For over two dozen years, PC games were primarily distributed in boxes for retail distribution worldwide. They came in all shapes and sizes too, with extravagant box art and unique package designs. But in the early 2000s, they rapidly started disappearing from store shelves, and by 2004 these retroactively named big box PC games were almost completely extinct and replaced with smaller uniform packaging. What happened? This is LGR Tech Tales, where we take a look at noteworthy stories of technological inspiration, failure, and everything in between. This episode tells the tale of big box PC games and their seemingly sudden demise from store shelves. Retail computer game packaging traces its origins back to the late 1970s and the dawn of the microcomputer. Machines like the TRS-80, Apple II and Commodore PET were at the forefront of this new craze, especially in North America. And it was here that some of the first third-party computer games were being developed with the intent to sell them in stores, rather than simply being copied and passed around computer clubs and user groups. This was usually done by entrepreneurial hobbyists writing their own games to cassette tape or floppy disk, photocopying some typed-up instructions, and then placing it in a plastic bag to be sold in local retailers. A well-known example of this is Richard Garriott’s Akalabeth from 1979, a predecessor to his later Ultima series which was first sold in a Ziploc bag in Texas ComputerLand shops. But as personal computers steadily gained popularity and Ziploc bag games like this began shifting hundreds or even thousands of units, it wasn’t long before new businesses formed around them. While it’s difficult to pin down the very first computer game sold in a cardboard box, a great example is Wheeler Dealers for the Apple II from 1978. The reason this was distributed in a box instead of a plastic bag is because it came with a unique controller that let four players play the game at once. It only sold around 50 copies, though, leading to games like Computer Bismark from Strategic Simulations, Inc. in 1980 being a more well-known title with early boxed commercial distribution. This was a computerized war game, so it’s little wonder that the package was inspired by tabletop wargame publishing, like the products from Avalon Hill Games. At the time, Avalon Hill distributed many of their tabletop games in a box that was meant to stand upright on a shelf, referred to by them as “bookcase games.” They not only looked impressive on display but their bulky size was a requirement due to the sheer number of items inside the box needed to play it. And perhaps influenced by someone else getting there first, Avalon Hill soon brought the bookcase game package design over to the world of computers with their newly formed Microcomputer Games division. And the era of boxed computer games was thoroughly underway. Note that I didn’t say “big box” computer games, as that was a term that didn’t really exist until the mid-2000s. Originally, there was no need for a size distinction. They were simply computer game boxes and the packaging could vary wildly from one publisher to the next. Electronic Arts was one company to distinguish itself in the early 1980s with their gatefold LP-style boxes known as folios. Considering themselves electronic artists, EA wanted to treat their developers like rockstars, giving their games colorful cover art and packaging that resembled a vinyl record. On the flip-side, companies like IBM often took the straightforward approach you would expect for their business-focused PC products, packing games in functional but ultimately drab sleeves. Then you had publishers like Infocom taking computer game boxes to the next level. They primarily made interactive fiction games, known as text adventures, which lacked in-game graphics and instead relied on the player’s imagination. Perhaps to compensate for this, Infocom packaging greeted you with colorful and creative artwork, both on the box itself and inside, with comic books and colorfully illustrated manuals. They took it even further by including what they called “feelies.” These were physical items like patches, brochures, buttons, scratch-and-sniff cards, glasses, invisible space fleets, and other collectibles to help suck players into their virtual worlds. But feelies weren’t the only reason computer game boxes often were so big. It was frequently a physical necessity due to the technology and expectations of computer games in the ’80s. Software came on cassette tapes or floppy disks, sometimes several at once, so you needed a box big enough to hold them. Not only that but documentation was a big factor in why boxes got so big. As games grew increasingly complex, they needed more instructions, which resulted in bigger manuals. And you couldn’t just stick all the documentation within the game itself like you can today, since there was only so much space available per disk. Manuals also frequently served double duty as a form of copy protection where you’d reach a point in the game where it asked for a certain keyword or phrase from the manual before moving on. And the inclusion of code wheels and multiple other copy protection devices were another reason boxes needed to grow to a certain size, even if their inclusion was more of a symptom and not the root cause. And finally, it’s worth noting that there were plenty of computer games that didn’t come in big boxes at all in the ’80s and ’90s. There were no standards for computer game packaging, unlike console games where the size was determined by a first-party company like Sega or Nintendo. Nope, with computer games box design was a free-for-all. Sometimes they were huge or weird-looking. Other times they could fit in the palm of your hand. The latter is especially true outside the US where budget releases cut costs any way possible, only going as big as needed to fit the media and maybe a simple manual. But in territories where massive retailers were prevalent, a computer game with a small box was often seen as inferior. So even the cheapest budget title would probably get a big box. And yet the tides were starting to turn. By the beginning of the new millennium in the USA, console games were becoming more popular than ever and computer game growth was slowing. They were far from dying out but the fact was that console game sales were up 18% while PC and Mac combined were only up 6%. Plus, by the end of 2001, there were going to be 4 major video game systems on the market, not including handhelds. This required a ton of retail floor space. Yet computer games could take up just as much space while being less profitable. Additionally, there was little practical reason for PC games to have such big boxes anymore. It wasn’t unusual to open up a package and find nothing but a single CD and a jewel case booklet inside of it. Sure, there was still the occasional Falcon 4.0 situation where it was so complex you truly needed this gigantic manual, but the vast majority of PC games could do without. In fact, the UK and parts of Europe had already adopted the DVD keep case for many PC game releases starting in the late ’90s. To solve this problem, enter the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association, or IEMA. They were an American nonprofit organization that existed to serve the business interests of software retailers and later expanded to include movies and music when becoming the Entertainment Merchants Association. The IEMA held an executive summit from July 18th to the 21st in 2000 where the dilemma of PC game packaging was discussed among retailers representing 70% of domestic game sales. A consensus was reached for a standard box design measuring 5-3/8 by 7-1/4 by 1-1/4 or 2-1/2 inches in order to hold multiple discs and documentation. This became known as the IEMA mini-box or small box, and began showing up on store shelves around 2001. For a while, games were still sold in both box sizes, depending on the desires of the specific retailer. And it was around this point that collectors started making the distinction between big box and small box releases. But by 2004, the vast majority of North American PC games were sold in small boxes only and then in standard DVD cases once the need for manuals and extra discs diminished. There were some notable exceptions, though. Stores like Costco and Sam’s Club continued to sell their own exclusive big box PC games through 2005 before switching to the IEMA’s mini-box. And of course, special editions sometimes still come in larger boxes today, but PC game collectors will distinguish between these and traditional big box releases. And finally, countries like Germany and Russia continued selling certain PC games in bigger boxes for years after the United States and most other countries discontinued them. And as for the current state of things, it has only grown increasingly uncommon to find PC games boxed at all. With the rise of digital distribution platforms like Steam and GOG taking off in the late 2000s, there are fewer customers than ever for boxed PC games. There’s also less incentive to buy a boxed game at retail in the first place since many don’t come with anything inside the case beyond a code to activate the game online and maybe an installer on DVD. On the other hand, there’s still a passionate number of collectors that long for physical media, with companies like Indiebox, Gamer’s Edition, and crowdfunding projects filling in that gap. But even without the occasional niche boxed release, there are still over two decades of classic boxes for collectors to collect and enjoy, and seemingly never enough shelf space to store them. And allow me to give a shout out to Jim Leonard, Brenda Romero, and the folks over at the Big Box PC Game Collectors Facebook group, all for helping me fact check and make this video more accurate and awesome. As well as a huge thank you to the LGR Patrons for keeping this show and other ones going on this channel. And as always, thank you very much for watching.