Why Big PC Game Boxes Disappeared [LGR Tech Tales]
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Why Big PC Game Boxes Disappeared [LGR Tech Tales]

September 21, 2019


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.

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  1. Since I know there will be people bringing up Steam: yes, digital distribution played a large role in lowering the need for PC game packaging in more recent years. But this video focuses on the first two decades or so of PC game packaging when games still came in "big boxes," and why those died out before services like Steam were even commonplace!
    Digital distribution is a tale for another day 😉

  2. That is truly an impressive collection of PC games, but how do you feel every time you have to take each and every box off the shelves to dust?

  3. I love how many products came inside random items like VHS cases and whatever that thing was at the end of the video, like the publisher just had a warehouse full of junk that they needed to get rid of.

  4. i miss the boxes , and the great colourful manuals that even had comic strips in them for games that were an excellent prologue , Sierra had the best box art and comic manuals

  5. Holy balls that print ad for Computer Bismark may be one of the worst ads I have ever seen. "The game costs $2,160?! Okay, you have my attention!" I read the first few lines and…oh okay…wow. It really costs $2,160. Not until reading to almost the very end of the ad does it become clear they are including the price of an Apple II into that price and the game is only $59. Wow, what were they thinking?

  6. 6:25 I don't….. remember the Dreamcast. GameCube was the first console I bought, so I should remember it at least in stores, but I don't even remember a single friend having one. I guess it was just a sign of a dying console maker?

  7. I remember being a little kid in the late 90s and getting big box games for PC at flea market computer shows, and seeing them on the shelves at Best Buy and Media Play. Nothing like them, it was incredibly exciting. It was like a major shopping event. I used to shake the crap out of the boxes and listen to the disc, manual, etc. rattling inside. And up until I sold them recently I had boxed copies of Wolf 3-D, Diablo, Gabriel Knight 2, and Phantasmagoria.

  8. I remember there's a video out there about the making of Age of Mythology. In the video they talk about how they had to redo all of the box art since right before they were about to release the game, they were forced to distribute the game in smaller boxes. RIP big box Age of Mythology. 🙁

  9. I wish I still had my big boxes. After moving a bunch of times in my 20s they became impractical to keep. I ended up chucking them and just keeping the jewel cases. 🙁

  10. My parents got me a Commodore 64 for the holidays when I was little but later didn't see any point in my having a disk drive. I was stuck playing a half dozen C64 game cartridges with a joystick as with my Atari 2600. To this day I'm a console gamer – I often have trouble trying to play PC games. 🙁

  11. I would always wish I had a reason to buy PC games when I was younger because the boxes would look so damn cool and it's sad now years later I finally built one there's any left to buy and collecting them are not cheap 🙁

  12. Such a wonderful video. Much like the Hitchiker's Guide, you provide not only the answers, but the questions to ask as well. 😉
    Seriously, this was great information, things I only generally wondered about.

    As an aside, that stuff in the Hitchiker's Guide game was really awesome. I paused to read all the goodies as you flipped through and look at the "feelies" included. Awesome stuff, Thanks man.

  13. I spent ages a kid at the game stores looking a the boxes, it was such a great time! Civilisation was immense in the box, the manual, the tech tree poster, the smell of the box and the manuals, almost like buying an album. So glad I got to game in the 90s.

  14. I'm a NIntendo fan and I always loved reading the manual that came with the game; it was part of the new game ritual. I know why they don't include paper manuals now though it's annoying that there isn't even a digital manual for the more complex games where you really could do with one. Still, I can capture the feeling still when buying a retro game and one of these days, I may even feel flush enough to buy some limited edition thing.

  15. While I'd love to start collecting these big boxes to look sexy on my shelf (Doom, Duke Nukem, Wolfenstein etc), are there any sites to upload your own custom templates and have them make one and ship it for you?

  16. The same thing happened with packaging of mobile phones
    They used to come in big spacious boxes with large instructional manuals then everything nowadays they narrow the mobex to the size of the phones and manuals to be downloaded from the net. I thought all of this are just for environmental reasons

  17. Back in the 90s I was still a kid, but even then it seemed rather odd to me that only a few small floppy disks were packaged in giant space-eating boxes.

  18. It's too bad we don't have novel copy protection schemes like they had in the 1980s and early 90s…I would have loved to have a color wheel 🙂

  19. a few days i went to a local charity shop and picked up The Sims Base Game,Hot Date, Unleashed,Makin Magic, Superstar and House Party for just £6 (around $7 dollars)… i guess CD Rom based games are dying

  20. I miss those days. Just outside the local mall there was a store called 'Revolution CD' that bought and sold used Games and music CD's. Whilst my parents were in the supermarket shopping I'd walk over to the store and just inspect as many PC games as there were, thinking about and planning which one to save up for.
    I especially loved the cases that opened up like a book with a bit of velcro sticking the cover and inside together, if they did that then you knew they meant business, it was a serious game, they had SO much to show off that the back of the box wouldn't cover it.

