The Four F’s of Player Character Design
I want to outline the four stages of character design that I use, and how they link to developing them in game. This process can be done in the below sequence, but in reality, it is an iterative and cyclical process. Anyone who tells you other wise, doesn’t care enough about their characters.
The end result would be a strong Fleet Sheet which you can share with the team.
This information covers a very broad, general route of player character design, rather than digging too deep across too many genres. These concepts trend towards games that require team/group play…..So, think “generally”!
This is about describing and fleshing out the “feel” you want the player to have, as an end result. Some people call this “identifying the fantasy”, others simply call it basic character design.
This first step is incredibly important, because it should guide all your decision making going forward. It is essentially the “Characters Creative Brief” and the “feel” lens should always be used to filter all future ideas, from wherever they may come from.
If something doesn’t fit with the feel you’re looking for, DON’T DO IT.
You’ll also use this part of the design in the final stages of development, when it is all about the refinement and minutia of great character design via controls, camera etc.
The feel part of character design can be just a few bullet-points, a paragraph, sentence or a mission statement.
Whatever works for you.
If something doesn’t fit with the feel you’re looking for, DON’T DO IT..
Ok, you have the Feel part down in your mind, and now you want to figure out the “reasons why” this character is the way they are. This will be used to define how the character moves, acts, sounds and just about everything else required throughout the creative process.
Once you understand a character’s personality, their motivations, beliefs and what they stand for, only then will you have the fuel to drive their function.
You need to be asking yourself these questions, because if you don’t know the answers, you cannot make clear decisions on anything.
- How will this character standout against the others?
- What is this characters name? Does it have a history or additional depth learnt over time? Don’t under estimate the power of a great name.
- How would a character like this come to be; What narrative or context needs to exist, for this character to make sense to fit the feel you want?
- What is their character? arrogant? jolly? sympathetic? aggressive? flamboyant? charismatic? deceptive?
- How would their character manifest in their actions?
- Ask yourself this: How would this character do the simplest of actions, such as sitting in a chair? ** hint, you need to know the answer.
- How does their background and character manifest visually? scars/wounds? heirlooms? trophies? clothing?
You need to be asking yourself these questions, because if you don’t know the answers, you cannot make clear decisions on anything
When you have a strong grasp of the fuel and the feel you want players to experience, you’re now ready to plan out the functions required to get what you want. As you start to develop the function, you may return to the fuel to better hone your character; Fuel is malleable, Feel shouldn’t be.
Function is way more than creating a set of actions to be triggered by the player, it is the physical proof of understanding them, and in turn, nailing the feel which makes players experience the fantasy of this character.
Input technique is how you want the player to access the actions, and should mimic the character’s intent. For instance, if you want to create a character where “precision” is their focus, then you may define inputs that require very specific attributes, such as state dependencies or reward combination of inputs in interesting ways.
Example input types:
- Input Frequency – rapid, slow, timed/opportunistic
- Input States – have a big impact on the feel of the action, considering you have states such as; on_down, down, hold, up, neutral, double tap etc.
- State Dependencies – on; hit, stunned, blinded, aerial, grounded etc.
- Combination – how do the inputs work together? compliment? Work to enhance this character’s effectiveness and push player mastery?
Other things to consider with input:
- Are there breakout frames?
- Input blackouts?
- Actions that interrupt most anything, such as block, dash or parry?
- Action queuing/buffering?
- Transition windows?
If your game relies on resources to fuel actions/abilities, then this another area where design has a lot of freedom to help sell the character.
- Do you want this character using their abilities more often than others?
- Are they resource starved?
- Does skilled play relinquish resources quicker?
- Do they naturally regain resources over time? If so, would they be quicker or slower at it?
- Do they start with larger or smaller resource pool(s)?
- Do they gain resources via alternate methods?
- Do they have different resources?
- Could they gain more or less resources from general gameplay components, like items (permanent, temporal or consumable) or rewards?
Fuel is malleable, Feel shouldn’t be
Never lose the players’ point of view of your work. You have a bunch of tools beyond an animated model; sight (vfx/screen effects), sound (pitch, reverb, distortion etc.) or physical (rumble) components. Use them all!
When it comes to feedback, draw from film, trailers, anime, comics or any visual media……even reality.
Have you ever been knocked out…Yes? Do you remember the bright flash, the ringing sound and the loss of orientation?…Yes? well we have the tools to mimic all those things, and players’ relate to feedback like this, incredibly well.
Everything you want the player to trigger in game, should have clear feedback mechanics.
When outlining functions, I like to add references to things most people will understand easily, to get my point across. Other peoples understanding is a key to success.
Just as important as the action performed by the player, is the reaction to it. If the reaction doesn’t reflect the action, everybody loses out.
- Hit Impacts – vary based on the type of action your performing, and are as diverse as your game requires
- Top Tip #1- hit reaction animations should be at an extreme pose at frame 1, and then animate from there; it help sells the intensity of the action which caused it to happen.
- Top Tip #2 – if you want something to strike with precision or speed, use a smaller hit reaction, but increase the impulse of the vfx produced on the impact
- VFX – vary based on attack and damage types, as well as incoming velocity, motion vector/orientation.
- Top Tip #3 – at minimum, spend time for tech which orientates impact vfx for melee weapons, to match the attacks motion during the collision frames, to really sell and enhance the action
- Top Tip #4 – screenshake, subtle screen-blurring and hit pause massively enhance the feel of physical combat
- Collateral Damage – scenery bending, shattering, shuddering, tumbling and crumbling around your actions amplify the sense of grounding your action have; secondary motion in the scene is icing to the cake.
There’s many more forms of reaction to actions, but those are the basics.
Form doesn’t come naturally to some designers, because it is seen as a concept artist’s job to figure out how they look, but I’ve always found it fun and challenging to at least provide a starting point. Some Concept Artists like having the high level information, while others thrive off exploration of an idea. What is important, though, is that the concept fits with the feel, form and the intended function.
Once you have the character’s background and personality down with the fuel, you know the experience you want to deliver to players with the feel, and the function to pull it off, you should have a good idea formulated about what this character may look like. Its like writing a book, you can’t help but formulate a visual from all the information you’ve collated.
Identifying and suggesting things like the character’s key color(s), defining poses etc. all help provide others a clearer definition, which should help reduce the concept art phase.
What Happens Next?
As a first step, you may want to throw the idea over to the designers you work with, have them batter the idea and stress test what you’ve created. Once you’re satisfied with this design critique loop, its time to work closely with the Concept Art(ists) assigned to the team.
Working with Concept Art is a cyclical process, which I consider one of the most fun and exciting parts of character design.
This process will usually go through a few rounds of thumbnails and iterations before landing on the general direction of the visuals for the character.
You have the design and some visuals, you know have to present it to the team who will help you create it.
This is where the KICK OFF meeting comes in.
Kick Off Meeting
The Kick Off meeting requires everyone involved in making a character, and its a crucial step. It is the easiest way for everyone to get the same message, information and requirements for themselves.
The people in that room are experts at what they do. They will cover, clarify and critique things with a fine tooth-comb, to build their understanding of the character and their role in making it a reality.
Good Kick Off meetings should be full of energy, enthusiasm, questions, suggestions and considerations.
You may lose aspects of your design, but gain a stronger end result, which should always be your goal, irrelevant of where the changes comes from.
What you want the Kick Off to do, is get everybody the answers they require to do their job, and it be enjoyable.
Kick Off Meeting Members
- Concept Artists
- Character Modelers
- Technical Artists