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Aegis Defenders & Nausicaa - Character Design Process
by Bryce Kho on 08/11/14 03:03:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


First off, allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Bryce Kho and I’m the game director, lead artist, and story co-writer at the GUTS Department, a new game studio working on its first title called Aegis Defenders. Today I’m going to tackle a very important issue - the comparisons between Aegis Defenders and Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa and the perceived plagiarism. We have come out openly saying that the game was Miyazaki-inspired however that term was meant to express how we wanted to channel the same feeling as his films - in the same way that we wanted to channel classic Super Nintendo games like Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda. At no point did we attempt to copy or even reference the character designs from Studio Ghilbli's Nausicaa. Unfortunately for us, when you compare our character designs side by side, it does look suspiciously similar and our pure intentions can begin to look murky.


This blog post will chronicle the real story behind the Aegis Defenders' character designs, my personal point of view, and how there was never any intent to steal from Nausicaa. I'll go into more detail on what our plan is to rectify the situation at the next line break(TLDR - we’re going to adjust them).




Aegis started as a student project. Because our game started out as something completely different, where you played as a couple of old engineers who were building a mech while being chased by giant monsters - the main characters were originally just a couple of cute, old bearded men.


Some crude concept drawings from when we first sat down and discussed the idea


The inspirations for Bart's character design came almost entirely from Final Fantasy's recurring character Cid. I also referenced fan art from the second Hobbit movie which had recently come out at the time. So Bart was created in about two passes. It was pretty straight-forward and had been done hundreds of times before - an old man with a beard, goggles, and a hood.

References: Cid(Final Fantasy 6), Cid Fan Art, Cid from Final Fantasy Tactics, Hobbit Fanart


First pass of Bart’s sprite, second and final pass on Bart’s sprite


It's also important to point out that all of the art done at this point was in pixel art - so the actual style of Bart’s design was really due to the innate limitation that comes with pixel abstraction. I was really into the art of Super Time Force and Swords & Sworcery. Their games feature simple, elegant designs rather than using intricate details for differentiation and in our case, a pointy hooded cape is about as far as I wanted to go.


Other inspirations: Super Time Force & Swords & Sworcery


After iterating on the game’s design, we eventually grew tired of the idea of only old white-bearded engineers because it would be too boring in a single player campaign to switch between two characters that did the same thing - we thought a gunner would be a simple and cool way to mix it up.  We color swapped Bart to a complementary color and given that we had to draw a new shooting animation, naturally changed it a bit as well. Thus, Clu.


Clu was drawn quickly by simply doing a color swap on Bart and then adjusting some details.  Normally, you’d give a new character a completely different outfit but because we were working under tight time constraints, this was simpler.


Aside from the color of the cape, the gunner was basically identical to Bart - I even used the same color as Bart’s gloves for Clu’s hair and the same color cape for her gloves. If you want to get all meta, you could even go so far as to say that one of the reasons we decided to make them blood-related was because Clu’s design was born of Bart’s ilk. We picked blue because we wanted to give her a strong color that didn't sexualize her like red or pink might have. She was just going to be a cool, sarcastic girl who was a badass. What could go wrong? Seemed like a progressive, forward-thinking thing to do.


And that was that. We wouldn't revisit the characters ever again. When we showed it to classmates who all enjoyed it and would hear comments that it reminded them of several different franchises - Nausicaa was one of them but so were a many others. People constantly would tell me it reminded them of their favorite game of all time that I had only vaguely heard of or not at all. The only time I was accused of ripping something off was when my friend told me that Aegis itself looked like a Shadow of the Colossus clone.  “Fair enough,” I said and immediately tried to rectify the situation.

Shadow of the Collossus, Three iterations of Aegis’ design


It wasn't until months later, when our in-class project was almost complete and we had started to think about the KickStarter that I even bothered to look at their designs again. By this time, in my mind I had owned these designs - aside from that, could an item as common as a hooded cape really be in danger of copyright? Whenever I did see Nausicaa, the details or similarities were as similar as Clu was to countless other franchises. She's blonde, wearing predominantly blue, and has boots and gloves but so do countless other characters from other games, from Zero Suit Samus to the new Link design for Zelda Wii U. My limited exposure to Nausicaa and naivety told me that people would see the similarities in the same way that so many other games pay homage to Studio Ghibli films.


