Making Action Game Minions Interesting, Part 1: The Art
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There's a problem that all shooters encounter-- the problem of enemy frequency. By its nature, an action shooter requires shooting. Of "bad guys." And lots of them. To provide both swarms of enemies to fight and a constant stream of excitement, we try to infuse even the most common characters with personality, interesting (meaningful) behaviors and variety. That's what we're going for with the next enemy we're examining for our upcoming mobile shooter, Morning Star. For reasons that will become apparent, he's a studio favorite.
I recently examined a key enemy character from the game, the Dust Ascended. His journey from sketch to final character ranged across multiple designs but ended up being straightforward from a gameplay standpoint. The one we're introducing here was the opposite. The enigmatic Mike Choi nailed the basics of the character in his first sketch (below), but we explored a ton of options as it relates to gameplay as we evolved the character's behavior in the game. This resulted in multiple classes and interesting variations of the character that will hopefully be fun for players of the game. His first public appearance (in the Morning Star Documentary Episode 3) was brief, so we're excited to explore his evolution here in depth.
Meet the Renfield.
We named him after the secondary antagonist in Bram Stoker's Dracula. We took inspiration from Stoker's original creation, because this race of alien tinkerers was conquered by the malevolent Dust, and they did a Devil's deal-- rather than be destroyed completely, as the Dust usually does to its conquests, the Renfields became enslaved to their conquerors, providing them with shock troops and their own distinct brand of technological "help," which I'll explain below.
After coming up with some background and physical traits, we dove into concepting.
Interestingly, one of the first sketches that came out of Mike for this character nailed the eventual design. Renfields are stout-yet-agile, a mixture of a frog, a bulldog and a humanoid with multiple life support gadgets that help them deal with planets that don't fit their particular biological needs.
Despite the initial enthusiasm for the early sketches, we tried a more tech-driven approach to see if we liked it better. We wanted these characters to be tinkerers, inventors-- aliens that adapt technology-- and the things that they find-- to their purposes. We took the character down a more high-tech path to see if exo-suits or longer limbs might work. They didn't. We really liked those first sketches.
A big element of the character is his physicality and what he can do on the field of battle. Unlike a typical "grunt" type enemy unit, we wanted these guys to vault, leap, cling, perch and all sorts of other interesting behavior to bring them to life. Here's a take on a sniper Renfield, but rather than having him in the typical behind-cover scope scenario, we threw him up on a hold, adapted his gun and aiming to accommodate one-handed shooting.
For the baseline Renfield Trooper, we ended up on this guy-- a squat, muscular fellow whose stout appearance belies a natural agility that might take you by surprise. Sometimes he's on all-fours, sometimes he's standing, but he's always moving around and causing problems.
From there, we broke the character out for modelling, including a scale reference of the Dust Ascended baddies you can see in the background.
To get some visual variation, we did a ton of takes for the backpack, headgear, armor, colors and and gadgetry. Most of these elements have gameplay impact as well, including their ability to shield the Renfield from damage and your ability to shoot them off and target them for precision damage bonuses. This was a fun learning for us and affected both systems design and level design-- the choices about which Renfields have what gear goes into their squad makeup as well as what you can expect to rack up on points by how much gear you can blow off before taking the bad guy down (e.g., seeing the cyclops-eye helmet alerts you that he's a Sniper and won't be moving in to melee you like the other Troopers).
This process resulted in a huge matrix of variation for the base character, part of which is illustrated here. Different Renfields have different weapons and "tools" that they use to augement themselves and the unfortunate peoples they help the Dust conquer.
We got the character into shape in 3D by greyboxing him up and applying some color to get a feel for how he would look and operate in the game...
Here's some closer-in details of his model elements before we applied the materials to make him come alive.
Lead Animator and Disney-freak, Aaron Marroquin, takes each character we make through performance pieces like this to get a sense of how he'll behave in the game-- how he moves, emotes, attacks and retreats. This guy's movements put him among our favorite characters in Morning Star-- he's both not-quite-serious, and not-quite-funny...
And here he is, in all of his lit-and-textured glory, standing by to stop you from saving your friends, your family and anyone else you might think of trying to save. The AI behaviors we've designed for the Renfield and the rest of our enemies is another essential part of this story, and I'll share some learnings and results of that in a future post.