Friday, December 21, 2012

Blog Post; When box art becomes a big deal

I had this post in mind about a week ago, with lots to say and a clear direction planned for this topic, but then the tragedy struck in Connecticut and I lost my enthusiasm for it. Not that I should have; the two are definitely not related, (despite the media's ever-present attempts to link video games and shootings) but I just couldn't justify, on a personal level, making a post on something as "created" as video game bo xart in the wake of such real pain. My heart goes out to all who were affected.

But now it's been a week, and now I feel I can go back to doing..well, this. So let's get to it.

It may have been a long time coming, but after lighting up the gaming press for what has been years at this point, the 3rd installment in the Bioshock series (and the 2nd one with series creator Ken Levine again back at the helm) is almost here. With that comes the marketing, which of course will attempt to sell the title to as many people as possible, and with that comes, yes, the box art. And Bioshock: Infinite's boxart was hit with immediate scrutiny among the series' passionate fanbase.

*The Issue*
I don't think there's much doubt that Levine saw it coming. Though the box art itself definitely isn't badly-done, the image conveyed is one at odds with the very artistic way the series has presented itself previously. Bioshock is a series set in an incredibly cool setting with a great sense of place, and this has always been conveyed in the game's marketing. Infinite's boxart, instead, simply features the main character, gun clearly visible, looking off to the side as if willing himself to appear as badass as possible for the camera. Not much else is there to convey Infinite's new setting, its retro theme, its other characters, or even a level of mystery; there's the main character, there's the gun over his shoulder, and there's the fire behind him.

The reason I think this has struck such a nerve is because this past console generation we've seen the price of game development rise with the more advanced hardware, and as a result, larger audiences became a requirement for games to become profitable. In some cases this only applies to the marketing, in others, like the disaster that was Resident Evil 6, it seeps into the gameplay as well; the idea that a game needs to look and play like a Hollywood action movie for it to interest the masses. Bioshock is not that game, but it has box art that seems designed to be interpreted that way. With Bioshock always wearing its "individuality" on its sleeve in the face of the industry's increasingly mainstream methods of promotion, it's easy to see why its fans would feel betrayed by such a Hollywood-looking cover.

*A Good Response*
And it shouldn't be a surprise that shortly after the pic of the box art hit the 'net, Ken Levine was ready with an explanation and the solution of an alternate cover.
"We went and did a tour… around to a bunch of, like, frathouses and places like that. People who were gamers. Not people who read IGN. And [we] said, 'So, have you guys heard of BioShock?' Not a single one of them had heard of it. Our gaming world, we sometimes forget, is so important to us, but… there are plenty of products that I buy that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about. My salad dressing. If there’s a new salad dressing coming out, I would have no idea. I use salad dressing; I don’t read Salad Dressing Weekly," Levine explained. "I don’t care who makes it, I don’t know any of the personalities in the salad dressing business. For some people, [games are] like salad dressing. Or movies, or TV shows. It was definitely a reality check for us."
"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. [But] We had to make that tradeoff in terms of where we were spending our marketing dollars. By the time you get to the store, or see an ad, the BioShock fan knows about the game. The money we’re spending on PR, the conversations with games journalists--that's for the fans," he said. "For the people who aren’t informed, that’s who the box art is for."
Before I get into my own opinion on this, I have to give credit to how Levine and 2k Games are handling this issue; a reverse (fan-chosen) cover will be provided, while others will be available soon to be printed out, and by addressing the controversy, he put at least my mind at ease regarding the game itself. I think it's always nice when developers engage with the fan community and show that fan input matters to them, and I definitely believe he's sincere in this gesture.
*But the wrong decision*

That said, I still think 2k games and Take-Two Interactive made the wrong decision in going with this cover, even with the fan service they've offered since. I'm not sure which frathouses they got into to ask about the Bioshock series, (a concept that seems a bit strange to me, to be honest) but I've had college friends who were by no means video game enthusiasts who heard of, and played, Bioshock. I'm not saying that the series is Call of Duty-huge, of course, but it's definitely a well-known and respected property, and I don't think you have to pander so hard like this to a demographic who likely would give the game a shot anyway, as long as the other marketing (such as TV commercials, etc.) was effective in making the game look like the event that it is. In a sense I agree that marketing to the mainstream should be a priority, as this game looks excellent and an excellent game can certainly reach a wide variety of people if they give it the chance.
But Bioshock is simply not Call of Duty, regardless of the box art they choose. It's far too artsy of a series to ever score Halo or Call of Duty numbers, and I don't think an "uninformed" audience will be swayed to learn more about the game by this box art, which makes it stand out far less on a shelf than it deserves to. And frankly, the big difference between video games and salad dressing is that salad dressing doesn't often cost $60 a bottle; I think most people already know what game they're getting before they even get to the store. And I don't feel that those who would be pulled into a game they haven't heard of by its box art exist in a significant enough number to warrant sacrificing the game's originality (in its marketing) to appeal to. To me it even comes off as a missed opportunity to make a statement to the industry that an artsy game can sell well without having to pander so obviously to the mainstream.
*And that's that*
But that's it; in the grand scheme of things, it's not a big deal. The cover will be reversible, and even better, it's going to be this gem that we can swap the official cover out for;

So all's well, though it does make for good discussion. I think I'll end this semi long-winded blog post by saying that it's my hope that next gen, we'll see far less of this going on. The industry's in a transition period, for sure, and the future's uncertain. But there has to be a way to grow the gaming userbase without the industry Hollywood-izing itself. I truly hope we find some sort of balance soon that makes everyone happy.

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