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Game Packaging - A Look to the Past When Treasures Beyond the Game Were Within the Box

Game Packaging - A Look to the Past When Treasures Beyond the Game Were Within the Box

Author and Photography Credit: Bill Loguidice
Editing: Christina Loguidice
Online Layout: Buck Feris
Notes: All photographs were taken directly of the actual products in the author's private collection, except where otherwise noted
Special Thanks: Josh Larios, C.E. Forman, Dave Aston, Matt Barton, Buck Feris

Gamers who aren't familiar with classic games may wonder why anyone would be interested in an article on game packaging. Today, game packaging's highest function seems only to be for holding the game itself, be it on DVD, CD or some type of cartridge, with maybe a thin manual as an accompaniment. The outer packaging, besides revealing the game's title, also serves to describe any system requirements, features, basic storyline or premise, and to show a few screenshots. In the early days of game publishing, many companies invested great effort not only in the design of their games, but also in the way those games appeared on store shelves and what was included in the box. This article's intention is to describe this lost art of innovative game packaging from the early to mid-1980's, when there seemed to be an abundance of real thought and care behind the customer's experience beyond the software itself.

In the earliest days of home computing - the mid-1970's - games were usually distributed by hand on floppy disk and shared between members of user groups at computer club meetings. Little attention was paid to packaging and manuals, especially since most of these works were never intended for sale. By the late 1970's, there were limited mail order distribution channels through the few computer and hobbyist magazines that were around at the time, and a handful of stores that would stock these amateur games in Ziploc® bags with photocopied play instructions, often featuring crudely drawn artwork (Richard Garriott's Ultima-series predecessor, "Akalabeth", being a famous example). In fact, there were many parallels - including target audiences - to pen and paper wargames, which, at the time, were also packaged similarly when large companies weren't involved. By the early 1980's, as small development and publishing companies started to form based off the noticeable success of some of these early computer gaming endeavors - and the underlying technology began to grow relatively more sophisticated - so to did the packaging.

While it must be remembered that the statements throughout this article all have exceptions, especially in that there was poor packaging in the past, and, alternately, there is some great packaging today, since the actual visual output of early computer games was fairly limited, the packaging back then was sometimes a way to make up for these failings and help absorb the player in the software's universe. After all, if a game consisted of only text and no visuals, for instance, how else could you properly attract a potential buyer? As a result of situations like this, game packaging was often a work of art, with elaborate hand-drawn or painted box covers, detailed manuals, and frequently, well-crafted additions such as gameboards, maps, reference posters and counter pieces, which are often casually referred to as "feelies". Furthermore, while this discussion of game packaging will focus mostly on computer game packaging since that often had the most intriguing elements and the more hardcore audience to cater to, videogame packaging - though to a far lesser degree due to generally less complex game subjects and an arguably more mainstream audience that didn't necessarily care about external game elements - also had some standouts. Productivity and educational applications, while obviously not game-related, will be covered briefly as well, simply because the packaging of such software ran parallel to what was happening in the entertainment side of the industry.

We'll begin our discussion by examining external packaging. As mentioned previously, early computer packaging often had elaborate, hand drawn artwork, whether original or adapted from elsewhere. While artistic creations could have been made via computer even then, color, resolution and output capabilities made the idea impractical, though there were exceptions, such as some of the product that used in-game screenshots from Penguin Software (later Polarware), a company whose slogan was "the graphics people". For most companies though, which used traditional artistic methods from traditional artists, the end results were what one would expect-eye catching works of unique art. Today, between the use of automated computer tools, the ease of photo-realistic image integration, the quality of in-game visual assets being recyclable for use on the packaging, the stylized influence of anime' and smaller box sizes, there seems to be less room for real creativity. Adding in the fact that the packaging materials themselves have become externally more slick and polished with the use of modern manufacturing methods, the impact on the eye has further gone down in this sea of almost universally glossy exteriors.

