Because researching images on the Internet and thumbnail sketching is so quick, it's easy to explore several visual ideas in the space of just a few minutes. When you combine these tools with your innate ability to recognize meaningful shapes in random objects (apophenia), you'll arrive at a process that is fast-paced and excitingly unpredictable. There's a great wealth of fascinating visual information to be discovered, and your task is to select the appropriate inspirations and then marry diverse visual concepts together to create a coherent character design, a process called thumbnail development.
To determine a body shape for your character, review and assess your sketches from the visual research produced by your keywords and mind-map. Select shapes that most closely match the character concept.
A first step to developing an abstract shape into a character is to decide where to place the head, body, and legs.
This process of personification need not be complex. Primary shapes -- the circle, square, and triangle -- play a key role in communicating emotions, so even at this early stage it's worth considering which shapes best fit your high concept.
Try to echo the overall shape from your thumbnail sketch in the body parts.
Combine the basic body shape with the thumbnail sketches of leaves from page 194. Play around with the body's placement within the shape of each leaf, as illustrated here. From left to right: the leaf becomes headgear for our character; scaling it up it turns into a full-length costume; rotating, flipping, and mirroring our abstract shape creates even more possibilities.
Steadily begin combining the personified abstract shape with elements of your research, starting with very simple lines and shapes. By keeping your drawing simple for as long as possible, you'll be less reluctant to make bold changes and more inclined to experiment with proportions than if you were to start out with detailed drawings.
Here you can see how the base shape of a simple leaf is combined with various research sketches including Ndebele tribal clothing, dead leaves,faces from ancient Chinese sculpture, and a poncho.
Think of the composite sketch as a mannequin over which you can loosely try out different visual ideas.
Talk yourself through the design, challenging each decision in reference to the character concept. How can you communicate keywords like lofty and strange featured in the character concept? Here an impressive proportion of 10 heads goes some way to convey both keywords.
What is the character's anatomy and underlying structure over which its flesh and clothing is draped? How would the character move? Aim to incorporate a system of opposing curves throughout your character designs fora believable sense of energy and life. As noted in Gravity and Movement (page 60), without opposing curves movement would not be possible. Return to research as often as necessary. Gestures for the hands were investigated using the search term "delicate hands."
It's time to assess how well the character silhouette is working as an abstract shape. Trace or copy it onto anew sheet of paper and block it in with a single value of shading. Do the elements of the character remain distinguishable when you stand back from the drawing? Does the silhouette sufficiently communicate the keywords in the character concept?
Angle changes that are too subtle tend to disappear entirely when viewed at a small resolution. Therefore,it's important to exaggerate elements of the silhouette for the purposes of visual interest and clarity. For instance,where you have two overlapping elements it is often a good idea to exaggerate the angles between the two elements so as to define them as separate (highlighted in red).
Team Fortress 2 (Artwork courtesy of Valve Corporation)
The art team at Valve that developed the cast of Team Fortress 2 did a great job creating characters with silhouettes that are easily distinguishable and have a strong suggestion of personality without the need for supporting details. Notice how angles between elements of each figure are often acute -- such as the transitions from boots to trouser cuffs -- adding visual clarity, even when characters are viewed at a small scale.
With the thumbnail stage complete, we've tackled the hardest part of character design -- communicating a character's concept through its silhouette. At this point, you might want to switch to developing other characters and environment silhouettes so you and your team can begin to get a good visual overview of the game, and make visual comparisons, which may influence your character's final design.
In Elements of Design (page 145) we saw several examples of games that successfully echo the high concept at every level of detail. The character being developed in this chapter has now evolved to visually communicate its concept keywords, including nature, silence, delicate,and light, through its silhouette. Details like body parts, decorations, and textures should also echo the character's overarching concepts or enhance them through contrast.
It's important to keep in mind that any details you add in subsequent stages should not disrupt the form that has been designed so far. Details should assimilate into the design and not change it altogether.
Lightly trace or copy your rough sketch from page 198onto a clean sheet of paper, making sure that you place the new drawing on the page so that the head, hands,and feet fit comfortably. Review the character concept on pages 191 and 193 as you check that your design addresses all the keywords -- quiet face; delicate hands;dominant straight, vertical line for silence -- and mute any textures to limit visual noise.
For the same reasons that the Old Masters like Rubensand Vermeer sought to conceal the compositional framework of their paintings (see pages 164 and 165),refrain from making your original sources of inspiration for your character design too explicit. If players are conscious of the references to leaves, for instance, they will find it more difficult to appreciate the pure emotional qualities of the abstract shape.
For the face, check that the dominant facial expression lines (pages 142-144) are all present so you can manipulate the character's features to communicate different moods, gender, and age.
In finalizing your character design, consider how light or dark it should be in general appearance. This character references the high-key concept of light, so its value design should reflect this accordingly.
Model sheet from Fable 3, Microsoft Game Studios, 2010
The approved final drawing should be combined in a model sheet that will be used as the key reference document by other members of the team. Here is an example of a model sheet for the game Fable 3. The model sheet gives you an opportunity to annotate your designs with information that may be useful to other members of the team, including references to fabrics and textures. Cut-away drawings have been included for elements that are obscured by overlapping details.
Collecting reference images is relatively easy. Combining them to create just the right character may take hours, days, weeks, or even months. Whatever your schedule you'll always wish you had more time to develop your design further, but it's better to present your concepts to the team sooner rather than later. The team may either like your character design, ask for a revision of certain details, or turn down the concept altogether if the design is found to be unworkable for technical or other reasons. Luckily, you now have a fast process for researching and developing designs, so any suggestions or feedback can be quickly explored before your team commits to the timely and costly process of turning your drawing into a working 3D model for the game.
Repeat the four steps of character development -- selecting a concept, researching the concept and keywords, developing the thumbnails, and refining the character -- until they are instinctive; then you'll always have the design tools to be creative on demand and to be inspired in new and unpredictable ways.
[Drawing Basics and Video Game Art is available online here.]