Clever is good. Clever makes you stand out. Clever leads to innovation and originality.
Clever can also confuse people. This is a story about that.
One of my primary clients over the last two years is a creative agency here in Seattle that designs games — board games, card games, party games, and so on. Being that I’m a nut for games of all kinds, this client is able to put projects in front of me that are right in my wheelhouse. They also have access to projects with well known licenses and retail destinations, like Pokémon and Toys-R-Us.
Last summer I was tasked with creating the art assets for a new game called Pokémon Battle Poppers. It’s a skill-based strategy game with some elements of customization. Basically, advanced tiddly-winks with unique abilities and tricks for each piece. My job was to design the packaging, rules, and game pieces around an existing style guide provided by Pokémon USA.
The entire game was designed to be self-contained, closing up into its own carrying case. The top of the case lifted off to reveal a wide, low black bowl with all of the game components inside. When the game was played, the goal was to launch your pieces — or “Battle Poppers” — into the bowl. Because the Pokémon “Pokéball” icon is so well known, it seemed like an obvious move to make the product resemble one.
This meant that the game had such a striking visual presence by itself that any enclosed packaging would just hide one of our primary selling points — that here was a game that looked like a Pokéball. We wanted to show it off. My first task was to create a packaging dieline that would show off as much as the product as possible, while keeping it standing stable on a shelf.
We tried a number of package models. Some consisted of a box that completely enclosed the product, with a window to show it off. Some were built to be shrink-wrapped. The concept we liked the most was one made from a single piece of E-flute corrugate printed on one side. It cradled the game, leaving about three-quarters of the Pokéball design completely exposed, and avoided strange stretching and puckering issues we had with shrink-wrapped models.
The back panel covered about half of the product surface. This gave us a reasonable amount of space to show off the game in action, while keeping the carrying case handle functional. Everyone involved was excited about the packaging shape. As I put the artwork for it together, I was even able to create a few dramatic “pop-ups”, to capitalize on both the official Pokémon artwork and some “flying” shots of Battle Poppers in action. The design of the box was impressive; we used a single sheet of cardboard, and we got great mileage out of it.
Unfortunately, the product never made a big splash. But why?
It tested really well with kids across the boards. It was built around a high-profile, high-demand IP. It made it onto shelves at Toys-R-Us without any trouble. The problem was that despite all the cleverness in its presentation, Moms shopping for toys and games didn’t get it.
We made a game that presented like a toy. If Mom went to the store looking for a game for the kids, she walked right past it because it wasn’t immediately recognizable as a game. If Mom went in looking for a toy, she’d pick it up thinking it looked like a carrying case for action figures, but would then discover that it wasn’t that at all.
All of which is really sad when you consider that the game inside is a ton of fun, whether you’re 8 or 38. All of our best efforts to show the coolness of the game in action — which we believe we did really well — were overpowered by the fact that it didn’t immediately register in peoples’ eyes as a game on the shelf. Between the game case and the packaging style, we created an unclear message as to what the product actually was. All a result of having something really clever, and wanting to show it that way.
Clever is good. It can’t replace clarity though; the two need to work together. When they do, the result is brilliant design. When they don’t, it’s just confusion.
Lesson learned, and not to be forgotten any time soon.