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Promotional Consideration: Behind the boxart

Eric Caoili

Promotional Consideration is a weekly feature about the Nintendo DS advertisements you usually flip past, change the channel on, or just tune out.

We spend a lot of time analyzing boxart, partly because many consumers are first introduced to a game by its cover, and partly because we're people with odd interests. We've brought in designer and illustrator Julie Giles to give us some insight on the packaging process. Julie has worked with Konami to lay out the covers for titles in the Castlevania and Metal Gear series. She also helped put together the award-winning Castlevania 20th Anniversary package, arguably the finest preorder offering for a Nintendo DS release.

Are you ever curious about how your favorite boxart pieces were put together? Or what decisions influenced a particular cover's look? Read on for our interview!

How did you develop a relationship with Konami?

A colleague of mine from a previous position at Signatures Network, Monique Catley, was the Director of Creative Services. She brought me in at Psygnosis, and I'm also doing some work for her at Nintendo, her current gig. We have always worked well together; it's one of those rare relationships where we share a similar esthetic, work ethic, and commitment to getting the job done with as little b.s. as possible.

You did work for Psygnosis (now Sony Studio Liverpool)? Anything we might recognize?

For Psygnosis, I mostly did sell sheets and the like. I worked on a cool poster for Colony Wars. My most memorable project at Psygnosis and something I still show in my portfolio was a group of postcards for G-Police - Weapons of Justice featuring a paper doll with various outfits. This is one of the few times I got to do the art for a main visual which were illustrations of one the characters and four outfits based on actual Diesel clothing, hyping a tie-in with Diesel.

How much room for creativity is there with instruction manual designs?

Usually, when I work on a package, it includes the coversheet, disc, and manual. A lot of times, the manuals are where I get to be the most creative. There's a lot of text, usually too much, so that's always a challenge, but this is where I get to have some fun creating graphics on my own rather than having the assets supplied. I get to pick the fonts and create the backgrounds.

For example, a manual I did for Lifeline included a section that was supposed to look like a security manual, so I added a graphic of "wire-o" binding to that section and a employee ID card, shading them as if the reader was viewing it while sitting on a desk. Another fun manual was for Brooktown High, where we tried to make it look like a high school yearbook with pages for "best dressed," etc.

Could you give us any insight on the production work that went on behind the Castlevania 20th Anniversary Promotion?

I have to give credit to Monique and the product manager Dennis Lee. Dennis wanted to do something really special to promote the game and came up with the idea for the art book and the time line. I believe the black box with the blood red seal were Monique's idea. After that, they gave me complete freedom to create the graphics used on the time line, covers, inside pages featuring the developer and artist, and the layout for the book.

How long does it usually take to complete a large-scale project like that?

It took maybe two to three months to assemble all the art, clean some of the old art up, and also to get permission from Japan to present it in such a way.

Where do you look to for inspiration?

It all depends on the project -- design annuals, skateboard magazines, other packages (especially those of competing games), and cover art for CDs and books.

Are there any particular packshots from other designers that you're impressed with?

I wish I had time to stay up on this more. A few off the top of my head: Ninety-Nine Nights, Gun, The Club, and Kengo: Legend of the 9.

Your favorite work of your own?

As far as package design, the Castlevania project certainly stands out, Metal Gear Acid 2 is fun too. The illustration and logo were supplied to me, but I think adding the orange "acid" behind the logo and the sort of "tech-y" background to the illustration gave it that extra punch.

How rigid are the instructions usually given to you for a project's art direction?

For the cover, the product manager usually has a pretty good idea of what they want, but on the back, I get to present some ideas of my own.

Is there a formula you try to follow when laying out the backside of a package?

The back side is driven in many cases by the template supplied by each of the platforms (e.g. PlayStation, Xbox, etc.), the amount of text the product manager insists on jamming back there, and any "extra" art I might have supplied to me. I like to try and put one of the characters or a scene from the game to help sell the story of that title.

What basic set of guidelines that most cover designs need to follow?

The guidelines are what you would imagine -- make it eye-catching, make it pop off the shelf, tell the story of the game, and set the title off from it's competition. It's funny, though, for the most part, I wouldn't really consider game packages to be examples of great design as it's definitely a field where gaudy and overly crowded images abound. I can't tell you how many times I've presented something more plainly and been told to jazz up, add a bevel, drop shadow, etc.

Have you had many drafts rejected?

Almost all my drafts are rejected, as I might submit between 5 - 20 comps and they only pick one. Most of the time, they pick two or three and want to combine aspects of each.

There's a huge difference between the simple artwork in Ninja Five-O and the luxuriant design for The Art of Suikoden package. Why is that? Higher quality assets, increased budget, maturation as an artist?

Ninja Five-O, wow, that's going back! The quality is due to all those factors. Yes, I have gotten better as a designer, but more importantly, the budget for a game like Ninja cannot compare to Suikoden. The art for Ninja was a pencil sketch whereas the art for Suikoden is gorgeously rendered with beautiful details.

Sometimes, working on the titles with art that could use some help, like DDR Ultramix, is more fun, because there's more room for me to put my mark, compared to titles like Suikoden or Castlevania where art is created to be used as the cover shot. I would really like to give credit to illustrators like Ayami Kojima who do the cover art and character design for Castlevania. I wish I knew the artist for Suikoden, so I could credit him or her too.

Could you shed any light in the difference in approaches between Japanese boxes and boxes for other regions?

The only thing I can say about that is that I think Konami America goes to a lot of trouble to distinguish the US release of the title from its Japanese counterpart. I can't say why, though.

How about specific information on requirements? Who comes up with logos? What are the rules about placement? What kind of pool of art assets is usually given to work with?

It's different for every game. But mostly I'm given the cover art, a logo -- this may be the old logo which I need to update -- and some quantity of extra art like character art, poster art, and screen shots. I always have to work within the confines of the templates supplied by the game platforms. Some times you can get permission to move stuff around, but mostly the placement of the legal text, UPC, ESRB, etc. has to conform to the template.

One last question -- how do you feel video game packaging design has changed in the past decade?

More companies are taking a chance on innovative package design instead of slapping some art on the template and moving on. I'm no market watcher, but maybe it was the art of games like Grand Theft Auto who started to change the field. I know that game got a lot of attention for its gameplay and violence, but the approach to its cover art was new and fresh.

You can find more of Julie Giles's excellent print design, illustration, and packaging work at her portfolio site and her PLAY! page.

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