The Making of a Hero
By William Anderson
Ever wonder what makes a great hero character for a video game? If so, then sit back for a wild ride into the creative design process behind The Making of a Hero.
Game heroes come in all shapes and sizes. From a medieval knight to a pistol-packing debutante to an earthworm with a robotic suit they all have one thing in common: they are our video game heroes.
Good or bad, short or ugly, the hero design for your product must be right on target if you want to establish a following for your character. A following for a successful game character can pay off in very profitable ways, and not just in the interactive entertainment field.
This is not a task to be taken lightly. If it were easy to establish such a hero every one would be doing it, but there are some basic steps you can take to guide you down the right road.
To start, you should know that there are a number of primary approaches to the development of an interactive entertainment product that guide you in the creation of your hero. These are Character Centered Design and World Centered Design, both are valid approaches to product depending on the target concept.
Here is a simple explanation of each:
Character Centered Design. This is where the designer of the product focuses everything in the game around the lead player character of the game or a combination of characters like those found in 2D/3D platform games and role-playing games.
Character Feature Designs. Found in 3D shooter games, these products use the environment primarily for navigation and protection. Finding the next great weapon or power-up for your character is the main goal. You will rarely find a player becoming personally attached to the Player Characters in these games for they have a bad habit of getting blown up all the time.
World Centered Design. When the uniqueness of the game play environment is more important than the lead character. Most of these games are primarily puzzle-based concept where you navigate a basic character with simple movements around an ever increasing complex series of levels.
Although some game designers have attempted to mix some of these different approaches, it often leads to disaster. Not because their ideas or games aren’t any good, but because there are established markets for games that have been around for many years. This creates a following of game players who expect a certain style of product with established norms in how they work. If you break too far from the basic expectations, you lose your audience and, most likely, a sale.
Unfortunately, some designers who are just starting out in this field get extremely frustrated with marketing people because they have a great idea for a game but can’t even get it to first base. This is often because marketing managers are like surfers, always riding the waves of the established norms in the market — they know if they break from that wave in a totally new direction they could fall and fall hard. This, of course, is not to say you should not try to establish a new wave of your own, just try to take smaller steps which is generally more successful then jumping in with both feet into a totally unknown direction.
Remember that just like in any business, large successes come from building on smaller ones. For purposes of this article we will focus on Character Centered Design, primarily because it is the one most widely used in today’s game concepts.
First, the whole idea behind Character Centered Design is that you and I as game players will be focusing most of the time during game play on and around the Player Character and his/her/its abilities and personality. Therefore, all of the gameplay, from level mechanics to monster designs, will focus around the unique design, abilities and non-abilities of your lead player character.
Your design layout for this character must be extremely tight in all areas. Like a keystone in a building, all of the weight above rests on its strengths. Keeping this always in mind, there are a number of key tasks to tackle when laying out the design for your hero character, the following is a list of key tasks in order of importance:
Looks. Looks are important in a number of ways. While not necessarily physically attractive, there should be a uniqueness of the character when placed next to all of the other lead player characters out there. As a good friend once told me, “You’re going to be looking at this character for a very long time so it better be a great!”
A good example of this was when I bumped into a designer a few years back at a game show. He told me that when a certain well-known company was working on an upcoming 3D Action Adventure game for the PSX they had a meeting to discus what the lead character might look like. Someone stepped up with the comment, “I don’t know about you but if I have to look at the back side of a character all the time it better be an beautiful lady!” By this one simple comment video game history was made and millions where made in the process.
And they were right on the money with the character design, if you just think about the concept they were working on: a two-fisted shooter game that would automatically fall right into the male 14+ category. But could they have failed with this approach? Yes, if the character design was weak or if some of the other items below were not balanced correctly. (As we have seen with many copycat product that tried and failed).
Movement Abilities. The movement and basic abilities of the hero character are two of the most critical features of any game product. The entire idea behind playing a video game is to give the player the ability to control a character in a unique world. The easier it is to use, the more satisfying the playing experience. I can’t count how many games I’ve seen that had every thing going for them but the basic movement controls were just so bad that players just walked away, without looking back.
