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Concept to Creation: The Video Game Character Design Process

ben marvazi 2020

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“Character design, like story design, requires a hook to grab the reader’s attention.”

Ted Naifeh, comic book writer

Have you ever sat down in front of your computer and spent hours not researching, writing, or even listening to music, but playing a game?  Who am I kidding, of course, you have! You may have even been doing just that before you pulled up this blog post. 

Video games have been around for as long as anyone today can remember. The first was created in October of 1958 by an American Physicist in the name of William Higinbotham. “Tennis for Two” was a simple tennis game designed to give visitors to the Brookhaven National Laboratory a more enjoyable experience.  

In a magazine, Higinbotham shares that he believed it “might liven up the place to have a game that people could play, and which would convey the message that our scientific endeavors have relevance for society.” Thus the conception of “Tennis for Two”

Video games are entertaining interactive activities taking place on a computer screen, a game console, or any handheld device, such as your smartphone. 

With their enjoyable nature, creative genres, and, various video game character designs, playing video games can become wildly addicting. Naturally, too much can lead to an unhealthy habit but when played moderately, there are actually various benefits that come from playing video games.

For one, they encourage camaraderie and cooperation by providing a space for people of common interest to bond and work towards a common goal. 

Video games also have various creative and interesting concepts that involve unique video game character designs – this fact stimulates innovation in people despite their backgrounds.

Additionally, they help build a better sense of sense by boosting self-confidence and increasing one’s problem-solving skills whenever players successfully accomplish a quest or task or level up.

Furthermore, according to a Forbes article entitled, How To Build Resilience With Video Games, playing video games leads to better hand-eye coordination, delayed mental aging, and improved management of physical pain, among other benefits. Overall, it results in a resilient personality in the face of stress and trauma.

Taking into consideration the massive popularity of video games around the world, chances are high that you would like to take advantage it by being a video game character designer. 

So you might be asking yourself, where exactly do you start? How does the video game character design process work? What skills do you need to develop? What tools can you use? After all, we all know that a major step in designing an entertaining video game is to make impressive video game character designs. 

In this blog post, we are going to take the time and explain the video game character design process, complete with the tools you can use and the techniques you must master for you to create immersive characters and bring your vision to life.

Step 1: The Ideation Stage 

cat character thinking and then coming up with an ideas

GIF by thisismashed via GIPHY

Before you start booting up your software and sharpening your digital tools, you’ll first need a clear idea of what you want to do. This means developing an objective for you and/or your team to work towards. You are basically asking the question, “What kind of game do I want to make?”

The ideation stage is also part of the Design Thinking process, which is a non-linear creative process that enables you to find and develop sound solutions to complex problems. In this case, the ideation stage will allow you to understand your client or your target audience and the overall objective for creating a video game.

According to a blog post on the technology website CareerFoundry, this step fosters user-centricity and helps you make feasible and actionable plans that are “desirable for the user (your client and/or your target market); viable for business (your animation studio); and technologically feasible.

This step is where you gather inspiration and start brainstorming various ideas. You can even look into the different video games, perhaps go through your favorite ones, and pick apart why you like them so much. Then, you can incorporate some of their interesting aspects and designs into your own ideas. 

After all, there’s nothing wrong with allowing your video game character designs to be inspired by other designs. Just don’t outright copy them.

At this early point, you can also work on some rough sketches for characters and concepts then decide what works, what can be improved, and what needs to be thrown into the trash or saved for another animated project. You can also determine the animation format and style you want to work with.

By the end of the ideation stage, you would have a general idea of the kind of video game and the video game character design you’ll make. 

What you are essentially doing is building a solid foundation for the rest of the steps. Once you have a general idea, you can start working on the specific details. That way, you can create a video game character design that holistically fulfills all of your and/or your client’s vision and objectives. 

Step 2: Establish A Good Background Story

video game character design needs to have a good background story like this characters story line which appears on screen


Some of the most entertaining and popular video games are the result of a good story. In the same way, the best video game characters exist because of a strong background story. 

For instance, look at the central character John Marston from Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption, or observe Aerith Gainsbrough from Square’s Final Fantasy VII. These characters act the way they do because of their experiences that happened before the game took place. 

It adds a layer of complexity, revealing a human touch within the game rather than just serving the audience a flat character who fights well. 

This is the very principle of storytelling. What drove the character to become who they are now? What are the reasons for their actions, good and bad? This makes your video game characters more relatable and your video game more immersing and engaging, keeping your audience hooked until the end. 

