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Design & Style

How to Design a Video Game Character

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jun 18, 2020 • 4 min read

Video game design requires more than a well-written plot and fun gameplay—it also needs solid and engaging character development. Game designers and writers usually come up with the character’s story and motivations. The character concept artist creates the initial sketches for the characters and enemies within the game, then produces the digital art assets that become animate objects in the game world.

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What Makes a Good Video Game Character?

Game writers, designers, and character artists all work together to develop fun and believable characters. A good video game character embodies a few different elements to help make them well-rounded and complex.

  • Solid backstory: A good video game character has a personality (even if it’s unlikeable), and their backstory has enough detail that the player can get a good sense of who they are and what they want. Even mysterious protagonists reveal enough information to ignite curiosity within the player, making them want to find out more.
  • Strong motivation: A good character is someone with plausible motivations and a unique look that expresses who they are. Defining your character’s history and relationship to the game’s quest will help flesh out their motivations.
  • Evokes sympathy: The character should resonate with the player, evoke empathy and emotion, and be someone the gamer can root for and see themselves in. Without these elements, characters can come off as shallow, cliché, or boring, which can result in a negative video gaming experience for the player.

How to Design a Video Game Character

Characters can make or break a gaming experience. With that in mind, here are a few elements that contribute to great video game character design:

  1. Get a general idea. Figure out the kind of character the story needs. Start off with some broader strokes before you dive into specifics. Is the main character a benevolent pacifist, or are they a gruff anti-hero? Are they an insincere trickster, or a serious mage? Use inspiration from other game artists and their iconic original characters to help generate fresh ideas and inform your own creation process (and turn tropes on their heads). After you have a general idea, you can start to refine the details.
  2. Establish backstory. A strong backstory is pertinent to building a good character. Some backstory is revealed at the beginning of the video game, while other tidbits get released as the game progresses. A fleshed-out backstory does not necessarily mean that every detail of their prior life needs to end up in the game. Defining the character’s history, as well as the relationships with others and the world around them can help you better understand the character. Were they reluctantly thrust into action, or are they driven by their family’s insistence they’d never be a hero? Giving yourself a better idea of who the character is at the beginning will help inform the character’s potential arc, what they will need to grow and develop, and where they might possibly end up.
  3. Figure out their arc. After you’ve figured out where your character begins and where they end, you can start to establish how they will change along the way. Create an emotional and physical journey for them to undertake, and note how these elements affect both the protagonist and the characters around them. How your character reacts to problems or conflict will help define who they are for the player, leading to more understanding and empathy of their behavior throughout the game.
  4. Add character traits. Much like in film, television, and literature, character traits are an extremely important aspect of character creation. Make a list of your character’s quirks, mannerisms, and anything else that makes them tick. Are they dangerously impulsive? Do they have a problem speaking up? Are they lone wolves or do they desperately want to be part of a team? Give your character traits that make sense for the personality you’re building. Making your characters feel like real people (even if they are not actually designed like human beings) can help bring them to life for the player, leading to a stronger player/character dynamic, and better gaming experience.
  5. Define relationships. Your character design goes beyond how they look and sound. Your characters are also defined by their relationships with others which affects how the player perceives them. Do they regularly defy orders, or are they a teacher’s pet? Are they abrasive to their teammates and non-player characters (NPCs), or are they friendly with everyone? Do they talk too much, or are they anti-social? All of these relationships help flesh-out who your character is and how they operate in their world, allowing the player to get a better understanding of their behavior and actions.
  6. Provide an aesthetic that fits. Many video games come with pre-established character designs, some of which have become iconic over the years. Mario, the titular protagonist from the Super Mario franchise, has such an iconic aesthetic, he is recognizable even to those unfamiliar with video games. However, some games, like role-playing games (RPGs), leave the aesthetic up to the player, allowing them to customize their characters with an array of different features. You can change everything from the kind of armor they wear, to the size of their nose, to the sounds they make while fighting. Whether you pre-establish the design or leave it up to the player, the features should match the world you’ve created. Aesthetic contributes to the overall essence of the character, and can help immerse the player even deeper into the game narrative.
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