THE ART BARN: Designing and Redesigning “Auro”
[Note from the editor: We just over-hauled our Kickstarter video with this new design. Please check it out, and consider donating! We only have a week left! With that said, please enjoy this latest installment of THE ART BARN, in which our lead artist Blake Reynolds dishes out some helpful experience with character design.]
This post isn’t so much instructional as it is reflective. The truth is, I don’t know much about character design beyond very fundamental concepts like “don’t rip nothin’ off too bad,” which includes “try not to do sonic the hedgehog recolors.” For Dinofarm Games‘ upcoming title, Auro: The Golden Prince, I made a point to do an extensive pre-visualization period, one which would cement the visual language of the game in a way I wasn’t able to for our last project, 100 Rogues. What we ended up with was a character design which, among many problems, failed to convey the most crucial piece of information, what does this character do? Thanks to both the internal feedback I received and the… critique many prospective players gave, we went back to the drawing board after well over six months of rigorous visual planning. I knew I was forgetting another one of those principles in character design: “Throw everything out and start over if you stink.”
Join me for a retrospective on the design of our main character, Prince Auro. I take back what I said earlier about this not being instructional. Buckle up for more “what not to do” moments” than you’ll know what to do with!
Our first step was to start with a premise. We wanted to portray a prince who was being sent on a quest against all odds into the depths of the mountain below his castle. Why a prince? For one, we wanted him to be a boy so the player will have the underdog feeling from the start. Like 100 Rogues, Auro involves random maps and permanent death. You will die a lot. We didn’t want the protagonist to be a demigod anime man who shoots fireballs, because that invites the player to wonder something like, “hey, how come I keep dying when I have the power of anime fireballs?” (incidentally, Auro WILL be able to shoot fireballs, just not anime ones) We picked a fantasy setting because the game is completely about tactical combat on a hex grid, and many of those abilities can be easily expressed through some kind of magic. Makes sense right? We thought so. Here are the first quick drawings of Auro.
The first step was to decide on the level of abstraction. How cartoony or realistic do we want him? You can kill two birds with one stone by trying lots of different costume elements as well. Maybe we’d decide on the anatomy of #1 but the crown from #3. In this early stage, that kind of economy can be helpful.
From here we made our first color concept. The early prototype you see below is the result of an attempt at funky art nouveau designs in his crown. It turned out looking too much like a fancy wastepaper basket. However, in fooling around with colors here, I both made my first breakthrough and sealed my own doom. Behold the multi-colored fabric destined to pervade every single following concept.
Through a sort of accident in color swapping, this combination of pink, lilac and cyan spoke to me. It was exotic, pastel and slightly girly…OK a lot girly. But that girly-ness spurred our next breakthrough. So far, Auro has been austere, stern, and mostly vacant. It was an “empty shell” approach that many game developers go to in order to facilitate the self-insertion of the player. However, we saw an opportunity to give the character a personality that would support our game’s thesis, which is careful, difficult decision making. We decided that Auro should be a pampered, spoiled, completely unprepared brat, and that you learn the rules of the game through his being constantly corrected by his patient tutor, Quilsh(more on him in another post).
This was the first stab at Auro’s new personality. I went for the obvious (and cliche) route, which is a cocksure, slightly older boy with a smarmy smirk(what not to do!) Also, this didn’t work because his gangly physique was an important part of expressing his personality, and skinny limbs do not translate well to pixel art. We ultimately decided this iteration was too lively and apparently fun-loving than the lazy, spoiled boy we wanted to portray.
Here is the more disaffected, lazy demeanor we were looking for, complete with “platinum Nazi hair” as I affectionately put it. We originally shied away from blonde hair because we felt it would fight with the yellows present in the golds. To counter that, I gave his gold a brassy color to it. That was about the only sound color choice I made here. If you ever want to get fired from your design gig, make sure to design a costume involving pink, lilac, cyan, christmas green, yellow, red and off white.
We liked the facial expression, we thought the proportions would translate well to pixel art, we liked that cape color, and we liked the shape of his hair. What he lacked was a harmonious, economic use of color and unity in the shapes he was wearing.
