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

March 15, 2002 Article Start Page 1 of 7 Next

Mario. Pikachu. Lara Croft. Sonic. Pac-Man. Crash Bandicoot. Duke Nukem. Earthworm Jim. Pajama Sam.

What do these words have in common? The answer is simple—all of them are household names, but they're not famous actors from a Hollywood movie or some hit TV show. They're not Saturday morning cartoon characters (okay, some of them went on to that) and they're not the latest doll craze for kids. These are the video game heroes, the stars of the interactive screen whose marketing potential has kept them in the limelight for many years, and lined the pockets of their creators with green.

Many developers and publishers have tried desperately to create the next billion-dollar game icon, but a catchy name or cute look often isn't enough. So what's the secret? This chapter contains words of wisdom from many of those aforementioned creators. But that's not all we're going to explore here.

If there was a common theme running through this chapter, it would be "how to get your ideas down on paper." Some game designers prefer to sketch out rough characters or backgrounds on paper (or work with artists to do so); others draw sequential storyboards to help shape the vision and flow of the game or a cinematic cut-scene sequence; and in other cases, designers write fiction or game screenplays (usually for adventure games or RPGs where there's a lot of dialogue).

Design documents are often lengthy paper reports used to communicate the entire blueprint of the game, covering all its features, story elements, characters, locations, dialogue, puzzles, artwork, sound effects, music, and much more. These documents are usually designed in a modular fashion so they can be updated and modified if the design of the game takes a new form.

This chapter highlights how some of the more famous characters in the gaming industry were born, plus we talk with game designers and artists about storyboarding, script writing, design documents, and other ways to flesh out your hit game before you type your first line of code.

As a special addition to this lengthy chapter, veteran freelance game designer Daniel Greenberg ( has written an educational and enlightening essay on interactive script writing. But wait—there's more—designer American McGee has provided us with the complete narrative to the beginning of American McGee's Alice.

Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo

A man who needs little introduction, the humble Mr. Miyamoto is a living legend in the interactive entertainment industry. He has conceived some of our most beloved electronic characters, such as Mario, Luigi, Donkey Kong, and Link from the Legend of Zelda series.

When asked how to create such internationally recognizable and deeply loved characters, Miyamoto said it all boils down to the fun factor:


Making games "fun" is our only objective, and we're always making an effort to accomplish this goal. I believe that the creation of game characters is simply one of the processes to achieve this goal. If Mario games hadn't been fun to play, the character wouldn't be popular at all.

Exactly what makes a character fun? Is it solely appearance? A cute voice? Ease of control? Why do many game developers fail when trying to create the next Mario?

I'm not sure why some fail to create a memorable character. A player can emotionally relate to the video game character as his/her other self, which is the decisive difference from the characters in other media. Mario, for instance, can be a character with completely different meaning when he's driving a car and when he's jumping. The other design elements will affect the look and feel of the character.

Miyamoto recognizes that his characters are quite cute and family friendly, and therefore won't appeal to all kinds of gamers: "I think a number of game players feel, 'If Miyamoto's characters had cooler appearances, I could love them.' All I can say to them is, "I am sorry."

Some new characters from Miyamoto's repertoire, Super Smash Bros. Melee for the Nintendo Gamecube.

Where does Miyamoto find inspiration for his beloved games and characters? How exactly did Mario come to life?

The inspirations come from all over: my childhood adventures, the stories I heard growing up, the legends in Japan. After all, we can get inspiration from the ordinary things that everyone is experiencing in our daily lives, by looking at them from a different angle. In the case of Mario, back in or around 1980, when we couldn't reproduce sophisticated designs on TV game machines due to the technological limitations, I had to make his nose bigger and put on a mustache so that players could notice he had the nose. I had to let him wear overalls so that his arm movements became noticeable. Mario was the result of these rational ideas, plus the Italian design touch that I loved.

One last note: Miyamoto warns that designers may not be able to objectively comprehend how players will feel when playing the game for the first time, because the designer is so close to the project.

Lorne Lanning, Oddworld Inhabitants

In Chapter 2, Lorne Lanning, responsible in part for the memorable characters found in the various Oddworld games, talks about game design theory and production. Here, he discusses the "secret" to creating protagonists such as Abe or Munch.

First you have to know what you're after when designing lead characters. Is it a heroic character? An outlaw? A spy? What are they all about and what do they represent? You have to know exactly how you want them to communicate to the viewer. You need to know as much about them as you can conjure up. What they like and dislike, what their dilemmas are, what makes them tick. These are the things that give characters depth. The depth of the character is something that you should understand before you even start to design how it looks visually.

What's the first step, then? Lanning references Oddworld's lovable aliens:

Before we hit the drawing table, our focus was to create hero characters who were true underdogs. They're unlikely heroes who couldn't believe what had happened to them, their species, their cultures, etc. These characters would be considered the garbage of society. They come from the native aboriginal class, the working class, or from the wild. They're looked upon as pure commodity in their world, but not as living, sensitive beings. They're not the muscle-bound superheroes that you wish you could be; they're the poor schmucks that we already are. We wanted characters that embrace the notion of finding their inner strength and purpose.
You then have to be willing to go through a ton of design iterations. When Farzad Varahramyan [a production designer on the Oddworld games] started to design Munch, we went through literally hundreds of designs. We already knew that Munch was an amphibious creature who hopped on one leg like a bird on land, yet swam like a dolphin in the water. We knew he had only one leg, two little arms, a big mouth, and a big head. We knew he had a remote zap port implanted in his skull. We knew that he was young and the last of his kind. We knew that he was in denial regarding the condition of his species. We knew that he was lonely and searching out others of his kind. He was uneducated. He was really just a child in the scheme of things. We knew all of these things when Farzad began to create many, many cool designs...but still we weren't hitting the emotional mark of our goal.

