A picture might be worth a thousand words but a good logo is a promise. Graphic design should be functional, in an accessible form. It also influences the games and industry we love in ways that ideally blend seamlessly into the fabric and that we often overlook: the iconic perspective of the PlayStation logo, open-world mini-maps (if they're lucky), and HUDs, for example.
Games are simultaneously function and form, and people like Cory Schmitz are very important to them. You may not recognize his name, but you've seen his work. He's done a lot of work for PlayStation. The Polygon logo: that's his. The menus and UI in Double Fine's Broken Age: his. Logos for the recently released Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, and mobile stealth-hit Republiqué: once again, Cory's. If you've ever visited the Indie MegaBooth at PAX, you'll definitely have seen imagery by him. Oh, and maybe you've noticed the new logo for a weird little tech start-up called Oculus, too?
It's abundantly clear from his success and output (along with his unguarded, giddy Twitter feed) that Schmitz is a die-hard geek with an enduring love for music, games, and film. Each of his works delightfully evokes the feel of the studio, game, or otherwise, whilst remaining elegantly understated and gimmick free. Herein lies the oft-ignored importance and power of branding in the video game space; after all, as Schmitz says with characteristic, straight-talking modesty, "It's almost always the first impression. It's the face of Whatever You're Doing—it's what people see!"
With games like Metrico and Line Rider quite literally applying gameplay to bar charts and typography, is graphic design in general breaking through to the gaming mainstream? "I'd love to see more cases of games actually letting you create these elements as part of the gameplay," Schmitz says, suggesting, audaciously, that perhaps even applying trendy design concepts to games has limits. "Not necessarily graphic design-y type stuff, any opportunity to give the player more creativity is good in my opinion."
The superlative mobile game Monument Valley, whose studio ustwo is actually more of a design consultancy, and even the paint/graffiti mechanic of Schmitz favorite Splatoon offer subtle glimpses of how this might happen. With that in mind, what does the 20-something visual identity designer tend to gravitate towards most in his own work? "I design things I think look cool. I like stuff that's relatively simple with a clear concept." Sounds straightforward enough.
In a world of overcrowded app store thumbnails, the blindingly diverse digital shopfront of Steam and the low barrier to marketplace entry, it's probably more important than ever that your branding is on point. Physical releases are hardly knocking it out of the tastefully geometric park, either. "Most of the time it's just the logo above some key art," observes Cory. Worse still, bad box-art can be misleading or offensively non-inclusive; we all remember the Bioshock Infinite debacle, and the well of gruff, weathered white-male protagonists walking intently towards the frame has been plumbed aplenty. "Look at movie posters," Cory continues, another of his passions and an area some of his contemporaries such as Olly Moss developed their minimalist design chops in. "I'd love to see more bold, weird stuff that could potentially strike a chord with people, rather than stuff that's been focus-tested to death."
Such is the problem with boardrooms of middle-aged execs paying hundreds of thousands to prestigious agencies and group-thinking their ideas down into mush. "The cover of Kanye West's Yeezus was just a clear CD case with a blank red sticker...I'm not saying something that extreme would work for game box art, but it goes to show there's a lot of room left for creativity."
If you want something doing, do it yourself, right? "It's a big goal to be the creative director for a game, create a game world and fill it with cool designs, basically oversee all the creative elements," Cory says. "It'd be challenging, but super-rewarding." While he's reticent to give the game away (so to speak), Schmitz's vision is more advanced than a vague desire to make a cool-looking title. A Tumblr he created a while ago as an inspiration dump already holds the key to his aspirations, a hyper-cool, neo-futuristic vision for a game world that you can already imagine loving to get lost in.
One project in particular, the aptly named My Famicase Exhibition in 2014, for which artists create actual Famicom cartridge art for their hypothetical game jump-started Schmitz's imagination. "After I made the Children design, I started thinking about it as a real game. I made a mood video (complete with a Cornelius/MF Doom mix I made in GarageBand) and designed a character." Although character design isn't (yet) Schmitz's modus operandi, he took it upon himself to jump in at the deep end and create one a day. Reassuringly for those of us not quite as prolific and prone to plenty of procrast-creation, "that was last July, and I still just have the one. I will make more eventually, once my schedule clears up... Someday."
Essentially, the premise of the game is this: "While the grown-ups are hooked up to their VR machines, the children sneak outside and The City becomes their playground. Create your character, explore the decaying mysteries of The City, and watch out for rival gangs." It would be an open-world game in a detailed, futuristic city full of rad graphic design.
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Mining Cory for further inspiration reveals rich veins of angular retro-futurism. "The example I always go back to is the Wipeout series, Wip3out in particular," he states. "I'm a massive fan of The Designers Republic—everything from the in-game menus, team logos, and billboards, to the cover art, manual, and advertisements. All these things work together to make Anti-Gravity Racing feel like a real racing league from the future." Hopefully we can expect Formula Fusion, the recently Kickstarted spiritual successor to Wipeout, to live up to that vision, more than 15 years on.
Like any artist worth their salt however, Cory's top picks span generations, styles, and include indie and triple-A games alike. "Electroplankton, Vib-Ribbon, R4: Ridge Racer Type 4, Rez, NEOTOKYO°, the Colin McRae Rally series, Mirror's Edge, FEZ, and more recently Destiny, Alien: Isolation, and Splatoon."
Say what we (often) will about the slew of copycat games, but it's clear even from the above list that we're spoiled for great graphic design in games right now. In his modesty, Cory is equally keen to share—or shift—the spotlight onto some of his contemporaries always producing stellar work. There's Elliott Gray at Bungie, Alex Griendling, and Matthew Kenyon in particular, and for those looking to follow in their neon footsteps Cory advises that "it's mostly about getting your work out there for people to see, making connections with folks... show off your work!"
In between "looking at different console boxes online—a couple of my favorites are the PS2 box and the Japanese Dreamcast box with Hidekazu Yukawa on it," Cory is likely helping improve the entire outward facing image of games and their creators as we speak. He is a reminder of the quiet talent in the games industry, whose clients take center stage; but if a logo really is a promise, he and that neo-city full of rad design can't remain in the tasteful drop-shadows for long.
Follow Danny Wadeson on Twitter.