Clu’s Earliest Concept Art(based off of her sprite)


Various Nausicaa images - in my defense, Nausicaa's character design is fairly flexible. Some of them look very different from Clu while others look very similar.

Various IPs that I thought were similar but negligible - Metroid, Towerfall, Legend of Zelda, Princess Mononoke


Most importantly, my main concern with the game was its overall story - something I had been working on for several years for a graphic novel. The premise of a future where humanity worships robots as if they’re gods felt pretty unexplored. Besides, Aegis was always just a prologue to a bigger story anyway, meant merely to introduce us to a world that the graphic novel would further expand upon.  With those things as my major priority, a passing mark in character design felt like the least of my worries.


And my naivety continued and this idea that everything was fine was strengthened when we showed off the game at anime conventions.  At both Anime Conji and Anime Expo, people would say it looked like Princess Mononoke(my personal favorite Ghilbli film), Risk of Rain, Minecraft, Cave Story, and dozens of other games.  Nausicaa definitely came up but when it did, it was always an overwhelmingly positive reaction - the type of reaction that not only validated the design but encouraged the comparison. Part of the reason we never looked deeper is that no one ever challenged the art or criticized the comparison. I suppose that might have been because (A) the movie came out before many of the convention goers were born - including myself - and (B) because people were too polite.  In either case, our sample size was thousands of people and yet, no alarms went off.


Photos from Anime Expo


So comes my surprise when the internet sees the game and I start to see actual discontent with our art. I'm no pushover and I can take critique but the overwhelmingly negativity of some posts definitely takes some stomaching. My team assured me and continues to assure me that it's nothing - that haters are gonna hate - but still, to be accused of artistic theft is nothing to scoff at, especially for someone who prides himself on striving to create something original. And so, I finally decided to do something I should have done a long time ago and a responsibility that I ignored - I researched Nausicaa.


To be fair, I do not think that simply having our female protagonist in blue constitutes artistic theft but the similarity in shape structure is questionable(i.e. a pointy headgear). I do not think having an old man with goggles and a beard is artistic theft however, because putting one next to a girl in blue has only been done once before, I can see how it becomes questionable. I cannot tell you how horrified I was when I saw that somehow, against all odds, that my character Bart, who I had given with a mohawk distinctly to make him original and unique looked just like Yupa. I questioned my own subconscious for making Clu look too similar to Nausicaa but Bart, never in a thousand years would I have guessed. It was at this point during my google search that I conceded and fully decided we had do something.


Early Bart concept art(based on the sprite) versus Yupa from Nausicaa. Are you kidding me. I still can’t believe he also had a mohawk under there. I always thought Bart looked like the other old men from Studio Ghibli films but so does any old, engineer, dwarf, gnome, bearded, santa-looking character.





So, after that long winded explanation of why things are the way they are, what do we plan to do about it? First off, it's too late to change all of the art on our Kickstarter page to reflect the extent of character design changes we will make inevitably. It has taken nearly 10 months to arrive at where we are in development and that kind of work isn't going to simply be fixed with a few photoshop tweaks. With that said, we will change the character designs to something different without jeopardizing the original intent and tone of our game. Here’s a look at what I’ve tried out so far. Please note that the above designs are still a work in progress and not final designs.


I’ve attached them mostly to demonstrate how we want to alter Clu’s design by emphasizing the hood more strongly, giving it a more downward and heavy shape as opposed to Nausicaa’s pointy one. Aside from the shape structure, the next similarity to address is the color. Right now my favorite color is this teal color because it still looks like the Clu that I know while still have a degree of separation from Nausicaa but as I get to experiment more, this might change further. In short, the design changes will be minimal but strong enough to give our game a differentiated feel.


If you believe that our world is too similar to Nausicaa, my answer is that our world is much bigger than what we’ve shown you so far. While our game explores a similar time period(post-post-apocalyptic), it explores a very different overall theme and world - a future where humanity worships robots like gods. Many of these gods are inspired by actual mythologies, from Greek to Native American, and I’m confident that this will not be an issue. If you have other issues with our game’s art - as in, you think X or Y is too similar to Z - I can only say the same thing, “maybe it is similar but you haven’t seen what we do with it.”


Concept art of Shem that was drawn during one of our live streams - Shem is a robotic god inspired by ancient Egyptian deities such as Ra and Osiris.