Parts of your video game character’s backstory can be revealed at the beginning of the game. After that, you can proceed to show bits and pieces as the player goes through different levels or as they accomplish various tasks.

In order to build a good background story, there are a few things you can do:

1. You can craft a timeline of the different events in your character’s life. Map out the events that changed the trajectory of their life and indicate whether your character was passive or took active action. You can also note the cast of people in their life and how each one affected your character.

2. You draw inspiration from actual people or events. This is because a good video game character design has a realistic and believable backstory, and writing such might pose a challenge. 

3. While you can also look into books, songs, TV, and movies, another place you can seek inspiration from is your own life or the news itself. Look introspectively and analyze why you act the way you are. Listen to the stories your friends and family members share. Go online and scourge the internet for real stories.

4. Remember to ‘show, don’t tell’. You do not necessarily need to show every detail of their past in a backstory format. Sometimes, it can be done through their interaction with their environment – the people they meet and the worlds they step into. Ask yourself, “Are they in their current position because they had no choice or because they wanted to?”

With a well-made backstory, you will be able to understand your video game character better. This will aid you in creating better character arcs, developments, and possible endings.

Step 3: Work On Video Game Character Design Sketches

digitally creating a character wearing a grey blazer and a watch

GIF by FemBR via GIPHY

Once you’ve ironed out most of the details of your video game character’s personality, it’s time to grab your pen and paper or whatever drawing device you use and start sketching.

Perhaps you’ve already done a couple of sketches at the ideation stage. At this step, however, it’s time to focus solely on your video game character design – their image. There may be a ton of trial and error though, before you get a look that you feel works best for your character. Don’t worry, it’s all a part of the process.

Odds are that even after this step, you’ll still be coming back every now and then to make minor revisions to your video game character design here and there. After all, you want to make sure your character comes out looking picture-perfect.

When working on your character’s sketches, you’ll be working on so many important things that will shape your audience’s playing experience, so we’ve listed down a few tips you can use to your advantage:

Loaves of bread with faces falling and landing into a bowl

GIF by minjuan via GIPHY

One, learn about the five fundamentals of video game character design. While we’re all familiar with the 12 principles of animation, they don’t necessarily translate well into video games because of how interactive video games are as opposed to animated videos. That is unless they’re used together. 

The five fundamentals consist of feel, fluidity, readability, context, and elegance. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you’ll be able to create a video game character design that’s engaging, realistic, and relevant to the context and style of your game itself. 

Two, remember to have some references. It’s not a bad thing to look up images online before you start sketching. You can create w thumbnail with your references. This will not only inspire you and help you develop ideas but it will also serve as your starting point. From there, you can make all the changes to get to your final look.

Three, sketch with loose lines and simple shapes. Start with ovals, circles, squares, and triangles for their body parts, such as using an oval for their body. Just avoid getting into the finer details yet. Examples of finer details may be the texture of their hair or the way their fingers appear. 

Go for the most prominent aspects of your character. Are they tall or short? Big or stout? Are they human or some ethereal creature? Or maybe your character is simply a shape or element.

Bear in mind that your leading video game character designs must have something that visually appeals to your audience, as they’re the ones playing it. Maybe it’s the way you sketched their eyes or the default outfit you selected for them. 

Don’t feel too pressured to get it right the first few times. Just focus on gradually building visual appeal. You’re creating an entirely new character, it’s okay to take your time and have some designs end up in a drawer or trashcan.

Four, don’t leave out your character’s facial expressions. You can keep a mirror nearby and see how an emotion looks on you, then replicate it onto your video game character design. 

You should make your characters as expressive as possible, and since these are still your rough sketches, you can do so by enlarging their features. Happy characters typically have bright eyes, arched eyes, smiles, and even a jumpy gait. Disappointed or frustrated characters may have straight eyebrows, empty eyes, and tense jaws.

Go ahead and play around with your shapes and figures until you create a look that fits your character’s emotions.

And fifth, create a skeleton sketch. While your video game character design does not need to be lifelike, it still needs to follow basic human proportions. This ensures all your joints and limbs are situated appropriately. It will prevent your characters from looking displeasing or jarring. 

Furthermore, it will help you in creating complex poses and actions for your video game characters. 

You can achieve such realistic proportions by creating a skeleton sketch. In doing so, grab your tracing paper and make a skeleton, even if it’s just for a tall and short body type respectively. It doesn’t have to be detailed, just a basic outline of a human skeleton will do. 

