We caught up with Sam Dyer to discuss his process, the pros and cons of CRT screens, fancy packaging, and which Bitmap Books project is his favourite.
Bitmap Books is a UK-based independent publisher that specialises in video game art and design books. The company was founded in 2014 by Sam Dyer, a graphic designer and video games enthusiast, with a simple aim: “To create and publish the highest quality, most visually splendid gaming books ever produced.”
The company’s first book was Commodore 64: a visual Commpendium. It was a critical and commercial success and has been followed by more than 30 titles. Subsequent releases have covered the Game Boy, Super Nintendo, NEOGEO and ZX Spectrum, as well as genre and franchise-focused books such as The Art of Point-and-Click Adventure Games and Metal Slug: The Ultimate History.
We spoke to Dyer about Bitmap Books’ achievements to date, the design and production process, and the company’s future.
Thumbsticks: You’ve spoken before about your love of the Commodore 64, especially some of the striking loading screens. Did these early video game experiences inspire your career in design?
Sam Dyer: Absolutely. For some reason I never considered a career in the games industry, though. My love of everything visual led me into being a graphic designer, specialising in print and brand identity creation. Those early days of C64 graphics impressed me so much though – full respect to those pixel artists that did what they did with such limited hardware and equipment. Pure talent. If I had my time again, I would have loved to have explored going into the games industry after school.
As creative director, how do you determine the visual approach of each project? For example, the compendiums adhere to a similar cover format, but other titles feature a range of styles, from illustration and typography to pixel art and iconography.
I treat each book as it’s own thing. I sometimes get asked why all our books are not a standard size, or in the same typeface. I understand it from a consistency point of view, but to me, that’s incredibly boring as one of the biggest buzzes I get from Bitmap is the challenge of starting a new book and deciding how it should look and feel. The visual compendium books follow a pre-determined design template, but with other titles, anything is up for grabs.
For example, our recent FPS book is A4 landscape – this is purely because the screenshots of those games don’t crop very well, because of the HUDs that are displayed in a multitude of ways and vary in complexity. This meant that a landscape format would allow us to include the whole image and avoid any awkward cropping. Another example would be our ZX Spectrum book – the games on this system used really bright and saturated colours, and once printed just looked really dull. We therefore decided to use special florescent inks within the book to emulate the colours more accurately. I think it’s little touches like this that set Bitmap aside from other publishers.
Game images that shine on a television screen don’t always work on the printed page. How do you manage the production process to ensure that game assets look as vibrant and true to the source as possible?
Controversially, I’m not a fan of CRT televisions and what they do to pixels. I much prefer the raw, sharp edges of pixels, as opposed to the fuzzy look of a traditional television. When taking screenshots of games, the most important thing is to ensure they’re taken in a format that means the pixel edges are pin sharp. This means that the image can be enlarged for print with no loss of quality. We try to not manipulate screenshots too much to show them how they were intended. However, occasionally, it’s necessary to lighten them. This was especially an issue in our recent FPS book, as many locations were dark and dingy dungeons or set at nighttime. Without lightening, the screenshots would look really ‘muddy’ when printed, so this is essential.
There’s a timeless aspect to the 2D sprite and pixel-based games of the 1980s and 1990s. Do you think games of the 3D era – where camera placement has a dramatic effect on composition – work as well in print format? Will this be a challenge for future projects?
I’m nervous about doing books on early 3D games that use polygons. Kind of the opposite to my views on pixels, I think these early 3D games look better on CRT televisions as it masks the imperfections of the image. Although nostalgic and incredibly groundbreaking at the time, some early 3D games have not aged well, in my opinion. I think it will be a challenge to match the visual impact of our pixel-based books.
You have worked with partners on some titles, most notably with SNK for the NeoGeo, King of Fighters and Metal Slug books. How did that relationship come about, and what was the experience like of having access to their archives?
Working with SNK has been a joy. Unlike some game companies, SNK totally understands the benefit of producing high-quality books to help market and promote their IP. We first started working with them for our book NEOGEO: a Visual History. Due to the success of the NEOGEO book, we have since produced art books on Metal Slug and The King of Fighters (KOF). Being trusted to do a book on KOF was a massive privilege as it’s their most important property. Every project we do with SNK is a joy to work on.
You have also worked with some notable writers. Is written content as important as art and imagery? And how do you judge the balance of one against the other?
Absolutely, but it wasn’t always this way. In the beginning, our books were much more visual. The text was important, of course, but this came secondary to the aesthetics. Over time, as we’ve grown as a publisher, the written side of the books has also grown in importance. This has given our books more substance, and customers now don’t just get a good-looking book but one that is also full of great writing.
As someone who recently received an art book from Amazon tumbling around in the same box as a bottle of fabric softener, I also appreciate the attention to detail in your packaging. How important was it to make this part of the Bitmap Books experience, and do you take into account the obvious environmental concerns?
I remember when I first got an iPhone. The packaging and opening experience was as impressive as the product itself. The way the box lid slid off seamlessly, the various compartments to hold the accessories – everything was considered and beautifully designed. This is always in my mind when we’re working with our fulfilment parter on the book packaging, and we’re constantly looking at new ways to improve the packaging experience. Whether it’s offering more protection, sourcing more sustainable materials, or adding graphics – we consider this to be a key part of our brand. Collectors of our books really appreciate this level of care, and we constantly get positive feedback on our packaging and the care that goes into it.
There was some sad news recently regarding the cancellation of The unofficial MD/GEN: a visual compendium. You’ve summarised the situation – and the risks of continuing with publication – on the Bitmap Books blog. Are there any updates on whether the content may see the light of day in another form?
Sadly not. This title will be consigned to the archives and will not released.
Setting aside the commercial considerations of a release, is there a studio, obscure game series, or platform you would love to cover purely as an indulgence?
The Commodore 64 was my first love, so I’d love to indulge this further. I’d love to create a book specifically on pixel art and how this was created back in the day, interview the artists and offer tutorials on how to create pixel art and work around the restrictions, really go into detail around the creation of game graphics and why certain sprites or backgrounds look the way they do. The issue is that memories fade, and many of these great games are 35+ years old now, so it’s not 100% possible to capture all the information needed.
Is there one book you have published that you are particularly proud of?
That’s like asking me to pick a favourite child! I’d have to say Metal Slug: The Ultimate History. Everything came together really well in that book, and it’s incredibly detailed and expansive. It’s an ambitious project for a series that many fans adore because of the tight gameplay, humour, gorgeous pixel art, and animation. Looking back, there was a bit of pressure to do a great job, but I didn’t feel it at the time.
Finally, what can we look forward to from Bitmap Books in the coming year?
We have a lot planned for 2023. First up, we have PC Engine: The Box Art Collection in May. This will be followed by the expanded edition of The CRPG Book in the summer. Beyond this, we’re sworn to secrecy, but we have a couple of really exciting books planned.
Images courtesy of Bitmap Books.