The flashing lights. The bright primary colours. The whizz-bang sound effects. That’s not a description of your favorite online slot machine, even though it could be. These attention-getting traits are also the defining characteristics of cartoons, a medium, like games, that is often associated with children but is in fact very much the product of thoughtful, whimsical adults.
Comic books have evolved from their niche ‘30s origins—when superheroes and magic power were used to counter the effects of a world gone mad—into a dynamic mainstream phenomenon. You can now go into any bookstore and find a rack of graphic novels or manga, the Japanese equivalent. Go to the cineplex on a Friday night and the big blockbuster will likely be based on a popular comic. Kids wear Avengers T-shirts based on properties born long before they were. What was once shrugged aside as immature or fantastical escapism is now lauded by millions.
Games have taken a similar trajectory; what was once relegated to narrow strips of land in regulated corners of the world have now exploded. Our phones have become personal gateways to the newest online slot machine or gaming app. We’ve gathered a few bright minds to discuss the influence of comics and cartoons on gaming, from the shared hyperbolic graphics to the growing acceptance and exposure. Here’s what they had to say.
Humans are naturally drawn to faces…
As a child, did you read or enjoy cartoons? Either in print or animated form? If so, what were some of your favourites and why?
Tyler Davis is a character designer and artist who works on the Gaming Realms website and mobile games:
Depends on [my] age really. Skipping past the Playdays and Old Bear and Friends days: I grew up and preferred cartoons like Bugs Bunny and the Animaniacs, with their slapstick and sometimes edgy wit. Likewise with Tom and Jerry, which took it a step further by not even needing dialogue to convey their humour due to outrageous body language and expressiveness, over-the-top slapstick and storytelling musical score. To think it was these things that made that type of cartoon so fun to watch!
Simon Collins was founder of CashCade before starting his newest online venture, Gaming Realms. He also works as Gaming Realm’s Commercial Director:
Yes, I did. Marvel comics [such as] Spider-Man and X-Men were good. I also liked Daredevil.
Katie Jackson is a Game Artist at Gaming Realms who works on concept art, user interface, 3D modeling, animation and more:
I am a huge Disney and Dreamworks fan. My favourite films were The Little Mermaid, Prince of Egypt... I actually never watched anything that wasn't a cartoon as a child. I loved CBBC--They had epic cartoons like Prince Valiant, Pirates of Dark Water, Captain Planet... the list goes on and on! I really enjoyed the stories they told and the artwork was always clean, making it easy to watch.
TD: I would also watch the usual and beautifully animated stories from the Don Bluth and Disney studios, and I think they need no explanation of why these movies are so captivating with their beautifully planned sceneries, engaging and relatable characters, growth throughout the story and wonderful scripts. I would enjoy other cartoons as I grew up, like Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, Powerpuff Girls, Cow and Chicken… a lot of these newer animations used less physical comedy than Tom and Jerry. These cartoons focussed more on scripted humour and more nuanced jokes.
A digital online game could use any graphic style or aesthetic, yet many of the most successful ones mimic the bright colourful look of cartoons. Why do you think this is? What are some of the advantages and/or disadvantages?
SC: Generally, I think slots like to focus on bright attractive colours taking a lead from the floors of Vegas’ bright lights.
TD: In terms of social gaming, bright and bouncy cartoon-style games are common as they’re inoffensive. [They] appeal to a mass crowd. With gambling, the same thing can apply. Slot games with a soft, cartoon aesthetic take the user away from the feeling that they’re on a hardcore casino site, opening the site up to a wider audience who would have otherwise been turned off by the classic casino feel. Cartoon characters are also useful as humans are naturally drawn to faces—especially cute ones. Including a relatable or welcoming character into game can increase how engaging it is, compared to, let’s say, generic slot symbols.
KJ: I believe this is because they resonate with our childhood and colours are extremely important to give a sense of fun. Playing games is something to do on the way to work, [during] down time. It's like a treat.
Can you think of any notable exceptions to this, i.e., a popular game that uses realistic or darker themes?