In conclusion, to those of you who are upset about Aegis Defenders looking too similar to Nausicaa - I am sorry for not doing my homework on the designs to check out pre-existing properties and that it looks like I was trying to steal from Studio Ghilbi. But here’s what I’m not sorry for: I’m not sorry for any of the work that I’ve done. All of the work I did came from myself. Like anybody who creates, I was drawing from my own mind, dreams, and experiences - however influenced and inspired by the artists that I love. I love Studio Ghibli and would never want to hurt or take advantage of a studio responsible for films that have given me so much. I am not some money-grubbing cheat trying to make a quick buck - I’m just a person who wanted to tell a story. And as a human being, I’ve made a mistake of not being aware of my surroundings and thinking about the way my actions would be perceived.


Thank you for taking the time to read this.



Bryce Kho


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Christian Nutt
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It's probably a mixture of things.

Looking at the KS page, I see situations that are reminiscent of Nausicaa, too: .gif
puts me in mind of

Or in verbal terms, not relying on the links, there's a level that's QUITE reminiscent of Nausicaa's underground caves. There's also a level with Clu running from a large insect that of course puts people in mind of the Ohmu.

Add on top of that the fact that for years people were up in arms over Disney "ripping off" Ghibli for the Lion King, which is old news but which I am sure lingers on in the minds of long-term fans/the anime fandom in the West. This used to be a BIG DEAL to people.

Really, you DID hurt yourself by not doing your homework. I don't think you're a rip-off artist, but the intent can't be obvious to anyone unless you lay out your case, like you did here.

The fact of the matter is that so much of the JRPG genre owes Miyazaki in general and particularly Nausicaa and Laputa/Castle in the Sky BIGTIME. But by the same token, developers have long blended those inspirations with their own take on the subject matter. This is the story of "you have to be careful."

E Zachary Knight
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What I think this shows is that people need to just not be so hasty on the "clone" or "ripoff" accusation.

Andy Lee Chaisiri
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The problem is the internet mob calling Aegis a ripoff, making people like Bryce Kho feel defensive.

Heck, even Miyazaki was very open with Nausicaa being heavily influenced by Moebius:

"Through Arzach, which dates from 1975 I believe. I only met it in 1980, and it was a big shock. Not only for me. All manga authors were shaken by this work. Unfortunately when I discovered it, I already had a consolidated style. So I couldn't use his influence to enrich my drawing. Though, even today, I think he has an awesome sense of space. I directed Nausicaä under Moebius' influence."
Point du jour and Laurent Cotillon (Ciné Live n°86, January 2005)

Aegis Defenders is fine as it is, Bryce Kho shouldn't need to feel ashamed to share his influences.

adam anthony
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I think a lot of artists draw inspiration from various sources unconscionably. Still, the artwork looks good. Sorry you ran into some troubles.

Thomas Happ
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It definitely looks more "inspired by" than "plagiarism" to me. More like a Contra versus Aliens kind of comparison.

Anyway, the Chocobos in Final Fantasy are dead ringers for Horseclaws and I haven't heard any scandals about that. And let's be honest, Ohmus are a direct ripoff of pillbugs, anyway.

Lance McKee
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I had to look into Horseclaws just now because I had never heard of them. Apparently both Horseclaws and Chocobos were based off a real creature called Gastornis.

Andy Lee Chaisiri
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The musical influence was profound too.

Random Trivia: Chocobos got their name from Choco Balls, which had a bird for a mascot, but yeah they're visually horseclaws

Stephen Horn
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So the moral of the story, I guess, is don't put a young woman in blue clothing next to an old man in brown clothing.

I'm just as surprised to be reading about the apparent controversy as you were to experience it. I'm just not seeing the issue that the internet is making over it. I suppose it wouldn't have hurt to research Nausicaa before the Kickstarter, since it sounds like it did get mentioned a lot. However, even with side-by-side comparisons I'm just left shaking my head.

Sorry you had to go through that. Best of luck with your Kickstarter!

Zachary Strebeck
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I agree. This seems way overblown. Then again, I've never seen Nausicaa, so I wouldn't have caught it either...

Larry Carney
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Eh, there was a scene in the Hyper Light Drifter trailer that seemed to be "inspired" by the iconic imagery of the three titans walking forth and destroying all in their path from the same film your team is accused of being "inspired" by, but the Internet didn't go nutters over that.

Wonder why?.....

Literally all this tells me is stay the hell away from having a female protagonist in your game, the Complainers' Choir will find SOMEthing to find fault with.

