Outside the box: the mind-boggling video game packaging of designer Hock Wah Yeo

We speak to the designer whose bizarre packaging – adored by fans and hated by retailers – turned the gaming industry on its head, before his experimental practice was lost to a wave of standardisation in the 90s.

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If you were to walk into a video game store in 1995, you’d be greeted with sights all but extinct today. Shoppers would likely be surrounded by rows and rows of different releases, with no one publisher, like Wii or Playstation, dominating the shelves. You’d find unadvertised, unmarketed games from small indie publishers housed in packaging ranging from torso- to hand-sized. You might also notice a shelf no other game can fit on, stuffed with strangely shaped boxes. This game would be Havoc; the packaging, made out of actual egg cartons; and the designer? Hock Wah Yeo.

Yeo was a well-known maverick of the game design packaging industry in the 90s. His studio, Design Office of Wong & Yeo, which he ran with his then-partner Valerie Wong, worked on numerous projects during the period for game publishers like Velocity, Electronic Arts and Broderbund. While Yeo started out as a painter, he had quickly moved into graphic design; “I just didn’t have any internal anguish or angst to express in fine art,” he laughs. “I enjoy solving problems.” Initially working for a San Francisco design company that did mostly wine packaging, Yeo found his way into game packaging through a chance meeting with the art director of a software company, Broderbund, at a wedding party. At first, Yeo’s work in the field was largely conventional. Until he was approached with a brief from a new publisher, Velocity, who gave Yeo a singular design objective: “Well, scare me.”

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Hock Wah Yeo: Havoc, photography by Jesse Kumin (Copyright © Colpa Press / Jesse Kumin, 2021)

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Hock Wah Yeo: Ultrabots, photography by Jesse Kumin (Copyright © Colpa Press / Jesse Kumin, 2021)

The early 90s were a golden era for designers wanting to experiment with game packaging because there were no industry standards to which a product had to conform to reach the market. Yet, designers tended to work with only one area of their toolkit – colour. Video game shops at the time were awash with glaring graphics and intensely lurid palettes. Seeing a gap in the market, Yeo approached packaging video games with an unusual notion; “If Toyota introduces a brand new car, we wouldn’t take a second look at it,” he thought. “But if Toyota introduces a three-wheeled car, we’d pay attention because our reference is that a car has to have four wheels.” Shapes, he decided, were the perfect way to “disturb people’s mindset”.

“Our reaction to things should be: ‘What the hell is it?’ Not: ‘Is this product right for me?’”

Hock Wah Yeo
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Hock Wah Yeo: Jetfighter, photography by Jesse Kumin (Copyright © Colpa Press / Jesse Kumin, 2021)

Yeo’s first major successes all riffed on form. Following his first big break with Velocity with a game called Jetfighter II, Spectre, a 3D vector tank battle game from the same publisher, hit shelves in 1991 in a sleek, minimal, mysteriously triangular box that had audiences transfixed. While Spectre’s shape might seem intriguingly enigmatic, it was actually inspired by the triangular polygon tanks featured within the game. A year later, Yeo approached Broderbund’s Prince of Persia in the same way, creating packaging based on the headdress worn by the player’s character – but abstracted, so the box’s graphics depicted the character jumping over bloody spikes. As games at this time were made using 8-bit graphics, Yeo had tapped into a way of making them more impactful in the real world. “Computer games are intangible,” Yeo explains, “that’s an opportunity to give some tangible value to it, by creating shapes – a personification of the game”. When Prince of Persia was released with Yeo’s new packaging, sales tripled.

Still, retailers hated Yeo’s designs. “Because they’re so used to putting things neatly onto your shelves,” says Yeo. But Yeo only saw this as a plus point: “For my clients, it doesn’t do them any good if we make it easy for the retailers. I said: ‘If they stick out and they’re awkward, that’s even better, you get more space.’” This outlook was a key part of Yeo’s overriding approach to designing commercial products. “Our reaction to things should be: ‘What the hell is it?’ Not: ‘Is this product right for me?’ That’s what marketers do, they expect people to read and learn about their products when it’s sitting on a shelf among hundreds of other products. If nothing on the shelf speaks better than the one in your hand, then that’s the one you’re gonna take home.”

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Hock Wah Yeo: Flying Colors, photography by Jesse Kumin (Copyright © Colpa Press / Jesse Kumin, 2021)

“I don’t want it to be neater. I want it to be ugly.”

Hock Wah Yeo

With customers flocking to Yeo’s games, copycats began to sprout up. And yet, Yeo says the one time he remembers seeing a design on the market that came close to competing with his studio’s output, it was a one-off piece. Those who did pull it off, Yeo suspected, had help from the manufacturer and would have been unable to helm a truly experimental packaging project from conception to product floor, unaltered by manufacturers. This is how Yeo kept his clients. When publishers came to his studio: “They were asking for the same thing: to be different.”

Yeo never wanted to repeat his designs. This, and the urge to create work no one could copy pushed him into new territory. Armed only with cardboard and an understanding of how complex interlocking forms came together, Yeo began designing boxes with moving parts, boxes that could reshape into entirely new forms. Ultrabots, a 1993 robot fighter simulation game, saw the designer split a box into two connected compartments which, when pulled, slid apart and rotated around a bar of metal. Undeniably robotic, in motion, the box resembled a transforming mecha appendage. For another, entirely contrasting work for a game not unlike Microsoft Paint, Flying Colours, Yeo created a strikingly serene package with three compartments that could be spun and twisted to allow the box to stand on end. Around the edge, various ‘plug-ins’ that featured within the game – butterflies, snowflakes, shells – could be matched together by turning the box.

