At the DICE Summit, Namco Bandai product development head Roger Hector has always worked with game characters, going all the way back to the days when artist, designer and programmer was all the same guy, and character design took place on nothing more elaborate as graph paper.
"This brought us such memorable characters as race car, tank, cowboy, and airplane," he laughed, addressing the DICE audience.
So how are characters made? Hector began by reflecting on how Toru Iwatani created the iconic Pac Man character while sitting down to lunch and pondering a pizza missing a slice.
"In 1980, I was just a lowly artist working in the Atari laboratory,” Hector recalled. "I was approached one day by a programmer working on a coin-op game. He was very excited about a game that was going to use vector hardware.” That game, Hector's first experience in real 3D, was Battlezone. In the days before Max and Maya, Hector's team figured out a way to draw in 3D on the graph paper, and then interpret it into game art.
The Disney Effect
Hector learned a new spin on the concept of game characters when he joined the Walt Disney company in 1989 to head up games development -- a team that, at the time, consisted of only five people.
"Disney, without a doubt, is the undisputed heavyweight champion of character design and creation,” Hector said. With that in mind, he learned a lot about managing characters from his experience there.
"Mickey was first introduced in the late 1920s, but his continued popularity has a lot to do with something I learned at Disney – all characters have equity,” Hector said. "The more high-quality the entertainment that character appears in, the more popular that character can become, and the more equity that character has. You can spend that equity through licensing – when the value of the character is used to sell other applications."
Building Equity Versus Spending It
"There’s nothing wrong with licensing characters and spending equity," Hector continued. "It’s just a way of capitalizing on the equity that the IP holder has."
While Mickey Mouse's character equity is built by having him appear in a game like Castle of Illusion -- "because Mickey is appearing in a new entertainment property of high quality" -- Mickey's face on a coffee cup or a watch is spending character equity, because it’s not an entertainment product.
Hector joined Sega in 1993 as the head of the company's Technical Institute. He explained, "The story goes back earlier to 1990, when the head of Sega, Mr. Nakayama, challenged Sega to come up with a character.”
That challenge was met by Naoto Oshima, Hirokazu Yasuhara, and Yuji Naka -- and that character was Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic and Mickey have a few things in common, Hector said.
"A little-known thing about Sonic is that, within five years of its creation, Sonic had created equal amounts of interest in Europe, America, and Japan, and became a billion dollar business, just in five years,” Hector revealed. "CEOs might think of a comparable challenge to issue to their employees."
Sourcing The Characters Of Today
So where do today's characters come from? Hector points to the success in the influence and inspiration of Japanese manga and anime. New talent is also a factor, as is the cooperation of multiple franchises making appearances together in games, a la Marvel vs. Capcom, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games, or the Star Wars character cameo in the upcoming Soul Calibur IV. "When this kind of thing is done right, it really is one plus one equals three,” Hector said.
As an example of a complex character, Hector debuted the trailer for Namco's forthcoming Afro Samurai game, based on the Spike TV animated show, alongside some character animations. The Afro character appeared in detailed ukio-e inspired 3D worlds, running along walls and attacking in melee combat against the backdrop of a hip-hop soundtrack.
"Afro’s exaggerated ethnicity has been done specifically to enable character expression," Hector pointed out. About the game itself, he explained, "It’s a violent action adventure with a deep story and complex characters, a distinctive fine art style, and merges cultures and blends audiences.”
So while character design has come quite a long way from pizza and graph paper, Hector concluded, "The end goal is exactly the same as it was years ago. To create characters that enable fun gameplay. A classic story well told is timeless, and cerebral. A classic game well made, is physical and ecstatic."