RPG AUDITIONS TODAY! CHARACTERS WANTED!

Brickroad gives details on how to flesh out the heroes, villains and NPC's in your game.

Just who is gonna be in this thing, anyway?

Considering what characters to include in a video game should be one of the very first tasks of any game developer. There's no point in writing a story and developing a game world if you have no idea who is going to be in it. There are several types of characters, so before I go anywhere I'll get my definition on.

Player characters (or PCs) are the first thing we think about when we think about characters. Samus, Cecil, Sub-Zero, Stitch, Sonic, Celes, Scizor, Slippy Toad, and Seena are all PCs from various games of various genres. They also all start with an "S" sound, but that's irrelevant. A PC is any character the player is given direct control over - so it's not just a clever name.

PCs get broken down into narrower groups, which are harder to define. First and foremost are major PCs, who are integral to the game's plot; without them the game cannot exist without having been changed on some fundamental level. Minor PCs need not be important, but they often are. The game can exist largely without them, but most players would agree something was missing. There are also optional PCs, who do not affect the game in any meaningful way, but serve to accent it nonetheless. If the major PCs are the main course, the minor PCs are the side dishes and the optional ones are your seasonings.

Nonplayer characters are characters the player does not control. They are the townsfolk, the shopkeeps, the bosses, the villains, the goombas, and the doting damsels in distress waiting to be rescued. NPCs have an extremely important function most players probably never even consider - they exist in the world while the player isn't looking. This effect is so subtle and so basic that even some professional game designers don't seem to understand it. Think about it - what are NPCs, if not an extension of the setting?

Think of your typical Megaman game. You have a series of stages, each with its own motif. Magnet Man lives in a world full of magnetic fields and batteries, Gravity Man is stashed away in an anti-gravity world, Bubble Man is found in a vast underwater base. You'll also notice that each of these levels is filled with different types of characters (including the bosses themselves!). Magnet Man's level has floating magnetbots that drag Megaman in with their attractive fields. Gravity Man's level has mounted gun turrets that shoot in the direction of the flow of gravity. Bubble Man's world is full of crabs, lobster-monsters, and treacherous frogs. Even something so simple as an NPCs sprite can go a long way towards developing a setting!

There are also exceptional NPCs. These are the ones that are tied to the game itself - like major PCs, if you remove them the game wouldn't be the same. What good is Super Mario Bros. if you don't have to save the princess? Would Metroid really be as exciting without the intense bouts with Ridley? Think of how boring recent Zelda games would be without Tingle, Kaepora Gaebora, the fairy queens, and (perhaps most importantly) Ganondorf!

Now we know what characters are. It's time to determine what to do with them.


Exponential character development.

Some games can get away without character development. We don't care if Tails learns how to love again, just as long as he can beat Robotnik before he loses all his rings. Baby Mario doesn't need reams of dialogue to give us an introspective look into the philosophical ramifications of existence, he just needs to whine and pout when he gets knocked off Yoshi's back. However, RPGs don't have this luxury - RPG developers must make their characters interesting.

Fortunately, only a few characters need this kind of attention. Beyond the PCs, a couple good villains, and a few plot-heavy NPCs the game world can go on without knowing everyone's life story. So really, it just boils down to those three groups. And since the NPC and villain part will come as a natural extension of the story, it's really only a matter of the PCs.

For the sake of argument, let's say the average PC requires one hundred lines of dialogue to develop himself completely over the course of the game. Obviously he may need more or less depending on how major a character he is, and how much of his dialogue is related to his character development. But let's just assume a hundred for now.

This is not to say you need only a hundred lines per character. Part of character development is characters interacting with each other. A conservative estimate would be twenty-five more lines for two characters to develop together. As an example of this, let's compare two FF games: FF8 and FF9. In FF8, there is a lot of dialogue and all the characters participate. Anyone who has played the game can answer basic questions about how each character feels about each other character. FF9, however, focuses heavily only on a few characters. Can you even think of one time Eiko and Freya exchanged lines at all? How about Quina and Amarant? Yeah, me neither.

So now each PC needs a hundred lines for himself, plus twenty-five for each other character. Thus a game with one PC needs one hundred lines, one with two PCs needs two hundred fifty, one with four PCs needs six hundred sixty, one with ten PCs needs a whopping three thousand five hundred. This isn't exactly exponential growth, but it does show that adding one new PC is more complicated than it seems at first. In other words, it's a bigger jump from eight PCs to nine than it was from seven PCs to eight.

