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:
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.
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: http://www.beyondstructure.com. 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:
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:
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 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:
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).