Sunday, February 12, 2012

Packaging Design: the Experience of Treasuring our Favorite Games

Writing about this topic might seem rather unusual, especially with digital distribution on the rise. But considering how most game developers, myself included, share the dream of creating games that players absolutely treasure, I feel as though flawed packaging design is getting in the way of this dream.

For example, I own plenty of games that I absolutely love, but whenever I go play some of these games, the casings that house them almost always leave me disappointed in a way. Not only is it a shame that the packaging doesn't live up to the quality of the experience as I remember it, but it almost makes me feel silly for having had such high regards for the game.

While I know that game casings are primarily designed for minimizing the cost of manufacturing and distribution, I believe developers are underestimating the impact that their packaging can have on a player's experience. Much in the same way that listening to a game's soundtrack can bring back fond memories of one's experiences with a game, a well designed casing can keep a player's love and respect for a game alive long after they've stopped playing it.

The Problem with Most Box Art

The physical representation of any game in a player's library will most likely be its box art. Unfortunately, box art is primarily designed with the goal of competing for attention on a store shelf.

From a marketing perspective, the main purpose of the box art is to define the brand and distinguish the game from the rest of the competition. But from the player's perspective, this results in shallow box art design that holds little emotional connection to the experience that the game delivers.

If a player truly loved a game, they would want the representational piece of artwork to be as beautiful as the experiences they've had with it. Not only do most box art fail to even attempt to reach this goal, but they often present a message that works completely against the game's core experience.

For example, when I think of Halo, I think of lighthearted fun with friends and a hilarious physics system. However, the box art for Halo 3 just screams "generic M-rated FPS." It's as if the game is too insecure to present itself for what it really is, and it really makes me question my respect for the game. Furthermore, this wildly contradicting message helps make the game feel more fragmented and less like a complete whole.

The box art for Psychonauts, on the other hand, is one of the most interesting covers I've seen for a game. This design is filled with references to the characters that you meet and the adventures that you have throughout the experience. While these images may not hold much meaning to a new player, it does a great job in conveying the style and scale of the game. But once you've beaten the game, you can look back at the cover and be instantly reminded of all that you've gone through and how much fun the game was.

It's incredibly elegant how such a small piece of artwork can trigger so many memories and emotions, and it really encourages you to love the game even more. This is the kind of experience that all box artists should be striving to create.

A Note on Physical Materials

When I was a kid, my brother and I were accustomed to getting games that came in cheap little disk cases like this one:

The plastic was remarkably fragile by today's standards, and the cover art was printed on a flimsy piece of paper that easily fell out place. While it made for very convenient storage, the overall package felt very cheap, and this cheapness tainted our perception of our games.

A few years later, my brother and I bought a GameCube together, and now our games came in these big, durable casings, which really made us feel like we were buying high-end stuff.

The strength of the GameCube's standard game casing made me feel as though the disk was so valuable that it was worth protecting. In contrast, casing designs that were much less durable, such as GameStop's infamous used-game casings, made you feel as though you were holding a reject game that probably deserved to be in the trash.

The Magical Unboxing Process

The unboxing process for a typical game is anything but magical. Part of the problem comes from the fact that game packaging tends to follow the same basic template, and so there's no sense of wonder or surprise when you open a new game. But what hurts the process the most is the fact that this template isn't even very well designed, from a user experience point of view.

My favorite unboxing experiences were always the ones that made me feel like I was opening a treasure chest. No amount of flashy presentation can ever create this kind of experience. The only thing that defines a treasure chest is the fact that it's filled with valuable treasure.

Lego toy sets are a perfect example of this concept. Unboxing a new Lego set is usually almost as fun as playing with it. Everything in the box has value because it contributes directly to the player's experience. If just one Lego piece went missing, for example, it could throw off the entire design of what you were building. Even the instruction manuals were important, as they were the key to building the intended model.

Having a box filled with treasure isn't always enough, however. The contents must be presented in a way that reinforces their inherent value, rather than being so careless as to contradict it. Lego sets accomplish this very elegantly by organizing all of the pieces into multiple bags based on size and context. This instantly makes each piece more meaningful at a glance, thus increasing the perceived value of each piece, each bag, and the entire package as a whole. If everything had simply been dumped into a single bag, the pieces would have come out of the box rather sloppily, thus presenting the toy as a mess, instead of as something worth treasuring.

The multiple bags also served to prolong the unboxing experience, as the player must open each individual bag before they were ready to play with the full toy. This kind of delayed satisfaction is partly why I valued my toys so much when I was growing up, since we usually had to wait for Christmas and birthdays before we were given any new toys.

Another great example of delayed satisfaction is Apple's packaging design for the iPhone. The box was especially designed so that you couldn't pull off the lid too quickly or too easily. The drag between the lid and the box created a prolonged sense of tension and build-up, so that when you finally saw the product, you were more inclined to value it. This is not something they could've done if they had chosen to use a plastic casing, which seems to be the standard for tech products.

