When a series of anything has been around of multiple years, it’s art direction changes with the times. If you take a look at Super Mario Bros. as it was and how it is now, you see that the art direction hasn’t really changed that much, but it follows more streamlined and cleaner computer generated images that are popular nowadays. Similarly Mega Man’s art evolved game by game, and you can see not only the series evolution, but also the artists’ evolution and changes whenever something was changed. Films are more subtle in this regard, but the most blatant example would be Star Wars, which went from original trilogy’s utilitarian approach to a handcrafted sleekness in the prequel trilogy. If you read Star Wars comics and see the animations, you can see that simple designs of the lightsabers changed as the technology allowed more intricate and complex designs. Nevertheless, the art direction changed only in when Episode I was made. While McQuarrie was there doing his own stuff, other artists’ were hired for the job. It shows that they really weren’t craftsmen McQuarrie was, and it shows in the films’ world. It wasn’t applauded, but it wasn’t really taken consideration as the film had much more difficulties other than art direction.
A change in art direction in a franchise will always be a double-edged sword that will most likely make the company pay more than they wanted. We know that keeping the old customers is much easier than gaining new ones, and a drastic change in a franchise’s art direction may cause the current customer base to distance themselves, and at the same time cause no interest in the potential customers.
However, an art direction must evolve as the franchise grows. This doesn’t mean that the series has to have a change in the direction, but a gradual shift in quality and emphasize. A staggering art direction will not keep much interest in the customer base.
Craftsmen who work as visual artists have to keep this in mind as well. An artist who wants to give his own twist to an existing franchise has all rights to do it on his own. However, putting his own twist there when he is working on the franchise is a stupid and selfish deed. Customers are not expecting to see your style and wishes, but the style and direction that has been there. An artist should evolve the direction, not change it.
Of course, this matter has the most impact in mediums that rely the most on art direction, such as animation and video games. You may hear someone complain that a character used to loo better or similar when talking about animation, which shows that change in art direction isn’t the best option to attract new audience.
In animation it has to be taken account that even if the franchise stays the same, the series might not. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has seen various incarnations with vastly different art direction, and they all have fared better or worse. The two main animation series utilize completely different approach to the art direction in general, but other one of these actually follows more keypoints of the original comic for better or worse. With this kind of differences it is more about opinion than anything else. However, the art direction in the original TMNT comics have always stayed the same, it has just evolved, par few guess starring artists putting their own twist to things in general. I’d say that TMNT is actually a pretty good example of art direction that has stayed true to its roots while evolving all the time, they it should be.
When Mega Man X8 was first announced the fandom was split in two due to the new art direction. Gone was the old direction and CAPCOM had brought in completely new artists and designers just to change things and attract new customers. They failed to note that Mega Man was already part of the pop-culture and everybody knew what a Mega Man looked like. The new direction didn’t look like Mega Man, and possible customers merely passed the game as a knock-off or as last attempt to regain the series’ glory… which it was. If CAPCOM had gone with the evolving art direction and emphasized more the game’s development and quality, the title would’ve been much better. X8 wasn’t a cheap game to produce, and it sold less that anticipated. The art direction not only failed to attract new audience, but caused their existing customer base to dwindle down, as people lost interest in the game. I was one of them who bought the game later on much cheaper simply because the art direction.
While this seems like a stupid reason, change in art direction is always the first sign of more changes in the franchise.
Art direction tells a lot about the franchise itself. It gives the first impression, and that first impression has to be good one. When an instalment takes another path than its predecessor, the art direction usually changes to reflect this. When an instalment continues to continue on the same path as the predecessor, the art direction evolves to reflect this.
But sometimes the art just changes without no real reason. This’ll bug the customers to no end, and wavering customer loyalty is a bad thing when you’re trying to keep selling your products.
An example of change in art direction with no real reason. Notice how the character’s bodies have become completely different and couldn’t be recognized as the same characters. While certain aspect have kept, they are not character defining traits any more and adds nothing to the appearance. This is NOT how you give your own twist to a work that should be selling