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.