When PC Box Art Added to The Experience
Over the past several years it’s pretty evident that most gamers are now shifting their purchases of games to the digital format, as opposed to obtaining a physical copy. This rings especially true for the PC crowd with the rise of popular digital distribution platforms like Steam and GOG. You’d be hard-pressed to find major retailers that still sell physical forms of PC games, and those who do such as big-name brands like Best Buy, Walmart and Target, offer very limited selection compared to what it was like twenty years ago. When video games were predominantly sold in their physical form the cover was one effective way to attract attention from potential buyers, and if done right; to give them the best vision of what the game had to offer.
Gaming distribution has changed and with those changes also eliminates one of the best features that PC games used to encapsulate upon every purchase: the box art. Gaming box art was of course never exclusive to PC gaming, as most console games have been doing it since their inception. Earlier cartridge console games were usually encased in bulk-like plastic shell, but later resurfaced into a smaller form of packaging when video games introduced disc media. But PC game box art were a different breed.
When walking into a video game retailer in the early 2000’s there was a distinct difference between the walls that featured the console games, and the rows which housed those of the PC variety. PC games usually came in a larger box, which in most cases took up more space on store shelves. Many of these boxes depicted more grotesque and darker themes than their console counterparts. Sure, there was the occasional Roller Coaster Tycoon or Math Blaster whose covers were more in a colorful overlay to accurately reflect a kid-friendly like atmosphere, but the majority of what was featured on the PC side gave a more serious tone.
Growing up my parents wouldn’t allow me to play games that contained an M rating, until I hit my pre-teen years. But, when my mom left me to browse the gaming section of COMP USA while she focused on other areas of the store, I always took a liking to the PC game section. To me it felt like I was being transported into this world of wonder. I remember seeing characters with intimidating facial expressions harnessing weapons, while looking they’re too cool for the cover such as Gordon Freeman from Half-Life or Garret from Thief, each giving me a sense that these games were violent, but both had a different tone in presentation. For example, one was more run and gun and the other focused on stealth. Others like Sim City and Civilization gave more of a sense of world building, a gaming concept I wasn’t familiar with at the time.
Not every PC box art went too hard on the detail, though, but still managed to intrigue my curiosity. Take Bualders Gate for example. There was nothing but the title of the game, accompanied by an image of a skull. This piqued my interest into wanting to know more as the mystery of what this game had to offer. Upon picking up the box there was a slant that folded out like a book, revealing two sets of other images on the cardboard flaps. This of course contained screenshots of gameplay and text describing the story and atmosphere. It was like a tease to an exciting fantasy book that begged to be explored.
Some games would come bundled together with the base game and its expansion set(s), and in some cases, the strategy guide. One notable example of this was what was known as the “Battle Chest” Blizzard produced to sell the full collection of its games. The contents of each Battle Chest would come in a box substantially larger than normal, and the cover was usually engraved with what appeared to be a treasure chest, signifying the player is opening something special. I remember the ride home when after buying both Battle Chests for Warcraft II and Diablo II. Here were two boxes with art that depicted gruesome demons, and battle-ready orcs and humans, hyping me up for what was to come after I boot up the title screen.
When Warcraft III was on the horizon, I remember the marketing campaign at Babbages(which would later become Gamestop) would have giant cardboard displays of the games main characters, each looking daunting with their poses right outside the shelves where the PC games were stored. The store was also wallpapered with décor encapsulating the theming of Azeroth, the fictional world in which the game is featured. When Warcraft III finally hit store shelves multiple cover options were available for purchase, each featuring a different image of one of the games four playable factions: Undead, Nigh Elf, Orc, and Human. The game would go on to garner one expansion set, The Frozone Throne, but it would only host the image of Arthas, one of the games central antagonists.
As a fan of the previous Warcraft strategy games, I was mesmerized by this ad campaign, because it helped show that the game would take on a grittier and darker tone. It wasn’t just a leap forward in graphics and gameplay, but now two new playable races, and the ability to earn xp and level up were added into the mix, and the surrounding promotional box art is what drove this home for me. Being in GameStop during this time deeply enamored me in the game’s lore. It felt like I was immersed in this fantasy world before starting the game, an experience that browsing an online storefront can’t encapsulate.
Over the past few years GameStop has transitioned from a store that strictly sells games to a retailor full of video game and nerd memorabilia like: funko pops, t-shirts, toys, and various knick-knack items. The rebranding most likely is in response to the decline of sales over the past decade. Almost every inch of shelf space was devoted to new and used games, whereas merchandise pertaining to popular video game and comic book franchises were less present. Now with the opposite reigning true, it’s no wonder why vide game companies shifted their marketing ploy from the physical format to something the audience can come across online without having to set foot in store.
In essence, this is definitely a better shot for success. As society changes so does how products and services are distributed, and with that, advertisements must also follow suit in order to adapt to the new marketing conditions. It’s no surprise that boxart today feels so uninspired and lackluster compared to what it was 20 years ago. A good portion of titles fall prey to regulating the protagonist on the front of the cover with the logo slapped on the focal point. There’s nothing inspiring or eye catching, but case and point, it’s not surprising.
In the age of social media and being able to communicate information instantaneously, the promotional material is no longer limited to screenshots and images slapped on a box or magazine page. Case and point, there’s no longer a need to devote a good portion of the marketing budget towards something many consumers will no longer come across.
I too have gotten swept up in the digital craze with acquiring more than 150 plus games on Steam and GOG. It does feel nice being able to conjure up any game within my Steam library with a few clicks. This eliminates the hassle of having to repeatedly exchange games out of the computer, and the frustration of misplacing the disc from time to time. But, at times I look at my PC gaming boxes nestled neatly in alphabetized order on a shelf hanging above my computer, and smile remembering the wonderful experiences that transpired from their presence.