Game Design

Game Character Design Guide: How To Design A Video Game Character

Photograph of the blog post author, Laura Murphy

Laura Murphy

24.6.2021

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Video game character design is so crucial in determining a game’s success. Whether a game takes 6 hours, 156 hours to complete, if the main character or characters are likeable, you’ll have no problem getting through it.

game designer

A good video game character garners so much attention and, over time, can even gain a cult following. Franchises grow and mods are created. We get merchandise, spin-offs, films, television shows, novelizations. A single character becomes globally recognised. Even if we mention the Dragonborn or the Wanderer, you know exactly what games we’re talking about.

That’s pretty impressive – which is why we have decided to dedicate this article to the wonderful world of video game character design! Does this sound like something you’d be interested in? If it does, stay tuned for everything you need to know!

What Makes A Good Video Game Character?

Showcased at Nintendo Direct 2021 in June, we saw plenty of our favourite iconic characters return to the small screen. Link and Zelda thrived in the promo for the remastered version of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Mario and Wario both made appearances too, representing their own respective games. 

These are just some examples of video game characters we have come to know and love. But what makes them so memorable compared to others who have seemingly fallen off the grid? 

In order to explain what makes a good video game character, we’re going to provide you with some more examples, taking you on a whistle stop tour of some of the most iconic characters in gaming history. 

Each character excels in a different way. We’ll take into account their physical appearance, personality, casting, mannerisms, clothing, and so on. Whatever it is that makes them unique and memorable. So let’s get started. 

Pac-Man

pacman game

Everyone knows Pac-Man. The yellow floating head that chases multicoloured ghosts, eats bubbles and collects dots. There’s not a soul out there that hasn’t at least heard of him. Even the noise he makes is instantly recognisable. 

Famous for its simplicity, Pac-Man has most certainly stood the test of time. Originally released in 1980 by Japanese game developers Namco, many consoles continue to release remastered versions of the original game to this day.

Entertainment centers like bowling alleys and funfairs have even bought vintage arcade game machines such as the original Pac-Man for hundreds or thousands of pounds so that players can experience them in their prime, the way they were intended to be played. 

Mario

mario

Italian. Red hat. Moustache. Mushrooms. Princess Peach. Who comes to mind when you think of these things in relation to each other? Mario, of course. One of the most, if not the single most famous character Nintendo developers have ever created. 

As games progress alongside the exponential advancement of technology, character designs are often changed and developed. Due to this, it’s possible to lose sight of who they were or what they were representing at their inception. However, this is not the case with Mario. 

In all of the games in the main franchise including spin-offs like Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle and Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, Mario’s image hasn’t strayed once. Aside from rounding out the blocky, pixel-heavy look of the original character from 1981, designers haven’t tried to make him more lifelike or realistic. They have stuck with the short, stocky, big-nosed plumber in overalls, and we think he is perfect. 

Lara Croft

lara croft

A character whose image has changed dramatically over time is Lara Croft. However, designers have managed to keep the essence of the tomb raider throughout all her transformations. Tomb Raider was first released on console in 1996 by game developers Core Design. 

The titular character was instantly iconic from her short shorts, gun holsters, long brown hair and big… Features. You know what we’re talking about. She was evermore recogniseable, regardless of how she was represented, and as the franchise progressed, so did technology. 

Computer-generated video game design continued to impress players as characters like Lara Croft became more and more realistic. She began straddling the line between animation and the uncanny valley. In 2013, Tomb Raider was released, the same exact name as the first game in the franchise but with an entirely new story, and seemingly an entirely new character look. 

Lara Croft had lost the overbearing presence of the male gaze. She looked normal. Relatable. It was revolutionary, particularly for female players to see someone on screen that actually looked like them. She had a wider waist, hips, smaller breasts, and messy hair. And she was wearing more clothes! 

The franchise was given a new lease of life and saw the succession of three more games. Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the most recent game released in 2018, featured the most realistic version of the character yet.

