would you do?
Now let’s look at the second game, which attempted to reach some compromise between attracting newcomers and appeasing fans of the series.
Behold, the two covers of BioShock: Infinite. Side by side, they’re both quite awesome to look at, and both tell a hell of a lot to the prospective player. On the left we have the original box art that will be seen if you stroll through to your local videogame retailer, while on the right we have the alternative cover hidden beneath, for those artsy hipster types.
You know, the ones who enjoy retro post-modernism (that’s not an actual term… yet) in their gaming. You might be forgiven for asking why on Earth Irrational Games ever even bothered to do a double-cover in the first place.
And the answer is simple: Fans clamoured for it. Quite a nice reason, don’t you think? Admirable, certainly. But let’s look at the reason for gamers clamouring in the first place. Early on, when initial box art for BioShock: Infinite was released, many gamers expressed dismay at ‘yet another brown-haired, white-skinned male protagonist looking menacing on the cover of a game’s box’ with Elizabeth relegated to the back of the box. Now make no mistake, Elizabeth is the star of this game, through and through, but Irrational Games wanted to push sales and according to common publisher belief (perhaps they have statistics that prove this hidden somewhere?) having a woman on the cover, even when she plays a bigger role than the protagonist himself, is not how you sell games. So she went to the back of the box, instead.
To appease gamers, Irrational offered a second cover based off artwork voted for by gamers, which looks quite cool, I have to admit, if not for one very simple fact: How often does anyone actually ever look at their game covers?
And therein lies my reason for asking the titular question: How much do game covers really matter?
I mean, let’s think about this for a second. As much as I adore staring at the box art for Dark Souls or Assassin’s Creed III, the lone silhouetted figure behind an ominous background does look quite enticing to me, I’m not going to be looking at that box art while playing the games, nor am I going to look at that box art while playing other games, nor even while doing other things. It’s literally only when I reach for the box to pull out or put back the game discs, and that’s it. Even then, some people use disc cases instead, for spacing reasons. You know, the ones with, say, fifty little pouches for discs to slide into, that zip up like wallets for easy storage.
So why, praytell, do box covers matter so much to gamers?
We have established that they’re not meant for us, and we barely look at them. What’s the worst that could happen? An unsuspecting casual gamer purchases BioShock: Infinite and gets the ride of their life? How unfortunate for them, right?
And again I will ask, how much do game covers really matter?