The art of commerce: why Bioshock Infinite’s cover doesn’t matter
Something pretty amazing took place across the Internet in the past week: Gamers got into arguments over the cover of a video game. The cover art for Bioshock Infinite was deemed bland, unimaginative, and unrepresentative of the complex themes and ideas behind the game.
“I understand that some of the fans are disappointed. We expected it. I know that may be hard to hear, but let me explain the thinking,” Irrational Games’ Ken Levine told Wired in a recent interview. Levine has been upfront about the marketing of Bioshock Infinite for awhile now, and the importance of reaching a broad audience.
To put it bluntly, we are not the target audience for the cover.
Getting the word out
The thought process behind putting the hero on the cover in that pose came down to marketing, and trying to create something that would appeal to the widest swath of people who are browsing for games in retail stores. It’s a calculated move to get the game into people’s hands, and to get them to flip the case over to see what the game is all about.
Levine’s arguments for the cover are fascinating, and I urge you to read the entire interview. All games with budgets this large must deal with marketing to some extent, but Levine’s open discussion of how the game is actively trying to find a larger audience is refreshing.
The truth is that if you’re reading the Penny Arcade Report, or Wired, or any gaming site at all, you’ve likely made a purchasing decision. “I wanted the uninformed, the person who doesn’t read IGN… to pick up the box and say, okay, this looks kind of cool, let me turn it over,” Levine explained. “Oh, a flying city. Look at this girl, Elizabeth on the back. Look at that creature. And start to read about it, start to think about it.”
The trade-off for the less interesting cover is that it’s easier for the publisher to justify the funds needed to create the game. Bioshock Infinite has already seen multiple delays, and it costs money to add an extra level of polish, deal with bumps in development, and to make sure a game is as good as possible. If marketing has confidence that the cover will attract a wide variety of gamers, they’re more comfortable writing the checks for expensive games.
“I understand that our fan says, that’s great Ken, what’s in it for me? One, we need to be successful to make these types of games, and I think it’s important, and I think the cover is a small price for the hardcore gamer to pay,” Levine explained. There will also be alternate covers released for fans to print out and use in place of the more generic design.
It’s a calculated trade-off, and again I’d like to stress that we’re talking about the cover of the game, not the game itself. I’ve been lucky enough to speak to Mr. Levine on a number of occasions, and we’ve discussed how his past relationships with people who come from an abusive background informed how Songbird treats Elizabeth. We’ve talked about American xenophobia.
While I haven’t played the full game, so far it sounds like Bioshock Infinite is comfortable dealing with complex, even subversive themes. When we hear stories of the content being dumbed down or compromised, then it becomes easier to understand the outrage. So far, that isn’t the case.
“What I won’t do is compromise the product. People say the cover seem to be – there is an article that says ‘Look, it’s important because it must say something about the game. The game is dumbed down!’ [Kotaku], I’ll count on you guys to report on the validity of that. It’s a fairly calculated marketing decision that is based on making these games continue to get made. I can understand the reception from fans,” Levine told Destructoid.
In fact, giving in to marketing has allowed that content to be created. “The price that I think I’m asking those people to pay is that that the cover that you pick up off the shelf may not be your favorite cover in the universe, but hopefully that cover will help make this game successful, so we can keep making more of them and not compromise in anyway; right now, no one asks us to compromise. They are like ‘Yep, big complicated directed sequence with no Taliban shooting you in the head. Yup go make that game’ and Take-Two has done that so far,” Levine said.
Aiming for the mass market
I had a very similar conversation with Mr. Levine back in April about the constant drip-feed of Bioshock Infinite news, videos, and screenshots that seemed to be on the gaming blogs on a near daily basis. It’s not about hammering the point home for people who are already interested in the game, it’s making sure that your content has a good chance to catch a gamer who might go to IGN or Joystiq once a week.
“People overestimate how exposed games are, in comparison to other forms of media,” Levine told the Penny Arcade Report. “There are maybe a million hardcore gamers, and Call of Duty is going to sell 25 million copies. You either find ways to reach the other [24 million] in ways you can’t normally, or repeat the imagery enough that when they go to IGN they might come across it.”
Much of the anger from gamers may come from the fact that we’re the choir, and we expect the sermon to be aimed squarely at us. When a game knows that it likely already has the support of informed gamers, it has the freedom to try to reach out and grab a wider variety of players. You can argue for more artistic or esoteric covers, but the marketing department would argue that those covers would diminish the appeal of the game to the mass market. Again, we’re talking about the cover of the game, not the game itself. I’m fine with the idea of someone picking this game up thinking it’s yet another shooter and finding something a little more interesting inside.
There is also a sense of insider pride when it comes to games like Bioshock; someone on Twitter recently told me that his problem was that he felt like his favorite band was becoming popular, and he didn’t want the “wrong” people playing Bioshock Infinite. He was being serious; there was a fear in his heart about his hobby reaching a mainstream market, and he was uncomfortable with people who like big budget shooters that star white men shooting things picking up one of his favorite games.
My counter-argument is that Bioshock Infinite could benefit those players the most. Besides, even if they like the game for the “wrong reasons,” whatever those are, they are supporting an interesting game and helping the argument that more should be made. No one listens to a CD, finds out the cover is bland, and claims the songs have been ruined. The new editions of The Hobbit created to benefit from the movie’s marketing don’t change the words inside.
There is no master list of who should and shouldn’t play certain games, and bowing down to commerce in order to have more freedom to make interesting art isn’t a sin. This isn’t a case of Limp Bizkit fans crashing a Mumford and Sons show, we don’t have to hang out with people we don’t like when we play a game. We may not like that cover of Bioshock Infinite, or we may just find it boring. The truth is that cover has a positive effect on the game’s development, whether we like it or not. What it doesn’t effect is the game itself, and that’s what we should be discussing. The box is a wrapper; the only art I care about is the game found inside.