I’ve been a fan of BioShock since its first demo emerged in 2007. A dystopian tale (heavily influenced by Ayn Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged) that takes place hundreds of miles below the surface of the sea – what’s not to love?! Oh, and I forgot to mention a little detail: you can murder mutant robot deep-sea divers by chucking fireballs from your genetically-enhanced hands.
The game is rightly regarded as a masterpiece. BioShock 2, released in 2010, was a solid-enough sequel, but had a very hard time living up t its predecessor. Then comes BioShock: Infinite, announced in 2011, and set to release in March of next year. It offers us new mechanics, new characters, a new setting, and the promise ofan engaging political discussion of nationalism, the mob mentality and xenophobia.
So why does everyone seem to be focusing on how much they hate the cover?
To be honest, the outcry over Infinite’s cover took me by surprise. People were, quite literally, judging the game by its cover, and I was flabbergasted that people could fall so easily into the trap that we have all been warned about since we were 5 years old. Examining the fan reaction and the studio’s response is not only interesting in terms of the reactionary nature of our community, but it also provides a perfect example of how video game companies should act.
But first, let’s set the scene…
During the week of December 3rd, Irrational games finally released the box art for BioShock: Infinite. Sure, we’d seen plenty of gameplay videos, trailers, and concept art, but there’s nothing like some inspiring box art to get you pumped for a game’s release, right?
Well, no, not when THIS is the cover:
I’ll be honest, I don’t actually hate this cover. I’m wishy-washy on the whole Booker DeWitt character myself, but the cover on its own isn’t bad as far as I’m concerned. However, based on the reaction of the internet, I seem to be in the minority.
People were outraged that a game from the BioShock franchise, known for its innovation, creativity and originality, would choose to make a cover that was so…normal. I mean, lets look at a few other AAA titles:
And, the pièce de résistance:
Yep, the BioShock: Infinite art work certainly does look normal, particularly when we look at the other two BioShock covers. It’s even more amazing when you look at some of the amazing pieces of art that have been produced for this game. The art department working on BioShock: Infinite has it down: Saturday Evening Post, Cheesy Magazine advertisements, and reproductions of period artwork. Its phenomenal. I’ve peppered this article with a number of these pieces, and as a fan of the BioShock series, I would have much rather seen this type of artwork used to make the game’s box a work of art, rather than have this stock and standard image.
But, is this really about the fans? In short, no, it is not. Irrational Games knows that the die hard fans of BioShock are already going to buy the game, and that box art, however important it is to them, isn’t going to sway them much. However, it will sway the opinion of those that don’t know about the game.
On December 8th, Ken Levine, BioShock: Infinite’s creative director, gave one of the most well-reasoned, honest and direct interviews I have ever seen in the video game industry.
“We went and did a tour… around to a bunch of, like, frathouses and places like that. People who were gamers. Not people who read IGN. And [we] said, so, have you guys heard of Bioshock? Not a single one of them had heard of it.”
THIS is incredibly important. Levine has done something very very understandable, he’s appealed to a different demographic in order to help ensure the success of his product. He’s doing this because, a long time ago, he realized that one demographic (in this case Frat Boys) didn’t even know his game existed. That can be an incredibly humbling experience. And one that I can, in part, identify with.
I’m a big fan of Guild Wars 2. I’ve followed the early development. The game got me excited enough that I even started writing for Guild Wars Insider (an opportunity I’m very thankful for, as it started me on the path of game journalism), and was involved in both player and press betas. I played so much of that game in the first few days that I could barely see straight.
Yet, one day, when sitting down to eat dinner in the University dinning hall, I got into a rousing discussion about the next year of gaming. Confidently, I proposed that Guild Wars 2 would indeed be a WoW killer, and would have a massive player base and a longevity undreamed of. One friend, looking at me with a mixture of bewilderment and derision said “Well, how could it get those kinds of numbers if no one has ever heard of it?” NOT HEARD OF IT! GW2 IS THE NEXT GREATEST MMO IN ALL….
It was a humbling and rather infuriating moment, and one that taught me a lot about perspective. Being able to see what you once could not is an incredibly worthwhile thing to learn. So, Levine learning to appeal to another crowd not only shows him as a shrewd designer and marketer, but as a person who listens.
No matter what you think of the BioShock Infinite cover, you should be pleased by Levine’s explanation of it. It shows that he’s part of a development company looking to be successful, listening to EVERY group of its customers, not just a vocal minority.
In the end, this episode shows us something about the idea of crowd appeal. The term ‘gamer’ is no longer an easily-defined term, if it ever was. Bros are gamers, nerds are gamers, and now even grandparents are gamers. In another 60 or so years, there’s going to be an entire group of retirees who spend most of their time gaming! Realizing that games need to appeal to a variety of people is an important step forward in not only making our community better overall, but ensuring its longevity.