Video Games as Treasure Boxes

The biggest problem with video game boxes is that they just don't have much treasure in them. Most players see game manuals as useless, along with any other technical guides or promotions that come packaged with the game. This leaves the game disc as the only real item of value left in the box, but by packaging it alongside so many other worthless things, it presents the disc as if it was just as worthless.

Some games have tried to get around this problem by packaging extra items within the box. While it's nice to get a strip of concept art or even the game's soundtrack on a second disk, such items unfortunately don't add anything significant to the experience of actually playing the game. Most of these extras are just distractions that are not aligned with the core experience that the game delivers, and so the amount of value that they can contribute to the player's experience is very limited.

Video game casings also feature absolutely no form of delayed satisfaction. The casing is either open or closed, with no real transition between the two states. Opening a game is more of a chore than a magical experience.

The Problem with Most Game Manuals

Why are game manuals so worthless to players? Part of the reason is that most games nowadays include tutorials built into their core design, which usually eliminates the need to ever reference the manual. And even if players do get stuck, they are more likely to search the Internet for an answer.

But what really ruins game manuals the most is their tendency to hurt, rather than supplement, a game's experience. Because most games stretch their tutorial elements throughout the entire experience, manuals are often filled with spoilers about mechanics that get introduced later in the game. As a kid, I used to like to browse through a game's manual before turning it on, but trial and error has taught me to ignore manuals completely.

It seem as though most manuals are meant to solve simple usability problems that players may have while playing the game. While I imagine this may be helpful to people who don't play many video games, I feel as though an equally important goal for manuals should be to set the player up for the experience that they're about to enter. Most usability issues that players have will come at the beginning of their experience anyway, so why spoil it for them by telling them about things they won't see for a few more hours?

Another way to make manuals more valuable is to put content in them that cannot be found within the game. My favorite example of this is the manual for F-Zero GX, which dedicated its entire first two pages to introducing player's to the world of F-Zero. For a game that's almost completely about the gameplay, this was one of the few glimpses that players got behind the game's fictional universe.

The manual even mixed technical game rules with imaginative elements, which really reinforced the idea that you, the player, were now in the world of F-Zero. When I read this manual as a kid, it served as a great hook for the experience, making me even more excited to start playing.
4. Prohibited Actions
    4.1  Boost is prohibited during the first lap of all races due to the
           marginal distances between all participating machines at the
           beginning of the race.
    4.2  If a pilot is driving in the wrong direction, the Execution
           Project will issue a REVERSE warning. The pilot must
           immediately change direction.

The Minimalist Approach

Here's an idea. What if we got rid of everything except for the disk? Throw away the cover art, manual, promotions, and even the casing itself, until we're left only with the game in its purest form:

The disk alone is a much more complete and elegant representation of the game. There's something immensely powerful about the idea that such a small object is responsible for holding an incredible experience. Furthermore, when it's separated from its casing, the disk carries a sense of vulnerability that practically begs players to treasure it.

As a gamer, I've been looking for ways to represent my favorite games in a more dignified way that would hopefully undo the damage done by their poor packaging design. I've tried displaying them on shelves, moving them to certain parts of the room, and even putting them out of sight. But the idea of glorifying the disk alone is definitely one of the most compelling solutions I've seen yet.

Unfortunately, this clearly isn't a very marketable solution for retailers or consumers. And even if you're just fan, you may not be able to avoid feeling as though you are doing a disservice to the game by actively removing 70% of the physical product.

My Unboxing of Grand Theft Auto IV

I'll conclude this article by describing my unboxing experience with Grand Theft Auto IV, which came very close to being one of the best video game unboxings I've had yet. It was so good that it made me feel like a kid opening a new box of Lego. It made me forget my general distrust of manuals, and I soon found myself reading a game manual for the first time in years.
As you might've guessed, this box was filled with treasure. I was still relatively new to PC gaming, so my mind was blown when I saw that it came with, not one, but two discs. The manual was written as though it was some kind of travel guide, which did a great job of introducing me to the gritty, satirical world of GTA. But the best surprise was when I unfolded a convoluted piece of paper and discovered a map of the entire game world. Opening that map of Liberty City resonated with my childhood memories of family road trips and our collection of paper maps of the United States' east coast.

With that incredible first impression, I was more excited than ever to dive into this game. Unfortunately, that excitement was crushed by the PC version's infamously painful installation process that lasted multiple hours. And when I finally started playing, the pacing of the beginning was so slow that the game felt completely limiting compared to all of the promises that the manual and map had made. What was the point of showing the player all of these options at the very beginning of the experience if most of them won't be available until several hours into the game?

I'm also a bit disappointed by how useless the map turned out to be. There really is no reason to use it, because the in-game map is much more efficient. It would've been interesting if the game had found a way to force or encourage the player to rely on the printed map instead of the digital one. Not only would it have enhanced the unboxing experience even further by making the map more relevant, but it also would've helped players to feel more like foreigners in the city, the kind of foreigners who need a map just to get around. Players may even choose to write things down on their map, marking locations and paths that they believe are valuable or useful, which really personalizes their experience in the city.


