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Trinity34
13th Jun 2005, 20:36
Building Character: Eight experts with in on what makes great game characters great.


Sonic. Dante. Mega Man. Lara Croft. Each of these names envokes a vivid image in gamers' heads. And their capacity ot do that is invaluble to companies that are doing everything they can to produce games that sell well. Having a reconizable character helps a game break through the noisy clutter on store shelves and stand out to people looking for something to play. The cost of game development increases annually - and the sharp cost jumps of developing for next - generation systems loom just around the corner - so high sales figures have become more important than ever for companies trying to make a profit.

So, what makes a character memorable? Why do gamers instantly identify with some while others pass so quickly that no one even notices?

David Jaffe, the creative director for Sony Santa Monica, who has headed up games such as Twisted Metal and God of War, says, "Good game characters are like good comic book characters in that the best ones represent a key idea, a key theme - like a strong, silent type fore Solid Snake, or a cocky, stylish badass for Dante."

Keiji Inafune, the man behind Mega Man and producer of the Onimusha series, agrees. "The key to making a memorable character is keeping it simple," he says. "When you think about basic trademarks and other designs that are meant to stay with you, they ususally are very easy to understand. Making an overly complex character design often has an adverse effect by maiking the consumer not 'get' the character's appeal."

Jaffe agrees. "Good game characters, like good comic characters, also need a signature look, a cool costume with a hook - Dante's treanch coat, for example. Yes, there are deeper, more complex characters in games, but I think the ones that work the best are the simpler ones that convey a key theme or idea."

"The main issue is whether or not the player can make a connection with that character," adds Hideo Kojima, the creator of Solid Snake and the Metal Gear franchise. "To be a fictional hero, it must have believable player in order for them to be empathetic with the character."

It's not always solely about the character, though, says Insomniac's Ted Price, who originated three of gaming's more popular characters: Spyro, Ratchet, and Clank. "I think it has as much to do with the game as it does with the chraracter," he says. "A great character in a bad game will be less memorable than a not-so-great character in a great game."

And sometimes, trying to focus on making something memorable isn't necessarily the right approach, opines Toby Gard, the creator of Lara Croft. "In general, its probably easier to think about what makes a character not memorable, which is mostly now similar they are in look and action to other chracters.

"This is, unfortunately, where the game industry often gets it wrong." Gard continures. "Publishers sensibly want their game characters to appeal to the widest possible audience, but often intead end up with wishy-washy characters that appeal to no one."

So, taking all this into account, by what actual process were some of gaming's most beloved figures created? There's no simple answer: It turns out that there are as many different methods as there are characters.

In Inafune's experience, someone has to take the lead. "While a group may initially create a basic idea," he shares, "the final design itself will ultimately fall on the shoulders of an individual."

At other times, one person may come up with the initial idea but will then work with others to fine-tune it. "I come to the table with the vibe I want the chracter to have, the feeling I want him to give players, and the basic story," says Jaffe. "Then I work with many amazing artists who do many, many iterations until we can focus in on the perfect image that really represents the heart of the character. We probably went through 100 designs for Sweet Tooth for Twisted Metal: Black. We went through more than 300 for Kratos in God of War."

Evan Wells, who heads up Naughty Dog (birthplace of Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter), says that in his experience, "Creating a character is an extraordinarily collaborative effort. Team members responsible for each area will contribute ideas that add up to the final product. Without a motivating story or intersting abilities and game mechanics, the character isn't anything more thant pencil lines on a page or polygons on the screen."

It's interesting as a gamer playing as a new character for the first time to wonder about the people behind the scenes. What's going through developers' minds as they bring these figures to life? Are they thinking beyond that moment of creation, wondering what the future might hold?

In Gard's case, it was all about the here and now. "When I was making Lara, I wasn't really thinking much beyond the moment. Myself - and i think the whole team on the first Tomb Raider - were just caught up in the energy of creating something we thought was really cool. Everything that happened after that came as a bit of a surprise to all of us, I think."

Kohima was equally surprised by his success. "I certainly didn't think Metal Gear, let alone Snake, would continue as long as it has," he says.

Wells' experience is different, though. "It's always our goal to create franchisable characters," he says. "Just through the process of developing who the character is, we create a universe and a history that are large enough that we can't possibly explore all of it in one game."

And fellow Sony developer Insomniac comes int the process with a similar mindset. "With Ratchet and Clank," says Price, "our goal was to create a duo whose life span would stretch far beyond the first game and even the PS2." He adds, "Of course we were a little nervous about how gamers would react to the original Ratchet & Clank games, but when it began selling really well, we breathed a collective sigh of relief and knew that Ratchet and Clank would be around for a while."

Jaffe disagrees with that approach. "You hope they are successful and that they resonate with players, but I try not to worry about anything other than the game I am working on." he says. "Games designed to be franchises tend to feel a bit soulless in my opinion. They feel like a corporate decision, not an
artistic one, and I think players can tell the difference. If it happens, it happens."

Hideki Kamiya, who worked with Tsuyoshi Tanaka on the creation of Dante, thinks looking too far ahead is putting the cart before the horse. "We didn't want to get ahead of ourselves and think about sequels. If the character flopped, then there wouldn't be any follow-up after all." He adds, "But I do have to say that after making Dante, I felt he was such a cool character that it would be a waste not to use him again."

