Ever think about what makes really good game box art? Of course you don't, but Valve does and as a new entry on the Left 4 Dead blog shows, a great cover design takes a lot of work.
Making a great game doesn't mean much if people don't buy it and with the huge number of new titles hitting the shelves every week, standing out from the crowd is vital. Covers have to be eye-catching and they have to "sell" the game quickly, or at least generate enough interest that prospective customers will flip over to the back to see what's going on. Some boxes do it better than others but few are as instantly iconic as that of Valve's Left 4 Dead.
Getting there wasn't easy. Initial designs focused on the game's characters but ensuring that none of the four appeared more prominent than the others meant making them small, which reduced the impact of the image. Adding zombies to the mix only exacerbated the problem, shrinking the characters further and adding to the "noise."
Valve's initial choices of color palette - red, black and white - also proved problematic. Red on black is an attention grabber and as a result, a lot of other companies also were also using it. Once again, the early designs tended to blend in and become lost on crowded shelves. Experiments with different colors and "research" into classic zombie posters eventually led to the adoption of a green color scheme and when the "chewed hand" motif came up, it stuck.
"All of the noise instantly evaporated," wrote Valve Art Director Jeremy Bennett. "Suddenly we had this horrific, easily graspable image, visible from far away, that managed to get across the core concepts of the game all in one go: Zombies. Four. Danger."
But before committing to the design Valve tested it, along with others, by setting out fake game boxes in a nearby GameStop and observing the results. Based on people's reactions, Bennett wrote, the green art won, "hands down."
The box design wasn't quite complete, however; a fan at E3 suggested the final tweak, obvious in retrospect, that led to the classic Left 4 Dead box that's so instantly recognizable today. Does every game company put this much effort into their box art? Probably not. But it's hard to argue with the results. The whole story, including numerous other Left 4 Dead box art prototypes, can be read at l4d.com.