TD: There have absolutely been ones with darker themes that have done very well. An online game example is Mafia Wars, another is Criminal Case. So if executed and marketed well, any theme can do well I believe.
SC: I think Aliens and Batman are more dark in nature.
KJ: NetEnt's Dracula is very dark and more realistic. I personally love the look of that game.
Evolution of the Species
People who were children when Marvel Comics were booming are now grown up and still have that love…
Comic-books have had a huge resurgence in the larger culture, with major Hollywood films and TV shows sparking a near-endless demand for these stories. Yet not that long ago, comic books were considered the realm of kids and not taken seriously.
Similarly, games were once shrugged aside as either immature (for video games) or relegated to casinos (for slots, etc.). But now each hold up a billion dollar industry and can be found and enjoyed almost everywhere. In your opinion, what changed?
KJ: I think the generation of people playing games have been brought up playing games. it was a favourite past-time for me and my siblings and now all three of us work in games! It is a creative field which we can explore as artists. We can create interesting characters, worlds, marketing art, graphic design... the possibilities are huge and the sky’s the limit.
TD: I think Hollywood had a large part to play in this. It’s been a slow progression: comic book themes being introduced to a larger audience through television shows like Superman, movies like Mallrats, right up to big blockbusters like Batman and The Avengers, and easier access via the internet to a large database of comic books for very cheap or free. And the fact that the people who were children when Marvel Comics were booming are now grown up and still have that love for the medium.
SC: I believe movie-making abilities improved. If you compare the original Hulk show with The Avengers of today, you can see the movies caught up with comics graphically. For a long time, comics and cartoons were far superior to live action.
TD: Also, If you look at a lot of comics, when they’re translated to the big screen, they’re rewritten to have a much more wide appeal. Supposedly superfluous characters, details, and plot points [are ignored] to make the stories more digestible and marketable. It’s also not a new thing that Disney re-uses old stories to create new movies, like Pocahontas and Frozen… so when they bought Marvel, it’s not surprising that they tried to monetise that by widening its appeal in remakes.
How are these two trajectories similar or different?
TD: The internet has allowed people of a huge range of demographics to access gambling, and where this widening has happened, it’s created the need for games that appeal to different audiences. We’re no longer in a culture where only hardcore gamblers had to go to a casino to indulge. People who don’t recognise themselves as gamblers also partake now. And this is where different styles are useful—to meet these audiences’ needs.
KJ: Comic books are the original source for leaving this world and entering a fantasy. Games are the same. It's all about escapism. They are different because games immerse you and you are in control of your actions. Comics are like watching a film; the story is written [and] it cannot be changed. But it can in a game.
How have you seen comic book culture influence online games in any way?
TD: There are slots and online games all over the place who have pulled influence—directly or not—from comic books. You see slots like Jack Hammer, which is styled to look like comic book pages; or slots like Batman that which obviously ties to the franchise, which started with a comic book; or simply artistic styles that share the same elements of the Western (DC, Marvel, etc.) comic book styles like Creature of the Black Lagoon.
SC: I think there is a lot that could be done around the Asian and Japanese comic styles. You can see the impact it has had on the likes of Zelda and Nintendo. I look forward to this style impacting real money gaming. There is a good early example in Realistic’s Super Graphics Upside Down title.
Inspiration, Past Present & Future
We wanted cute, but still attractive with lots of energy… Belle was born.
Are comic book or cartoon characters being used in smart ways to enhance online games? Or is any popular franchise the same as any other: just another way to put a familiar license in front of people?
TD: I think it can certainly increase exposure to games that people wouldn’t have otherwise considered. Adding a licensed brand vastly increases perceived trustworthiness of that game due to familiarity with an already popular and trusted brand.
SC: I think if you look at Batman 1966, the offline cabinet guys [like Aristocrat Technologies] are leading the way.
Simon, you founded and ran CashCade for over a decade. What was the impetus for starting the company? Why do you think your company was able to flourish when so many try and fail?
