Early in its rise to iconic brand status, Apple nailed a seemingly inconsequential detail: packaging. For a long time, businesses in general focused on the front end of a business relationship: Drive awareness for your product, convince people to buy that product, and then get that product in the consumer’s hands. Today—because of the work of brands like Apple—marketers and business owners realize that the full cycle of the relationship matters. Painstaking attention to the most minute details of things like onboarding and, yes, packaging.
To give you an idea of how much attention, research, and testing goes into the box for a product, the book Inside Apple recounts the story of how a designer spent months testing the size and colors of pull-tabs for the iPod box, even going as far as to design the box itself in such a way that “the tabs were placed so that when Apple’s factory packed multiple boxes for shipping to retail stores, there was a natural negative space between the boxes that protected and preserved the tab.”
Details that small matter.
While many big brands still struggle with this today, any gamer from the 80s or 90s knows that video game companies nailed the experience of product packaging years ago. For me, I loved the SNES era. If you wanted to buy a video before the days of online distribution, you had to drive for the store. Or, if you were a kid at the time, you had to ask someone to take you (and this detail is important as well). My brothers and I bought video games at Toys R Us.
Here’s how it worked:
The games were kept in a locked kiosk at the front of the store. To browse, you looked at the front and back covers of video game boxes that were hanging from a wall in little plastic sleeves. When you picked out a game, you removed a slip, took it to the front, paid, and a sales associate went into the locked kiosk. The associate then hand-delivered your game.
Even before you got the box, the ritual of the purchase process was unlike anything else in the store. Every other toy on the shelves could be picked up and explored, even if it was still in the box, but not video games. Those were special. They had to be tucked away out of site, and that feeling of them being unique and different was only amplified by the long walk from the box art displays to the cash register. When a sales associate finally handed you the sealed box, the anticipation had been building for sometimes an hour (the drive there, picking ONE game from the dozens available, walking to the front, making the purchase, and then waiting for an associate to get the game).
And the box wasn’t even opened.
So next you had to get in the car and wait out the drive home to actually play your new game, but that was okay. Inside the box roughly 5” by 7” box—nice and substantial in a child’s hands—was the game cartridge and a thick glossy manual. The manual often featured concept art, explanations of story, and teasers about the game you were about to play. If you bought the strategy guide to go with the game, you would have a small novel of screenshots, maps, and text to sift through.
Something as simple as including a manual was actually a driver of a rich gaming experience that began even before you hit the first button. Given what the business world knows about the power of packing today, I would argue each step between you thinking about buying the game and eventually getting to the point of playing it matter in a powerful way.
But the pre-play experience was more in-depth than having a box with a manual and a cartridge inside of it. Here are some examples:
- Final Fantasy 6 came with a poster (with product promos on the back), a full color double-sided foldout map (a teaser at the expanse of the world you would get to explore), an invitation to join the Nintendo Super Power Club, an in instructional manual rich with water color illustrations of the game world that introduced characters, enemies, and special moves, and of course the game itself.
- The promotion for Earthbound used scratch-n-sniff cards. My older brother had the entire collection.
- Lunar: Silver Star Story came with a foldout map and a high-quality hardcover manual. The sequel Lunar 2: Eternal Blue went as far as to include a soundtrack, a making-of documentary, a hardcover manual, a map, a metal pendant, and four mini character standees.
The world has changed since that era, and while much of my love for this packaging experience is admittedly driven by nostalgia, the market at large is still choosing to support physical products even when digital versions are available. Special edition versions and box sets of films and video games have become the norm even though you can more quickly and more easily buy a download for movies and games online. E-books were touted as being the killer of print books, but print sales are actually up. Vinyl sales are continuing to grow (with a bit of a slowdown but still growing).
In a largely digital world, the physical product experience still matters.
Gamers agree, and if the continued release of special edition box sets and the near instant sellout of the Fallout 4 Pipboy Edition doesn’t convince you, there are whole businesses built around the idea that consumers still want the in-depth and multi-faceted experience that came with physical games. Some examples:
- Indie Box is a subscription box service that releases one special edition version of an indie game (which are typically only available as downloads) a month. They also include a myriad of extras that vary from game to game.
- 8-Bit Evolution makes new games for retro systems, but they go above and beyond to create an unboxing experience that rivals and sometimes surpasses what gamers originally built their nostalgia on.
- GOG.com (Good ol Games) takes classic games and optimizes them to play on modern computers. While they don’t sell physical games, they do go above and beyond to make as many of the original extras that would have come with the game available in digital form, which includes things like maps and manuals, while a typical Steam purchase is just a game download.
From here, it looks like as though digital products—perhaps video games especially—still warrant a hard look at the experience that occurs off the screen. It might not be as important as the game itself, but it certainly matters and could help to make a good product great.