Link

link from zelda

Link from The Legend of Zelda franchise demonstrates a unique case of video game design development. There’s no doubt about it, Link has changed. But as of 2019, he has two very different yet distinctly recognizable images. 

On the one hand, we see a more realistic, proportionate version of Link in the 2017 game The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. On the other hand Link’s Awakening released in 2019 features a short, rotund, more cartoonish version of Link reminiscent of his original design back in 1986.

And yet, we know exactly who he is in both instances. This is because of his flawless character design as a whole. His golden hair and pointed ears, his intricately designed shield, his tunic and bandana. While his height and body shape may differ depending on the circumstances, Link remains that same youthful, brave Hylian we first met back in the day and became so fond of. 

How To Design A Video Game Character

So, you’re interested in how to draw your own video game characters? In that case, we have some advice for you. Whether you’re starting off with your first ever character, or you’re a well seasoned creator, it’s best to work alongside a game character design template. 

There are plenty of these templates available on the internet. After some practice, you’ll be able to create and work off your own templates. Until then, we’ll give you a helping hand. 

Think of the following section as a game character design tutorial. We’ll ask you a few self-reflective questions to get the cogs turning and really get started on your video game character design process. 

If you want your character to stand out and become as memorable as Sonic the Hedgehog or Solid Snake, you’ll need to know the basics of game character design. So, without further ado, let’s dive in.

Inspiration

man looking at notes

Before you begin sketching, you’ll want to have some idea of what kind of character you want to create. This is not a definitive step however, many people start off with one kind of animation style and end up with something completely different at the end of the process.  

But it is a good idea to start off with a basic idea or inspiration that you can adjust and adapt to, rather than picking up the pencil and aimlessly drawing for hours with nothing tangible to show for at the end of a long day.

So, where will you draw your inspiration from? What gaming franchise style do you admire, or what decade of animation have you always found particularly attractive? What kind of role model would you like your character to be? 

Of course the type of character you create will have to suit the game you’re working on. You wouldn’t create a Sonic 2.0 for a game like The Last of Us, they are in two completely different leagues of gaming. Either way, brainstorming is key at this stage in the game character design process and should be given an ample amount of time and effort. 

Individuality

woman writing notes

In conjunction with finding your inspiration, you must figure out what elements or features of your character will make them stand out from all the rest. Will it be their clothes, their hair, their face, any predetermined scars or blemishes that make them particularly recognisable? Will it be their roguish attitude or their fear of flying? Will it be a ring they wear, or a symbolic tattoo on the back of their neck?

Think for a moment about Super Smash Bros. Ultimate released on the Nintendo Switch in 2018. There’s 80 playable characters and, if you’re a seasoned gamer (or even if you’re not), most, if not all, are distinguishable in their own right. 

Hand-picked from various gaming franchises, we see so many familiar faces on the character selection screen. Zelda, Kirby, Daisy, MewTwo, Snake, and Isabelle from Animal Crossing! You can even play as the Wii Fit Trainer. Ridiculous and amazing at the same time. 

This mish-mash of characters works because each is so memorable and universally liked for different reasons. There’s no two characters the same. Make it your ambition to have your character added to the Smash Bros catalogue and have them be instantly recognisable. 

Backstory & Personality

post it notes

A picture can say a thousand words. It’s a well-known phrase and perfectly describes the power character designers hold. Get to know the backstory of the character you’re hoping to create. 

Whether you’re just in charge of drawing characters for games or you’re actually writing the story too, you can convey a considerate amount of information simply through their appearance. 

Maybe you’ll give them a pensive look in their eyes, creases around their mouth, or a small but noticeable scar on their left shin. Each component will represent a different element of their personality and what makes them who they are. 

Have they experienced loss or betrayal? Give them a look of disgrace or disappointment on their face. Have they discovered the 8th Wonder of the World? Give them a limp and a smirk on their face to convey a sense of arrogance after years of trial and error. 