As a general rule, the more PCs you have the less time you'll be able to devote to each one. Each new PC that gets introduced is essentially stealing development from all the ones that have come before.


Starring a cast of thousands!

So the logical follow-up question is: what's a good number of PCs for a game to have? That depends on a lot of factors, such as how in-depth each one is going to be, how important inter-character relationships are going to be, whether or not PCs are going to be available throughout the game or will come and go, and so on. This is to say nothing of the mechanical ramifications of said PCs like how many PCs are going to be in the party, how different skills will interact with each other, and how different characters will affect game balance. It's obviously too complicated to stick a number on this issue and call it done, so instead I offer this definition of the ideal number of PCs for a game:

The ideal number of PCs in an RPG is the number that will allow the player a wide and interesting variety of abilties, as well as offer a fair balance of development and interaction for each one without overcomplicating the plot.

That fabulous run-on sentence is in bold because I think it is the most important part of this entire article. The answer will obviously be different from game to game, and from taste to taste. Suikoden has over sixty PCs, Chrono Trigger has seven, Secret of Mana has only three. Which of these games has the "wrong" number of characters? Are any of them wrong? If so, does that make them less enjoyable?

A video game is a trendy night club, with thousands of potential characters waiting outside to get in. The developers have to decide who gets in, and who does not. If they let in too many, the place gets crowded and confusing. If they let in too few, it gets boring and empty. If the ones they let in are not interesting, the place gets dull and tedious. If they're too flamboyant the place gets out of hand and might burn to the ground.

If a PC character is not needed, he probably should be excluded. If one character's skillset is entirely inferior to another's, why would anyone want to use the former? If a character has no relation to the plot, what's he doing in the story anyway?


Anatomy of a character (no, not THAT kind of anatomy).

It isn't enough just to have characters. Gamers insist on having good characters. Can't just slap a name and a sprite down and say the character is done. There's more to it than that. In RPGs especially, the devil's in the details. Once a character is drawn out, the designer has to take a while to do some anti-aliasing so he blends in with his background.

PCs especially should have questions asked about them. Hero X joins the party. Okay, cool. Why? Well, he's after the last red dragon scale. Why? Because he wants to finish a set of armor his father started to make. His father left him a set of special weapons to do this, which gives Hero X a basis for his skillset. After the mission is completed, does Hero X stay with the party? Why or why not? How does this relate to the story, and to the other heroes? Does Hero X have a wife and kids? Why or why not? Does Hero X have a relationship to a villain? To the villain? Why or why not? Once the armor's done, does it become usable by the PCs? Or just Hero X? Or not at all? Why or why not? What does the red dragon armor have to do with the plot anyway?

If you think the above is pretty ridiculous, let's look at example. Take Selphie from FF8. Selphie is a fantastic character. She's bouncy and bubbly and she keeps an ongoing journal throughout her adventure logging her thoughts on what's going on. She has a pet name for her boyfriend, and he has one for her. She's very sentimental and wants desperately to be liked by everyone. She even has her own catch phrase that she's trying to introduce into popular slang.

Whoa, chill out. You hate Selphie? You think she's annoying? Well, I agree. But if she wasn't interesting, you wouldn't hate her. You wouldn't like her, either. You would feel nothing for her. Selphie triggers an emotion in you - and even if that emotion is hatred, it's still evidence that she's a good and well-developed character. Also notice how Selphie is contrasted by some characters and accented by others - a scene with only Selphie and Squall would quickly degenerate into Selphie desperately trying to cheer him up. A scene with only Selphie and Zell would quickly get hyperactive and upbeat. One with only Selphie and Rinoa would hit the "girl talk" trigger right away.

I'll bet you could think of a hypothetical scene with characters outside FF8 too. Can you think of how a scene with just Selphie and Magus would play out? How about Selphie and Zidane? How about Selphie and Luke Skywalker? Selphie and Mojo Jojo? It's easy to close your eyes and imagine any of the above scenarios, because you know what each character is like and thus have a good idea of how they would react to each other if they ever met.

We must be more than just the designers of our characters. We must be their parents. We must be their lovers. We must be their friends. We have to love our characters deeply and we must want to make everyone else love them as much as we do. It's painfully obvious that the person who dreamed up Selphie really loved her. Can you say the same about Mogu from Breath of Fire? How about Jeff from Earthbound? How about Necron? Can you even remember the names of the characters from Mystic Quest?


Hi! Welcome to our village! It's a nice day today!

I touched earlier on the concept that NPCs are the people that live in the world while the player isn't looking. In RPGs, this means that they live in towns even when the player is away. Now what I'm about to say is overwhelming, but it'll seem less so as I go on. Hopefully.