    It was almost better than Steam in some ways I reckon. Steam I can have every game from every era at my immediate disposal. But back then I had to debate and weigh my options and compare, each game felt special as a result. And it shaped the sort of gamer you become, that's how I ended up being into RTS, City Building and Racing game fan, as oppossed to RPG, FPS, Sports, etc games.

  21. I miss physical PC games. Of course it would be difficult to display the 200 games on my steam library, but I miss them

  22. RIP CompUSA… big boxes with collectibles were great, but that ConpUSA logo in the background there at the end is what got me really nostalgic. I miss that place.

  23. I recognize that some may see me as a heretic but I was happy to see boxes replaced with simple standard cases. That standardized form-factor brought a great sense of order and harmony as well as saving shelf space.

  24. Physical boxes and printed manuals cost money to produce and the gaming industry has been a race to the bottom for decades. What do I win?

  25. I really miss the big boxes and physical manuals. First I liked to have em on display, second with the more complicated games you had a manual you could read during play . Now if your lucky you can find a pdf on the creators site to download and then you need to tab out to be able to read it while gaming if you have a question about something in the game. Some games do have hints in the beginning how to play it, or a tutorial to play but usually they suck and bring up just a minor part of whats needed to know to enjoy it fully.

  26. I had one called games for girls and it was actually good. I remember loving them and there were 4 games in there.

  27. I worked at Software Etc in the late 90s and into 2000. I remember one of the major pushes to small box was large retailers (Like Walmart) threatening to drop games that came in large boxes. Stores that didn't specialize in games didn't like the amount of shelf space they required. I stopped working there in 2001 and we had already started seeing small box titles before that.

  28. I bought dirt 4 on pc in germany and in there was just a Steam yes STEAM activation code… i was shocked

  29. Makes me dread the day when digital download will be the ONLY way to buy games, not everybody has a Quick fiber internet.

  30. Do you also own Sierra's SWAT 3, SWAT 3: Elite Edition, SWAT 3: Tactical Game of the Year Edition, SWAT 4, and SWAT 4 : Gold Edition? 🙂 I LOVE the series and still play them today. I owned SWAT 3: Elite Edition back in 2001 and have been a fan ever since. Then several years later, Rainbow Six Vegas 1 and 2 for the Xbox 360. Just curious looking at your game collection at the intro of this video. Love your work!

  31. i still prefer physical copies of games. i dont know, i guess its because i like the idea of me being able to decide when im done playing a game instead of others just up and cutting me off and not giving a refund. theres that and the fact that i just like to have the physical copy to hold onto.

  32. Krondor! Some of my favourite RPG games, surprisingly complex, well made and more mature RPG. Shame they never made any more games in that series, there's plenty of material in the books to cover.

  33. I worked in a computer games store in the UK from 1982 to 1988, and the vast majority of games, especially early on, were on cassette and just came just came in the same small type of case that a pre-recorded music cassette came in. No one had Apple of Atari 8 bit computers in the UK and although the C64 was massive, next to no one had a disk drive for their C64. The only reason we were even aware of the C64 and Atari disc based games was because we has 1 customer who had a C64 and drive and he would being his drive in to the shop and show us the disc based games, like Lode Runner and The Cave of the Word Wizard, we tried to convince the guy who owned the shop to invest in an Atari disc drive, but wouldn't have any of it. Later on we did have a C64 disk drive and we even sold them in later years. Obviously when the Atari ST and Amiga became big here then the packaging for the games changed, although for the life of me I can't remember how they were packaged, I have a couple of photos somewhere of me in the shop, I'll have to have a look and see if I can see any of the stock on the shelves and see what the packaging like.

  34. I still have some, they are awesome, like the IndyCar Racing, Command & Conquer: Red Alert and Dungeon Keeper, also have the Settlers 4, the boxes are really cool.

  35. Honestly I think it's stupid that most games are still sold in boring standard DVD cases. Over 90% of people buy their games online via Steam or other services anyway. So packed PC Games in a standard DVD case make no sense to me. The only people who buy physical copies of their games do so, because they want to have something nice and physical to collect. And for those people big boxes make a lot more sense.
    I sometimes too wanna buy a physical copy of a game so I have something nice to put in my shelf. But most of the time there will only be a lame DVD case avaiable or a better packed Special Edition for over 100$ that I don't want. So why bother buying games physically if they don't even have a box that's worth collecting.

  36. This video gave me such strong, raw nostalgia of playing Flight Simulator 98 with my dad, to the point I – believe it or not -, started recalling the night we bought it, as well as the copious frustrations of trying to make it run on our then-already outdated PC. Memory is such a fantastic phenomenon, isn't it.

  37. Shit I remember that. The big box release of new games and the small box when it's been out a while. Lmao and that Sam's club had big boxes for much longer. Then I got into cars and well stopped gaming.

  38. First was the music …next was the books , now games , friends are digital ….or IAM a cave man or something going wrong …

  39. I'd buy boxed editions, if companies actually sold them anymore. It's not that there's no customers for that kind of a product, but it's cheaper to sell them digitally.

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