Firmly establish their backstory before you ever reach for your sketchpad. If you don’t know your character inside out and upside down, how do you suppose others will? Where relevant, you should consider their past and present relationships, their ethnic origin, their upbringing, their traits, whether or not they are an animal lover, their phobias, their motive for their mission.

Sketching

sketch

Now it’s time to put pen to paper. You’ll most likely do several video game character sketches until you’ve decided on the perfect version. Look at the characters we mentioned above. Link, Mario, Lara Croft. How many times have their designs been altered and manufactured? Some have changed more than others but all have been and continue to be revised from time to time.

Body

If you’re unsure about how to draw your own video game characters, or just unsure about where to start, bite the bullet and just go for it, Start with the body shape. Fat, thin, tall, short, wide hipped, skinny waist, broad shoulders, tiny feet. 

You’ll want to do a sketch of them from a few angles and in different poses to really get a feel for them as an actual living being, rather than simply a drawing.

What can you see in your mind’s eye when you think of your character? Your first sketch could be perfect, or it could go horribly wrong, but that only means you know what you don’t want and can work on improving the design straight away. 

Face

With the basic body shape done, take another sheet of paper and do a close up of the face, again from several different angles. Use their features to really express what you think they would be feeling if they were to come alive. As they say, the eyes are the window to the soul, use them accordingly. 

Do they have dimples? A furrowed brow? Overbearing gums? Lopsided ears? These features build character. Skin tone, eye colour and hair colour can all be determined at a later point in the game design process. This step is purely sketching your idea and bringing your character to life.

Design

designing

Once you are relatively happy with your sketch or sketches, it’s time to really get to work and create game character art. Grab your graphic markers or open up your digital drawing platform. If you’re unfamiliar with these, Procreate or Adobe Illustrator are excellent platforms that provide you with all the design services you need for a small fee. 

It’s time to add detail and depth to your character, to elevate them from a sketch to a 3D projection. It’s more important than ever to consolidate your character’s appearance with their background. Their ethnicity might determine the colour of their skin or eyes, the condition of their skin, whether they tan or freckle, whether they have eczema or psoriasis or another type of skin condition. 

Understand the game you are writing your character for. The clothing, hairstyle, makeup, facial expressions, demeanor and posture should suit their surroundings, or contrast them where appropriate depending on the plotline. 

It’s up to you to decide what will make them a prominent and convincing character that players will enjoy. Whatever you choose, roll with it. Banish any doubts or fears, they will only compromise your success. If you believe in your character, so will others. You must have faith in yourself as a designer. 

That Was Our Guide On Video Game Character Design

game character

So there you have it, a guide on how to draw your own video game characters. As you might have noticed, the preparation including backstory, inspiration and overall understanding of your character is just as important as the actual video game character sketches you’ll do. 

Think carefully on how you want to portray your character because ultimately they will be a projection of your artistic creativity. If this is your first character, you want it to be flawless, and remarkable enough to merit further character design for other games in the development stage.  

From the examples we have given in this article, you see how important it is to create a well-rounded, fully developed character so that they will stand the test of time and still provide meaningful playthroughs years after their first appearance on the small screen. 

It is entirely possible for you to create characters as memorable as Pac-Man and Mario. There’s always room for a new supernova to crash into the gaming industry. Prove your worth, put in the time and effort, think through your video game character design carefully and thoroughly, and your character might just become the new mascot for a well-known gaming company. You never know what kind of opportunities lie in store for you!

Are You In The Gaming Industry?

Want to read more about the gaming industry? Then check out our blogGame publishers and developers, what can we do for you? Our incredible music licensing service can help you streamline the way you license high-quality music and commission original compositions for your gameplay, apps and advertising campaigns including YouTube and social media.

Also, with our Showcase page, you can flaunt your character design skills, show your creativity in level design, and show off your ability to design a fun, polished game. You can also showcase your work, list your upcoming games and allow fans to pre-order or buy them! Try all of this out for yourself by joining Music Gateway. Get your 14-day free trial, no strings attached.

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