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From Airbrush to ZBrush: The Evolution of Game Box Art

From Airbrush to ZBrush: The Evolution of Game Box Art

The work of a video game box artist is no simple task. Their job is to capture so much of what makes up a game in a single image. That means suggesting theme, tone, character and gameplay with just a few square inches of canvas space.

Considering that games often present such complex, dynamic works – that are defined by interaction and movement – the very idea of communicating what they are through one static picture seems almost absurd. And yet, the very best game covers have become iconic, or helped shift hundreds of thousands of copies of a title.

Before we dive into the early works, let's recognise that the rise of digital releases has made a significant dent in the sales of games sold in actual boxes. And yet game cover art still persists. That’s because the contribution is still needed. On the likes of Steam or today’s many other digital store fronts, games still need a representative image to help catch visiting customers’ eyes.

The Art Of The Box features 26 biographies of artists who, at some point in their careers, found themselves illustrating video game packaging.

That’s not to suggest game box art hasn’t evolved. As we’ll see here – and as told in much more detail in Bitmap’s new title The Art Of The Box – the very opposite is true. In the earliest days, a game’s cover art really had to do some lifting. During the 1970s, when game visuals were blocky and minimal, a game cover artist’s task was one of helping the imagination, guiding players in interpreting what all that early in-game pixel art was trying to communicate.

It’s something early Atari cover artist Steve Hendricks knows well, having joined the gaming outfit to work on illustrations to support the likes of Asteroids. These many years on, speaking in an exclusive interview for The Art Of The Box, Hendricks remembers the process well; and the inherent challenge in representing early video games in illustrated form.

"First of all, it was important that we talk to the game designer, to figure out what the heck the game was all about, and kind of fill in the blanks,” Hendricks says. “To me it was like doing a cover for a paperback book. My wife would buy those books, and I'd go, 'Does this cover even relate to what's in the book?' And she'd go, 'Well, kinda’. And for us, you look at the screen and it's just a bunch of little pixels, and I was like, 'Hmm, I don't know about this.' But that was just the nature of video games at the time; they were really primitive. And so our artists would try to give them some life and stimulate the imagination of those who were interested in buying the game."

Steve Hendricks helped to create some of the iconic early examples of video game cover art

Indeed, some artists would have to bring together a cover image before the game was in a playable state, instead relying on the likes of written information and concept art from the development team.

‘Stimulating the imagination’ of players remained key to the cover artist’s role for many years – across boxes for console and home computer games (while arcade releases used similar art on flyers to do the same job of communication and promotion). For decades, airbrushes, inks, acrylics, and oil paints were the favoured form, as seen across remarkable covers such as that of 1980’s Video Game Checkers, 1982’s Night Driver, The Last Ninja half a decade later, 1992’s Last Resort, or the following year’s B.O.B.

It was in fact game industry icon and Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell that is credited with the notion of giving individual title’s boxes their own distinct covers, using representative artwork in place of generic packaging, or images pulled directly from a game. Bushnell’s motivation was simple; as more and more companies threw their hats into the gaming market ring, more effort was needed to differentiate and distinguish individual products. In other words, what had worked for albums and books for decades was replicated over in the realm of video games.

Come the 1990s, and the next major shift in the convention of video game covers came, as artists began to put down their airbrushes and pencils in favour of the new generation of more available, flexible computer art tools. Way back in 1985, the first Deluxe Paint released for the Amiga 1000. The Deluxe Paint series was eventually used for all manner of graphics, including within games like The Secret of Monkey Island. By 1989, Deluxe Paint III was a wildly popular tool for computer art and animation, and saw use for album covers, music videos, comic strips, and much more. Artists of all kinds were increasingly valuing the potential of computers as a worthy alternative to traditional art tools. Ultimately, in 1994, a then-lesser rival known as Photoshop 3 would introduce the ability to separate out images into several layers, letting artists have much more finessed control over what they created; and how it was reproduced when printed on the likes of box card stock.

One of the video game cover artists to spearhead the adoption of digital tools was Denis Loubet, who delivered his first entirely digital cover a year before Photoshop 3, with Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds. He already brought a handsome reputation in traditional art, meaning his move on digital said to other artists of the time: ‘this is a credible process’. In fact. Loubet had also served many hours working on in-game graphics, meaning he was familiar with much of the fundamentals of creating with computers. However, it was back in 1968, during a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, that Loubet became convinced wonderful things could be done with computer art.

One of the video game cover artists to spearhead the adoption of digital tools was Denis Loubet

Many years later, working in a tool called Fractal Design Painter, Loubet created that Ultima Underworld II cover, and showed why computer art tools were up to the box art job. 

"There was a brush that did a really good kind of oil paint feel, so I used that for the painting and it worked great,” Loubet remembers, speaking in his The Art Of The Box interview. “And then in Ultima 8, I did the cover using 3D to make the pentagram, and the fiery background was done in Painter. I basically did a bunch of white, yellow, orange and red lines across the painting and then brushed up and down with the distortion brush and made it look like a wall of fire, and I just composed the two images."

Over time, a great many more artists would migrate to digital, though today tools like Pixologic’s digital sculpting and painting tools like ZBrush – along with art and design offerings such as Photoshop – are now the standard.

That has seen an explosion over the last two decades of covers that brim with meticulous detail, offering up far more faithful interpretations of the games they promote. Increasingly, whole teams or creative agencies had begun to work on covers, integrating them into wider marketing and ad campaigns, with considerably more collaboration with developers and publishers becoming the standard. As video game box art became a team effort, the process itself evolved, and more focused roles emerged. Prolific cover artist Charles Bae found himself, for example, busy creating concept art for covers – sometimes using traditional methods – which would be signed off by stakeholders before being passed on to separate artists to flesh out into a final digital form. Other times a piece of work intended for a cover might also – or instead – be used in a print advert, or some other marketing materials.

Bae is known for the remarkable quality of his digital covers and other game art, as seen in his work for game properties such as Assassin’s Creed, Dishonored, and Civilisation. And yet, over his many years of service, he’s also seen a more recent return of hand illustration in game covers.

Charles Bae is known for the remarkable quality of his digital covers and other game art

“Illustrations have become much more acceptable as an option for key art." Bae offers, speaking in his The Art Of The Box interview. "Certainly a heavily illustrated look isn't always appropriate since it's largely dependent on a game's art direction. However we are at a point where a more illustrative look can be used on AAA titles and it's a great option to have. Besides, in-game graphics are looking almost as good as the CG that's used for box art. So an illustrated representation of the game by an artist can sometimes be visually more appealing and a more accurate depiction of the game. This helps a game stand out against competitors on retail and digital storefronts.”

Standing out, of course, is what it’s always been about. And now things have arguably gone full circle in the medium itself, with games that offer up hand drawn graphics making quite the impact in recent years. Titles like Cuphead, Gorogoa, Hollow Knight, and Hades each provide stunning examples of hand drawn in-game art.

Ultimately, though, perhaps it is immaterial if a game cover is crafted using an airbrush or ZBrush. Each, in reality, is operated by the artist’s hand. And the job of the game cover remains the same regardless of the method used for its creation. Communicating what games are has always been the cover’s job, and even as the rise of digital thunderous on, that fact remains the same.

For much more on the incredible story of game box art – as well as hundreds of high quality prints of the best game covers – check out The Art Of The Box.

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