How to create a main character from scratch
What is actually a main character of a video game? What are the requirements for creating a protagonist for a story? The clue is already in the defintion of the word. It is the most important character in the whole game. Nothing in the game has to be described as detailed as the main character. All things respire to tell the story of this single person. For creating an interesting character it´s necessary to develop an unique plot. Its experiences and adventures have to be a thrilling story for the player. This is very important to keep up people playing the game. A well presented plot should manage that the player is interested in keep playing with the main character and wants to find out the ending of this adventure. The main character needs the ability to build up a connection to the player so he / she can identify with it. It has to be a very good feeling to play this character and every gamer should understand the actions and decisions along its journey.
The main character is something special. It doesn´t matter if it is a funny humour, a naive mindset, a likeable behaviour, even though it could be a very aggressive and egoistic behaviour like a anti hero. The main character should just be appropriate for the setting and the target audience. The plot tells the story about the motivations of this special character and should effect the player.
The goal can be kept very simple. For example: Super Mario wants to rescue the princess Peach from the evil villain Bowser who kidnapped her. In God of War Kratos strives after a liberation of his emotional pain and starts a war against the gods themselves. In Prince of Persia we find a very young prince as the protagonist which is looking for honor and glory. To fulfil his wish he makes a terrible and silly mistake and unleashes the sands of time which transforms every single living creature into a monster. Driven by his sense of guilt he has to change back this mischief. In a nutshell the main character receives a challange, however, the player has to be interested to accomplish this mission for the protagonist.
Very important for the player is the personal development of the main character as the plot progresses. Something has to happen to the protagonist. It can´t stay the same from start to finish. This can be managed by earning new abilitys or character development during its journey. The main character and the player have to grow together till the story comes to an end.
If you are interested what exactly is the heros journey, you can look up here.
all starts with a simple idea
If you read my latest post about how to create a new world, you know that we started to plan a special and unique universe based on powers of energy. Now it was time to create an outstanding plot!
Basically we developed the world and the story of the protagonist simultaneously. We were searching for elements which give the universe a unique feature that can be used by humans as well. The core in the center of this planet emits a special energy which influences everything around it. Our main character should get a new forbidden power which makes him outstanding and dangerous at the same time. The only question was: Which power should we give him / her? 😀
Generally we didn´t know what the story should be about. Is the protagonist male / female? How old is he / she? Which kind of abilitys would fit to the energy concept? There were many aspects we had to define.
In the beginning we were sitting together playing games like One Piece and Zelda Windwaker. I wrote in my last blog post that our inspiration came from those two game titles. This time we also used those two games as a reference to build up our own story concept. The gameplay of Zelda Windwaker is awesome. Everything in this game fits perfectly well together. The art style and the plot is very thrilling and the puzzles are awesome. In One Piece there are impressive character designs and very funny battle scenes. We decided to adopt the ways of story-telling of those two games and mix them together.
Did I already wrote that we had many discussions about the plot and the main character at this stage of development? Well, we had many ideas. However, at the end we decided to take a young boy as our protagonist who hasn´t reached his adolescence so far. At this time of his life circle he hasn´t seen much of the world and has a very naive mindset. So we are able to implement many up and downs during his Adventure until he finally becomes a man. We created a profile for this character defining hair, character peculiarties, clothing style, important artefacts and weapons. I don´t know exactly why it was very important for us that he owns a special quarterstaff and his headband.
Inside of this profile sketch we note down information about:
- his family
- progression about his childhood
- special preferences
- social status on the island
- weaknesses and strenght
All these aspects and definitions were very important for me as a graphic designer to be able to imagine this character. I needed to create a propper and good looking concept for the game. I started with the first sketches.
It is very difficult to create a concept when there is no art style for the game at all. The same applies to the world creation concept – how can people actually life on such boulder islands?
We discussed in team which abilities and physical appearance the main character should get and how the daily routine on such islands works. The next step was that the concept artist created a visualisation about that. That was my job 🙂
My guidline was a nordic / celtic looking boy because we also defined the climate zone and the living condition like that as well. The people on the island where we want to start the story should live in a poor little village. Most of the time it should be a rainy and foggy like the typical english weather. These facts all were important to create a proper design for clothes and materials.
The main character could also have aspects of a viking and generally represent the design and roughness of a norseman. We decided to name the main character Law. He is living in a charming little nordic village as an ordinary boy. His clothing style is a typical robe for a villager because he doesn´t need any armor parts at this point of the game. We decided a thin body shape due to his active behavior. His character is playful and he is happy about the little pleasures in life. However, we didn´t want to create a typical nordic character. It was also very important that he gets fantasy design elements.
