Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
Game Design: Secrets of the Sages -- Creating Characters, Storyboarding, and Design Documents
arrowPress Releases
May 30, 2017
Games Press
View All     RSS

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

Game Design: Secrets of the Sages -- Creating Characters, Storyboarding, and Design Documents

March 15, 2002 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 7 Next

David Perry, Shiny Entertainmen

President of Shiny Entertainment and game designer extraordinaire David Perry has brought to life a number of hit characters over the years. This includes protagonists from the Earthworm Jim games, MDK, Wild 9, Messiah, Sacrifice, and soon The Matrix.

Perry was asked to provide three (in)valuable pieces of advice on creating a successful game character, and all three of his answers are thought-provoking:

  1. Humor is a very important part of entertainment. So if you can make it amusing, that's the easiest way to go. Unique abilities are also good. Earthworm Jim's suit would use him to achieve its goals. Funny stuff like that adds spice to the characters you're creating.
  2. Somebody once said that a great character has a unique silhouette—if you can identify a character just by its outline, you know you've made something that will stand out in a crowd.

  3. New and interesting weapons are also important. Nothing is worse than playing a game with a leaky peashooter. So great firepower is a good way to pat a gamer on the head.

Perry says he hates to advertise this, but...

I have to say that the best way to learn how to make a great character is to take this class: I highly recommend it. If you're new to the business, you're not going to get away with Pac-Man anymore; you have to make real, intelligent, interesting characters. This seminar will tell you exactly how to do just that.

Many times throughout this book you may see conflicting advice on certain topics. Case in point: Asked about the importance of design documents, Perry directly contradicts Lorne Lanning and others:

I used to think they were a waste of time. I still do, to be honest. I prefer different documents that matter to certain people that they will bother to read:
  • The game walkthrough script. We write in a program called Final Draft ( and we write the experience we would love to see from the beginning to the end of the game. It's written kinda like a movie, but describes the ambiance, who's there, what you see, what you don't see, the action, what they say, etc.
  • The lists. These are done in Microsoft Excel and are tracked. These are lists of everything—objects, weapons, characters, balance statistics, etc.

Does Perry storyboard his games?

Over the years, I've worked with all sorts of business people. Some "get it," but some are completely flatline when it comes to any ability to think creatively. I found that the saying is indeed true, "A picture paints a thousand words." We extensively draw storyboards now, so that anyone that needs to understand the vision can just look at the pictures like a comic book. It saves a lot of discussion.
I've found that taking 3D sculptures of your characters to meetings is great because it's an instant conversation piece, and the people you're pitching become mesmerized by the sculpture as you describe the design. How do you get a good sculpture? There are several ways, but these are the best two I know:
  • Use a great sculptor who works with action/pitch characters. Just ask for photos of previous work.
  • Use a technology called rapid prototyping (search on the Net). Companies like Gentle Giant will take your game's 3D model data and then sculpt it using lasers so you get an exact replica of your character. We have some quite amazing sculptures from these guys that took zero effort at our end.

Perry's words of wisdom can be found in other places throughout this book—be sure to read his thoughts on general game design theory and implementation (Chapter 2) and on breaking into the industry (Chapter 21).

George Broussard, 3D Realms

Ever since the third game in 3D Realms' popular Duke Nukem series came out in 1996, countless others have tried to create a successful lead character by mimicking its overly macho, mouthy, badass hero, Duke Nukem. (Heck, his name says it alone!)

3D Realms president George Broussard offers some advice to those looking to create character-driven action games:

First off, your game has to be great. Without that, nothing you do with a character matters. We try to create catchy character names—like Duke Nukem or Max Payne—that instantly get a reaction from people, or create an image in someone's mind. That's the "hook." Once you have a hook that people find interesting, you just flesh out the character with personality traits, mannerisms, and catchphrases.

Broussard suggests hiring a writer: "We're at the point today where all games need a real writer who can breathe real personalities, dialogue, and life into characters." Here's a shot of the Duke in all his glory, which eventually made the box front for Duke Nukem 3D.

Broussard explains why Max Payne is more than just a cool name:

Remedy Entertainment did a great job with Max Payne. His name has a unique hook and people usually get the pun—that he delivers "maximum pain." Then you give Max a compelling reason to act and be motivated. He's an undercover cop, with his back against the wall, out for revenge after the death of his wife and daughter. Finally, you give Max his "personality" through the way he speaks. Max narrates his journey metaphorically, in the style of detective films of the1940s and 1950s. What you end up with is an interesting character who's fairly unique to games, and hopefully people respond to that. Our gaming audience is getting more sophisticated every day and won't settle for less.

Broussard adds that this advice really depends on the types of characters you want to make. He explains:

We typically create over-the-top characters that lean more toward what you might find in comic books or high-action movies. Characters that are larger than life, and for those types of characters there's a pretty basic starting point.

To reiterate and summarize his points made above, Broussard says you can break down any character into the following characteristics:

  • Personality traits. This defines the character's personality and how he or she reacts to situations.
  • Appearance. There should be a distinctive look to your character, so people will learn to recognize the character from appearance alone. Examples: Lara Croft, Superman (almost any superhero), Darth Vader.
  • Motivation. Why do your characters do what they do? What drives them? Once this is established, your characters will get stronger from doing things the way people expect them to.
  • Catchphrase. The best characters become famous and well known for a simple catchphrase that sticks in people's minds, and usually becomes part of pop culture. Remember the "Where's the Beef?" commercials for Wendy's? Examples: "What's up, doc?" (Bugs Bunny); "Up, up, and away!" (Superman); "Holy hand grenades, Batman!" (Robin); "I'll be back" (The Terminator); "Go ahead, make my day" (Dirty Harry).
  • Name. A character's name should be "catchy" and unique in some way, so people hear the name and get an instant image in their minds. Rhyming and alliteration are good tools to come up with a catchy character name. Examples: Duke Nukem, Sonic the Hedgehog, Earthworm Jim.

