Of the sixty or so videogames I have developed, perhaps my favorite was the Heroes of Might & Magic series, thanks in large part to how well we development leads got along with each other. While we worked very hard, we also took the time to have fun with each other. For example, after I had returned from a week’s vacation with my family, my lead designer, Greg Fulton, had told me that they had added a new character to the Armageddon’s Blade expansion in my absence, and he wanted me to review and approve it.
The character the had named the character they added “Sir Mullich”, and the artwork was based on a photograph of me dressed in a Renaissance Fair costume that I had put on a few months earlier for a photograph used as reference for the town leaders in Might & Magic VI, a role-playing game set in the same fictional universe developed by our sister team at New World Computing. However, it was the character’s description that really got to me: Generally stoic, Sir Mullich is prone to spasmodic fits of uncoordinated excitement believed to intimidate his troops into working faster. As I read it, the rest of the team hovered about, waiting to see how I would react.
Fortunately for everyone, I laughed at their joke about my leadership skills (or lack thereof), but told them that they could keep the character (and its description) in the game. Little did I realize how long that character would live on. Not only did Sir Mullich appear in all of the Heroes of Might & Magic games that our team launched from 1999 to 2002, but the character lived on in the Heroes games that Ubisoft continued to develop after buying the franchise from our parent company, The 3DO Company.
“Sir Mullich” also lives on in the many Heroes sites that the series’ fans publish, and I was amazed that when I entered the name into Google for this article, it received 10,600 results. Even more unsettling, I occasionally receive fan mail from all around the world, sometimes with the fans posing with a picture of me. I may not be famous in America, but apparently I have a large enough following in Eastern Europe for my photo to have been hung up in a gamer’s lounge in Poland or there to be Russian fan art of Sir Mullich in DeviantArt.
What most tickles me is the artwork that is produced for this character, which seems to make Sir Mullich less spasmodic and more heroic with each iteration. Just this morning, my contact at Ubisoft, Julien Pirou sent me some fantastic artwork of Sir Mullich created for Might & Magic Era of Chaos, a mobile game released in China. It’s a far more heroic depiction of me than anyone in real life would think, and having created a game that has a worldwide appeal two decades later actually makes me feel more humbled than heroic.
An even stranger experience for me was meeting the real-life incarnation of a video game I had worked on. The protagonist of Dark Seed II, a horror-themed adventure game I had produced for game publisher Cyberdreams based on the artwork of H.R. Giger, was named Mike Dawson. This character was the same as the hero of the first game in the series, whose name and likeness was based on the original game’s programmer.
When I joined Cyberdreams in 1993, Mike Dawson had already left the company, but I did get to meet him twenty years when I joined The Los Angeles Film School, where he taught Game Programming courses. Far from being the tormented and tortured soul from the Dark Seed series, Mike is an impressively normal guy (albeit with a sly sense of humor), but one who is far more heroic than his video-game counterpart for being an absolutely outstanding teacher who just celebrated ten years at The Los Angeles Film School, where he consistently receives the highest praise from his programming students.
So, what’s it like to be someone who is far less heroic than his video game counterpart but having known someone who is actually far more than his? I’m good with that. I originally got into game development to use computers as a storytelling tool, and so I’m thrilled to entertain people with fictional stories that they continue with their own fan art and fan fiction. But even more importantly, it’s given me many opportunities to meet people like Mike Dawson who inspire me with their real-life stories.
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.