Friday, 20 July 2012

Where's the fun in games packaging?

As someone who runs a design agency ( which has been designing board games for over ten years, I would be the first to agree that "fun" seems to be the one ingredient sadly missing from much of the games packaging that eventually appears on the shelves.

As a graphic designer, of course I would say that it is not for the want of trying. After all, we designers are the unsung heroes aren't we? Naturally, I'm going to blame the marketeers!

Let's take a piece of "family" games packaging. Like all packaging, it should serve several purposes:

1) It stops the contents from falling on the floor.

2) It provides storage for the contents when you're fed up playing with it.

3) It should command your attention from the other side of the store, and draw you in.

4) Once it has your attention, it should then start to engage with you in several ways:

Above all, it must look fun. You're in the store, buying a family game because you want to have fun with your family, aren't you? You probably spend precious little time with them anyway, so you need some way of gathering them all together without it appearing to be a lecture, so what better way than to play a game. After all, aren't you just trying to re-enact those happy times when you were a child yourself?

So if this pack that you're going to spend your hard-earned on doesn't immediately shout that you're all going to experience an absolute hiatus of hilarity, you're going to look elsewhere.

This theoretical pack should also engage with your more practical side. For that you probably want to turn it over and look on the back. Is there actually anything in the box other than a piece of folded cardboard and six tiny pieces of plastic? In other words, is it worth the money?

At this point you will expect to see a photograph of an ethnically correct, manicured "family" - a beautiful man, someone we assume is his beautiful wife, and a very well behaved boy and girl whom we assume are their beautiful children. They have been photographed "having fun".

Then there's the text that explains precisely how much fun you're going to have, using phrases like "fast family fun" and "unmissable action".

The marketeers tell us all these elements should be there and in those places. But is it really just too formulaic and ultimately, far too condescending? It seems that the mundanity of modern car design has finally hit the games shelves. Perhaps marketeers, aware of dwindling sales, are reluctant to poke their heads above the parapet and help create designs that are different, groundbreaking and possibly even slightly "risky" in marketing terms. Instead we have a safe, globalised look, a "big brand" ethic, a desire to be all-inclusive. Somewhere, all the real fun has been extracted.

On the other hand, perhaps many of the games inside the boxes are just not fun any more. The excitement I had as a child of opening a box and discovering what was inside has been replaced with "Try Me" buttons, so we can hear, feel and touch: the experience now takes place in the shop. Meanwhile, the visual element - the branding - mirrors the film or the TV series, so we already understand the essence of the game before we purchase because we've been immersed in it for weeks, perhaps months.

It will take a very brave marketeer to give us designers the scope to create something truly original, truly breathtaking. It's too easy for them to say "We want an Apple-esque pack design" without understanding the true spirit and brave decision-making that goes behind the experience that is Apple packaging.