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Finding Personality in Games


November 25, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next
 

Personality is Animation

No matter how awesome your graphics technology is, or how many polys a character has, animation is more important, especially when you want to show personality through characters. There have been a lot of recent games that look amazing in screenshots but fall apart when seen in motion. Most players can recognize bad animation right away, especially if it's coming from a humanoid type character.

Earthworm Jim, even though it's an older example, continues to be a great way to show how animation defines a character. Jim and all the other characters in the game had a huge amount of detail to their motion, even down to the idle animations. To do this successfully in your own games, work with what you have and take advantage of your strengths.

In our case, we tried to make Splosion Man wacky and crazy through animation to help him stand out from other game characters. We knew early on that we didn't have the manpower to create unique environments for every stage nor a multitude of enemies to go along with them.

By focusing on animations for Splosion Man and the scientist characters, we could pull the player's eye more toward that aspect and less toward what we couldn't do that well at the time.

We used the same tactic on our first game, The Maw (see the December 2008 issue of Game Developer). With only one artist, we had to choose something to focus on, so we decided that the relationship between Frank and Maw would be more interesting and important than the backgrounds and other objects that populated the game.

It would have been great to have a level artist, but that wasn't an important part of getting personality from the end product. Focusing on your strengths, especially if you are a small company, will go a long way. In our case, what we had was a great concept artist and animator, so that's what our game reflected.

Of course, too much animation can be a burden when the animator isn't thinking about how gameplay fits into the equation. There have been a number of games with amazing animation, but where the animator was thinking more in movie terms, and control suffered because the player had to wait for those animations to end. There's a lot of fine-tuning in this process, which is part of what separates beginning animators from the veterans. It usually helps when the animator loves games and gameplay, and doesn't just love animation on its own terms.

Soul Reaver is an older title that did this well, in addition to taking character design into account. The main character Raziel had a great animation style that found the right balance that made him simultaneously fun and fluid to control.

While it was a departure in visual style from the first game in the Blood Omen series, this ended up working in the team's favor. By enlarging areas of Raziel's body -- like hands and feet -- the developers had an easier time expressing his character through animation. This led to a lot of players remembering Raziel fondly. Animating too much, if it interferes with play, is just as bad as not having enough animation. Knowing the right balance makes all the difference.

Personality is Gameplay

There are a lot of games that ignore the above completely, but manage to have a character all their own. Geometry Wars is a great example of this. Using nothing more than simple shapes with glowing outlines as characters, Geometry Wars still manages to create a sense of personality that separates it from the countless other games that have the exact same gameplay mechanic.

This is because of the way the game combined visual effects and feedback to create what amounts to a gorgeous fireworks display. The tight relationship between the controls, the explosive colors, and gameplay rewards made this game stick in peoples' minds visually.

There's a perfect storm of personality brewing in a game like Katamari Damacy. The soundtrack, strange humor, and simple graphics all help to give it a unique identity. At the time the game came out, though, the thing that stood out the most was the way the game played. Rolling a large ball around and collecting junk, animals, and eventually people was very different from what most players were used to seeing.

While roaming the convention center during E3 when the game made its debut, people would stop and look at the game and wait in line to play it based solely on the gameplay they were seeing. They couldn't even hear the strange music that most people associate with the game.

Don't confuse infusing personality into your gameplay with overcomplicating your gameplay style. Gameplay should supplement and enhance personality, but not be completely determined by it. We decided that we wanted to make a game that only used one action button (not including directional control) to make it as accessible to as many players as possible.

So in Splosion Man, players can make the main character 'splode three times before he must touch the ground or slide down a wall to recharge again. The idea of 'sploding itself is a system that stems from gameplay but is something that people will remember and associate with the character; Splosion Man splodes, that is his thing.

But 'splode is essentially just jump, nothing more, and it's used basically the same as it is in Super Mario Bros. But Splosion Man's "jump" has more personality than most characters in similar games, because it has a unique hook that gives the main character more of a memorable feel and look.


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