Editor's note: Scott Steinberg is the head of technology and video game consulting firm TechSavvy Global, as well as the founder of GameExec magazine and Game Industry TV. The creator and host of online video series Game Theory, he frequently appears as an on-air technology analyst for ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and CNN.
(CNN) -- Critics have had a field day debating why retail video game sales have been on the decline lately. As a visit to any GameStop reveals, though, the slump may have less to do with quality, price or new-fangled distribution methods than helping fans understand exactly just what they're buying.
Browse the aisles of your local electronics retailer and you may notice something strange about modern game boxes. Most feature large, attractive cover paintings and logos, but comically small screenshots and less than a paragraph of text on their backs.
Squeezed into the same limited space are French and Spanish translations, health warnings, legal mumbo jumbo, barcodes and age ratings. Precious little room is left to describe the software itself.
As a result, manufacturers are relying more than ever on pretty graphics and short, witty catchphrases to get their message across. But tiny photos make it impossible for diehard enthusiasts to get even a passing impression of a game's caliber.
Likewise, vague double entendres do little to help casual admirers discern between frantic arcade outings and slow-paced puzzlers. The rear cover of recent Nintendo DS title "Ben 10: Cosmic Destruction" literally says only "control all new alien heroes" and "go ultimate to annihilate enemies!" Presumably, it's a great game. We just couldn't tell you what type of game.
That's a hard line to walk in an age where digital diversions are becoming increasingly complex and genres are blurring to the point that few fit traditional categories such as "racing game" or "shooter" anymore.
Keeping things simple makes perfect sense when selling a sports game such as "NHL 11" or a workout program like "Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum," where a single snapshot suffices to get the point across.
But how much sense can the average shopper make of more unique outings like "Castlevania: Lords of Shadow?" The fantasy/horror-themed adventure features a painting of a somber warrior on the front, with two imperceptible screenshots and the words "Dark Times Need a Dark Hero" on the back. (Perhaps what they really call for is a magnifying glass.) Even a player who's intimately familiar with the monster-mashing franchise may be left perplexed at what's being offered by this radical series reboot.
Likewise, recent release "Front Mission: Evolved" clearly states in a press release that it's a "third-person shooter" where "players control giant, customizable walking tanks known as wanzers," or giant robots. Nowhere on a box featuring lofty proclamations like "a new world will rise from the ashes of the old" is this information repeated, though, and the game's fancy website hides that info several screens deep.
Print, video and online ads increasingly seem to make similar mistakes by using arresting imagery to catch viewers' eyes at the expense of clarity and conciseness. Game makers are obviously keen on knocking players' socks off with fancy visual gimmicks and reams of imaginative prose.
But what manufacturers forget is that at first glimpse, gaming fans aren't just looking for a pretty face. They're hoping to instantly comprehend an interactive outing's concept, gauge how well it lives up to expectations, and get a sense of each title's individual personality. You know what they say about first impressions.
Designers would do better to realize that with hundreds of competing games clogging the aisles, picking a new title is a lot like speed dating. Fans may be a sucker for a winning smile, but make no mistake: Given high prices, endless choices and the time commitment involved -- often weeks on end -- gamers want to feel like their purchases are worth getting to know better.
Besides, just think of poor bewildered grandma in the aisle of her local Best Buy, trying to figure out which game to get her grandson for Christmas. It couldn't hurt game makers to help her out a little by explaining more than how to "go ultimate."