Do games need ‘characters’?

It used to be the ‘go to’ thing to guarantee the success of a title. If you are going to create a franchise, you need a funky cartoonish character to promote it. From Mario and Sonic, to Lara Croft and Crash Bandicoot, it seemed there was a formula for success and Nintendo, Sony, Sega were sticking to it. Even genres that do not lend themselves to a character at all, were being stuffed with them. Nintendo managed to get Mario to play golf, tennis, go-karts, and a whole raft of other sports. I’m not sure if I dreamt it, but I recall a certain Dr Mario, which was a weird tetris-styled game with pills instead of blocks??!?

To understand whether characters are needed, we need to understand why they are used. Obviously there is a practical application to them. If you create a platformer, then it might seem odd to have nothing for the player to control! But there are many games that the playable character is instantly forgettable or even unknown. So why do comanies spend money into promoting these characters?

It falls down to branding (doesn’t everything!). The companies use these characters’ popularity to make you buy the game. If a game is popular, they release a sequel with the same familiar face. Nintendo, who I mentioned earlier, are masters at this, and have been for a very long time. It may seem that for indie developers that creating a character is essential to survive. This may be true for some games, but it does carry disadvantages. It costs a lot of money and time to create the perfect character in the first place, and even if you are successful you have no guarantees that the audience are going to like it! The larger companies spend a lot of money on market research before they create their games to minimise this risk, but market research costs even more money!


What are the alternatives to characters?


  • You create a game that doesn’t need a character. Tetris and other puzzle games rely on gameplay to promote their brand.
  • You could also get lucky and your audience love your creation.
  • You could create your character in such a simplistic way, that your audience cannot resist them such as Super Meat Boy, or Angry Birds.

The gaming audience want two opposing things, which as a creator you are going to have to deal with. They not only want you to have brand-predictability within your games, but they also want every game to be exciting and new. It seems that this dichotomy cannot possibly be adequately achieved. To keep your audience invested, this is my take on how to approach multiple games.


Make sure that the feel of your games remains consistent – people want to judge a new game from one you have previously released


Think about things that you can reuse between titles. However, this does not have to involve the characters. The company Rare provide an excellent example of this. The company have created some very different games involving very different characters, however one glimpse and you know its a ‘Rare-game’. Think about the way you deal with ‘lives’, or the style of artwork you use. Even basic colour-schemes can start to get your audience to recognise your brand.


Surprises, but good surprises!


There’s nothing worse than a company that changes their brand but have not really thought things through. Think about whether a change in your games brand with add-to or detract from it. Are you audience going to be happy that you have added/removed things that they have become familiar with. You cannot build a gaming-brand unless you expose your audience to it regularly. That said, you need to make sure your brand remains fresh and that there is a point for the gamer to play the next game. Square-Enix provide some evidence towards this. The Final Fantasy games had a strong brand up until the ninth instalment. When Final Fantasy 10 was released, the brand shifted radically from a (mainly) 2-dimensional, open word game, to a 3-dimensional semi-closed world game. Obviously enough people bought into the brand for it to survive, but they never reached the same sales figures as earlier games. nterestingly, they have recently planned to recreate Final Fantasy 7 for the Playstation 4.

Are ‘lives’ redundant?

Super Mario is an amazing game. It was so simple back when the original was released. You tried to reach the flag, hoping to dodge obstacles along the way. You could not save your game, however, which added to the excitement and sense of achievement when a level was completed. If the worst happened, which it inevitably did, you go a chance to try again from the start of that level. This was not always the case, however. If you run out of lives, you had to start from the very start.


What was good about that then?


The lack of saving came down to a boring fact that the NES cartridges did not have internal flash, which meant that they were read-only. Some games got around this but creating passwords in their games, but this didn’t really take on (who keeps a pad and pen next to their console!). But if you could save along the way on Mario, then wouldn’t it have made the game too easy? It was an amazing game, but it wasn’t exactly the longest game to compete (especially with the warm zones). Also, was there not more of an achievement to get ot the end of it knowing that you didn’t have a saving-safety net?

That being said, Mario would not have been the great game it was without some sort of safety net. It was not unusual to die on Mario, especially some of the underground jumps and the cloud thing throwing porcupines at you! Gamers would have not welcomed having to restart the game on every mistake.

The lives also gave creators another way of rewarding achievement. The green mushroom was worth something, since you knew that you had more than 3 mistakes in you when you started the game.


So if lives are so great, where are they now?


Modern games seem to shy away from lives. The advent of saving games has made them a bit pointless, although the Final Fantasy series got around this by only letting the player save at certain locations. This was great if you Mum shouted you down for dinner, or told you to go to bed whilst at one! But ignoring the growth of saving, why are lives redundant?

The advent of mobile gaming, and life-like 3-D effects have changed the picture completely for very different reasons.

Mobile gaming is required to fill a few minutes for the player. Most games are casual, so the player does not have time to die and try again. Instead of lives, which is a form of punishment, many mobile game promote achievement. Angry Birds, and others like it, rate you on how well you did. Although, the latest freemium Angry Birds 2 does now require you to watch adverts if you lose!

With the console 3-D games, especially the shoot-em-ups, there has been a need to make the gameplay more realistic. In the Call Of Duty games, you have one life, true to live. If you die, you restart the mission. It seems at odds with their focus on realism to include a very artificial construct. The games are also too large to force a player to restart, and level selects are so mainstream that they have become a requirement and expectation for audiences.


It appears that lives have had their day, with audiences wanting reward rather than punishment, and console games too large to force a restart after an artifical amount of tries.