Step 4: Transfer Your Sketch Into Your Chosen Animation Format

video game character design in a pixelated 2D form

GIF by reins910 via GIPHY

Once you think your video game character design (with its facial expression and sample poses) is good to go, you can start working on your respective video game animation platform. In other words, it’s time to create the official digital design for your video game character.

Creating digital designs also means you can start adding and refining certain details in your character to make them more distinct as they come alive for the video game. 

These details may refer to the different textures, shapes, hues, and color palettes you intend to use – basically, anything that appeared fuzzy and uncertain during the rough sketches.

There are many programs you can use for this step – chances are, you already have one yourself – but if you’re still struggling on deciding the most suitable option, below is a little list to guide you, whether you’re a beginner or an advanced animator.

  1. Autodesk Maya - Maya is, perhaps, one of the best-suited software for video game character design. With Maya, you can do rigging, 3D modeling, 3D rendering and shading, visual effects, motion graphics, and more. However, it is more complex than most software so it’s recommended if you’re more of an advanced animator.
  2. Procreate - Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced animator, you can opt to use Procreate for your video game character designs. With its 200 customizable brushes, advanced features, and intuitive interface, it’s practically a complete animation studio in a nifty little app. And because Procreate is a mobile application, you can conveniently access your character designs wherever you go. 
  3. Adobe Illustrator - Similar to Procreate, Adobe Illustration is ideally used in creating logos, illustrations, and graphic designs but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it in creating digital versions of your video game characters.
  4. MakeHuman - If you’re still starting out, then this free, open-source 3D animation program might be the one for you. You can create illustration of your video game characters and make them come to life with its intuitive user interface. Animating with MakeHuman will especially help you when it comes to body proportions.
  5. Daz Studio - Daz Studio includes different platforms specifically for your video game character design needs, such as Victoria 4 and Genesis for body morphs, Genesis 2 and Genesis 3 for character movements, and Genesis 8 for character expressions and overall rendering.  
  6. iClone - If you’re already pretty advanced in the field of animation, then you can try out iClone. While it does have various animation design tools and features, it especially boasts the Character Creator, which gives you unlimited possibilities to modify and generate human faces, bodies, and bodily movements.
  7. Blender - When it comes to finding free animation software, Blender might be your best bet. While it may not have all the advanced and unique features of the other programs, Blender still includes many features of its own for animating, modeling, and rigging your character designs.
character working at his desk on multiple screens drinking a cup of coffee

GIF by explainly via GIPHY

Making character designs in 3D animation means you can play around with all sorts of advanced design features when it comes to creating your video game characters. This means you have more of a capacity to make your characters fun and immersive.

Video game character design can honestly be a challenge whether you are a beginner or a more experienced animator. But with the increasing developments in animation and design technology, you have seemingly-endless possibilities in making all sorts of video game character designs, no matter what animation style and format you choose to create it in. 

However, it does take a heap of patience, consistency, and self-determination. Though if you’re certain that this is what you want to focus on as an animator, then you’re bound to be successful in making impressive video game character designs. 

Step 5: Make The Necessary Revisions

angry looking 2D character breaking his pencil with the text "not another revision"

GIF by Bitrix24com via GIPHY

At this point, you’re pretty much done. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any notes or comments, whether they be from you, your team, or your client. These may be coursed through the editing software itself, an email, or any other means of communication.

It’s normal to want to revisit past steps to fix some errors and ensure your video game character designs are consistent, logical, and as close to flawless as possible. You can also refine some vague details in your character’s design and backstory.

Don’t be frustrated if you have to keep coming back and revising aspects of your character design. Keep in mind that with every revision, you’re getting closer and closer to perfecting your character. 

Time To Create An Impressive Video Game Character Design

multiple video game character design options

GIF by goldenwolf via GIPHY

Video games are incredibly popular regardless of your background. That’s why tons of animators are taking advantage of this and developing video game character designs of their own. 

In five steps, you can create character designs that will help bring your or your client’s video game concepts to life. But that doesn’t mean each step is easy-peasy. It will take hours, days, and weeks of practice and preparation, so you must be strong-willed because, in the end, it will all pay off. 

There are tons of opportunities that come with designing video game characters, and with the different animation software out there, the digital process has been significantly simplified. All it takes is a little more hard work and consistency.

So if this is what you want to pursue, gather as much inspiration and draw up all your creativity for the exciting journey ahead.

For more tips on developing your business skills as a freelance animator or animation studio owner, you can join our informative free masterclass, download a copy of our free marketing handbook, and check out our blog on “How to Start an Animation Studio”!

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