CREATING FRANCHISE CHARACTERS
“I think that memorable characters are always identifiable in silhouette.”
– Matt Groening
The purpose of most new IP characters that we design, whether for electronic games, comic books, cartoons or animated films, is to produce a character that is not only suitable for the product, but has franchise potential. Franchises not only offer the greatest financial opportunities within these media, but successful characters are now expected to transcend media; animated film characters need to survive the transition to games, and vise versa.
There are principals that hold true across successful franchise characters, and I have put this presentation together to examine them. In a nutshell, those principals are:
- Successful franchise characters are quickly identifiable in outline
- Successful franchise characters can be rendered in a simple colour palette
- Successful franchise characters stand apart from the pack
- Successful franchise characters usually have signature sound bites
- Successful franchise characters usually use signature locomotion or poses
Successful franchise characters may not always have all of these characteristics, but they will always have most of them.
Case Study: The Simpsons
The above slides show how well The Simpsons adhere to the principals of outline and colour palette.
The Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening may be the most successful character designer of all time. The Simpsons franchise boasts over 100 characters, most familiar to people around the world, and has produced not only the longest running cartoon of all time, but has transitioned easily to comic book, games, toys and a feature film. Groening is the master of the character outline; even twins Patti and Selma have different outlines. (slide ) Groening has also designed successful characters for Futurama.
His characters generally adhere well to all franchise character principals. Bart, for example, has signature sound bites (“Cowabunga” and “Don’t have a cow, man”) and signature locomotion (skateboard, slide down the banister) and poses. Groening was also determined to make his characters stand apart; his characters not only showed no visual influence from other studios (there is no obvious Disney, Warner Bros or Hanna Barbara influence for example) but he chose yellow as the character colour, to ensure his cartoon jumped out at the channel surfers. The Simpons colour palette remains unique among cartoons.
CASE STUDIES ACROSS MEDIA
I want to illustrate how these principals apply to franchise characters in games, comics, cartoons and 3D, and in some other, perhaps surprising, media.
A look at some of the most successful franchise characters in electronic games reveals how well they adhere to these principals. Mario, the greatest of them all, may have evolved since his early 8-bit origins, but he retains his simple blue, white and red outfit, and his cap for outline. His signature motion, his jump, remains a significant feature. And he still looks like no other character in video games (other than his brother). Whether rendered in 2D, 3D, as a toy, or as Bob Hoskins, he is instantly identifiable.
How other franchise successes such as Sonic fit the principals is obvious, but I thought it worth pointing out how well-done the Big Daddy in Bioshock is designed, with an outline that is instantly recognizable, and as a result, became not only the “face” of the game, but was very successful in models and toys.
Newspaper comic strips, an art form going back 100 years, gave birth to these principals. Felix the Cat, Popeye, Little Nemo, The Katzenjammer Kids, Pogo, all succeeded according to these principals. Of more recent examples, the cast of Peanuts, Cavin and Hobbes, even Dilbert, showcase these principals beautifully.
Charlie Brown, for example, has a distinct outline, a simple colour palette, signature sound bites (“Good grief” and “Aaargh!”), and the Peanuts emerged with a wholly unique visual style (though often imitated since). His dog Snoopy has one of the most iconic poses in all of comic strips; his on-his-back doghouse perch.
Perhaps the greatest visual character icons of the past 100 years are found in cartoons. Can any character compete with Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Fred Flintstone or Bart Simpson for sheer identification power around the world?
Perhaps the most popular and famous is Bugs Bunny, a two-colour wonder with a beautiful silhouette, icons poses and great sound bites (“What’s up doc?”).
Even the minimalist South Park cast have unique outlines and colour schemes for their core cast.
Other than a few big exceptions, the world of 3D movies has struggled with establishing bona fide franchise characters with the same power as the best of 2D animation. Pixar has had the best success at this, with Wall-E and the cast of The Incredibles adopting good design principals (their least successful movie, Cars, unsurprisingly does not have characters nearly as well-designed), and the Shrek franchise’ characters being another good example. But, too many 3D films, such as Happy Feet, Madagascar, or Hampters???, the characters are woefully under-designed, lacking successful applications of these principals.