No artistic talent, no worries

I have absolutely no idea how to draw anything. This is where I can come unstuck. It seems that there are a wealth of indie developers out there that can not only code, but can draw. The really annoying ones are the ones that can compose music as well!

Fear not, however, for there are solutions to this artistic inadequacy.


Money solves all problems


If you have that killer idea for a game, but know that you need a specific character, background, or other graphic, then pay someone to create it. Its always better if you know the person, but alternatively there are websites from graphic artists that show all of their previous work. There are two major disadvantages here though. It costs, and mostly it costs a lot. Graphic artists are not cheap, but for animations you may need quite a few frames, and maybe from different directions. There may also be multiple characters, multiple weapons, multiple backgrounds, etc, etc. The other disadvantage is that you never know quite what you will get. If you know the artist, then you have a lot more faith in the quality of their work. Dodgy artists aside, each artist has a unique style, which may not fit your game. This is why I suggest if you do not know the artist, only part your money with one that you can see their previous work. Make sure the one your choose will sketch out your artwork first and require your approval before proceeding.


Stock is not all that bad


Stock graphics, which are graphics that are created and then sold to the mass market, have many advantages. They are normally cheap, and always cheaper than hiring an arttst. You can even get some for free through open-source graphic sites. You can also know exactly what the graphic looks like before you part with your cash. However there are disadvantages. Sometimes that licensees do not allow you to use them for commercial purposes, so check these before paying out. The largest disadvantage is that anyone can use that graphic. If you create the next Mario, you will never be able to stop people from ripping your character off. I would suggest not doing this if you think that your game will make it big!


Just don’t have any graphics


My best solution to tackle this is… not to draw! Games do not need to have beautifully hand-crafted drawings to look amazing. Tetris, for example, is one of the all time top games, and was made up of crudely drawn blocks. Adobe’s Photoshop and other photo editing tools allow you to create amazing textures with a few button presses, so your game doesn’t have to look bland. The advantages to this is that you remain in control of your game, and you can get started creating straight away. You always have the option of updating your graphics down the line if needed. One major limitation is only there if your game requires a graphic for logistical reasons. Platforms tend to need backgrounds, objects, characters, for instance.


So all is not lost if, like me, you have no artistic ability. Just remember that your game’s gameplay is your game, and your artwork is your marketing.

Is planning worth it?

It’s boring and takes ages, so should you plan your gaming project before creating?

Its not the sexiest of activities to sit and write a plan. Trust me, you have all these ideas rushing through your head, and the thought of writing them out seems pointless. So why do all the professionals do it?

There are reasons that gaming companies do it. They involve large teams, which need to be coordinated. Projects may require approval from relevant managers to get the green light before development occurs. When they are developed, the team need to know the plan so that they can build their part.

But indie developers do not have large teams, and many are sole-developers with maybe a graphics artists and music technician. Is planning worth it for them? There are two approaches to game development, each with advantages and disadvantages.


I know what I want to do and I’ll wing the detail


You have an idea of the sort of game you want to make, maybe having a few details planned out in your head, but that’s it. Nothing is committed to paper, and how you will achieve most of the goals is unknown. So you get your code editor open and you just go for it. When problems come up you tackle them and test the game as you go along.

This is the most tempting and it does carry advantages. For some, its more interesting, since you are constantly problem-solving as you go along. You spend 100% of your time creating the game, so it (theoretically) takes less time. And I include the bracket because that is the first major disadvantage, it can take a lot MORE time.

If your game is not planned adequately, the design of you code, or a different aspect of your game, could take you down a path that is not compatible to one of your goals. An example would be to create a game in flash, wanting to create an online gaming site, only to find out after weeks of coding that you want the iphone (which doesn’t support flash) to be your primary target device. In this instance, the game would have to be created again from scratch in HTML5/Javascript, or you would have to ignore your goal.

Another major disadvantage is the end product. Most tame I created in my early years were of this nature. I use the excuse that I was young and learning, but in reality I did not see the point. However, looking back, the games were fragmented and missing any overall goal. I focussed on each goal as they came, but never stopped to examine the whole product.


Plan, plan, plan then create


This brings me onto the alternative. You sit down and list all the goals of your project. Using command words really helps with this. What is your game going to do that will make it stand out? Who is you game for? Why would they play your game? When do you plan to complete the development? Where will your game be available? How will you achieve your goals?

These are a short snippet of the questions I ask myself, and I write them all down. Then I draw the whole game, from start to finished, but with crude polygons. The main character is always a triangle, and backgrounds generally rectangles, etc. This shouldn’t take much time, but is a stimulus to me to see any problems that may occur. It also allows me to write a list of any artwork the game needs. I do this all at once, since I normally require to maintain a consistent colour-scheme though-out the project. After this is completed, I then look at how I will structure the code. Which classes I already have and which I need to write.

The plan, however, is never and should never be strictly kept to. The point of it is to help visualise the project as a whole and predict possible issues. It is not designed to find all problems though. I often change my mind of elements of the plan, but when this happens, the plan is updated, and allows me to see the impact that the change has on the project as a whole.


I am unreservedly biased towards creating great plans, and have played many games online that clearly were created on the fly, and it shows. If you have that once-in-a-lifetime gaming idea, make sure you plan it out properly from the start, otherwise it may cost you down the line!

Clickteam Fusion 2.5 – Episode 3 – Loops and Alterable Values

Click the button above to have a go at the game!

We create a simple memory game, where the player has to remember and repeat random tiles that appear. The purpose is to introduce why we use loops and how we can use them to create amazing games and applications. Alterable values are also a very important part of Clickteam Fusion, and are used throughout this tutorial.