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Hock Wah Yeo: Spectre, photography by Jesse Kumin (Copyright © Colpa Press / Jesse Kumin, 2021)

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Hock Wah Yeo: Wolfpack, photography by Jesse Kumin (Copyright © Colpa Press / Jesse Kumin, 2021)

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Hock Wah Yeo: Wolfpack, photography by Jesse Kumin (Copyright © Colpa Press / Jesse Kumin, 2021)

When Yeo’s experiments with movement were a hit, he ventured into delightfully stranger territory. In 1995 Yeo worked on a post-apocalyptic game called Havoc for Reality Bytes. This time, he wanted to create a box that would transport customers to a dystopian world. Imagining a radio monitor you might pick up in a Mad Max landscape, covered in nuclear debris, Yeo decided graphics and shapes alone wouldn’t cut it. He needed to depart from the conventions of cardboard altogether. The answer came from his own kitchen cupboard, in a humble pack of eggs. Yeo contacted an egg carton manufacturer, who made a mould, although not before trying to convince Yeo that his packaging would look crisper if he used the other side of the material. “I said: ‘No, I don’t want it to be neater’,” Yeo tells us, “‘I want it to be ugly’.” While Havoc looked crumbling and monstrous, Yeo says they actually held together well on the shelves. “It travelled well, I mean it protects eggs,” he laughs.

While Yeo seemed to bound through boundaries with each of his projects, his attention to the smaller details never faltered. For example, if buyers were to lift up the lid on Yeo’s Prince of Persia box, they would find a small, gruesome severed head printed on the packaging underneath; “This is what happens when you die in the game,” Yeo grins. From the drifting, slanted type of Flying Colours to the immersive subaquatic graphics of WolfPack, Yeo managed to make subtle design flourishes just as impactful as the image of a giant transforming robot box. His work served as a testament to not only his dedication to the work, but his love of it too; “When I go to bed, I think of a design problem, and that lulls me to sleep,” he says.

“When I go to bed, I think of a design problem, and that lulls me to sleep.”

Hock Wah Yeo

By 1995, the market was saturated with games, and by 1997, the decline in the industry as Yeo knew it was underway. “I had a lot of products in the works in 95, but in 96 they all pulled out of it,” he remembers. Retailers had started becoming far choosier about what games they accepted, and publishers were streaming money into advertising and marketing, not packaging. Yeo’s regular clients could no longer compete with the large names dominating the field: Sega, Nintendo, Playstation.

Standardisation in packaging had also begun, pushed by retailers – who were sick of the logistical problems unruly boxes caused – and big name publishers alike, meaning Yeo’s work dropped off precipitously. When Yeo was asked to produce packaging for Playstation 2, Sony, the parent company, rejected it immediately. While a Yeo packaging design could cost as much as four dollars a box, publishers were used to spending 75 cents maximum. To continue in the market, Yeo would have to work with templates. “You mean you just want us to do an illustration and logotype for it?” he remembers, laughing, “No, that’s not what we do.” Eventually, Yeo shifted his practice to designing for the next cutting edge thing: websites.

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Hock Wah Yeo: Armored First, photography by Jesse Kumin (Copyright © Colpa Press / Jesse Kumin, 2021)

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Hock Wah Yeo: Jetfighter II, photography by Jesse Kumin (Copyright © Colpa Press / Jesse Kumin, 2021)

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Hock Wah Yeo: Jetfighter II, photography by Jesse Kumin (Copyright © Colpa Press / Jesse Kumin, 2021)

Yeo’s groundbreaking work in the game industry eventually drifted into obscurity. Aside from a loyal following of fans who continue to hunt down Yeo’s work online, often paying hundreds of dollars to procure an original Ultrabots, his impact had been largely forgotten – until 2021, when game historian Phil Salvador published a feature on his career. Later the same year, Colpa Press published the first monograph on the designer. The renewed interest in Yeo’s work has meant a lot of revisiting for the designer, something he says he enjoys, as a time full of fond memories. The only hardship, Yeo jokes, comes from having to “dredge up the bottom of my memory to come up with why I did this, or how I created that”.

While Yeo hasn’t kept up with the game world, he still drifts to sleep thinking of design problems. To this day, he experiments with shapes, now through ceramics and, despite having no architectural training, he recently built a two story sunroom at his home in California: a steampunk creation clad in galvanised steel with rose petals encased in the walls.

Looking back at Yeo’s career in video games today, it would be easy to take away that commercial industry stands as the antithesis of creativity, but the real story isn’t as clear cut. Yeo’s designs worked because they brought something artful, visceral and exciting to a space where experimentation is unexpected. His body of work serves as a compelling reminder of what can happen when a client opts for the riskier option, for the uncharted choice. They begin to shape an everyday world where rose petals might hide in walls, and severed heads lie under box lids.

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Hock Wah Yeo: Jetfighter, photography by Jesse Kumin (Copyright © Colpa Press / Jesse Kumin, 2021)

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About the Author

Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating in Film from The University of Bristol, she worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, INDIE magazine and design studio Evermade.

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