From a contract game artist’s point of view, the next few years in the video game industry may look a little more interesting creatively — and a little lighter on the clones — than the previous decade.
“I think things are going to change a lot more in the next year or two than they did in the last three or four years. Even four years ago, mobile was still big,” said Jason Park, Concept Art House VP of operations, during a recent studio tour in San Francisco. “It feels actually exciting for the first time 10 years. It reminds me of the old days, where I actually want to be on the show floor.”
The advent of VR, as well as a possible resurgence in PC and consoles, will likely mean an uptick in work on original and creative intellectual properties for art outsourcing firms like CAH, Jason believes.
Sloane Earl, CAH’s head of sales, explains why current clone-centric strategies in the mobile industry can be frustrating for artists who want to be part of something fresh.
“For how much success and unique, individual games you see in the app store … 9 out of 10 that we’ve seen are clones of something,” Sloane said. “One succeeds, and then we have like a couple of unique, individual games that we love to work on, but so many people come to us and want to copy Clash of Clans [or] Candy Crush.”
Don’t Clone, Hybridize
Some of the more successful mobile projects involve game hybrids more than clones, Sloane said. Outfits will take three or four of their favorite parts from top-grossing games, develop a new story and polish the mechanics. “And that’s the best you can do, cloning,” she said. “Make it unique in a few ways, and not just Candy Crush but with a twist.”
The new generation of virtual reality, on the other hand, is so new that there aren’t any hits yet, and genres haven’t been defined. Jason and Sloane said they hope as people explore and develop the VR frontier they’ll have more opportunity to work with new and innovative games. And CAH is already working with studios on VR projects, albeit mostly in the conceptual stages.
And it’s not just advances in VR that has Sloane and Jason getting their hopes up. Both mentioned last June’s E3, when industry giants announced a slew of sequels but also new IPs such as Gigantic, Unravel and ReCore.
And that’s not to say that the CAH crew isn’t excited about mobile offerings. Other news this year in the mobile industry itself might signal a break in clone fever. Jason noted that some of his favorite IPs are finally making their way to mobile, such as Bethesda’s Fallout Shelter and the as-yet unspecified fruits of a partnership between Nintendo and DeNA.
The Role of Art in UA
But as the mobile games juggernaut continues to roll on, CAH makes a good case for art’s role in acquiring users. App icons, as a game’s first impression, can catch potential users’ attention and powerfully reinforce brand identity. In her experience working with more than 10 companies this year asking for app art, Sloane said, icons with faces have performed the best. In pre- and post-app store testing, straight-on or three-quarter view of a main character’s face worked best.
Of course, icons are also more important for newer games still working on building a brand. Supercell could change the Clash of Clans icon to whatever they wanted, and it would remain extremely popular, Sloane said. “They could put a butt, or a dead bird, and people would be like ‘I love this game! $100!’”
And a game’s art quality overall can influence whether an app gets featured. Mobile platforms — and the iTunes App Store, especially — can be picky about aesthetics. “They want to feature stuff that looks really good on their phones and devices,” Jason says.
Other Mobile Art Complexities
Jason qualified his points regarding art by recognizing that games are complex and gamers can be unpredictable. You don’t have to think for very long to come up with examples of viral games with less-than-stellar artwork.
“What makes a good game?” he asked. “Nobody knows. For example, is Flappy Bird a good game? The art there is crap. The gameplay is crap, too, but it has an addictive manner to it, and it kind of worked for them. And then there are other games like that, where the artwork is amazing, but the gameplay is not as fun or something like that. It has its place in the market.”
On the other end of the spectrum, influence from games like Supercell’s Clash of Clans has swelled the number of highly stylized, highly polished 3D art in mobile games, which is another reason developers may want to outsource art. Mobile devices and networks are growing more powerful, but they still come with heavy limitations, and good 3D requires expertise and optimization.
“You’ve got to worry about file size, the actual memory footprint,” Jason says. “You’ve got to worry about shaders and renders and performance. You can’t have like 20 amazing characters that you’d see in Witcher 3 or something in a mobile game.”
But overall, whether it’s the improvement of mobile hardware, the exploration of new game paradigms such as VR, or just the possibility that the market is getting tired of clones, Jason and Sloane say they’re excited for more chances to work on new creative projects. As Sloane put it: “I think it’s an overall positive outlook for the first time in a long time.”
Steve Kent is a staff writer for Gamesauce and content manager for Casual Connect. Steve loves superheros and spending time with his kiddo.