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Interview: What's In A Box? Game Packaging Unpacked

Interview: What's In A Box? Game Packaging Unpacked

December 30, 2009 | By Christian Nutt

December 30, 2009 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC

Game packaging is becoming increasingly elaborate. As Collectors Editions and limited steelbook cases become more and more prevalent -- in an effort to make games stand out on the shelves and lure in hardcore collectors -- the art of designing packaging becomes incredibly complicated.

So what exactly goes into the process? What makes a good game package, and how do you handle the restrictions of working with marketing departments, and working within the templates the console companies lay out?

To find out more, Gamasutra spoke to Justin Carroll, partner and creative director of Hamagami/Carroll. The company recently completed the packaging of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, including the frankly insane Prestige Edition, complete with night vision goggles.

Does packaging matter in creating buzz with gamers?

JC: Absolutely. But for a number of reasons, the balance of power in marketing communications is shifting away from the package. The package is one of the important touch points in connecting with consumers -- there's still that wow factor when a new shooter product hits the shelf, (or an awww factor for something cute like the Littlest Pet Shop games).

Also, the question presupposes a core game audience. As the market expands with casual games and new platforms, "buzz" takes on a different meaning -- what buzzes a 35+ female consumer is a lot different than what jolts a World of Warcraft junkie.

As elaborate packaging becomes more prevalent, does it still stand out?

JC: I think so. But like what happened with the music industry in the '70s, the package keeps shrinking, which makes it increasingly difficult to differentiate in a meaningful way. We always compare game packaging to a billboard -- you have about three seconds to grab someone's attention and deliver a message -- but in this case it's a walk-by rather than a drive-by.

More elaborate packaging communicates a deeper story about the game, and also connects to the passion the gamers and developers share about the game. To me it's about authenticity. We created the collectors edition packaging for Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. The Mythic/EA teams sweated over every tiny detail of that package with us, and that really shows in the final results. You can't bullshit a core audience.

Also, the majority of packaging on the shelf is still in the 1st party templates, so the elaborate Collectors packs grab your attention. If you had a hundred Collectors Editions sitting on the same shelf it would be a different story.

Does that create an arms race, in effect, where packaging becomes more elaborate? Some things we've seen in limited editions are a bit ridiculous.

JC: I guess it does start an arms race but still, if it's an authentic experience it adds value. There comes a point though where the economics will stop supporting it. We used to do a lot of packaging for educational software.

Those old-school PC boxes got more and more elaborate just to communicate the benefits, with multiple flaps, varnishes, inserts -- it became like packing a CD inside an illustrated encyclopedia. Eventually the market became oversaturated and the price point crashed. I think most ed software is a direct download now.

But with the killer AAA titles it will always make sense. Look at Infinity Ward's "unboxing" video for Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2: Prestige Edition on YouTube (we did the packaging). Over three million views to date. Obviously someone thinks that over-the-top package offers something valuable.

How much input do you have and how much comes from the marketing team at the companies? For that matter, how much input comes directly from the game developers?

JC: Every company is a little different, and it often depends on how powerful the developer is. We just created the packaging program and print identity for Modern Warfare 2 with Activision and Infinity Ward. That was the coolest, truest collaboration we've ever been involved with. As you can imagine, expectations were huge and both developer and publisher were intimately involved at the highest levels, with every minute detail.

But it's always collaborative to some degree. Developers are always immersed in the game and have their steadfast beliefs and marketing departments are always looking at the retail shelf and thinking big picture.

Our job is to listen to both parties, add our own insights, cook everyone's passions into a viable visual strategy and give them back a powerful solution. They're looking to us to add the visual magic -- otherwise you would throw a screen shot on the front and call it a day.

When it comes to series, how can you make sure each stands out, yet also fits in with its predecessors?

JC: I wish I had a quick formula for that. Obviously there's a lot of up front research involved, and everyone involved with the process is constantly gut-checking every concept against what's been done before. It's really about identifying the essence of that brand, and coming up with exciting new ways to visually express that essence.

How much marketing and psychology goes into it versus artistry?

JC: The marketing is something you have to lock in your head, then you forget it and do something as cool as possible, then circle back to make sure you still haven't gone off the reservation. For example, I've always loved the Mario Kart Wii package (which we didn't do). That pack front hits on so many levels, but I doubt that the designers went down a checklist when they were in the process of designing it.

Some of the Japanese casual game packaging cracks me up too, when they throw some awesomely weird non sequitur image on the front and it sells millions. Luckily I'm not too sensitive or it would invalidate my whole existence.

How many treatments and revisions can a package typically go through?

JC: It can be painful. I think we worked on Enemy Territory: Quake Wars for almost two years, and we must have done 300 concepts. I'm sure there are others that we knocked out in the first shot over a weekend but I can't remember one. I'd say the projects tend to fill the time you have.

What about the backs -- they're so crowded with information in multiple languages, specifications, etc -- how can you manage to make an impact these days?

JC: You're right, with the first party templates there's increasingly less space to do anything. A lot of it just comes down to dedicating as much thought and effort to the back of pack communication as you devote to the front. Simple and effective is extremely hard to do. You just have to learn to work within the limitations.

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