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.
Prior to doing their final Game Production projects, students at the Los Angeles Film School take a course called Concepting and Preprodution. The first half of this course involves each student creating a PowerPoint presentation for pitching a game concept of his or her choice. The students then all pitch their concepts to a Greenlight Committee consisting of faculty and other members of the school staff, who afterwards deliberate in private and select one or more projects for the students to develop as their Final Project.
Once informed of the Greenlight Committee’s decision, the students then break into development teams and spend the last half of the course creating a game design document, technical design document, asset document, and schedule for the development work to be done in their following courses, Game Production 1 & 2.
After serving on several Greenlight Committees, I found that many students did not provide the members with the information necessary to truly understand the game being propose, while others spent far too much time on story or other details that really did not impact the Committee’s decision. So I decided to create the following template for the students to use, and it seems to have worked out well.
The first slide presents the game’s title and key art, as well as the student’s name. While this slide is displayed, students introduce themselves and the game they are pitching. This gives the students an opportunity to grab the Committe’s attention before launching into the details of their game.
Students say their elevator pitches while displaying an overview of the game’s essential aspects: it’s genre, theme (setting), play value (what makes it fun to play), a well-known game that’s similar, what features will make the student’s game different from the competition, and what game engine will be used to develop the game. This overview provides the Committee with a high-level understanding of the game, providing context for when the student begins discussing the details.
Students describe the game’s goals, core mechanics the player uses to achieve those goals, and the obstacles that determine the difficulty of performing the mechanics’ actions successfully. Students are also encouraged to include a diagram that illustrates how the mechanics work in relation to the game objects.
Students describe the resources used to “fuel” the mechanics, along with any other ways those resources are produced and consumed. Finally, the students explain the different ways the game concludes through a win, loss and/or a draw so that the Greenlight Committee understands the player’s goals.
Students explain the control scheme for the player’s use of keyboard, controller, mouse or other input device; the camera perspective used; and where game state information is displayed on the screen. Their PowerPoint should include a wireframe or other mock-up of the game screen and highlight the elements being discussed.
If the game has any semblance of a story, students give a short synopsis of its narrative in terms of its protagonist, antagonists, backstory, complication, and resolution, as well as the number of levels in the game. Because some students create overly-elaborate stories for their games, we limit the overall presentation to 8 minutes and begin to give warnings about going over the time limit at about this time in the presentation.
Students have the option to play samples of their choice of music for the game, including its main theme, low-key music (such as for an exploration mode), and intense music (such as during a combat mode). The music is embedded into the slide and played by clicking on a Speaker icon.
Students name who they would like to have on their team and the roles to which each would be assigned. Our rules are is that the Project Manager, Lead Audio, and Marketing person must have at least one other role, and that the Lead Programmer cannot have any other role. This prevents students from being assigned too much responsibility or too little.
Finally, students are required to explain at least three risks that might cause their project to be unsuccessful and what steps they can take to mitigate those risks. The one risk they are not permitted to list is “No enough time”, since they are required to pitch concepts of an appropriate scope to be done in the two months they have to produce the game.
This final slide informs the Committee that the presentation is done and invites them to ask the students follow-up questions.
As I wrote above, this template seems to have worked well for our student’s Greenlight Presentations, and perhaps it would work well for you when you need to pitch a small-scale game project.