If a game is even modestly successful, it's fairly standard that gamers can count on seeing the protagonist make another appreance in a sequel. But has this practice of capitalizing on a familiar face become a crutch for publishers looking to make a quick buck? Jaffe thinks so. "Sequels should only get made if there is a real chance for progressing the game and if the gamemakers really feel compelled to make another version," he says. "Otherwise, I am opposed - on a creative level - to sequels. They can be very good for business, so I understand the need. Still, it sucks."

Inafune also thinks that it's a lazy practice, one that's ultimately harnful to the quality of games. "Videogame characters are so central that it limits creativity and allows less originality in the long run."

But Price thinks that revisiting characters can actually allow developers to make a better game. "I think that established characters give game designers an opportunity to focus on being innovative," he argues. "I know that sounds a little oxymoronic, but there are so many hurdles associated with introducing a new character that designers can't take as many risks with the design as they'd like. Once gamers have embraced a character, designers can let loose more frequently."

"The problem with making an original game," adds Gard, "is that it's difficult for it to get noticed amongst the massive deluge of monthly releases. In some ways it's better to try to take an existing franchise in a new direction so that at least you will get shelf space, rather than release a new title and find that no one will stock it."

And as many people have pointed out, even if the game industry does make heavy use of sequels, that hardly makes it unique. "It's a common practice across all forms of entertainment," says Wells. "It's natural that if people have enjoyed a game, or book, or movie starring a particular cast of characters that they would want to play, or read, or watch another one with those same characters."

As much as people might hate it, ultimately, the bottom line has to be one of a company's main considerations; otherwise, it's likely that company won't be around to make any more games. "Despite grousing about lack of originality, gamers definitely gravitate toward characters and games they find familiar," points out Price. "There is a huge demand for sequels to good games, and it just makes sense that the industry would first try to satisfy that demand and then take risks on new IP."

If it seems a financial inevitability that most characters will make multiple outings, then how do designers meet the challenge of keeping characters perpetually interesting to a critical audience? "I think they can be kept interesting," says Jaffe, "but they need to be reinvented and transformed to keep with the times, both from a gameplay standpoint and a thematic standpoint. And the transformation needs to come from an inspired place, not because the bottom financial line is demanding it."

"I still think the core of Lara Croft is very interesting," he continues. "But they need to redo the mechanics of the game as well as adjust her character in order to keep her relevant to today's audiences. I think if you look at how many gamers are no longer as interested in Nintendo's Mario, although, he is a brilliant, amazing character, you will see that even the best characters need to adapt or risk fading from the public's mind."

"The Simpsons has been going for quite a while, and I still want to see more," points out Gard. "The challenge is in finding new, interesting things for the charactes to be doing, but there are enough serialized characters who enjoy continues success for us to be able to say it's possible."

Hirokazu Yasuhara, who was one of Sonic's creators and now works on the Jak games, also looks beyond the gaming industry for ideas on how to keep things fresh. "We can see good reference on Disney's characters. They have seen subtle additions and retouches for a long time. So if a character receives these kinds of 'changes,' he or she will live longer." But, he warns, "If it is not changed at all (in game design, art style, or whatever), a character will have likely spent its life by the third sequel."

It's also obvious when a publisher is looking to milk the license over the wishes of the developer. Yasuhara says, "Usually, sequel titles have shorter development times, so (a decline in quality) can occur easily."

Gard adds, "The problem is, with crushing release schedules due to yearly sequels, you saturate the audience and destroy the team's ability to bring fresh ideas and enthusiasm to the development process."

Another way characters can lose their original spark is if a property gets transferred to a studio other than the one that originated it. Price knows: He watched that happen when Spyro, a character he helped create, was sold to Vivendi Universal. "The franchise may go to a different team that doesn't have the same love for the character - and that can certainly cause problems."

"Usually that is the case when an attempt to cash in on a popular series is made," interjects Wells. "A new developer will sometimes miss what the essence of the original game's success was. However, if enough time has passed and the character is presented in a brand-new way, it's possible to breathe new life into a franchise. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time comes to mind."

The Prince is perhaps the perfect example of how there is always hope. As Infune argues, "All charactes have merit, even ones that seem like they only serve to annoy."

Wells agrees. "I believe in second chances. Even if a character seems played out, I always have hope that sometime in the future some clever designer will do something inspiring with them."


STRENGTH OF CHARACTER

Whatever the reason, some characters are more timeless than others. We asked our participants who they thought had done the best job of remaining compelling over the years.

Toby Gard: "Link. He's been around for a long time, and I still can't wait to check out his next adventure."

Keiji Inafune: "Link from the Zelda series."

David Jaffe: "Solid Snake has been around since the '80's and he still works. Maybe it's because as tech improves, we're able to go beyond the cardboard-cutout aspect of him that we first knew."

Ted Price: "Link - hands down. Nintendo has done a brilliant job of reinventing Link over and over, and as a result, the Zelda franshcis has been one of the most enduring in this industry."

Evan Wells: "Konami has done a great job with the Metal Gear franchise and Snake."

Hirokazu Yasuhara: "I would say it's Link in the Legend of Zelda."



U.S Official Playstation Magazine, June 2005.
Transcribed by Trinity34 for the Eidos forums.