This aspect is sometimes hard for a lead designer or product manager to deal with — if the programming or animation staff just don’t have the knack for putting smooth movements into their work you are in trouble. Not to be underestimated, this is a very special skill for both programmers and the artists to pull off seamlessly and in such a way to avoid bogging down the game with unneeded code delays or animation frames.
Action Abilities. The action abilities are all of the special things the hero character can do in the game. From combat, climbing a rope, to pulling a lever on a wall these must follow the same rules as the Movement Abilities, while also adding depth to the global gameplay.
By depth, I mean adding a basic toolbox of things the hero can do throughout the game and adding to them as needed, while also pacing these gained abilities throughout the product to give the player time to adapt and learn. This will ultimately add a lot of uniqueness to your concept and make the player want more.
With this you should also keep in mind that players — especially action game players — get bored very quickly if things aren’t changing fast enough. This is why pacing out rewards such as added action abilities, power-ups, treasures and secrets throughout the game are vital to keeping players involved with the play.
Don’t Over Simplify. Designers and Project Managers are under a great deal of pressure these days to make every feature in the game so simple that everyone on the production team and in marketing can play it easily. Just say no! Game players are not created equally and neither is gameplay. Remember the old expression “If you design a product to please everyone, you’ve made a product that pleases no one!”
There should be a learning curve to gained abilities, while keep the basic movements and abilities down to established norms in design. In this way a player can dive into the game quickly but must advance his or her knowledge to move to higher levels and greater depths of play. This will automatically build Satisfaction into your product and that will bring them back for more!
Weaknesses. Weaknesses are simply what can and can’t hurt or restrain the play during the game. This must be consistent with the norms in design for this concept and consistent with your concept.
There are 2 basic norms you will need to follow when designing your product:
1: The established gameplay norms of the similar successful games.
2: The norms you will establish and train the player in for your game.
As you may know, while designing a game, you will have to layout a number of rules for your hero and the product that, once established you should never break. If you do, the player will not be able to establish for himself the dos and don’ts in your product and that will lead to frustration.
Also, never establish a rule in one level or world and break it in another. I know this is just common sense, but I’ve seen a number of designers play this Joker Card and it has lead to their game CD becoming a coaster for a soda can.
Enhancements. Player character enhancements and rewards are totally expected in every game concept. From gaining a new weapon, finding treasures and armor, to items that give the player the ability to gain access to other locked off areas of the game like keys, these items build life or what I like to call Draw into a product.
Why is Draw important? With some type of draw mechanism you as a designer will have an extremely hard time enticing the player into taking chances, and this is what gameplay is all about. Think of it this way, the two most basic human emotions that we as designers must work with and master in product development are simply Pleasure and Pain. And in this there are also rules.
The first of which are the expected rules that were established by all the successful games that have come before yours, and the others are very simple:
1: The interface and controls should not interfere with game play.
2: I will not be punished arbitrarily.
3: I will be rewarded in an equal way for learning and overcoming obstacles.
4: There should be an intuitive or logical solution to any challenge or situation.
5: Basic instinctual human dangers should be valid! For example fire and sharp object will always be avoided by natural human instinct unless there is a clear understanding why not.
There are other branches of rules that you will discover as you go but these are the most basic five. Remember that we all want pleasure and will do anything to avoid pain, and by balancing these out in a fair way we create a challenging world to which we escape.
If you follow the right steps it’s not hard to make a unique and compelling Hero for your game, but it’s critical that you take your time and work out as many details as possible before designing your world around him, her or it.
If you need more help defining the Hero for your concept then I would grab some paper, sit down with a number of good games and simply document all that you can about how they work. List the number of different moves, command controls, and as many of the thing above we talked about.
Remember that your continued design education is on the screen of every game you play, including the bad ones. All you have to do is reduce what you see down to all of the key elements and think about why the designer might have done things that way.