Beyond Landscapes: Character-Centric Game Design
The bond between game design and pop culture is undeniable and deeply connected. This isn't just about the latest gaming mechanics or trending tropes; it spans broader aspects, from underlying themes to the nuances of monetization and even the marketing methods employed. In this blog post, we're going to delve into a noteworthy shift in the gaming landscape: moving from a world-focused design to one that's more rooted in character-driven narratives, offering a personal and emotional gaming experience.
The Dominance of Character-Centric Game Design
From the days of Pong and arcades to the advent of the NES, gaming has undergone a major evolution. As these games grew in complexity, so did their underlying design principles. Historically, games primarily revolved around either expansive worlds (think Fallout, Heroes of Might & Magic Series, Halo, Diablo) or captivating characters (such as Super Mario, Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid). Exceptions, like Pokemon, which stand somewhere in the middle, remain relatively rare.
However, a change has been going over recent years, largely influenced by Animation, Comics, and Games (ACG) that originated in Asia, there's a noticable shift among developers across the globe toward character-centric design. What's driving this change? A glance at the top-grossing charts provides the answer.
Across mobile, PC, and console platforms, character-centric games are reigning supreme. Whether it's MOBAs like League of Legends and Honor of Kings, collection-based adventures like Genshin Impact and Pokemon, or character-driven narratives like Zelda, Fate/Grand Order, and The Witcher, the data speaks for itself: characters are at the heart of today's best-selling games.
*This isn’t to say that other games don’t top the charts (Candy Crush, Diablo 4), only that the majority of the top is leaning toward character-centric game design
The Strong Appeal of Character-Centric Design
At their core, games, much like any other form of entertainment, are made in part to elicit emotions in the player. Games that artfully engage players, inviting them to deeply empathize with their cast, naturally leave a lasting impression that goes beyond mere landscapes or in-game worlds. This connection isn't restricted just to heroes or protagonists. Antagonists and side characters like Godrick the Grafted, Frank Fontaine, Ganon, Sephiroth, and Frieza often occupy as much, if not more, space in players' memories.
Consider the titles of fromSoftware. Here, villains often steal the spotlight, leaving a mark on players' minds. For instance, Sephiroth's design and scenes are so iconic that it's challenging to find a gamer unfamiliar with his look and actions.
Such characters elevate gameplay beyond mere role-playing. They offer players the opportunity to form genuine connections, resonating deeply with their stories, backgrounds, motivations, and aspirations. These characters transcend mere dialogue or text descriptions. It's their design, actions, and even their silences that solidify their iconic status.
Challenges and Pitfalls in Character-Centric Design
Alright, let's get real for a second. Every silver lining has its cloud, and game design isn't immune to that. Dive into character-centric design, and you'll bump into a few hurdles like nailing diversity, avoiding cliché tropes, and juggling multiple design goals.
Take character diversity, for example. It's not just about throwing in a mix of backgrounds or genders. Players need to see different motivations, struggles and wins to truly get behind a character. Look at Aloy. She's not just cool because she's a female lead. She messes up, has rough days, and doesn't always have all the answers – and that's what makes her relatable. It's not just about her being in the dark about some parts of the story, it's about her figuring it out alongside us as we play.
On the flip side, if game designers lean too hard into character-centric storytelling and overlook these nuances, it can backfire. A character that's too perfect or too one-dimensional can feel out of touch, making players roll their eyes instead of investing in the journey. It's like crafting a song – if every note is the same, the melody falls flat. We need those highs and lows, the unexpected twists, to truly get hooked.
How Character-Centric Design Translates to Monetization?
Let's not kid ourselves: at the end of the day, a game needs to turn a profit. With the rise of live-service games, having characters front and center has become a big-time moneymaker.
We've already touched on how captivating these digital personas can be, and let's face it, we're more likely to drop some cash on characters we love. Beyond just purchasing them, the distinct skills, backstories, and in-game impact of each character give players a reason to keep coming back (and spending). Plus, the super social nature of ACG and live-service games? That's the cherry on top.
Look around, and you'll see game communities buzzing with:
Tier lists that rank characters
Fan art that celebrates the very same characters
Guides, builds, and strategies
Fanfic that imagines wild new stories
Theorycrafting that debates every possible angle of the aforementioned points
It's this intense character-focused engagement that drives monetization. Take 'Brawl Stars', every new brawler doesn't just shift gameplay but stirs up a storm of anticipation, sometimes even before we know what they can do, all thanks to slick design or an intriguing backstory.
Here's a fun fact: As I type this, a whopping 16 out of the top 20 mobile games (in terms of revenue) are heavily leaning on Gacha systems or Loot Boxes. And guess what they’re all about? You got it, character collection, whether we’re talking characters themselves or outfits for them.
The Future in Character-Driven Narratives
In reflecting upon the gaming landscape, it's clear that the pivot from expansive worlds to the depth of character-centric design has not only reshaped how stories are told but also how games are monetized.
Characters, laden with depth and human touches, now stand at the epicenter of our gaming experiences. Crafting these personas isn't a mere exercise in design; it's a nuanced balancing act. By embedding relatability and genuine human experiences into these characters, game designers bridge the virtual realm with the emotions of players.
Moreover, the commercial success borne from this character-centric approach cannot be understated. Communities rally around their beloved characters, propelling monetization with vigor, from character gachas to the ways they are engaged with, be it through tier lists, fan art, or theory crafting builds. Titles such as 'Brawl Stars' exemplify this, where characters not only influence gameplay dynamics but also stir anticipation and player investment.
As the gaming industry evolves, its heart and soul remain the characters we resonate with. They drive narratives, anchor our experiences, and represent the future of interactive storytelling. The path forward seems set: as gaming narratives become richer and more intricate, the characters leading those tales will undeniably be at the forefront.