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.

Click for full-size image!

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).

There’s that color…

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). I went ahead and committed him to a fully animated sprite…

What not to do!

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 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?

He is…

  • 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.

Auro’s sprite

blakereynolds • 12/10/2011

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  1. Daniel 12/10/2011 - 1:19 pm Reply

    Thanks for the great post! Good choice about remaking him :)

  2. unless 12/10/2011 - 5:56 pm Reply

    Wow, that final design is really excellent. I want to watch that cartoon.

  3. invadererik 12/10/2011 - 6:51 pm Reply

    why does his sprite look so haggard? the green under his eyes makes him look like a zombie and hes breathing makes him look like he ran a marathon.

  4. Cosmic Banana 12/11/2011 - 6:33 am Reply

    At what angle does light need to hit the eyeball to create shadows on the cheekbones? How does shadow completely change the color of flesh rather than a darker flesh tone? That effect doesn’t seem to be in the concept art.

    The animations are odd because people don’t jerk around like that, even if they are out of breath. Just try to mimic it — hard enough to make your hair and clothes flutter. If you’re letting out a sigh of exasperation, even if the breath is forced out quickly the motion is lot more subtle than what you have in either animation.

    That sonic-pikachu fan art makes more sense than your creation. It’s not even a recolor as you so claim.

  5. Cosmic Banana 12/11/2011 - 7:39 am Reply

    If that’s the shape of his eyes, then he’s got the whole goldfish/iguana look going on. I guess this is another one of those things where the concept art will outshine in-game assets.

    I don’t disagree that it’s possible to do that animation while preparing for an attack. It’s also possible for some people lick their own elbow. It’s just not even remotely realistic that anyone would be doing such a thing. If you want embellished and dynamic take a look at nearly any fighting video game and observe each character’s ready stance. If you want more realistic, look at videos of martial arts tournaments or possibly MMA-style fighting. In any case, no one adopts a stance relying on a huff of air. Maybe it’s your contribution to the art, though.

    This is flaming? I haven’t even gotten around to calling you names yet. Alas, the night is still young. Anything can happen.

    • keithburgun 12/12/2011 - 9:47 am Reply

      We’re sorry you don’t like the artwork, Cosmic Banana. Surely you understand that we can’t please everyone. Thanks for your input.

  6. Redshrike 12/12/2011 - 8:14 pm Reply

    I rather like the new design and animation. Obviously it’s exaggerated, but so is everything else about him. I would agree that the darker shade on the eye is too dark to really read as part of the eyeball, but the expression that I do read doesn’t look bad. It, along with his animation, makes him look rather restless, sullen and unhappy to be where he is, which seems to match the design pretty well. Overall, I think it’s a definite improvement over the previous design and much more emotive.
    Not sure what you mean about skinny limbs not translating to pixel art, though.

  7. TimB 12/14/2011 - 5:24 am Reply

    Hey guys, I’m really liking the mechanics of the game and the overall design philosophy. The new artwork is definitely an improvement over the previous version as well, so props for making the strong move to remake it mid stream and only days before your Kickstarter deadline.

    I think the new video focuses nicely on what will make this game kick ass: simple, effective but unique graphics and rich mechanics. You have earned my pledge on kickstarter — good luck finishing the game.

    My background is in design (the architecture and graphics kind) so I can’t help but offering some unsolicited advice! I also understand that you are crunching late in the process here so feel free to disregard of course.

    I get the impression that you guys want to differentiate yourselves from the standard roguelike graphic tropes, hence the more subtle tonality, subdued colors, and non-standard hero. I wonder, though, if you may be going a bit too far. The concept art and sprites are great, but washed out to the point that I think they come across somewhat lackluster to the average gamer. This is also the case with screenshots I’ve seen thusfar. Have you considered emboldening them a bit? Check it, a crude 10 minute photoshop recoloring exercise brings out ( to my eye, at least) some more excitement out of the otherwise excellent artwork.


    Alright, enough of my meddlings. Thanks for the blog and good luck bringing the game home!

    • Julissa 04/28/2016 - 5:49 pm Reply

      « Les services secrets, quels qu’ils soient sont chargés d’éviter que ce genre de chose se prqugise. &raouo;Ardument également parfaitement valable pour la psychiatrie.Le jour où vous passerez entre leurs mains, vous rigolerez probablement beaucoup moins.

  8. sheep 01/01/2012 - 1:18 pm Reply

    I think you forgot about another very important advice. “Don’t defend your design by explaining it”.

    If you have to explain that the bags under his eyes are actually his eyeballs, then something is very wrong, and you will not get far by dismissing people’s opinions as “flaming”. Design is all about how things seem, not how they measure. You can explain all day long that it’s the same color as his hair and thus it is logical that it’s his eyeballs, but in the end nobody will even think about it — they will just feel that something is wrong.

    Same thing with the movement — if people are telling you that it’s jerking and that they wouldn’t want to watch it all the time through the whole game, it is probably true. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean that something is wrong with the animation itself — you will need to experiment and try different options to discover what makes the people feel uncomfortable. But don’t just explain away the problem or blame it on the trolls.

    Last thing, what’s with that blue ball at the end of the staff? Does it have a nose, cheeks and eyes? Is it a mutated raspberry? What is it made of? It confuses me and makes me wonder if it has some meaning that is important but that I’m missing?

  9. sheep 01/01/2012 - 1:19 pm Reply

    Oh, by the way, the new design is *much* better than the old one, it’s definitely the right direction, sorry for the negative.

  10. Blake 01/01/2012 - 3:59 pm Reply

    The ball on the staff is a bird’s face. The player will be given plenty of context to understand this. As it is, the rest of the staff is clearly a bird-like wood carving. It’s in the likeness of the bird people who bestow the staff, whom the player will see.

    Adding another lighter pigment for the eye isn’t ideal because that’s bad color economy using just the one special color for the one small area, but it may be necessary. Ill probably be changing it. His animation is pretty standard fare for Japanese-flavored idle animations in mythe opinion.Thank you for your comments.

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  13. sucesos paranormales reales 05/10/2012 - 2:45 pm Reply

    I was recommended this blog by my cousin. I am not sure whether this post is written by him as nobody else know such
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