A while back I came across a blog post I never thought I would see - a gamer complaining about too much artwork in the books being produced these days - specifically the dungeon punk trappings of Runequest 2.
Normally gamers go ga-ga over artwork, almost to a disturbing extent. I mean, so long as it doesn't look like arty art (Matisse or Van Gogh) gamers will do back flips over fresh artwork, but the guy had a point and a very valid one at that. He didn't sum it up so succinctly but: art gets in the way. It doesn't help to have graphics splattered all over the place or a stylish layout which does nothing but make it hard to find the rules you need to know while playing the game.
Of course, it should be pointed out that the guy is playing Runequest 2. If you're playing Runequest you are either a part of the Old School or the progeny of the Old School and do not need to be enticed into playing the game. It means you probably play that game on a regular basis and have cultivated your own personal vision of what everything looks like, meaning any new style artwork introduced by the manufacturers is going to be about as welcome as a pack of Orcs at a church picnic.
You have just leveled up to Grognard status.
Which brings us to a somewhat caustic yet seldom acknowledged divide between the people who regularly play a game and those who hopefully someday will. What is done to entice one will inevitably alienate the other. Unfortunately I don't have any connections to the gaming industry and even if I did I suspect I wouldn't get a clear answer because no one would want to admit it - but - business-wise, gaining new players wins out over maintaining older ones.
The people who loved Edition 3 are the ones least likely to buy into Edition 4. Those who loved Edition 4 will be least likely to buy into Edition 5. However there might be a chance of getting those players who loved Edition 3 to try Edition 5. And those who loved Edition 4? Wait until they see what has been done to Edition 6, new artwork and all.
And no I am not trying to imply any one game system whatsoever.
So I guess my point is that artwork sells. Unfortunately (for the game manufacturers), the magnetism of artwork doesn't wane with age and the artwork that entices one into playing a game will also hold that person to that edition of the game; thus making it a liability to a business model which is centered around re-packaging and re-releasing the same-ish material every five or six years or so. I think the big designers have noticed this and that is why 21st century game art has become so soulless. The quality is there. The quantity is overwhelming. Yet it is all so strikingly impersonal. It does not seem like the work of actual artists so much as an art from a factory in China. You cannot look at the depiction of a monster and be able to tell who did it, if it was the work of Erol Otus, Dave Trampier, or Jeff Dee (or even Phil Foglio, because Phil Foglio is freakin awesome!).
To take the broad overview....
1970's = little to no artwork, crappy pencil sketchings at best.
1980's = excellent artwork but many disparate styles, games lack graphical cohesion.
1990's = games become stylistically sound but the art becomes less than outstanding by having to conform to standards.
2000's = games become stylistically overwhelming, artwork becomes wallpaper, it's all over everything and yet easily ignored.
2010's = games become stylistically autocratic, artwork raises resentment. The OSR decides to return to the days of crappy pencil sketchings.
So what should be done?
Personally, I am biased. My own golden age of table top gaming took place in the early 80's and the artwork of that age will always resonate. The stylistic inconsistencies were not a problem since - even back then - I justified it by thinking that they were meant to be inexact. As if by showing us many different interpretations of what was "out there" we were being informed but not dictated to. The imagination was still free to see what it wanted without leaving the actual game behind. So if I were running the show, there would a number of different artists working in a number of distinctive styles, and we would somehow break away from a business model which is dependent on selling the same stuff to people over and over again. Meaning I would probably run the show into the ground.
So how would you ruin - I mean - run it?