This was the last big breakthrough for us. We set out for a sort of exotic, cirque du soleil meets Zelda kind of thing. We changed the hair back to a copper brown because we still feared the conversion to pixel art. If you notice, throughout all of this, we’re ham-handedly embracing the whole hexagon motif. We figured as long as we committed to it, it would work and not be corny and disastrous… oh theories…
Well, I shopped it around to the team and to my peers, and mostly got positive reviews. I neglected to consider that most of these people have been watching the whole design process, and understood my rationale. They knew the context for this character and didn’t exactly see what a stranger might(rainbow clown fairy).
There were warning signs. A friend of mine commented on my DA page: “Is he the prince of a queer coalition? […] I don’t think he’s going to appeal to any boys though. He would look androgynous regardless of the color scheme, but I don’t think anyone wants to play a character decked out in pink and lilac like that.”
Wise words. Then again, this friend of mine did write a fantasy novel in which a feral wildwoman transforms into a panther and fights, quote, “giant veiny mushrooms” (NOT KIDDING)! That may be why I ignored this portent. Instead, I went ahead and committed him to a fully animated sprite…
Fifteen hours or so later and we’re committed! We’re ready to build from here and put together a Kickstarter campaign! People will be searching craft stores (or little girls’ rooms) to make their Prince Auro cosplay in no time!
Seriously though, The design itself, regardless of taste, has 2 major problems:
1. It’s not clear that he’s a prince-he could just as soon be a curate, bishop or cleric of some kind.
2. It’s not clear what he does.
The second one was not an accident. Since the game will only have one idle animation per sprite due to budget and time, I wanted Auro to be as universal in his action as possible. He’ll be using tons of abilities which all require tons of different verbs and themes. I felt giving him a weapon or something would confuse the player.
We didn’t see how necessary that object, weapon or “verb” was though. How a character interacts with the game world is totally paramount to the message getting very clearly and quickly to the player’s conscious and unconscious mind. The quicker that connection is made, the quicker the player is able to re-abstract it into his mind and simply see relationships. Mario jumps, so he’s a little man. If he was a rectangle, the game would be just as fun but it would be asking that much more of the player to understand what he’s doing in the game space. Link has his sword and shield, and that game is very heavily based on swordplay. Sonic the Hedgehog has his bright red sneakers, which suggest that you’ll be running. The list goes on.
We’re in the home stretch for our kickstarter campaign, and we at Dinofarm believed that something drastic was needed. We bit the bullet and went completely back to the drawing board. We abandoned almost everything about Auro’s previous design; his identifying shapes, palette, and anatomy. I learned a lot about design in this past year, and I took it back to basics.
Who is Auro?
- A Prince
- A Spellcaster
- A spoiled and lazy boy
This was my first stab with my new eyes.
He is now casting a spell, is more chibi-fied to further facilitate the transition into a sprite, he has more clearly masculine, boyish hair, and now has robes more like a spellcaster. The problem was, I was still forgetting something. He is a prince. Princes have crowns, not strange little crystal tiaras. And the “spellcasting” pose wouldn’t work as his idle animation because it would be visually exhausting.
Bearing all of this in mind, we came to the following conclusion.
We ditched the tights. We gave him a traditional metal crown, and we resurrected the platinum nazi hair. His look is not only impatient but obstinate. The tipped crown illustrates his laziness and unpreparedness. He now bears a gold against a dark neutral palette to more deeply illustrate his being a boy. Only one thing was missing: what does this character do?
Behold! Auro’s magical mesmerite staff. This solved that problem, and as a bonus gave Auro a more active look. First, Auro’s tutor Quillsh was originally going to be physically accompanying Auro on his quest, but wouldn’t occupy a tile. Though thematically justifying that isn’t on the top of our priority list, it’s certainly a bonus to be able to. So Quilsh now channels through this staff for the duration of the game, which makes his interactions with Auro all the more believable. All the abilities Auro performs will be due to the magic of this staff. Design-wise, it follows a different, yet complimentary set of rules for shapes, to illustrate that this should both mesh with Auro but also function as its own character in a sense.
Well, our little Auro may not be perfect, but then again neither is this.
We put all we have into him, and it took us a very long, uneconomic cycle of screwing up before we focused on what counts, and that is getting as much information to the player’s mind as possible in as few strokes as possible. Character design, just like game design, is all about elegance. As it is, I’m about as elegant as an OCD’s flowchart for a day at a public pool, but I do try.