Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Kain and Cecil

Final Fantasy IV (relased in 1991 in the US as Final Fantasy II) really fundamentally changed the way I looked at games. At 11 years old, the story of Final Fantasy IV surpassed anything I had ever known.

At its core, the story of Final Fantasy IV is one of redemption. Cecil, the main character, quite literally goes through a transformation when he sheds his past. Kain, arguably the best character EVAR, falls victim to his own insecurities and jealousy, making a perfect pawn for Golbez.

By the end, even the "bad guy" redeems himself after a revelation about his past.

Besides the moralsof the story, there were a lot of ingredients present in more serious dramas like characters making real sacrifices for love or for their cause, and love that is found, lost, found again and tangled up with other people.

Kain is a badass, so I did my best to do him justice. Here is some uncolored line art. I will clean it up a bit and color it when I have time. I think it turned out pretty good. If you don't know, Kain is a "Dragoon Knight", a character class in Final Fantasy lore that is able to jump literally dozens of feet in the air, piercing their enemy from above with a large spear.

I'm a little less happy with Cecil's line art. First of all the pose is boooring. It's also very thick, because I was playing around with line widths. Cecil becomes a Paladin after he sheds his dark past. He always bears guilt for the sins of his past, but more than makes up for it by saving the whole damn world.

I would also like to draw Rydia summoning Leviathan. I just can't draw women very well...

Well, comment away.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Deconstructing the Character

I spent more time deconstructing the Nightmare Castle 2 character further. I simplified the hair, and removed the nose completely. Not sure if the missing nose will stay, but I will keep exploring this style for a bit.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Thoughts on Video Game Character Design

Whoa, did you stumble onto the wrong blog? Actually, no. I'm going to take a diversion from the "post a picture and a paragraph" posts and actually attempt an essay.

I will take a disclaimer here and say that when I am able, I am always working to improve my artistic ability and style. Don't take this as one man's lecture from the pulpit about great character design. Instead, take it as me having a conversation with you about my own process and what I've discovered about my taste and style by studying the artists that inspire me.

I am wrapping up the first game to be released under the PixelDoom monicker, "Quasar Raiders." It will be incredible to actually have a finished product, as simple as it may be. Those of you keeping score at home know I have a long list of aborted projects, the most recent of which is Metal Seed, my Air Fortress-inspired game. Of course, I never call these projects entirely abandoned - at least not intellectually.

In the creative process, I think about character design quite a bit. I have been creating my own characters since "Inspector Balloon" in 3rd grade. Some of my characters have less depth than the sheets of paper they are drawn on, and some (like Spy Jupiter or Harwing) have a rich history and back story, at least in my head. Some characters, like Shotgun Pete, are just begging for me to flesh out their histories and give them a place to live...

My next "on paper" project is a spiritual sequel to one of my earliest games, "Nightmare Castle." If I had to sum up a game like "Nightmare Castle 2" in a few short phrases, they would be:
  • 2d sidescroller platfomer
  • free roaming through a large castle
  • magic abilities that can be upgraded over time
  • special items to enable abilities like jumping higher, etc
  • large bosses
  • colorful, stylized graphics
  • emphasis on smooth play control and exploration
Naturally, at first I chose to use Garilon as the character for NC2. However, the more I tried sketching out Garilon, the more I couldn't make him fit my vision for the game. I wanted a character that came across very easily with just a few shapes and lines.

Garilon Moonscythe Sketch
Sketch Circa 2003?

Garilon's character design is tall, slender, elf-like, with a long blonde ponytail, wearing a green Karate Gi with purple pants underneath. He has larger-than-normal hands and feet, and weilds a katana.

I wanted to simplify the premise into a "dark-spirited knight with magic abilities." I envisioned the simple characterisics of a knight: plate-mail armor, wrist gauntlets, short, beefy build and longish, messy hair.

It's no secret that I draw inspiration from 8- and 16-bit game design. There is something pure about some of the classic 8-bit character design. Having such a limited resolution and color palette (on the NES, only 4 colors per sprite were allowed at a time) really required creativity on the part of the designer to convey meaningful information with limited resources. Every pixel had to count.

Of course, now we don't have to worry about every little pixel in sprite design. However, I think it's a good exercise to reduce a character to fundamental shapes and colors. Extraneous details can distract both the artist and the viewer from what the character or image really is about.

Of course, there is a place for realism and detail, but can you imagine a highly-detailed design of Mario? Oh wait, yes you can, and it is disturbing.

Two of the best character designers of the NES era - screw it, two of the best character designers ever, were Keiji Inafune (Megaman) and Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario, Zelda). Looking at the designs of Megaman and Mario now, 20-ish years later, those designs are so obvious -- so iconic -- that they are taken for granted. I admit, it's obvious to pick on these character designs. If I had more time or motivation, I would pull up some more obscure designs as examples.

