How to Create Great Game Characters?
Vitaliy Naymushin, who worked on a number of great games, including Epic’s recent hit Fortnite, shared some of his thoughts on the way to build great game characters.
Hi there, my name is Vitaliy Naymushin. I’m currently working as a Senior Character artist at Epic Games on Fortnite. I’ve been working in games for 13 years now, making characters at various studios — most notably id Software, Blizzard Entertainment, and Epic Games. Some of the games I worked on that you may recognize are Rage, Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls, Overwatch, and Fortnite.
I discovered various digital art software as a teenager and I kind of messed around with it for fun growing up. Then there came a time when I had to make a decision about what I was going to do with my life and I decided that games was what I wanted to do. It was going to be something that I would always regret if I didn’t try it and I decided to just go all in and give it a go. I had some experience with 3d at that point, but it took me about a year of constantly working on my skills and portfolio and sending applications to every single company I could find in the US before I even got a response, another six months before I got my first art test and then from there probably another 6 months before one of those led to a job. It wasn’t easy and it definitely can be discouraging when you’re getting ignored or brushed off for one reason or another, but not giving up and just being persistent paid off in the end and I got my first job. It was not a big name studio, it was half way across the country, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do, but it was a job working as an artist in games and I was ecstatic. If I could give one piece of advice to someone trying to break into the industry it would be to stay humble and take an opportunity to work in games as an artist if you get a chance, even if its not your dream job. That first experience will teach you a lot and if you want to go somewhere else after you will have some industry experience, which is what almost every single game job opening out there requires.
Characters for Games
There are a lot of things that go into making a great game character, but if I had to distill it down to the bare essentials I would say it has to be appealing and it has to be usable. Appealing doesn’t necessarily mean attractive, horrible monsters can be appealing, but you have to find that hook, that thing that captures the appeal of the character. Its what will resonate with the viewer and make the character memorable and believable. When I say usable I mean it has to be usable by other disciplines. It has to be easy to rig, easy to animate well and efficient enough to not ruin the framerate of the game. All of those things will combine to make the final asset shine in the end product. The easier it is to rig then the better the deformations will be. The easier it is to animate the more likely it is that the animators will come up with lots of great memorable animations for it. The more efficiently it is built the more likely that the level designers will place more of them in a level. To me those two things capture what makes a great game character — the great visual appeal and the under the hood usability of the asset.
It all depends on the game, but with most action games things move fast, so you want your character to be instantly recognizable, and you want it to be absolutely crystal clear what it does and what the player can expect. Take the female ninja in Fortnite for example. She is fast, sleek, agile, those qualities translate into the design and model of the character. One look at the character and you can easily tell what she is all about. You have to constantly keep that in mind as you’re working on the character, ask yourself how each piece contributes to the vision as a whole, and if it doesn’t then maybe it should be modified, or removed altogether. Not every character has to be all things at the same time. That is something I frequently see online as artists are trying to pack everything they can imagine all in one character in an attempt to make it as cool as possible, but the end result is frequently muddy and unclear. As artists on a game team we don’t work in a vacuum, our work is meant to reinforce the design and to support the vision of the game. The design and execution of a character is one of the ways of communicating that vision to the player.
Colors and outfits
You have to start with some basic color theory, some understanding of contrast, ratios, various types of color schemes. Every artist should have some understanding of that as part of their toolkit. Each game has its own palette. Its part of the overall aesthetic and you have to adhere to that in order to make the characters look like they belong in that world. Beyond that in a game like Fortnite you have different classes of characters and each one has their own flavor and a certain set of colors that define it and make it distinct. For example Outlanders are sort of fashionable rogue types and they use a lot of loud neon colors, whereas Soldiers use more subdued military color schemes, Constructors use a lot of yellows and oranges with hazard stripes to give a flavor of construction equipment, while Ninjas lean more toward dark stealthy color schemes. Being in a Fortnite world, they are all more saturated and colorful than what you would find in a realistic military shooter. Once you have your colors then comes material separation. I treat it in a very similar way to colors, it has to be done with an appealing ratio in mind and each type of surface has to be clearly defined so skin looks different from leather and leather looks different from metal. Each one has its own distinct look and they are assembled together in an appealing way to make up the whole character.
Do you take into account how characters will move, function in the game?
Absolutely, the models you create as a character artist will go on to be rigged and animated by other people and so you want to make sure the assets that you provide make it easier for others to do their jobs well. The easier it is for others to work with your models the better the final outcome will be. To do that you have to have to have some understanding of rigging and animation yourself. The character’s topology has to be clean and support deformation, which means laying out the loops in a logical manner while adding extra geometry for areas that will bend and stretch. Some areas will be prone to penetrating during certain animations, so you have to think of solutions to that. Some pieces will have to transform and so you will have to build the asset in such a way that it can be rigged and then transformed in the game. In Fortnite the Outlander class has a transforming gauntlet that opens up and transforms into a giant spiky fist, and then folds back in after the ability is done. The whole contraption had to be built fully extended with considerations for where the joints would go and which parts would articulate.
First you have to figure out what the character is about, what is the character’s story and what is their personality. Then decide what needs to be shown to clearly communicate that story to the player. Start out with the macro shapes — define the character’s overall body proportions, which will determine the overall impression of the character. Then you move on to the medium details — like what are they wearing, do they have any armor, that will define their occupation what they do in the world. Lastly you have the small details that give the character a bit of personal flare, something unique about them that makes them seem like a real believable character. A good example of this type of process is Penny, the female constructor from Fortnite. Starting with the overall proportions she’s got that plus size model hourglass body type, she is a strong and confident female character. Moving onto her clothing she’s got a leather jacket, she’s definitely kind of a badass, she has a duct taped road sign for a gauntlet which grounds her in the world of Fortnite, and then she has that mechanical shin guard and a backpack both of which resemble construction machinery, so she definitely has something to do with building. Lastly there are the small details, she’s got some small tools, shotgun shells and then lipstick on her belt, because even though she likes to kick ass and build things, she also wants to look good while doing it. Small details like that really help tell a story and make the character seem more believable. That said it is easy to go overboard with details, so never be too tied to any particular accessory, sometimes you have to remove them to make the design clearer. Focus on creating a clear silhouette and telling a story of who the character is.
What do you think is the secret of a good character?
One of the things I learned is there’s no real secret, there’s no real shortcut, there’s rarely a good hack, to make a really great piece of art you have to put in the work. You have to learn things like anatomy, color theory, sculpting, mechanical design and then practice and put in the hours to get better where all of these basic fundamentals are just intuitive and second nature. Never stop learning new things, and getting better. Knowledge is out there, there’s no big secret, the hard part is learning and practicing and putting it all together, which takes time and dedication. Making great game characters also takes team work. The best results come when several people, who are themselves masters of their craft, pour all of their efforts toward one goal. That’s when you really get something extraordinary.
Vitaliy Naymushin, Character Artist at Epic Games
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.