To further illustrate his point on the "parts" of a distinguishable character, Broussard provides these examples:

See if you can guess the character before the name is given, simply from the basic elements:

Personality trait: Egotistical

Appearance: Sunglasses, red muscle shirt, bandoliers, blond flat top

Motivation: Kick alien ass/score with babes

Catchphrase: "Come get some"

Name: Duke Nukem

Personality traits: Determined, inquisitive, loner

Appearance: Black suit, white shirt, tie, cell phone

Motivation: FBI agent/uncover conspiracies

Catchphrase: "The Truth Is Out There"

Name: Fox Mulder, from The X-Files

Says Broussard, "The above is merely a starting point for developing your own characters, and you can make them more or less complex, depending on your needs. But in the end, these characteristics are needed for a really memorable character."

How do you translate sketches to real characters in the game? Is it necessary for a series such as Duke Nukem?

As video games have gotten more and more complex, we've started to adopt the ways that movies do things. A lot of games today have scripts much like a movie, where all the action, cut-scenes, and dialogue are carefully laid out in every detail. Another thing that has been adopted is the idea of concept sketches. These sketches serve to solidify the look and feel of elements in the game, such as characters, locations, and action sequences.

But what about design documents? Are they necessary for all types of games?

Let me tell you about design docs. Duke Nukem 3D didn't even have one. We did stuff as we went, adding bits that were cool and discarding ideas that didn't work. Look how the game turned out. All we had was a vague notion that the game would be based in a future, seedy L.A. The rest came from a dynamic development process.
Duke Nukem Forever has substantially more on paper from the start because it's a much more cohesive and large game. But people who write 300-page design docs beforehand are wasting their time. The game design process (for most) is an evolutionary process. You refine and redesign as you go, learning and making things better. It's insane to write a 300-page doc, then just make the game. There's no way you can think of every cool idea before you make the game, and you have to be flexible enough to roll with the punches and add and refine ideas as you go, all according to the timeline.
Speaking from our experience, design docs are merely a general guideline that gets more and more polished as you go. You just try to stay three to four months ahead of things as you go. The design doc isn't done until the game is.
Also bear in mind that 3D action games are not that complex. They have bad guys, guns, items, and level locations. Not exactly rocket science, or something needing 300 pages.

Be sure to read all about the exciting Duke Nukem happenings at 3D Realms' official web site.

Scott Miller, 3D Realms

We just heard from George Broussard, president of 3D Realms, about creating such hit characters as Duke Nukem—but we'll also turn to 3D Realms CEO Scott Miller to reveal the "secret" to creating successful characters, while so many others have failed.

Positioning and differentiation. Duke is the first white male action hero. No other character will ever have a chance knocking Duke off his particular pedestal, because it's better to be first than it is to be better (a key concept of positioning). Likewise, Max Payne is the first character of his type—a true antihero vigilante cop—and no other developer will ever have a chance making a better character with this description. Thanks to the well-known psychology of the human mind, better doesn't win; being first is what really matters.
George [Broussard] and I have studied and discussed characters for almost a decade, and finally in the last 5–6 years we think we've put together the key pieces of the puzzle better than anyone else in this industry. A bold statement, maybe, but consider that we planned Max to be the next great male action character and franchise from day one of the games design, and guided Remedy (the developers) in the key ways to make it happen. And we're going to do it again with two more coming game characters, Bombshell (appearing first in Duke Nukem Forever before starring in her own games), and another game I can't announce yet (wait for E3 2002).

Miller acknowledges that this is a tough topic to cover in brief, because, as he puts it, "It's worthy of its own book."

But there are specific guidelines to naming a character properly, so that the name is better remembered and has a catchy hook. A character-based game should be named with the character's name (much like most comic books do—which was our inspiration for this particular idea years ago). One commonality of catchy, memorable names is that one of the names is only one syllable long. For example: Johnny Quest, James Bond, Darth Vadar, Luke Skywalker, Duke Nukem, Commander Keen, Indiana Jones, Max Payne, Han Solo, Lara Croft, on and on. There are several important rules like this that should be followed to create a great character name.

Another piece of advice, something that was also touched on by Broussard, is that a character's name should reflect something about the character. Explains Miller:

Duke Nukem and Max Payne do this very well. Other game character names like Lara Croft, Kate Archer, John Mullins, John Blade are just generic, valueless names that say nothing about the personality of the character they represent.

In other areas of this book, Miller shares a lot of great advice on general game design, building a franchise (in Chapter 2) and on breaking into the industry (Chapter 21).

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 7 Next

Related Jobs

Telltale Games
Telltale Games — San Rafael, California, United States

Senior UI Designer
Insomniac Games
Insomniac Games — Burbank, California, United States

Senior Designer
Jintronix — Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Senior Game Designer - Contract
WRKSHP — San Francisco, California, United States

UI/UX Designer

Loading Comments

loader image