The Basics of Character Design — Desperado Diaries

The Basics of Character Design

It has been a while since I spoke about the basics of what I do everyday, so I took the opportunity to share a part of my experience with a group of young people, who participated in the project entitled ‘Playing Narratives’.

The focus of the talk was the foundation of character design for video games and since the response of the audience was terrific, I decided to put some key points on paper.

Character design is about telling a story

My earliest childhood memories revolve around drawing. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the fact that each line I carefully nested on paper had the ability to tell a different story. Today, my job description is all about storytelling.

When I posed the question “How do you design a character from scratch?”, I realised it’s actually never from scratch.

The base story is already in your head, depending on what you have been watching recently. For example, if you subject yourself to a lot of anime binge-watching, chances are the base of the next character you design will be inspired by anime.

What is considered fundamental in character design

The one thing you need to keep in mind at all times is that all characters have functions. All features of your character are in service of their functionality and the story that needs to be told. 

When you are working for a client, you will (hopefully) get a good brief, out of which you’ll be able to construct the story and design a character. It is totally different when you are working in a studio, building in-house products and in this case, your creative freedom doesn’t have so many limits. But there are still some boundaries, I won’t fool you 🙂 

If I was to make a list of all the things fundamental to my profession, it would be quite a long list. Therefore, I selected three rules I consider basic and they are all related to clarity. 

These rules are not to be obeyed at all times, but if you are experiencing difficulties in your work, they can always be your fall back. On a more personal note: all rules are made to be broken 🙂 

I will onboard you with 3 types of clarifications in character design: silhouette, palette and exaggeration.

Silhouette. You know how you can determine a person’s character only by checking out their silhouette?

The language of shape utilizes simple shapes to provide viewers with quick and undoubtable associations with the personality of a character.

Palette. What about colors and the way they influence our emotions?

When picking colors, think if they will make the character more recognizable and how the palette can play along with the shape you’ve chosen.

Exaggeration. Are we making realistic characters or are they all exaggerated?

Practically every image is an exaggeration of reality, even if it’s a very clear-sighted representation. Exaggeration is what makes the connection with the character even stronger, based on the feelings it provokes.

I would add the line of action as another important ingredient for making your character look more dynamic and therefore, more likeable. It attracts attention and it gives weight to the character.

Here’s an example of what I think is great character design.

If we look at the shape, the middle figure is square based, representing stability. Both the right and left ones are round but the right one has sharp add ons indicating danger. 

By just looking at the form of these characters, you could easily say they are the Powerpuff Girls, right? 🙂

Character design in the gaming studio

The characters I make at Two Desperados are applied to splash screens, marketing visuals, icons, popups and of course, the game. Since we are creating games for mobile devices, we need to take into account the size of the screen. Therefore, characters I create can not have a lot of details, their form needs to be well picked, since we need to make a rapid connection between the player and the game.

I think the main character of a game

plays the same role as the frontman of a band.

A game character is central to the success of a game and is a core parameter in determining the liking and popularity of a game.

2D and 3D pipelines

There are generally two types of pipelines regarding artists: 2d and 3D. Be mindful of the fact that each studio has a different pipeline procedure.

When creating a character in a 3D pipeline, you are basically making sketches for a 3D artist and the most important thing here is to put your art in the space, so that your colleague in 3D can understand it.

If you are working in a 2D pipeline, your art goes directly to the game. In this process, the most important thing to consider is the functionality of your character. For example, you need to think about the animation even though you won’t be the one animating the character.

“It’s not your baby”

The most valuable lesson I learned from working in a gaming studio is that all artists should work collaboratively, as a team.

What I used to do is “take care” of my art by defending it from others even though I got relevant feedback like “your character is not functional for the game we are making”.

Your ability to listen and to make compromises based on the art you create is crucial for your success in the gaming studio. The process of adopting the “it’s not your baby” lesson can be painful at times, but once learned it actually helps you unleash your creative potential.

Finally, I hope I offered some valuable insights into my daily work and made the process of character design a bit more clear. Lastly, I would like to add what I find so exciting about character design:

Characters are more than just a simple or visual representation of a person. They are the driving force behind connecting audiences to the product you are building. A good character can help someone enjoy your game, but a great character can make a player fall in love with it.

If you’d like to hear questions ‘Playing Narrative’ youngsters have posed during the talk, tune in. The video is in Serbian.

Thanks for reading!

Danko Dikić, 2D artist