The History of Videogame Packaging

Written by Rob Mcphie  |  28-03-14

An effective way of tracking the evolution of graphic design is to consider the history of video game packaging, the accelerating growth in game marketing, and the design changes brought about by it.

The introduction of affordable home computers in the early 80s led to the arrival of the so called ‘bedroom coder’ – video games could now be made by an amateur individual, in their own home. This DIY ethos, coupled with the very niche perception of the hobby led to a period of unique freedom, both in terms of content and design.

Running parallel to the ‘Video Nasty’ VHS debate, game design was part of the new, unregulated home media boom. In those ‘anything goes’ days, even copyright issues were regularly ignored; one particularly unmemorable game, based on a certain popular film of the time was cheekily titled ‘Return of the Jedy’.

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The newness of the media itself meant that independent publishers sprang up everywhere, almost overnight, with several being set up by game coders themselves. There was no precident for design, and, other than the fact that games were stored on audio cassettes, no physical design template to follow. An example of the earliest independent packaging is Escape (New Generation Software, 1981) where the cover illustration and typography have been hand rendered on a sleeve that looks barely above photocopy quality.

Although patchy and occasionally inept, more distinctive branding did arrive on the scene quite quickly. Along with the computer manufacturers themselves, an early innovator was Quicksilva. Their branding and style was clearly recognisable, particularly when viewed alongside its rivals.

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Towards the mid 80s, as the home computer boom hit it’s heyday, the bigger publishers, now well established in the market, were able to pin down their branding more clearly and allocate bigger budgets to design and marketing. Companies such as Imagine and US Gold were among the big spenders of the time, not only packaging their products in bigger, more luxurious boxes, but hiring artists to produce high quality airbrushed illustrations to draw customers toward their occasionally quite underwhelming products.

Although business boomed, the smaller or independent publishers artwork still suffered in comparison to the big names. Durrell software‘s Scuba Dive and Saboteur, although a huge improvement on New Generation’s work, still couldn’t hope to compete with the likes of US Gold.

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The late 80s & early 90s saw a move away from audio cassette storage, to floppy discs and console cartiridges. It also saw an increase in design and illustration quality, if not in subject variety; games were clearly still made by, and for males – seemingly endless rows of large chested women jostled for shelf space alongside space men, sports stars and guns. Notable during this period was Psygnosis‘ many works featuring imagery from artist Roger Dean. His detailed illustrations of fantastical science fiction worlds and creatures seemed to compliment the games, as well as fuel a strong branding style for the publisher.

Following the computer boom of the early 80s came the rise of the games console; a period dominated by Japanese giants Nintendo and Sega. Design and marketing had settled into a predictable pattern, still clearly aimed at males, and perceived by those outside as the preserve of children. This cash-rich market had been eyed for some time by outsider Sony, who, after a joint venture with Nintendo fell through, decided to enter the market alone.

Sony’s design and marketing for its Playstation turned public perceptions of videogaming on their head. Deliberately targeting adults, and making their console a lifestyle choice rather than a child’s hobby, the machine’s processing power also allowed it to spearhead the new era of 3D graphics as standard. Video games had finally grown up.

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While opponents Sega and Nintendo initially continued their traditional marketing approach – even with their newer, more powerful hardware – producing ever more of their successful franchises such as Super Mario, Zelda and Sonic the Hedgehog, companies producing for Playstation had different ideas.

Psygnosis were early to adapt to the new era, hiring the Designers Republic to create visuals for their futuristic Wipeout, as well as the best dance musicians to produce the game’s soundtrack. It was a massive success, and a triumph they repeated for the sequel, Wipeout 2097, this time including the Prodigy’s massive dance music hit Firestarter – summing up the era’s style perfectly. The market expanded rapidly as gaming became a normal pastime rather than a ‘nerd’s hobby; girls and young women became interested for the first time too, and a more diverse range of subject matter was used to target them more directly.

The market had expanded so far that advertising moved beyond print, and television promotion became a given.

Towards and beyond the millennium, increased computing power and a massive and growing market saw increased realism in graphics and continued audience expansion. The sector became bigger than the film industry, and game art, design and packaging evolved to along with it. Today, videogame packaging imagery is on a par with, or even better than that of film, using CGI, painting, photography and just about any technique imaginable.

It was, perhaps inevitable that the industry would grow to match other entertainment sectors. The huge budgets and shareholders expectations mean that gaming art and design is now as mainstream, manufactured and bland as that so often seen in music and film. Some of us look back on the industry’s early period with an increasing fondness, remembering the creative freedom of the time, where what mattered most was imagination and the will to make it happen.

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