What do Saints Row 2, Crysis 2, Tron Evolution, Just Cause 2, Star Wars Kinect, God of War II, Yakuza, Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground, Avatar: The Game, Dark Souls, Dark Souls II, Bloodborne, Rise of the Argonauts and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune all have in common? They all have the exact same layout for their box art.
One of the biggest trends in video game box art layouts is the “back to the camera” layout, where the game’s protagonist is in the middle of a background with back to the camera. Since the release of movie posters for Christopher Nolan’s critically-acclaimed The Dark Knight, video game marketing departments have been using the layout in an attempt to ape the appeal of the posters.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the layout, but thousands of gamers are getting sick of it. If you read the dozen articles on “video game box art clichés,” the “back to the camera” layout always appears. And yet, many marketers are still pushing the layout to this day for games like Far Cry Primal and Tom Clancy’s The Division. Marketers should use a wider variety of box art layouts because the overuse of a single layout is actually a lot more worrying than it seems.
The main objective of box art is to attract potential customers. If you walk into a video game store or you’re shopping online, you’re going to see hundreds of games for sale. So box art needs to stand out to customers while hinting at game features and story elements to help sell the game. Box art essentially acts as another form of advertising.
The “back to the camera” layout became popular for a reason. As we survey the game’s world in the background just as the game’s protagonist does, we get a sense of the grand adventure we are about to embark on. And the other elements within the image further contribute to one’s impression of the game. From protagonist Kratos’s aggressive pose and flaming swords in front of a temple in God of War II, for instance, we get a sense of Kratos’s anger as well as hints of the game’s aggressive and violent combat within grand Grecian environments. And we get all of that even before we turn over the back of the box to read the actual features.
But the layout only gives us a vague promise of the adventures within the game. While we get some idea of the game’s world and its protagonist, we don’t really know all that much about the character, and we don’t know exactly why the hero is supposedly going on some grand adventure. A character looking across a vast cityscape may just be going to the coffee shop down the street for all we know. And sometimes we don’t even get a view of the game’s world or any props to help with characterization – just a muddy swirl of artwork with the protagonist in the middle.
The “back to the camera” pose is especially problematic because we don’t get a clear view of the protagonist. The features of the body that tells us the most about a character – especially the face and costume design – are often obscured by the character’s back. This prevents us from gaining an understanding about a character’s personality or motivations. I like backsides just as much as the next guy, but I can’t get an accurate gauge of a character’s personality when I’m given nothing but their backside.
And when most games repeat the exact same layout for their box art, it gives customers the impression that all of the games tell the exact same story and give the player the exact same experience. None of the games stand out from each other and customers won’t know what to buy. Who knows how many great games were glanced over because of their copycat box art.
Whatever power this layout once had has been taken away thanks to its oversaturation. It’s failure to clearly communicate a game’s story and features as well as stand out from other games demonstrates how ineffective it’s become. It’s foolish to stick so rigidly to this formula when there are so many dynamic ways to present box art.
For the box art of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, the “back to the camera” layout as seen in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was ditched for one depicting the game’s iconic intro sequence in which protagonist Drake climbs up a derailed train hanging off the edge of the Himalayas. We can now clearly see the anguish mixed with determination in Drake’s face as he dangles above the frozen abyss.
Not only are we promised blockbuster action and peril, but we also gain insight about Drake as a character and how even in the face of danger and pain he still marches forward. While we still don’t know that much about the overall story, the promise of white-knuckle action and adventure drives us to pick up the game and find out.
If you don’t limit yourself to just one popular layout for box art and try more unique layouts that can communicate more of a game’s features and story, then you’ll find that your box art looks more attractive to potential customers. Clichés may have been popular for a reason, but there comes a point where you have to shake things up.