SD: We were in 1999, in a moment where everyone was offering services for free, such as the likes of “FreeServe”—[this was] free net access using a dial-up model. We wanted to explore charging users over the internet and alighted on games as being the perfect service to charge users for online. Over time, this morphed into FoxyBingo.
We flourished due to our focus on giving users a delightful experience that they had to part with cash to enjoy. There were some external factors, such as the smoking ban, which accelerated the adoption of online bingo. So timing played a role.
You also worked on a Danger Mouse-themed Instant Win game. How did that opportunity come about? And what about the franchise lent itself to that kind of game?
SC: We decided to licence some content for our in-house Instant Win platform. This tech system supplied GlobalCom (our bingo supplier) with their side games. We worked with Freemantle, who owned Danger Mouse, on getting them to licence us the assets on the game. We created some very compelling print adverts off the back of this. The thought process was: people who loved Danger Mouse would no longer be young and it worked well from a nostalgia point of view.
Is there a fine line to walk with how certain brands or images are used to support online gaming, when those same kinds of images attract a demographic that shouldn't be playing them? How do you deal with making a design that's alluring and compelling while still only targeting those who are able to play the games you're designing for?
TD: This has actually been an issue we’ve faced, and still face. We have a few cutesy games that are very whimsically-styled and a decision was made that we cannot use characters from those games on promotions on logged out (thus: available to anyone) pages of the site.
KJ: We do this by allowing our customers to see our characters when they have confirmed their age and identity and have full access to our site. This is to not attract children or teenagers; we have to be very strict with this. A lot of our own games--excluding the Slingo franchise--do not have characters in them.
TD: I think that there is indeed a fine line, and when designing something cutesy or “childlike” there is a responsibility to ensure they are only used within an age-verified setting where exposure to underage audiences is filtered out.
Tyler and Katie, as character and game artists, what do you pull from for inspiration in your work?
TD: Like many artists, the style I usually have is an amalgamation of styles I’ve been exposed to over the years. While developing as an artist, I drew alongside a lot of more talented artists, each with varying capabilities—you learn from all of them. I’ve taken courses from people like Bobby Chiu, and through learning his techniques, you take a little bit of his style away with you. I’ve been influenced by comics for sure: manga, video games, and to be honest, any art I’ve liked the look of. Projects do call for more specific styling, to which I’ll research styles that fit and I can adapt for the brand.
KJ: I have trained with a few famous artists including one that worked on the Prince of Egypt, the great Nathan Fowkes. He taught me how to use colour, tone, values and composition.
TD: Throughout my childhood and adulthood I’ve always preferred 2D animation. I do have an appreciation of 3D animation—it is also beautiful and an outstanding example of what we can create from nothing—[but] I’ve always loved the organic, malleable, almost-charming characteristics that 2D animation offers.
KJ: We always research different styles of games, what's current and how we can apply this to our own in house Intellectual Property. I [also] create mood boards and explore a variety of games to grab inspiration to present to the design team.
What's been your favourite game or character to work with, and why? Any surprises or unexpected mishaps that may have occurred during a job?
KJ: I really enjoyed the first game I worked on [Tutan’s Treasure] because I was able to build a whole set in 3D, a bonus level and a skills-based game. Unfortunately, we cannot use it because we came into difficulty using Unity on mobile, but hopefully this will be released on HTML5.
TD: Probably the first mascot I created for GamingRealms. She was called Belle and she was for a Facebook slot lobby called 5 Star Slots. She was the first time I’ve had to work with a character for such a long time, developing her but keeping her consistent throughout her use. The artist before me had pitched a bear character, but it didn’t have the right feeling.
We wanted cute … but still attractive with lots of energy, so Belle was born. I think the only mishap was, when Belle was first designed, she wasn’t built for animation—with simpler forms, less shading. So when it came to animate her, she was a bit more of a challenge than she should be. But nothing we couldn’t overcome with some extra effort.
Top Ten Comic-Book Online Slots (via Comicbooked.com)
- Dark Knight Rises
- The Avengers
- Iron Man
- The Incredible Hulk
- Captain America
- The Punisher