One of my former Game Production students, Jerry McClellen, stopped by my classroom at The Los Angeles Film School to show me the latest version of an platform he is developing, Rocket Brown. Wait, did I write “a platform game”? Rocket Brown is actually the star of a video game series. Jerry has been developing it as homage to retro gaming and anime through the lens of urban culture. Rocket Brown follows the adventure of an 80’s nerd that becomes a street fighter who defends his community from various existential threats.
What impresses me about Jerry’s work is that, unlike most of my students who focus on a genre and the typical mechanics associated with that genre, Jerry is focus on his brand and the mascot representing his brand. Such an approach worked famously for Nintendo when game designer Shigeru Miyamoto developed a video game series around his Jumpman character from Donkey Kong, and the portly Italian plumber, who was renamed Mario, eventually became Nintendo’s mascot and a pop culture icon.
When discussing the use of characters in games to my students, I explain that they are not just agents through which the player’s actions are represented in the game, they are potentially object of the player’ empathy in the game. A properly designed character provides players the potential to develop an emotional attachment to that character, to identify with their goals, and consequently, with the game’s objectives.
So, how do you properly design a character? To start, you need to understand the four ways a character is defined:
- How they appear. A character’s body type, posture, hairstyle, clothing, and possessions can reveal a lot about the character’s background, personality, physical abilities, and goals.
- What they do. While players usually control a character’s actions, sometimes game designers have characters perform actions on their own while in a wait state. For example, Sonic the Hedgehog taps his foot to indicate his impatience.
- What they say. Game dialog can not only be used to convey story exposition but also to reveal the character’s personality.
- What other characters say about them. Of course, people are not always honest about themselves, and what other characters have to say about the main character often is more impactful in defining who that main character is.
A rounded character with well-defined traits and a realistic personality or undergoes a significant change of personality during the game story. If these traits and personality are appealing enough to players, this may be a character that you can use in multiple games, and if you use the character often enough, it can become so associated with your company that it is considered to be your company’s mascot.
Of course, you can start your company with such a mascot already in place, along with the plan to have that character be the protagonist of all of your games, as my student Jerry has done. Something you do need to consider is how that mascot brands your company.
Branding is the unique identity, personality, and characteristics identifying loyal customers. It is the “who”, “what”, and most importantly “why” of you and your games. For Jerry, his brand is retro-gaming, anime, and urban environments, and if you are nostalgic about old school video games, are a fan of anime, and identify with urban culture, you have a very good reason for looking at his games.
Building a good brand requires repetitive exposure and coordinate usage across multiple channels (both product channels and marketing channels), as well as time and patience. So, he features Rocket Brown not just in his games, but also on his logos, company website and social media channels. Only time will tell whether his patience will pay off with success, but I have my fingers crossed that it will.
One of my Game Production students recently asked me to explain to him the difference between a game mechanic and a game feature. Like many terms used by gamers and game developers, these two do not have industry-wide, universally-accepted definitions, and so I had to explain them according to how I use the terms. However, I think that most people in the game industry uses them fairly much in the same way, and so I am comfortable with the following explanation that I gave to my student.
To me, a game mechanic is an action that the player can perform in the game, along with the action’s:
- cue (situation motivating player to perform the action)
- resources or other requirements needed to perform the action
- reward for performing the action successfully (or penalty for performing it unsuccessfully).
A game’s mechanics comprise the fundamental building blocks of the game’s design, upon which other design elements such as procedures, rules, and goals are added. Many game genre’s are defined by their mechanics: for example, a first-person-shooter involves the mechanics of running and shooting, while a real-time strategy game involves the mechanics of collecting resources, building units, and unit combat.
A game feature is a much broader term. It is any descriptive aspect of a game’s design, art, audio, or technical capabilities, including:
- The game mechanics, or set of related mechanics grouped into systems.
- Inventory items available to player
- Number and types of enemies in the game
- Number of mission and/or levels in the game
- Multiplayer modes
- Music tracks and quality
- Input devices supported
- Game performance metrics
- and so on.
So, game mechanics specifically describe the player’s actions and their impact in the game, while game features is more of a bullet-pointed list used to explain to customers the general overall experience in playing a game.
But again, these are soft terms, so they are not used in a consistent way by everyone working in the industry. When in doubt, ask the person who is using such jargon to explain exactly what he or she means.