The most important step is finding as many references as possible! I searched for nordic houses, traditional clothing, any kind of objects and used materials typical for this era. I also had do find colours and styles for human hair. After I finished a bunch of sketches I immediately presented them to my team for discussion.
I think we can show his personality best with a certain face design. Anatomical shape, hair and facial expression immediately let the viewer know which kind of person Law could be. Therefore I did a lot of face sketches and have drawn the body design later on. After we found a proper face design I tried to adjust color and body shape. I also experimented with clothing style and nordic decorative elements because our main character is special somehow: Originally Law isn’t from this island. His birthplace is far away on an other island but he was brought to Orodir, which is a rough nordic island. This is the reason why he has an different skin tone than the other villagers.
a new main character is born
We were very satisfied with our new main character who has two different visual appearances
- Law – just an ordinary boy
- the energy-permeated Law – powerful and unique
He has a very simple cartoon style like Link – the main character of Zelda Windwaker. In my opinion we managed to combine the celtic look with a fantasy style – glowing hair and eyes.
Finding a fitting design for a sketch of Law and our world was the most difficult part. The next step was to produce a detailed concept for our artists and all social media platforms. Drawing this artwork was very easy for me because I had a fixed goal how the finished concept should look like. Every significant detail for each character was defined and from then on I knew what is the message to the audience.
preparing for 3D modelling
The concept design for our main character was finished. But creating a concept doesn´t mean that the process is finished for the game implementation yet. There is still much work left till a performing character is built in the game engine Unity 3D. It´s a big effort to bring an idea from 2D into 3D. Even though we had a finished artwork for this character, the planning of a 3D model still had to be done.
It is advisable to prepare a front, side and back view of the character as a concept. This is very important to make sure that your design elements are working. I thought it was crucial to pay attention especially to the body shape. Every concept artist has to figure out a good character design. However, what is really a good character design? This question emerges very often for a character artist. I know that I´m not the best character designer at all. I obtained my main skills during my education in game design and learned that that the silhouette is the most distincitve characteristic of a design. A low-poly-3D-model is logically very limited in detail. I had to consider the silhouette for the iplementation and the polycount in the 3D software Autodesk Maya 2016.
While drawing the different angles of view I had to imagine how I want to accomplish the implementation 3D model. Which elements are important for the silhouette and which details are not that important for the shape? Which elements I have to model and which elements I can paint into the texture afterwards? Our ressources for creating a high detailled character are very limited. I´m responsible for the whole 2D and 3D stuff of this game (sketches, concept, 3D modelling, textures). In combination with the simple toon style we also decided to make use of low poly-count meshes because those are also very important creating a game for mobile devices.
Creating a concept in three or four different angles of view is not as simple as it sounds. You need to have a keen sense of volume for the body shape. This needs a lot of training for your imaginative power. It is easier to rethink the view-design twice before modelling a 3D mesh because it is a very huge effort to change the design during the modelling process. You are able to detect inconsistencies earlier if you draw the different angles of view at first.
It is less important how detailled your concept is defined. Make sure that you plan your character well and that the drawing has a correct silhouette in all angle of views: front, side, back. Sometimes it is also necessary to draw a top view for some concepts. 3D modelling doesn´t forgive any mistakes in planning!
At this stage I usually use guides in Adobe Photoshop CS6 to exactly figure out all inconsistencies of the concept. The spacing of the different angles of view needs to be similar. The outline of this concept defines the body shape for the 3D model. You don´t necessarily have to shade the concept because more important is the form itself.
prepare the Maya scene with the view planes
When you finished the outlines of every view-concept and you feel comfortable to start modelling in Autodesk Maya, it is time to safe the single concepts as a JPEG. Every 2D preparations are done and we can start to switch to the 3D software Autodesk Maya 2016.
This is NOT a tutorial for beginners who want to learn Autodesk Maya 2016. I also will not explain which commands I used for modelling. I assume that you already know how to handle the basic mechanics of this software.
Open or create a new project. Make sure which working units you have defined in the preferences editor (windows > settings/preferences > preferences > settings). This is very important because in game engine Unity 3D one working unit has the size of one meter. Autodesk Maya basically is preset in centimeter which is far too small. If you don´t define the working units you have to rescale every single element in the engine itself. This costs time and nerves.