Mario, but not by me.

Everything in Mario's design serves a purpose. There are no details that should be left out. From the gloves, to the sideburns, to the mustache, to the M-emblazoned hat. The use of primary colors helped for the character to stand out, and details like the overalls and mustache helped break apart the characters different body parts during animation. When you dissect the reasons that Miyamoto designed Mario the way he did, you realize it was the only logical design for the character.

Megaman (Rockman) and Friends, not by me.

Megaman is another example of character design born out of necessity. Obviously Megaman takes certain design cues from Astro Boy, but the signature coloring and placement of body masses (the forearms and calves and the "skivvies") are all designed to break apart the body during animation so you can tell where the arms end and the body begins. Without this style of coloring, and with such a limited color pallete the body may become hard to discern during a walking animation.

Character design has evolved throughout the console generations, with highly realistic characters in Final Fantasy XII or Resident Evil IV to highly stylized characters in Okami to "stylized realistic" characters in God of War, Gears of War or Team Fortress 2.

Team Fortress 2 is an interesting example of design born out of necessity in the modern gaming generation. The TF2 character classes all have a very unique body shape and animation style. They were all designed to be discernable at a glance, so you can tell what character you are firing at without having to study the details.

However, the game I'm most excited about this fall (besides Megaman 9) is Castle Crashers for XBox Live Arcade. It has a very stylized and cartoony aesthetic that I really appreciate, and the main character designs all have most of the attributes of great character design:
  • describable (you can describe the character design fairly easily)
  • distinguishable (they stand out from the background and other characters)
  • poseable (the designs adapt to many different moods and actions)
  • clean (free of unnecessary details)

Castle Crashers, not by me. Don't you think they're cuuuute?

Now, I am no expert on design, so I am just conveying what I have picked up about the characters' designs. They are very clean and are easy to draw and animate from multiple angles. Since the characters are hand drawn, I'm sure making them out of simple shapes aids in the process of animating.

Their colors serve a purpose also, they denote the style of magic each character performs: either fire, lightning, ice, or water.

I was drawn to the Castle Crashers' design when trying to tackle the character design for Nightmare Castle 2. I liked the simple anatomy, the super-deformed stature, and the simple, yet rough, line work.

My first stab was to make the character 3.5 heads tall (which is a pretty standard ratio for me). I started by blocking out the very basic shapes, only drwing the masses as blobs connected by lines:

You can already tell his general build. The masses around his ankles and wrists are supposed to be pieces of armor. His general body shape is an hourglass, because he will have plate mail on his chest and a tunic/skirt around his waist, down to his knees. Taking this basic sketch led to a pretty straightforward outline:

Well, shoot. It looks like I just drew Harwing again. Not a bad design, if a little generic. I took a few more stabs at it, breaking down the anatomy into very simple shapes. It's easy to see the body as an hourglass, the forearms as elongated spheres, etc. I didn't want any redundant lines, and I didn't want any wasted details, because if the design ended up in a 2d game, there could be up to 50-100+ frames of animation that would have to be hand-drawn.

I also kept remembering the traits that had to be conveyed through the character design.
  • a "knight" - had to have armor, weild a sword
  • a "dark spirit" - not blonde haired/blue eyed, but also not a comically "dark" character
  • magically-talented - I could use a longer tunic to hint at a wizards robe
I came up with a rought character model, shrinking the proportions down to 2.5 heads tall, and making the hair a bit longer and parted down the middle, instead of just random/spiky. I kept the major design features, but removed redundant linework.

It is starting to look closer to what I want. Something about the face in the "front" view is off to me -- something in the hair.

Here is another sketch of the character casting a magic spell, just playing with poses:

I took this design and applied another simplification to it. I came up with a nice clean outline which I then colored and shaded. This would be very similar to what the in-game sprite might look like:

This is probably not the final, FINAL design. But I think it's a great first draft to refine upon. I may find ways to make the design more efficient, or I may choose to highlight some details while downplaying others. As you can see I shrank the hands, which I think works.

As I started working on this final iteration, I noticed that with his dark hair, decidedly thick eyebrows and narrow eyes, he looks Asian. It could be that the Nightmare Castle 2 universe is a cross between a medieval knight and a feudal samurai (the headband helps this argument). It would be interesting to see a traditional English castle with some Japanese touches and cherry blossoms in the courtyards...

I think a good thing to strive for is to make your art purposeful. A lot of times my drawings are happy accidents - things that arose from random doodlings. I think the difference between a real artist and a hobbyist like me is that an artist can come up with a design on purpose, with directed strokes and where every pencil mark adds to the design. Me, I am still experiementing, throwing away ideas I don't like and refining ideas I do like.

I will elaborate on NC2 and any other game projects I pick up later. Thanks for making your way through this post. Please give me feedback and comments!