Though you've seen them on the shelf, bought them, and played them, many Gamasutra readers may not be aware that some of the most well-known video game logos and retail packaging designs in today's video game industry, from Doom 3 through Call Of Duty 2 to World Of Warcraft, were created by the same company, design firm Hamagami/Carroll.
Having discovered this, Gamasutra chatted with Hamagami/Carroll principal and co-founder Justin Carroll, delving into the origins of his company's work in the video game business, its relationship with major players such as Blizzard and Id, the process of what it calls “visual mechanics,” specifically discussing some of its most recent designs.
Gamasutra: So how did Hamagami/Carroll get started working on game brands? How did that come about?
Justin Carroll: We actually drew on our experience in entertainment design. We do a lot of style guides for TV and movies, like X-Files, Terminator 3, Ice Age, and Buffy. We also have a lot of history in toy packaging and educational software packaging. Plus my partner and I, John Hamagami, we're both illustrators, and so we really had this big thing about the power of the image - we're very much about that image, which is basically what packages are - that big storytelling image on the front of the package that really captures what the essence of that title is. And so we built on that, and [we were] a small studio and now we're kind of huge.
|Doom 3 Gatefold Launch Ad|
GS: How big are you now?
JC: Somewhere above forty people, it changes. Around 42, 43, something like that.
GS: And how many people did you start with?
JC: It started with just him and me, and that was 15 years ago. We actually started as an illustration studio and over the years we expanded, adding more design capabilities, and eventually [we] just became a design firm.
GS: So, when did you work on your first game brand, and who was it for?
JC: Well, we got started in the educational software business, right when that was starting, and so we did a lot of work with Davidson, Math Blaster, Knowledge Adventure, Jumpstart, and all that. Probably Math Blaster was the closest thing to an actual game brand, when we first started out. Because they were trying to attract the same kind of audience and convince them that it was interesting to do math in a game. I don't know if anyone went for that or not… I don't even remember what the first game was.
We've been really lucky over the years, we've been able to develop these really long relationships with some major market leaders, like Electronic Arts, Activision, and LucasArts. That's a really good question… I have no idea… I should go back and figure that out though… We've been in business 15 years, and probably the last 10 or 12 of that have been working with the video game industry. We were really lucky, we latched onto it as the market was developing, so our business was actually developed along with the market and continues to develop, luckily, because video games are acting more like traditional entertainment properties now.
Before, a video game was just people throwing ideas at the wall to see what stuck. Now, I think games are being developed more with an eye towards the property as a whole and all the different ancillary executions that can happen like movies, TV shows, and toys, that sort of thing, so our experience sort of dovetails with that, our entertainment background helps with that.
GS: So, how does visual design for game brands, differ from your other work? Is there some specific needs or qualities that are inherent to working with game brands exclusively?
JC: Not really, because what it really comes down to at the end of the day, it's all about that particular brand and that particular brand's target audience. In this particular case, the world that we're in, it's in the game world. We also do a lot of work with Mattel, Disney, and corporate clients. One of our biggest clients is a company that makes drugs for oncology. You can't get any more different than that.
The bottom line is you're basically trying to communicate a story to an audience in a very restricted framework, and you just have to maximize your communication within those limitations. And [video games are] a hell of a lot more fun. I know more about cancer that I want to know.
GS: So, at what point in the development process, do you actually go in and work on branding? Does the game have to be finished or have you gone in earlier than that?
JC: No, the games are almost never finished [when we come in]. We typically work in partnership—our great claim to fame is these relationships that we build with companies, it's all based on trust, that we understand their story and what they're trying to accomplish.
Typically, we're brought in fairly early in the process, as soon as they start building marketing plans, somewhere about halfway through, we're brought in and we start working on the packaging. Depending on the company we're working with, we're also working on the in-store display, we're working on sell sheets, materials for E3, and different parts of the brand identity.
GS: Do you actually play the games to get a feel for them?
JC: I actually don't play the games. I work about 14 hours a day so I don't do anything but work and then go home and pass out, but all the kids that work for me are all avid gamers.
GS: Is there any specific game brand work that you feel especially proud of, that stands out in your mind?
JC: A lot of times, it's just whatever new thing we've done. I'm really happy with the work we've done with Id (for Doom 3 and Quake 4). We've been really lucky to get hooked up with particular companies and teams, and in the case of Activision, we've developed relationship both with Activision's marketing department and Id back in Texas. And it's a really great position to be in because we deal with both of those entities, both the distributor and the developer.
I'm really happy with the way Quake 4 came out because if you see it on the shelf—and we are primarily a print design company so it's about packaging and print materials—the way that thing talks on the shelf, it really looks like the next level of Quake to me, and then, when you open up the flap it really hits you—it's exciting and emotional and I think it's really powerful. I also went to QuakeCon, and seeing the huge banners everywhere was pretty exciting to me.
GS: So looking specifically at some of your work, like for say Doom 3, what were some of the design elements that you sought to incorporate in order to capture of Doom as a brand?
JC: With Doom, you're talking to two audiences really; you're talking to casual gamers and to really avid Doom fans. The challenge is to really communicate that story and the level of advancement with the game to the avid gamer, the hardcore gamer, and at the same time, make it interesting enough, [so that] if you don't know the whole Doom universe, you would want to jump into it and play that game. Did I answer the question?
|Doom 3 Box Art|
GS: I was just wondering if there were any specific design elements that you sought to include.