First of all make sure to create square plane meshes for the different angle of views. The number depends on the used angles of view. For each view you have to create a new material (usually a Lambert material) and load the appropriate JPEG. Don´t worry about that the image doesn´t fit well to the square plane. We are going to fix that now.
Move to your source image folder, where you placed the view JPEG. Right click on one of them. Go to attributes and click on details. Switch back to Maya. Click on your image plane and open the Channel Box. Assign the propper units from the file attribute to the scaling of the image plane.
At last you need to know which size your character should get. Our main character Law is about 1.5 meter tall. Create a cube and give it the propper values. Adjust your image planes to the cube size. Now all preperations are done and you are ready for modelling.
texture and UV layout
I described the process of this character design so far. However, basically we started with the base shape of Law without any clothes and drew him naked. This was necessary because our main character will change his physical appearance during his journey. To prevent modelling everything from scratch we decided to create a basemesh for fast adjustments in future. The head mesh and the body mesh are separated. We also designed a single texture for each mesh. This is very useful if we want to change his clothes and keep his head design for example. This was the reason why we created the basemesh first.
It was very helpful to adjust this basemesh and so I was able to model this character very easy. This was the design for the first chapter of our game, despite the character design will change in future or not.
Modelling our first character took some time. I was completely out of practice working with Autodesk Maya till my last 3D project, which was in 2014 (For more, watch the Aberration trailer). After finishing the 3D model the next step is to set the UV layout and create the texture. What is actually a UV layout? Basically you slice the mesh and unfold it to a flat space. A very simple example is a cube. When you slice it you get six surfaces.
For this character design I used a unique UV layout. All surfaces of the mesh have to be placed within the the coordinates of the square. I was able to give some body parts only a very small UV space because these were single-colored. I will explain that in the next chapter „Texture“. The parts with more detail in texture needed a larger area of space.
We decided that the mesh wouldn´t get any detailed geometry for the eyes and mouth. Instead I placed sprites (texture planes) for the facial parts and created a third material for the facial emotions. With Unity 3D we can trigger this UV space with a script and access the respective necessary set. So I created one texture (material) for each part: body, head and facial emotions.
25games is a small indie game production. I´m the only graphic artist for all visualisation inside the game. We surely wanted to produce a 3D game, nevertheless we chose a simple cartoon style for all 3D models and textures.
As I said before, we separated the body to three parts of meshes, UV layouts and textures. As a team we defined a simple cartoon look called Cel Shading. The detail work in texture is very modest. We spare specular and normal maps for the shading in the engine. Our game should only work with diffuse and glow maps. This really simplified the creation of texture maps for this character. The texture is for the most part composed of a single-colored surface. There are no wrinkles in the robe, there is hardly any material information and simulated shadows of the surface texture. There is an own light source for characters in the game engine that enlightens the texture color to 100%. This also generates a shadow on the mesh with a very hard edge. Therefore the 3D body of the character is basically colored in only two values of depth color.
This character texture was my first texture for the game and therefore it took longer to implement till I reached a good result. Unfortunately the shader only works well in Unity 3D – Autodesk Maya shaded the mesh with the basic soft lighting which didn´t fit our graphic style. As long as I worked in Maya, I didn´t know if everything fitted or not.
Therefore I exported the mesh as an .FBX for the Unity 3D engine to improve the last bugs in the texture.
unity 3D implementation
Our programmer Kevin implemented a showroom for 3D models in Unity. So I can easily import my game objects and test them with the correct shader and lighting. This was a very important step in the production pipeline to give the texture and mesh geometry the final touch. The showroom indicates every mistake of texture painting because it is a neutral game scene without any other elements of design. Kevin didn´t created this only for our main character Law, the showroom can also be used for any other 3D mesh which is being created in future.
I was very happy with this quality check tool because I could examine every part of the body in detail and I was able to zoom in and out and rotate the scene.
Eventhough we know Maya is a good modelling software and has its benefits, we simply don´t have the ressources to transcribe Maya in the way we want to. Additionaly, as a graphic artist I never learned how to write scripts and we consider that there is more important work to do for our two programmers than to rewrite Maya.
Summing up, it was a bit cumbersome to switch between the two programs, but in our case we consider it is the best solution. Finishing our first 3D character was a long way to go. Together with Kevin we found many little texture bugs and I had to redesign the hair strains again. Finally we came to an end and we were satisfied with the result. The meshes and textures were done. I exported everything and gave the next step the green light: animation.
we was satisfied with the result. The mesh and textures were done. I export everything and give green light for the next step: animation.