The Star Wars franchise jumped to my mind first, as featuring characters well-known around the world, and that have successfully transitioned to other media. What I found confirmed my suspicion. Darth Vader is the best example; recognizable in outline, simple colour scheme (all black), signature sound (his heavy breath audio). George Lucas shows a keen talent for character design; Liea’s bizarre eaf-muff hairdo gives her an outline, Luke’s lightsabre pose, the outlines and sounds of the droids, Chewbacca’s audio, all fit. Each of the main characters from the original Star Wars is identifiable by outline, and sport simple colour schemes and impactful poses; it’s no wonder these characters became so iconic. By contrast, most of the newer characters from the second trilogy fail these principals – Jedis ?? and ??, Queen Padme and Lord ??? offer none of these character design hooks. Jar Jar, as annoying has he may be, is probably the best designed character from the second trilogy according to these principals, and is arguably the most iconic, despite his reputation.
James Bond was another interesting example to look at. That any number of actors can portray Bond, and he remain identifiable as Bond, speaks well to the design of his character; poses and sound-bites being his design strengths.
Looking further, I found that even some iconic live-action television characters, showcase these principals. (At this point of the presentation someone in the audience invariably starts pointing out successful TV characters where these principals do not apply. I remind that I am not talking about successful, I am talking about iconic, instantly recognizable characters. The principals are useful for live-action, but essential to animated characters.) Many shows that have shown both longevity and international appeal, such as Gilligan’s Island and the original Star Trek make for interesting case studies, with some arguments that these principals apply.
So how does all this apply to games that have create-a-character features in addition to, or instead of, original IP characters? I do believe the instant recognition hook remains a powerful tool, often under-utilized in such games.
I like the above example from Little Big Planet. Although dressed many different ways, each character is instantly identifiable as a Small World character. In addition, the add-on features give each character its own unique outline and visual hooks, applying the principal on two levels. This is beautiful IP design.
Consider those on-line avatar creators that allow you to see what you look like as a Simpsons character, a South Park character, or in the style of Mad Men. These show an instantly recognizable design unique to each franchise. Character designers in electronic games may want to test their overall character visual style along these lines to prove out the uniqueness and viability of their style.
There’s no reason to have user-created characters that do not conform to good IP character principals.
Realistic Game Characters
So what about 3D action games with realistic or quazi-realistic characters? Do these principals apply to such characters? Certainly they don’t have to – some franchises are based, not on character, but on other elements, such as style of play. Not having a really identifiable character style hasn’t hurt Halo any. But I would offer that the lack of identifiable visual styles can both limit the audience and the possibilities for transitioning to other media. There are reasons Lara Croft can make a successful transition to movies, and Prince of Persia or Hitman can’t – Lara was a recognized icon before the movie was made, the others weren’t. Movie producers should not look only at game sales when looking for games to adapt, they should look at the viability of the characters to be iconic.
Character Is Not Ethnicity
I’ve seen this happen enough times that it bears discussion. I’m working with some designers, hashing out some character ideas, and someone says something along the lines of, “How about a latino character who…” or, “We should have a Japanese girl who…” and so on (while I cringe with my hands over my eyes).
Exhibit A: Waylon Smithers, a black character through much of season one of the Simpsons and caucasian (well, yellow) afterwards. Exhibit B: Chuck Jones’ Inki, who was changed to a caveman for his later cartoons after his time as black African was deemed too racist to newer audiences.
The point is, whether dark- or light- skinned, Smithers is just Smithers. The things that make him a great character do not alter with a change in ethnicity. For a well-designed character ethnicity does not matter. And as such, it is not a useful place to start designing a character. Once all your characters are designed and they pass good design tests, then you can look at applying ethnicities to characters based on your marketing and balancing needs.
A good test for designers; change the ethnicity of your character. Is their character intact? If not, you haven’t done your work.
Character Is Not Just A Costume
I recall working with an art team who, unhappy with the reception their IP characters had received for a previously released game, decided to create a new batch of characters for its sequel. What they showed me for their new characters were not characters – they were cyphers in costumes. This had been their previous methodology as well, and so they were going down the same road. This is something of a frequent industry error. A costume does not make a character. Examine these slides:
A well-designed character not only gives you an instant read of that character, that read survives a change in costume. Not to mention, you may need to put your character in other costumes if they are to be used in other games and media. Bart in a suit is still Bart, Bugs in drag is still Bugs.
A good test for designers; change the clothing on your character. Is it still obviously the same character? If not, you haven’t done your work.
The Poochy Principal
The Poochy episode of The Simpons is the best discussion of why focus-testing characters does not work that I have ever seen. Any one who is going to design characters owes it to themselves to watch that episode.