Next, Lanning says they passed different iterations past Sherry McKenna, executive producer/CEO of Oddworld Inhabitants.

Her read is predictably non-biased—as she puts it, "completely pedestrian." She looks at things and just registers how it makes her feel. She's a great litmus test for us in this respect. We wanted to make sure that Munch held a place in the hearts of males and females. It was a very difficult character to design and we spent a lot of time finalizing him. Farzad stuck to it and didn't get discouraged. In the end, he came through and we were able to create a new hero who hooked those who saw him. He had to look like he came from Oddworld; he had to look as though he could have evolved there, and he had to capture our hearts.

Interestingly, Lanning says their various publishers were skeptical at first that this critter could win people's hearts.

However, we believed we had hit the mark on our final iteration, and after much debate the final Munch design prevailed. Since then, it has gone over extremely well with all the audiences who have seen him. Had the publishing forces had their way, Munch could have been watered down into something less strange-looking, and thus less edgy. You need to believe when you have something that communicates to an audience, and you need to be prepared to defend and substantiate what you believe works and why it works. You also need to listen to feedback in case you're wrong. It's one thing to believe you have a solid design; it's another to be able to convince others.
When you're on the creative front, the people who are paying for the product want assurances that the "creative" will work for the target audience. Of course, to have assurances usually means that it's proven historically. Unfortunately, history doesn't reveal what will creatively work for today's and tomorrow's audience. So the dance of selling something new and different is almost as important as the ability to create it.

Lorne Lanning says his team went through many iterations of Oddworld's beloved characters, Munch and Abe. Here's a couple of publicity shots of Abe used to help promote the game.

This chapter also discusses the importances of design documents and storyboarding. Lanning contributes his thoughts on these topics:

Design documents are critical. They are the equivalent of a movie script or a business plan; without one, you don't have a roadmap that will keep you on course throughout the storm that is production—let alone getting you financing in the first place.
In addition, today games take large teams of people and have multimillion-dollar budgets. This means that everyone needs to have clear communication or else a lot of money can be wasted very quickly. The team, the publisher, the management—everyone needs to know what you're getting into if you're to pull it off and have production go smoothly. It also becomes the basis of your schedule at the beginning of the project.
Storyboarding is critical to us in the video sequences. We used to do storyboards for gameplay, but this became more of a burden than an asset. Then we started doing actual visualizations, which helped to communicate ideas much more clearly. For these we used 3D data to illustrate the moves, lighting, effects, animations, etc. that the game engine would eventually run. There's nothing like seeing something do exactly what you want it to do—before it has been coded—to help communicate new ideas to a team of people.

The third game in the Oddworld series, dubbed Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee, is a Microsoft Xbox launch title, slated for a November 2001 release. It's the first 3D game in the popular series.

Be sure to visit Chapter 8, which contains some stellar advice from Lorne Lanning on how to create good puzzles in your games.

Tsunekazu Ishihara, Pokémon Co.

It's hard to argue that Pokémon has become one of the world's biggest phenomena over the past few years. It first started out as a Game Boy title in Japan and then became a popular kid's TV show, collectible card game, successful toy line, movie franchise, and more.

Here to speak about creating successful video game characters is Tsunekazu Ishihara, the producer on all Pokémon and Pokémon-related products for Nintendo.

Naturally, the first question is whether there's a formula, secret, or technique to creating characters such as Pikachu and other mega-popular Pokémon icons. Ishihara responds:

When talking about Pokémon games, its success is because the characters are described in thorough detail, I believe. More specifically, for each Pokémon, there's weight, height, effective offense/defense, and other attributes. These details help make Pokémon video games very well balanced; on the other hand, they help make such imaginary Pokémon characters as Pikachu have more of a realistic existence. With this information, children form their images of each Pokémon in their minds, empathizing with each of the characters and feeling as if they were actually traveling with Pokémon. Such well-detailed characteristics may be the secret of why Pokémon characters such as Pikachu are well received by children around the world.

On its international success, Ishihara says "It was not something we had originally intended." Instead, Pokémon was designed originally for the Japanese people, says Ishihara. Honestly, he later admits, it was designed for his nephews and nieces!

After the success in Japan, when we were to bring them to the U.S., our U.S. people demanded a variety of modifications in order to Americanize them. For example, they said that Pokémon are too cute and that they wanted to add muscular nature and such themes as fighting against evil. In the end, however, we haven't complied with their requests. If we were to do so, Pokémon would not be Pokémon. As a result, children around the world fell in love with Pokémon.

One final, funny note. "It has turned out that my nephew and niece are happy they sort of brought Pokémon to the rest of the children in the world!" jokes Ishihara.

Believe it or not, Tsunekazu Ishihara says he created Pokémon to please his niece and nephew, and never dreamed it would become an unprecedented international


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