Christian Nutt
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Larry Carney
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Pretty much what my response to others finding fault with the aesthetics of this title was.

Yeah, were they inspired by it?

They admit to being inspired by the general aesthetic of role playing games and Japanese media.

Were they "inspired" by it?

Maybe, but the only reason I see faulting this role-playing game and singling it out compared to even AAA titles which are "inspired" by the aesthetics, narrative, or gameplay mechanics of the likes of Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy and other influences is because gender in gaming is a big deal right now in some circles, and here is a game with a female protagonist accused of being "inspired" by a work which predominantly features a female protagonist.

Especially, as I mentioned, when more well-known recent games borrow the same aesthetic and even seem to directly lift iconic scenes from the work in question.

Paul Weber
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I've seen TONS of people wholesale trace other people's art or recolor game sprites and people are complaining about this?

I looked at the pictures before reading the full article and my first thought was...I don't see it...

Emeka Enubuzor
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I actually loved the fact that this game looked like it was so inspired by Ghibli. I'm really sad that they're going to be changing the art style. People need to get over themselves. Unless Ghibli is complaining about it, why do you care so much?

Marvin Papin
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Nausicaa, 30 years old this year and still so fresh in minds.

Dan Jones
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Much respect for taking the initiative to adjust your art over this, but I agree with others who have suggested that the whole thing seems a bit blown out of proportion. As artists, it is inevitable that there are bits and pieces of the artists we admire subconsciously inhabiting our art.

Heck, take comic book artists, for example. There are artists working professionally in that industry whose "styles" are straight up lifts of the styles of guys like Joe Madureira and J. Scott Campbell... even while those two guys are still in the same industry! But, for that matter, half of us who were into comic book art at all in the past 20 years have habits we picked up from re-drawing those guys' work when we were younger. That's just the nature of art. The guys at the top influence the next generation, and so on.

Clearly you weren't intentionally biting anything from Ghibli, and what similarities there are feel more like a respectful homage to me.

One thing you've got right for sure, though: haters gonna hate. You could have the greatest game of all time, and if you don't learn to be bulletproof to that stuff, it'll give you an ulcer.

Ian Snyder
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I wouldn't change anything. I think it's not just her character design, but her design inside of the world being very similar (so far) to Nausicaa and being with a Yupa-esque character, so just changing her colors and pixel art doesn't do much, anyhow. Change it if you want, but it's not plagiarism. Most people that actually create know that you will be able to find almost anything can look "stolen" if you look for enough sources.

The game looks beautiful, and I was drawn to it because it is like Nausicaa, but I never felt that it was ripped or stolen in any way. Certainly an homage to Ghibli, which we could use a lot more of.

Mike Reddy
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Hell, Bob Dylan has made a career out of "being inspired by" other musicians. Why change it if you were happy with it. Nausicaa was a movie presenting a post apocalyptic Gaea gone mad world. Your creation would stand up as clearly distinct.

Andy Lee Chaisiri
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This is a great looking game about a young red headed girl in blue adventuring with an earthtone garbed old man through a post apocalytpic wasteland where the gigantic skulls of ancient god-warriors occsasionally poke out through seas of fungus inhabited by bugs.

I'm not upset that it looks like Nausicaa, I think it's AWESOME that it looks like Nausicaa. And you know what? nausicaa is based on Moebius's work:

"Through Arzach, which dates from 1975 I believe. I only met it in 1980, and it was a big shock. Not only for me. All manga authors were shaken by this work. Unfortunately when I discovered it, I already had a consolidated style. So I couldn't use his influence to enrich my drawing. Though, even today, I think he has an awesome sense of space. I directed Nausicaä under Moebius' influence."
-Miyazaki talks with Moebius, Point du jour and Laurent Cotillon (Ciné Live n°86, January 2005)

And Moebius liked Miyazaki's Nausicaa so much, he named his daughter Nausicaa.

The villains of this 'ripoff' story are those who think Aegis's similarities to Nausicaa are a BAD thing when they aren't. Those guys are just being jerks, and they've unfortunately pushed Aegis's creators to be very defensive on something they should be celebrating.

If we're going to get up people's butts about designs then every sci fi shooter would need to apologize to Masamune Shirow and all the artists at Blizzard would have to commit seppuku for using Capcom's Darkstalker aesthetics.

It'd be a real shame if a few vocal haters caused Aegis Defenders to lose these charming visuals.