Character Design isn't a walk in the park. Let's understand what goes into it.
It's one thing to know how to program and code gaming mechanics, but it's another thing entirely to actually piece everything together. After all, awesome game mechanics that flow perfectly might work... except if you have a protagonist that's one-dimensional. And while some might argue the core game design matters more than the narrative, it's important to remember that great games also feature compelling narratives.
More importantly, it's essential to ensure your game's characters have some form of personality to help gamers relate more to them as they play. How exactly do you do this though? We're taking a bit of a deep dive into making a compelling protagonist for your games:
Take your game's major mechanics into account. When you make a protagonist for your game, that character has to be able to demonstrate the highlights of your game mechanics. That character doesn't have to be the "best" character in that game, but they should at least be able to attract newcomers to the franchise. This can be done by ensuring the said protagonist makes the best use of your game's central gimmick or motif. Once you have this rolling, everything else will follow suit.
This explains why characters like Ryu from Street Fighter remain so popular. He's arguably one of the easiest characters to master for beginners, and his easy move set is a good introduction to the game's combo mechanic, which is a central part of the game's mechanics. The same goes for Dante from Devil May Cry, whose arrogant and stylish appearance complements well with the game's combo ranking system.
When you design a protagonist, think of elements that would help them represent your game's central mechanics. This is similar to how you should always refer to tuning guides before you proceed to tinker with cars. If you want to make an action-adventure game, your protagonist should be able to interact with their environment as befits their personality. And if you're making a survival-horror game, your protagonist has to be built with a ton of vulnerabilities.
Think hard about your game's premise and work your way from there. Some games tend to revolve around the idea of a protagonist and then work their way into creating the game world. This is perfectly viable, but when done improperly can result in rather plain stories. Instead, it might be more helpful to think about your game's premise first and see where your protagonist can fit inside the narrative. This gives you a ton of opportunities to make use of the environment to showcase graphics, mechanics, and even an integral subtext for the story to make an impact on the users.
This is why Kratos from the new God of War has made such an impact on fans. Huge God of War fans will be familiar with Kratos as an angry demigod with a penchant for gore. So when the new God of War game had a focus on RPG, the switch to an older and wiser Kratos (with a son!) in a new environment (Norse mythology) tackle the franchise two-fold. The first major appeal comes from fans who were surprised to see a new and mature Kratos. The second was from new fans who wanted a Norse-themed game. This approach worked, and it did earn the game a Game of the Year award.
If you're making a fantasy game that wants to "subvert the genre," should you start with a prince or a peasant? Likewise, if you want to make a cop-centered racing game, should your protagonist be a convict or an undercover cop? Either answer here makes sense, depending on how the game world is built. This means it really has to do with the kind of perspective you want to show to audiences that determines how great protagonists are formed.
Observe how your protagonist will be interacting with the rest of the characters. If you're trying to make a game with an immersive world, they're likely not alone. And if you're making an RPG or a game with various NPCs, they have to be made in such a way that they're very interactive and at the same time help you immerse. This can be difficult, as you have to take into account the individual personalities and reactions, right? If you have a lot of time, this can be the case. However, the core principle here really is to make sure that while they're "diverse" as a cast, they still have a role to play with the protagonist. As such, when you make a protagonist, also pay attention to how potential other game characters are affected.
Consider other characters you've conceptualized alongside the main protagonist. What sort of relationship do they have with the protagonist? Would their "backstory" make sense considering how the protagonist was being built so far? If not, how should the protagonist be adjusted to be able to meet and interact with these characters? Try to look at this the other way around. This helps your protagonist fit the narrative better.
Check how these secondary characters affect the way the game is played. In a lot of games, secondary characters often serve as walking "demonstrations" of the game's other mechanics. This is partly why RPGs implement the "Holy Trinity" of the tank, support, and damage-dealers. In your game, try checking how you want these secondary characters to compliment your protagonist in terms of gameplay. Maybe they will help in terms of combat and exploration? Like with the narrative, consider adjusting both the protagonist and the secondary characters according to how their gameplay is synergized.
See how you want your protagonist to improve and develop. Aside from taking into account the game world and mechanics when building a protagonist, also check how you want this character to grow and how this progression can affect the game at large. Remember, protagonists, are meant to mature and develop over time. And as such you should be prepared for changes you should make to the environment, characters, and even mechanics when your protagonists start to mature around the latter parts of the game. The challenge here is to make a protagonist that players will be invested enough to grow with, and with the mechanics capable of proving they have the means to influence the world around them at large.
Create a "goal" of sorts as to how your protagonist should be able to evolve through time, in terms of gameplay. In Final Fantasy, this might mean unlocking more skills and spells as they level up. How do you think their respective players should develop this protagonist over time? Is this a set path or do you want your protagonist to be flexible? Deciding these factors can greatly help you have a better direction on how you plan on designing your lead's main gameplay.
Likewise, create a narrative goal for your protagonist to fulfill. In the first Assassin's Creed, Altair will slowly realize that the "evil" Templars aren't exactly evil, and his faction of Assassins is hiding something from him. Consider major twists in your game world and plot that you want to affect your protagonist. Once you've decided this, decide how you want your protagonist to discover and be affected by these twists.
Game Dev for Beginners: How to Conceptualize A Good Character?
If the above has shared anything to us, it's that characters in games don't just fall under the purview of the creatives team. If you're hoping to create a compelling game, you need to know how your characters can actually affect and improve the game at large. As such, it helps to know just how exactly you can create interesting characters that can help you test, demonstrate, and showcase your game mechanics and overall design.
What do you think about this approach to making characters? Do you agree with this approach? Let us know in the comments!