[In this article, subtitled "Why Mega Man's Jumping Facial Expression is More Important Than Normal Mapping", which originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine, Twisted Pixel (Splosion Man, The Maw) creative director Josh Bear argues that personality brings an important artistic and commercial element to games.]
When I first started out in the industry, I worked under the mantra: "gameplay is king." No matter what, the game needed to be fun and interesting through mechanics alone. I figured I should be able to use a box as my main character and find a way for the player to enjoy controlling that box in an environment.
After several years of designing games and co-founding a company (Twisted Pixel), it became obvious that as great as that sounds, it isn't always the case. Having great gameplay can create a fun experience for players, but without support from other aspects of game creation, that gameplay isn't able to do other things, like create fans or memorable experiences.
Our recent games have received some very kind compliments from fans and the gaming press. Our characters were called unique, and were said to bring personality to our games.
That word, "personality," seems to only be associated with characters most of the time. While I'm not an expert by any means, this article will discuss some reasons why and how personality has worked in our games and others.
I believe that personality isn't just defined by a game's main character; it is something that can be pulled from all aspects of a game. Sometimes this is very meticulously planned out. Other times, it's a complete accident. Taking the time to try to understand how this works has benefited us as a company, and helps our team make sure each of our games is a memorable experience, whether people passionately love it or hate it. Either one is better than being forgotten.
Is personality important? Absolutely. Is it easy to do? Not always. Too many games (especially licensed games and games aimed at children) assume that personality just comes from the license: if the game character looks like the main character from the television show and they share the same voice actor, then personality is covered, right?
It seems like common sense that nobody would think that way, but it happens all the time, even with the coolest characters in the entertainment medium. Games can go so much further when creators take the time to understand how personality works and what it truly means in interactive media.
Character design is a great first place to start figuring out how to infuse personality into your game. Sometimes that design is influenced by limitations of hardware, memory restrictions, and the like. A good example of this is Mario and Luigi from the original Super Mario Bros.
Most people already know the story, but it is said that when Shigeru Miyamoto designed Mario, he gave him a mustache to help separate his nose from his mouth and chin area better. Mario's hat was given to him because hair was more difficult to show with the limited pixel space, and the overalls were there simply to help break up his body so that his arms were more visible. This necessity to create an icon within hardware constraints ended up creating arguably the most memorable character in games today.
Mega Man is another great example of character design working within limitations of hardware. The original Mega Man concept art made it clear that the artist had a specific vision for Mega Man's face, but the limitations of the NES hardware made this impossible to realize. So by just enlarging his eyes and forming his mouth into a big, simple "O" when he jumped, Mega Man was instantly recognizable.
It didn't matter if you liked him or not, it was more about the recognition, and how he stood out as a character with "better" graphics than other NES characters, because they took the limitations of the platform into account.
Designing memorable and lasting characters isn't an easy thing, and there isn't one process that works. You have to find what works best for you and your team. When we design characters at our studio, lead concept artist Brandon Ford will start roughing out a ton of crazy ideas.
After that, the two of us will get together and go over what he started, eliminating elements that we presume won't work for the gameplay style we are going for, or just plain suck. But the most important part of the first step is that there isn't a ton of direction. He just throws down whatever he thinks is cool on paper. That way we aren't limiting ourselves before we even start.
Don't go into character design with obstacles. You may have the perfect vision of what you think the character needs to be, but be open to something totally new and radical replacing your original thoughts.
For our character Captain Smiley in our new game Comic Jumper, we designed him to be the most generic character we could think of, since that fit with the story we were trying to tell. Aside from the generic style of it, another reason we decided to go with the smiley-based head is that it would be much easier to show extreme expressions with it through animation than if we went with a human face.
With so many game characters out there (and comic book characters which are the basis of the games) it would be hard to come up with something original enough that we would consider memorable just by looking at a still illustration. So love it or hate it, the smiley face head was instantly recognizable and memorable, and fit into what we were trying to accomplish with the character.
Recent game characters such as Bayonetta and the Big Daddy from BioShock have done a great job of standing out in a sea of game characters that are all competing for the attention of game players. It would have been easy for a character like Bayonetta to be generic (and perhaps some people think she is), but for my money, her over-the-top design keeps her separate from other similar characters.
Her long, crazy hair forms her costume; she holds guns not only with her hands, but on her feet. And then there are those extremely long legs that make her not entirely proportional but aren't pushing it so far that she looks "broken." This is just one example of how a creatively designed character can add a lot of personality to a game.