This episode was a riff of something that happened often in TV cartoons, especially in the 70s and 80s, but continues to this day, including in electronic games development. Producers try to inject new interest in the franchise by adding a new character, and do so by trying to add a character according to market trends and focus tests. The most famous early example was Scrappy Doo, added to the Saturday morning Scooby Doo cartoon in the series’ 10th season, in 1979. Under pressure from their television network carrier, animation studio Hanna Barbara asked kids what kind of character they would like to see added to the show. The kids replied that they wanted a kid character they could identify with, and a character with attitude. The studio gave the kids what they asked for, and inevitably, every one hated Scrappy Doo, including the kids. After an initial ratings spike, the audience tuned out. A couple things were going on here. One, people don’t know what they will like – they really don’t. Kids don’t like Mario because they think Italian plumbers are hip, edgy or someone they can identify with. Twenty-two years ago, if you asked people if they would watch a cartoon about a fat guy who strangles his kid for 20 years, what answer do you think you would get? Two, no one, especially kids, likes being pandered to. Kids know when it’s happening, and they do not like it. I’ve been in focus testing rooms with dozens of kids and can attest to this first-hand.
Producers, in cartoons and games, however, rarely study the past to learn from history, and so this still happens all the time. I recall, while working on Tron 2.0 for the DS, someone from Disney asking if we could make Tron look more like a “skater dude.” Someone else suggested that Tron should be a kid, so kids could relate to him.
Kids didn’t play Mario because Mario was cool, Mario became cool because kids played his game. Bart became cool because his show was well-written. And because they were well-designed characters that fit sound and proven design principals. That is how it works.
CREATING A CAST OF CHARACTERS
In electronic games, Nintendo is the master of this, with Sega coming closest to second. There are some factors to keep in mind when developing your cast.
Ensure your characters are adaptable. They should be able to survive changes in context, clothing, and media (2d, 3d, toys). They should be able to survive changes in technology. Mario has survived well. Pacman was actually well-designed in some ways, but was not adaptable.
The Right Artist
Matt Groening is not the greatest draughtsman out there. The same could be said of Scott Adams () or Trey and Parker (). Yet they are great character designers. Yet given how most game companies operate, Groening or Adams would likely not have gone far as character designers had they worked in games initially. Most game companies do not hire character designer specialists, and while most art leads are great artists, promoted because of skill and hard work, many are not great character designers. Sadly, most characters in games are designed my committee.
Nintendo and Sega have full-time character designers. Any company seeking to develop new IP characters would do well to do so as well. If not, they should identify artists from within who have this as a key skill. Too often the job goes to the best overall artists, who are often not great character designers. Producers will often OK characters based on how professional they look on paper, and how market-friendly they seem, without examining how well they apply to good character design principals.
Depth and Complexity
For durability, across time and across media, characters need some depth. Some don’t need much. I don’t think Mario has much depth, but he has more than Pacman, and enough to survive. Comic book and comic strip characters need loads of depth. Animated characters generally do need a lot of depth, but there are a few notable exceptions.
For game developers, I would suggest that the more casual your game the less depth your characters need. If you hope to carry your character to other media, such as comic books and cartoons, you should at least look at the viability of the room for future depth.
I would warn designers against fussing over the nuances of their characters before they even get them to the point where they conform to the design principals discussed here. Depth tends to evolve naturally, over time, should the character survive; if your character is good there will be time for that later. Waylon Smithers was not intended to be gay, for example. If he had been intended as gay from the start, he almost certainly would have been designed very differently. That his homosexuality evolved out of story makes him a character no one could have come up with, and he his a better character for it. Most of what we know about Link, was not written when The Legend Of Zelda was released.
This is really the subject for a whole other essay, and outside of the subject of “instant read” discussed here.
Long-Term Character Uses
The best franchises have deep character casts. This was true with Disney and Warner Bros cartoons, it’s true with The Simpsons, its true with Nintendo and Sega. If you are planning to establish a character franchise that can be used across many games, sequels and across other media, then plan long-term. Start with your strongest characters to get off on the right foot, but save some good characters to be introduced later. Keep characters fresh by using them less in some contexts, or even retiring them for a while, and bring them back later. Plan minor characters to promote to larger roles later. And watch who fans respond to – allow your expectations to be wrong. Warner Bros expected Bugs Bunny to be a one-off, and for now-forgotten Buddy to be their star character. They were wise to listen to their audience.
Despite the success of Mario and company, I believe the electronic game’s answer to Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny are yet to come. There is huge potential in good IP character design. How much is Mario worth? Bugs Bunny? There is huge potential here, both financially and in terms of design opportunities. Designers need to push for the best characters they can, and not settle for good enough, or being merely reliant on adapting characters from other media.