By the way, my map idea for GTA IV was partly inspired by this video.

Even though it's been almost a month since my last blog post, this doesn't mean that I've been slacking off. I've actually managed to devote 4-7 hours a week towards maintaining this blog. Writing this post has definitely opened my eyes to how flawed and poorly-planned my writing process is.

Around two months ago I began writing some large articles with the intention of analyzing games deeply. I planned to approach these games one by one, writing extensive articles about them, almost like a kind of analytical review. But around a month ago, I decided that such an approach would be daunting for both me and my readers. It's far more interesting to focus on one specific topic while drawing from multiple games than it is to focus on one specific game while drawing from multiple topics.


  1. Yep, this pretty much defines the general experience you get with game packaging and manuals.

    I will say, that the map idea was part of what made me enjoy Morrowind so much. Not only was the manual fairly useful (and full of small hints that could impact your gameplay) it included a map of the continent which I made full use of. Whenever I found something interesting that wasn't anywhere near any map marker I had, I was more likely to get a pen and mark it on the physical map than leave a marker on the in-game one. Somehow, it just made the game more fun for me.

  2. That sounds really cool. I haven't gotten very far in GTA IV, partly because of the slow pacing, and partly because I think I broke some files and will have likely have to endure the ordeal re-install it. But all this talk about maps might just be the motivation I need to get back into it, because I want to see how playing with the map changes the experience. Hopefully it'll be interesting.

  3. Another very interesting post, or should I say article? Some comments on specific points:

    I may be off base on this nice I didn't play halo3, but I think it's a little unfair to ask the designers to create a cover to specifically address your experience as a multiplayer Halo player. I don't like multiplayer games much myself, so what I know of halo is that they had an epic story they wanted to tell, and so in that sense I think this cover hits closer to the mark than you give it credit for. That said, for a cover ostensibly trying to portray huumanity's struggle for survival in an epic war, I agree this cover is pretty weak.

    My favorite cover of recent years was the Borderlands cover. It was an arresting piece of art in and of itself but also managed to portray some of the madness that you would encounter in the game.

    I was gonna post some thoughts about felines (ie maps and bric a brac) in games boxes, but the iPad seems to be wiggling out on me, so maybe I'll comment more tomorrow.

  4. Wow, I didn't even think of Halo's single player mode. I never owned any of the games, so the only Halo campaign I've ever played was the one from the first game. And even that campaign felt like it was more focused on delivering a fun adventure rather than a serious narrative about war and survival. Even the enemies tended to react in goofy ways, as if they were cartoon characters.

    I think a lot of games suffer from this kind of inconsistency in tone and contradicting themes. You have one part of the game (mainly the mechanics) trying to deliver a theme that's fun and comedic, but then you have the other parts of the game (mainly the story) trying to deliver a theme that's much more serious and maybe even depressing. When you have multiple themes that work against each other, rather than supporting each other, it really makes the final product feel disjointed and the message much less credible.

  5. This post is great. I can't say I played as many games as some of my friends did when I was a kid—my parents got rid of our TV when I was 8, so I was entranced whenever I saw a screen anywhere—but I definitely relate to the "treasure" experience you're talking about.

    I'm a graphic design student and my personal project last month was designing a video game company logo. You can see it here:

    I was searching Google for game package design because the next part of my project's going to be just that. I totally sympathize with the opening the Lego box experience, you're totally right about the separate bag thing. I remember that.

    I will keep everything you said in mind here, lots of useful pointers, like making the manual indispensable because of content it has that the game doesn't. I really appreciate what you said about making it something people should treasure.

    Also what you said about the package reinforcing the experience, AFTER the game has been played, is daring by today's standards, but makes total sense! It's fine to get the game off the shelf, but what about building loyalty?! If I feel like the game company doesn't care about my experience, why would I care about their games?

    Great points, I'm going to reference this post for the next stages of my project—I just hope my design skills are up to it!

  6. Thanks for the feedback! I'm glad this article turned out to be so useful for you!

    Also, good luck on that project. Part of the reason why most video game packaging is pretty uninspired (at least, in my opinion) is because there are just so many design dilemmas involved, and so usually the goals that get prioritized the most are the most practical ones, such as how cheap it is to manufacture and how eye-catching it is. Plus, it's also hard to justify whether or not the additional time and money that has gone into a more bold packaging design did anything to increase profits.

    I personally don't like that line of reasoning, though, because once you start questioning the marginal costs and benefits of individual design decisions, then you really start to lose sight of the bigger picture. The main reason to go for a bolder packaging design is to help the player to truly fall in love with the product, and once that has been achieved, then hopefully everything else will fall into place (assuming there's enough marketing behind the game, of course).

  7. But I think the number one thing thing that's holding back packaging design is its direct effect on profits. The more expensive it is to make each package, the less profits the developers make per game, and that can really add up over millions of copies sold.