Monday, August 16, 2010

New Article on Arcade Cabinet Art

An article I put together for the National Media Museum in Bradford has been posted online here. I've reposted it so you can take a look. Bradford Media Museum is the home of the National Videogame Archive, which is a collaborative research initiative with GameCity, our super friends.

From Pixels to Paint: Arcade Cabinet Art

Long before videogames became the dominant feature in the arcades, pinball tables had become internationally popular. Sitting alone in the corner, or arranged into serried ranks, the pinball machine became a staple resident in airport lounges, city bars and cinema complexes. The game of pinball remained relatively constant - the player uses flippers to drive a small steel ball around the table, scoring points. The pinball table was often integrated amongst gambling machines, and used brightly coloured designs to attract players. The board featured colourful painted elements, alongside electronic lights and buzzers, and the headboard, which would display the high score, often featured a larger painted display. Pinball tables would often be tied in to film or toy franchises, their artwork would depict scenes or heroic characters.

When we think of the art of games, fantastically detailed graphics come to mind. Computer hardware and games consoles continue to grow in capacity and power, and deliver many thousands of polygons per second, wrapped in rich palettes, accompanied by complex sound effects and rousing musical scores. A huge amount of time and effort goes into creating these complex worlds. The art of the game also includes the gameplay itself, where the designer defines the parameters of the interactive experience, what the player can do, and where.

However, the art of a game isn't just limited to the screen; games have always been struggling for our attention, and the art used to promote games plays an important role in how we think about them. Consider the images on the boxes in your local games retailer; they have to work hard to distinguish themselves from those around them, and they need to communicate some of the special value that the game bears. Historically, freelance illustrators outside of the games development company, who would also create material for science fiction and fantasy literature, posters and comic books. The same people would also create game-box art. In many ways, the general development of games has been dictated by the work of these early illustrators, who helped players imagine the greater world of the game, beyond the simple pixel graphics. The images on the screen fell short of the rich colourful worlds of the artwork on the box, and yet players recall intense immersive experiences.

Before the explosion of the home computer and console market, the games arcade established this relationship between game and promotional artwork. Nowadays the games arcade barely exists, a relic most often relegated to the seaside towns that encompass the UK. Since the late 1980s there has been a steady decline in their number, as the home console market found a foothold alongside desktop computers, people no longer visited the arcades. But they play an important role in the history of games from the 1970s through to the 2000s. In those dark, moody spaces, companies competed for the attention of a fledgling audience of gamers, who didn't necessarily possess the home computers needed to play certain games, but nonetheless wanted to get in on the action.

From the late 1970s, the videogame arcade cabinet changed in its appearance. As more companies jumped headfirst into the games business the culture of the arcade changed, from being a home for a few idiosyncratic units, to a vibrant marketplace in which Japanese and American hardware competed for player attention. Cabinets would have to work harder to insentivise player engagement, and so rich artwork would cover the front and sides of each unit.

Three games, Space Invaders (1978) Galaxian (1979), and Centipede (1980) would capture the imagination of players with their cabinet artwork. As some of the earliest videogame arcade machines, their graphics were incredibly simple by contemporary standards, but their cabinet artwork was rich and audacious. For Space Invaders the motif of a large threatening shadow monster looms on the sides of the cabinet, staring out at us with bright white eyes. These hairy humanoids don’t actually appear in the game, and Space invaders creator Tomohiro Nishikado notes that it’s likely that the design came from the artist referring to the games original title, Space Monsters. The illustration was altered slightly for the American market, and missiles were placed in the hands of the monsters, perhaps to link more closely to the gun toting aliens of the game.

While Space Invaders had used coloured strips of acetate placed over the screen to simulate colour graphics, it was nonetheless still a monochrome game; Galaxian developed some of the finest full colour graphics of the period, with animations using a variety of colours. The complex sound design for the game also distinguished it as an artistic step forward for arcade games. The cabinet art for Galaxian reinforced this, and depicting a mysterious mechanical dragonfly in combat with the hero spaceship, the Galaxip. This artwork was screen printed directly onto the textured vinyl of the cabinet, giving it a high level of detail. In it’s design, the artwork and typography recalls the work of Roger Dean, the artist who had created album covers for progressive rock band Yes in the 1970s that depicted complex organic worlds, and which subsequently inspired a whole generation of illustrators and artists.

In 1980, Centipede was released, and like Galaxian it employed a rich bespoke design on its cabinet. However, like Space Invaders, there was some discrepancy between the cabinet artwork and the game; the image portrays a grasshopper/lizard hybrid, rather than a recognisable centipede design. The side motif was carried into the front marquee panel of the cabinet, which contained the title of the game. This piece of clear glass was painted and backlit, extending the colourful and bright overall effect of the cabinet as seen from the front.

These examples highlight the relationship between artwork and game of the period. Whereas nowadays, most artwork is generated in-house by a developer (keen to carefully control the ‘brand’ of the game and its associated imagery). in these classic arcade games, illustration was seen much more in terms of generating an initial interest, rather than communicating clearly understood commercial values to the player.

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