In regular use from the early to mid-1980's, "bookshelf" games - with their oversized boxes - from companies such as Avalon Hill Microcomputer Games, Infocom and Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI), were ideal canvases for artists to create something special. Over time, as costs rose and the battle for shelf space became ever more competitive, the switch to smaller box sizes signaled the beginning of the end for the artist's canvas. These days, the era of specialty sizes of boxes is long past. There is little difference between Sony PlayStation 2, Nintendo GameCube or Microsoft Xbox packaging besides a few labels on their DVD keep cases. Furthermore, now that mainstream PC games are released only in small-form boxes or DVD keep cases themselves, even computers, the traditional home of more complex gaming that could benefit most from detailed packaging, are no longer artistically friendly. Unfortunately, this type of shrinkage has plagued many industries and seems to be a natural process, such as when consumers' preferred music medium switched from large record albums to small CD's, or as seen in the complaints of comic strip artists, whose work has been scaled into increasingly smaller spaces in the daily newspapers.

In Steven L Kent's "The Ultimate History of Video Games" book, a passage describes how Trip Hawkins, then of Electronic Arts (EA), found the packaging situation of the early 1980's "laughable" and how he applied his marketing knowledge to create the famous "album covers" that all the company's early software utilized. Although other companies, like Accolade and Taito, would later adopt this format, EA was the originator, which created a strong brand identity. While this type of packaging no doubt helped to attract buyers - again, oversized palettes are good - and as with the equivalent for record albums, the format was friendly to the thin 5.25" floppy disk mediums of the time, the downside was that internally there was little room for much more than a manual, reference card, password protection wheel and the software itself. There were no CD's at the time, so the packaging from companies like EA was modeled on what was contemporary. It seems that later, in the age of CD- and DVD-based videogames and computers, that process was followed to its logical conclusion, with packaging externally indistinguishable from their CD music and DVD movie counterparts.

Regarding the inside of these game boxes, again, bookshelf-style packaging was the best because it offered depth in addition to width, but in reality, any size box that was deep enough was often sufficient for special content. For game developers like Richard Garriott, who had very specific requirements from publishers for his games, such as the inclusion of things like cloth maps, coins and metal artifacts, a deep box was essential. Companies like Garriott's own Origin Systems and the aforementioned Avalon Hill Microcomputer Games, SSI and especially Infocom, were masters at these types of inclusions, but there were many other companies that developed great packaging during the same era.

It is no exaggeration though to state that for many, the ultimate packaging overall with the best inclusions was definitely for Infocom's text adventures. These games were pure text, pure imagination and were comparable to novels that a reader interacted with. Because the consumer couldn't sample the "pages" of the game - a screenshot of text would be worthless in context - the packaging that was created was some of the most imaginative ever and is still among the most sought after by collectors. The early versions of "Zork", which was the company's first product, started out very simple (think Ziploc® and 8" floppy disks), but later games set an incredibly high standard. Deadline's police folder and documents, Starcross' plastic flying saucer packaging and map, Suspended's recessed plastic face mask (with creepy eyes), Planetfall's brochure and I.D. card, Wishbringer's pink "wish" stone, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's peril sensitive sun glasses and fluff, and Ballyhoo's circus ticket, were just a few of the many examples that helped to bring these pieces of interactive fiction to life. Infocom as a company knew that the game packaging and inclusions were useful in adding to the interactive experience on the computer. These days, the game itself and system's hardware is what provides nearly all of the end user's experience.

Now that computer games are generally released in small boxes or DVD keep cases, the era of the inclusion, like the era of cover art, is also long past. In fact, we may be seeing the continued devolution of detailed manuals as well, furthering the synergy in the modern era with videogame systems and how their games are documented. In fact, a cynic might suggest that manuals are so inadequate simply to sell more hint books and walkthroughs.

As game technology became more realistic and visual, and games began costing more to produce in a competitive market, less time and money seemed to have been spent on the packaging. Boxes became smaller and simpler, and manuals less involved, with progressively fewer inclusions. In fact, by 1985, some of the best companies, like SSI, moved to smaller and more standardized packaging. Even Infocom had eventually moved to a standardized package for all its games.

While the industry moved fairly quickly from Ziploc® to bookshelf games, the golden age itself was relatively short. In fact, with the introduction of CD-based games, there seems to have been a significant step back. By the time the CD-ROM was becoming a standard, on-disc documentation became a reality, with boxes that often contained only a CD within a jewel case or paper sleeve.

