Game icons play on a league of their own
Look at that brand new homescreen with those strange Apple icons that are finally growing on you. Updating your iPhone or iPad to the latest iOS version reveals a bright new interface, blurs and translucency. These effects, as well as the predominance of thin typography instead of actual buttons, give iOS 7 a distinct look. The new redesign is completely different from the heavy textures we were used to. The change is so radical it just feels weird in the first days.
To make the transition easier for everyone, Apple has put together a list of old and new apps that have been tweaked to match the new visual style. App developers have worked hard to be ready for the iOS 7 debut so your apps might look completely different from what you are used to. In fact, thanks to the App Store default setting to automatically download new versions of apps on the background, you might see new icons right on your homescreen you weren't expecting.
Just see the picture above as statement of how my iPhone looked two days ago. Pretty much every app has jumped on the flat and simple design bandwagon: Instapaper, Instacast, Articles or Twiterrific are now a little bit brighter. The new Reeder app also sports the new look, although I had installed the new version already on iOS 6 when I took the screenshot. For me the transition is almost complete, only waiting to see what Flexibits does with Fantastical and its superb icon from The Iconfactory.
Not so fast
Icons for games are a different story. It's like there's no pressure. While all your apps seem to be in a hurry to blend nicely with iOS 7, nothing suggests that games are going to follow this trend — it's like they play on an App Store league of their own.
Which are the best iOS game icons? My vote goes to Wave Trip and Bad Hotel. Both are very eye-catching and elegant.— Simon Flesser (@simonflesser) August 19, 2013
Back in August, Simon Flesser from Simogo (Bumpy Road, Beat Sneak Bandit, Year Walk) tweeted asking about classy icon games. People's suggestions of good icons included names like Wave Trip, Bad Hotel, Temple Run, Gentlemen!, Ridiculous Fishing, Spelltower, Pivvot, Hundreds and Dark Year. From an artistic point of view, everyone will identify different styles with some common ideas: simplicity in shapes with no gloss or heavy textures.
A look at the App Store charts shows that not every game is as minimal as those suggestions. These are unique exceptions. A quick look shows how game icons rely heavily on art from the game, faces in particular, in very elaborate compositions. Perhaps just as a funny anecdote to end a blog post about app icons, visual interface designer Louie Mantia highlights something I find quite interesting: game icons tend to feature the main character's face framed with a yellow square. I don't even know what this is supposed to mean but it's absolutely spot on.
Another item that makes game icons different from utility apps: branding. The majority of the large studios include a little logo on the corner of the icon for branding purposes. Games from Zynga, EA, Gameloft, Big Fish and even the awesome Toca Boca use this approach. Rovio also went down the branding route once its licensing deal with Chillingo was over. I like to think of this practice as a trust exercise, testing the user's memory to associate a game you like with another title from the same publisher. It's not pretty but serves a purpose in the difficult game of App Store discovery.
On these branded icons we can spot already what has been a recurring theme in game icons for some time: emphasis on borders. Although now it has been toned down from the thick metal bezels we would get some years ago, there are still a lot of game icons that come framed. Some are subtle enough, like Plants vs Zombies 2. Others like Real Racing 3 or Gameloft's Iron Man 3 go as far as merging the logo with its metal frame.
A borderless future
And this point about borders gets us to the realisation that borders are not what they used to be. As iOS 7 applies a different corner radius for apps (squirqle), games with obvious borders on contracting colours are not going to match the icon shape on the new operating system. Although getting an app ready for iOS 7 involves stuff the user won't ever see, the framed icons are going to be very very obvious. Remember those apps that never updated to Retina resolution and of course never supported the iPhone 5 wider screen?
This is all to say that iOS 7 will force to change the way game icons are designed and presented to the user. There are examples of developers willing to take risks, already trying different standards. For the big developers the transition remains to be seen. The newly launched FIFA 14 from EA is borderless and the small logo on the corner looks flatter than usual. Could this set a new trend for game icon design?