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Sponsored Feature: Drawing Basics and Video Game Art: Character Design
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Sponsored Feature: Drawing Basics and Video Game Art: Character Design

October 4, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

Level 06: Character Design

It is often assumed that creativity is something that you're born with: either you have it or you don't. Although some people may be more naturally gifted than others, creativity and exercising your imagination can also be learned and developed.

This level will give you a reliable process for creativity so that you need never be lost for ideas when designing characters (this same process can be applied to environment design, game design, and, for that matter, to creation in any artistic discipline). The structured process of defining your design goals before researching and character development will also ensure that you can visually engineer your designs to express specific ideas and emotions.

Good Studio Practice

Some triple-A development teams consist of more than a hundred developers, including programmers,marketing teams, producers, and artists, each with their own unique take on the game being developed. That's a lot of ideas and egos to balance! So before we begin looking at the creative process, here are a few suggestions for good studio practice to consider:

01 Develop cross-sections of the game rather than focusing on one aspect. This means developing the whole range of characters and environments in unison, rather than finishing one character or environment at a time. The quicker you can block in one entire cross-section of the game, such as a playable demo level, the easier it'll be to judge the full scope of your game and make comparative decisions.

02 Present your work daily to members of your team. Artists often find daily presentations an uncomfortable chore because few want to show work they deem unfinished. But daily presentations are good because the key concepts can be refined through quick iterations and team feedback before precious time is spent on details and polish.

03 Make your inspiration and artwork visible. Never assume at the end of a discussion that everybody is thinking along the same lines. Draw it! Hang your latest work on the wall, so that everyone can visualize the product they're working on as soon as it's realized.

Media Molecule, the studio behind Little Big Planet, goes one step further and dedicates a corner of the studio to artwork created by its fans and quirky furniture that echoes the franchise's handmade concept. (Image courtesy of Media Molecule)

Brainstorming and Character Concept

This section will provide you with tools to be creative on demand. Make these tools an instinctive part of your design process and you'll likely never be lost for ideas.

The first question you or your team should ask is not What game should we build or

How do we build a game? The lead question of any creative endeavor is What is the emotional experience we want our audience to feel? The high concept serves this purpose.

The high concept is a simple paragraph that defines your design goals clearly and concisely.You can think of it as the game summary that you'd find written on the back of a video game box. Who defines the high concept varies:

A game publisher may submit a high concept outline to a development team

The development team may create its own high concept

A high concept may be derived from an existing story, such as a book, a film franchise,or a real-life event or experience

Whatever the scale and premise of your project, make a habit of developing a high concept before commencing work so that you can design with intent. Once a high concept is established for the entire game, take the time to develop similar concepts for each character,group or race, and environment to be featured in the game.

A high concept is assembled from keywords generated during a brainstorming session.

Keywords are a small selection of adjectives that together summarize an entire concept.

To help structure the brainstorming session, write out the following checklist of key design concepts for you or your team to consider and come up with keywords for each:

  • Emotion
  • Color
  • Shape
  • Texture
  • Line
  • Speed
  • Size
  • Opposing concept

Let's say that your task is to create a character for a hypothetical game about exploring a fantasy landscape populated with fantastic creatures and vegetation. The types of questions you should ask are: What emotion should the character communicate? What colors do we associate with such a character or environment? What shapes are invoked in our imagination when we think of fantastic creatures and vegetation? And so on, through all the concepts.Any association that comes to mind gets written down, whether it's a memory from an exotic holiday in the tropics or a plant from the backyard.

Keywords should be adjectives, not nouns, because adjectives, like friendly, strange, or dangerous, describe emotions. Using keywords like these as search terms for visual research will return a broader and unexpected set of results than searching for specific objects.

Include keywords that are conceptually in opposition to your main theme. As we saw in

Subverting Conventions (pages 184-187) you'll add a greater element of depth and interest to your design if you include visual contrast.

Once you and your team have exhausted the idea process, formulate your keywords into a concise high concept that summarizes the character(s) and environment(s) you want to\ produce. Highlight the selected keywords, as in the following example, which we'll use as a launch pad for gathering visual research.

Developing up from a high concept and a series of character and environment concepts provides the entire team with common reference points against which to judge the suitability of design decisions. Only once you've defined your goal are you ready to begin the character development process. But before we begin the first stage of development, which is research,we need to understand what the process of transforming words from our high concept into images actually involves. And this is done through visual metaphors.

Visual Metaphors

We are all aware of metaphors in literature. Metaphors like "icy stare" and "beaming smile" are used to imbue objects or actions with greater emotional significance. Visual artists can use metaphors in much the same way, sometimes taking inspiration from the most unlikely places. All the images you find in the research stage can be turned into visual metaphors.

Every day you encounter many attention-grabbing visuals, and every one of them has the potential to be developed into a video game character or environment,whether it's the gravity-defying height, solidity, and scale of a skyscraper or a creepy, shriveled dead spider.

When you see anything that piques your interest,make a habit of drawing quick black-and-white thumbnail sketches of it in your sketchbook, spending just enough time to capture the primary element of interest, as in the sketches to the left.

Reducing objects to black and white silhouettes masks their original identity. Once you have a shape that captures the abstract qualities of the original source it becomes easier to imagine it as something else entirely.

The abstract shape of the dead spider above can be turned into a creepy, arachnid-shaped hairstyle and the skyscraper into a sturdy and imposing character. Viewers may not recognize the underlying visual references but they will likely get a sense of their associated emotions.

Though the spider and skyscraper can both be used as abstract shapes for a character, they don't fit our character concept that features keywords natural beauty and light, which the spider and skyscraper do not embody. So put these drawings aside for a more appropriate future project.

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