JC: Mostly it's about really telling the story of that world, because Doom is such a huge franchise. When you're dealing with something like Doom, there's such a legacy there, the main thing is to be true to the legacy and make sure that nothing rings untrue. Eventually, at the end of the day, I hate to keep saying that, but it's really appropriate in this framework, you're really talking about making a package that shows what goes in the game—showing off the assets of that particular game and displaying it in a format that's clear enough for people to understand.
GS: I'm currently looking at your logos for Warcraft, and I was wondering how you came about the look of each logo specifically.
JC: Blizzard is another long-term relationship we've had, that connection came through the educational software thing. You asked a question before—what were some of the first packages we did—I think some of the first packages we did were for Warcraft, because we worked with Davidson Associates which was an educational software company and they bought Blizzard, so we started doing those titles because they were a part of Davidson, and that was what segued us into the video game industry—that and our experience in entertainment and toys.
With those logos, we worked directly with the marketing department, but there's also access to Blizzard people as well. And they are very particular, as with Id. Blizzard and Id are very similar in that they are very into what they do. So everything that you do, a lot of the challenge is just making sure that you're pleasing the developer, because they're so immersed in it that anything that's just not absolutely on the money stands out like a sore thumb. We used to do packaging for all the Blizzard titles, now they do it in-house I believe and we just do the logos. And if you look at the World of Warcraft logo, that's almost a whole package into itself.
GS: It's definitely one of the more detailed and intricate logos that I've seen.
JC: Right, and part of that comes from the fact that the logo was designed separate from the packaging, but part of it too is that it reflects the depth of those worlds. It's just endless, how far that thing goes.
And I know World of Warcraft is one of the most popular games ever—definitely the most popular online game, so every piece of that brand has to really reflect that depth and texture of the brand and the whole thing about storytelling, if your really start to study just, even the border of that thing, there's a certain richness and depthGS: Yeah, I can see teeth and monsters.
JC: Yeah, there're faces in there, I actually did that myself. It was a lot of fun, but there was a lot of back and forth with the Vivendi marketing guys and the Blizzard guys as well. It was definitely a team effort.
|The World of Warcraft logo|
GS: So what were some of the things you managed to stick in?
JC: Oh I'll never tell.
It's like they had me… There's pictures of Paul McCartney in there. Just kidding.
GS: It's like looking at a dollar bill. There's a lot to it. Is it anything like the original concept?
JC: There were many, many [concepts], it's part of any development phase, when we do these things, there's a really broad range of work shown in the beginning, you show a really broad range of concepts and then you start to hone it down with fewer and fewer. When we worked with Blizzard, the initial concepts tend to be fairly detailed as opposed to other companies, where they may not be as detailed.
It's also because we work with Blizzard, [they're] a company of artists, so everything visual is incredibly important to them, so that has to be reflected in everything we show. The same thing with Id—you're dealing with artists and it's great and it's challenging at the same time. Obviously I think we're doing well because we've been working with both of those teams for a long time
GS: Just one more thing about the logo, is there any specific element that you had to have in the logo, like say the world map or a certain type of monster or…?
JC: No, the only thing, the only real requirement was that we had to maintain the legacy of the original Warcraft lettering, which is something we did years ago, for the first Warcraft package.
GS: It's definitely in every single logo.
JC: It's actually rendered differently than the original logo, but it's a subtle difference. Our main thing is to make it better every time. In the big picture of video game marketing and packaging, I don't know that a package has ever sold a single game. It may have sold one or two, but it's important from a bigger perspective that it's all about telling that story of the brand and everything's all intermeshed but I would imagine that a lot of sales are driven by really great reviews from other gamers.
GS: Right, but if you're at the point of sale, you're looking at a bunch of boxes sometimes you pick one over the other. At the very least, you pick it up to look at it.
JC: Absolutely, as there are more and more products in the marketplace, and the packaging gets smaller and smaller and smaller, it's really like a billboard. A tiny billboard, and you have a split second to communicate something to someone and to get them as they're walking down the aisle, with so much distraction and competition, to stop and look at your package and pick it up.
And then once you get their attention, the inside flap and the back of the package tell the product story, and it really is about romance, emotion, and connection. It's got to communicate a certain level of intrigue and excitement or it just looks dull, no matter how great the game is. So we owe it to the developers to make that package look as compelling as possible if it's going to be as interesting as the game.
We've been incredibly lucky, when I look at some of the brands that we worked on, it kind of blows me away. We do Call of Duty with Activision, we do Doom and Quake, we do Lord of the Rings for EA, Star Wars for Lucas Arts, the Warcraft logos for Blizzard, Prince of Persia for Ubisoft… some major, major titles, and it just kills me sometimes when I see that, like “wow, this is really cool.”
GS: So, you define your process as visual mechanics. How does that differ from what another designer might be doing?
JC: It's more about a way of approaching everything. What it's really based on is the concept of celestial mechanics—the idea that there's this system underlying everything. In celestial mechanics, there's a system underlying the cosmos—same thing with the brand and with the visual system. Whenever we approach a project, whether it's video games or a brand identity for a corporation, we approach it from a systematic perspective as opposed to this individual unit.
With video games, sometimes we have very little effect or very little opportunity to affect that overall visual system, but we always keep it in mind. For example, when we do style guides for movies, we're really dealing with the whole visual system—we're developing that visual landscape—that visual world that's going to follow that brand around wherever it goes—from the Web to advertising to TV. And that's where we operate the best, where we really get the chance to operate on the big picture.
Now that being said, sometimes we'll just do a little bit for a game, but we're always confident that it's got to be part of that big picture.