Atari 8-bit computer cassette tapes, with their synchronized voice, visuals and sound, could be considered the basic precursor to modern multimedia CD-ROM's. Unlike today's multimedia CD's however, the packaging was still important, often coming in handsome bookshelf boxes that contained workbooks and other thoughtful add-ins. The same is true for the original versions of products like "WordPerfect", "GEOS", "Microsoft Word" and "AppleWorks"—really any early productivity package. All had tremendous packaging, with deep boxes and hefty manuals. Today, however, most manuals or help is of the "online" or in-system variety. The parallels to the game world can't be ignored, but ultimately, this is not about productivity packaging, this is about game packaging, which brings us to our final analysis, videogames.

Cartridge games up until systems like the Sega Master System (SMS) and NEC's TurboGrafx-16, were generally packaged in cardboard boxes. The durability was in the medium the game was on, not the packaging. There were regional exceptions, such as plastic cases from CBS ColecoVision for non-North American territories; however, for the most part, early packaging in the US was not an art on game consoles.

In the history of game consoles, as with solid outer packaging, inclusions have been rare. Exceptions include Magnavox's Master Strategy series of games for their Odyssey2 system, which were innovative combinations of an onscreen videogame and off-screen boardgame in oversized packaging, and Atari's mini-comics, which shipped with games like "Defender" and "Berzerk" for their 2600 Video Computer System (VCS).

Up until the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), most videogames produced were simple enough to only need the briefest of instruction manuals. From the NES forward, particularly as technology continued unabated, certain strategy and role-playing games, for example, required more detailed instructions. For the most part though, thicker manual or not, there were no changes in box sizes; it was the standard size for each brand of console or nothing. These days, in-game tutorials - interactive or not - have taken the place of detailed manuals. Manuals essentially consist of text and command summaries. Cut scenes (movies) now tell the story rather than the manual or other in-box inclusions. Most users - meaning the mainstream, the casual, the "average" consumers - probably never really read manuals anyway and modern games certainly cater to that idea. Early computer games targeted a more hardcore audience - the early adopters as it were - that appreciated hardcore packaging and materials. As the audience for gaming expanded and development stakes increased, there was less of a need for fancy packaging since a smaller percentage of consumers demanded it, particularly as in-game audio-visual content became more sophisticated.

What the average gamer looks for in today's games are "Easter Eggs", which is the term for hidden areas, secrets or other "locked" content in-game. What used to consist of one or two surprises or bonuses per game now constitutes a major portion of the appeal for many, as in the discovery or unlocking of these secrets being part of the gameplay. Whether it's EA's Madden football series of games and their "Madden Cards" or Midway's Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance's over 600 "Koffins" containing hidden content, these virtual bonuses take the place of the past's physical add-ins. It's no wonder then that the casual gamer has no desire for fancy packaging—there's plenty of flash and "substance" in-game.

It's been stated before and I'll state it again—hardcore gamers appreciate hardcore packaging, with unusual boxes and a handful of feelies. This audience still gets appealed to on occasion - the collector, the nerd, the fan boy, the obsessive player - but the prices for these deluxe versions or special editions are often beyond the realm of the casual. Today, hardcore packaging - if available at all - has a hardcore price. There are still tens of thousands of hardcore gamers like in the past, it's just more profitable to go after the hundreds of thousands of mainstream consumers instead.

In some ways, today's force feedback and rumble technologies still provide that physical or tactile link to the game and its virtual environment. Classic packaging certainly had a decidedly tactile feel, with more things to touch and physically interact with beyond a computer or controller. In the past, if players had a computer or even a game machine, they were probably more hardcore than the modern equivalent; they were probably stereotypically "geeky" and part of the audience that would appreciate hardcore packaging and content that required more of a time investment, as the computers of the era certainly did. It was much more of a hobbyist environment than it is now. Again, that audience is still there today, but it is less appealing to mainstream publishers when there is a huge percentage of the buying audience who wouldn't even consider buying anything that might seem overly complex, with "too much" stuff in the box. At best, today we have the collectible, but there was a time, that golden era, when a normal game could have it all. For the future, we can only hope that on-demand publishing becomes more cost-effective and we can once again experience one of the many forgotten elements of gaming's best, and the average consumer demands more.

- End -

What follows is a visual description of some of the package types covered in this article.

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