Every single NPC in your world is a living, breathing character with his or her own life, job, hobbies, flaws, motivations, turn-ons, and pet peeves. After all, they're people just like your heroes. Why shouldn't they get all the same attention your heroes do?

Well, because if you tried to do that, you'd kill yourself by making up all sorts of details. Or go crazy. And in either case, you wouldn't be devoting the proper amount of attention to other areas of your game. It simply cannot be done. And yet, if you don't your NPCs will seem boring.

Luckily, you can fake it. Let's use Zelda: Ocarina of Time as the example this time. Remember those two guys who were always laughing and slapping their knees? Or the poor girl who was deathly afraid of chickens? Or that blobbish individual who was always partaking of his endless bag of beans? Of course you do; each of these characters has one very stand-outish trait that permeates their being, and it makes them memorable.

You can do the same. Give an NPC a nervous tick before you give them a name. Think up their hobby before you think of what they'll say. Five towns from now your player will be able to say "Okay, Briarsville was where that kid with the kite lives. And Redmond is that castle town with the aerobics class. Oh, and Bladdersland is the place with the guy with the lisp." Each location in your game becomes memorable by something other than the content of their shops.

Even if a character just exists to give the player a bit of information, you can fake depth just by adding some flavor to your text. Compare:

- "Blahblahblah Castle is north of here across the River of Skulls."

- "My grandson is a chef who works in Blahblahblah Castle north of here. I'd visit him more often, but I'm afraid to cross the treacherous River of Skulls."

Both of these blurbs of text will fit in a single text window. Why use the second? In the first blurb, we know nothing about the speaker, except maybe that he's into geography. In the second, we know he's a grandfather. We know his grandson is a chef. We know he and his grandson do not visit each other often, and we know this is because the River of Skulls is dangerous. The player is not likely to notice anything is missing if only text of the first style is used, but they will definitely take notice if text of the second style is.

The second blurb also opens up some interesting plot hooks - will there be a cooking minigame in Blahblahblah Castle? Will the heroes have to reunite grandfather and grandson? Just how dangerous is the River of Skulls anyway? Even if none of those plot hooks becomes important, that's okay; this is just an old man who likes to strike up conversation.

Stretch this principle over every NPC in every town, and the world becomes a very vibrant place indeed. Far more so than if the NPCs were just signposts who served to point the heroes to their next destination.


The wrap-up.

I have discussed how different types of characters have different functions, and how each type relates to the game world as a whole. We've learned that by taking a few relatively simple steps we can make our settings very rich and deep simply by adding a few lines of text here and there. We've learned there should be more differences between Hero A and Hero B than hair color and weapon type.

Without characters, a game world is a static, lifeless place. Indeed, without characters the player wouldn't have anything to do. In that aspect, characters and their development are the most important part of an RPG. They may be imaginary, but they deserve your attention, thought, and respect.

If the player loves your characters, you've done something right. If the player hates them, you've still done something right. Only if the player thinks nothing of them, feels nothing for them, and forgets them have you slipped up. Preventing that needs to be top priority while designing what are otherwise just excuses to have different types of magic!

Posts

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Thank you so much for writing these. You're brilliant and these articles will go a long way toward helping me make my games better than good.
Actually I think a Zelda game without Tingle is just as good or better than a game with Tingle. That's one freaky character and the Zeldaverse is better off without him. Heh.
I agree though that a Zelda game just wouldn't be the same without the fairies or Zelda. I enjoyed this article.
This is pretty good. I completely agree with your take on NPCs and towns in general. Each town should strive to be original, or to have an outstanding feature or NPC about that town. This town has the dojo where the master kicked your ass. (Mario RPG, Monster Town) That town had every item that you ever sold in the game, and a casino to boot (Lufia II, Forfeit Island) etc.

I don't have to re-play these games to remember the names of the towns---they are memorable in themselves.

I, however, believe that a town must be completely alive somehow, in the absence or presence of a player or character. This is a point where even some commercial RPGs falter, but we in the indie-creation community should strive to improve on this. Even if the memorable NPC from a town went on vacation--how difficult is it to make him disappear and have someone standing on his tile saying "I really miss that guy."?
tardis
is it too late for ironhide facepalm
285
This is a fantastic article. The nightclub analogy was really a great way to describe balancing out the cast of the game.
Very helpful article. One game I liked that had plenty of this concept was Lost Oddessy. The characters were not only fleshed out but they had dramatic scenes that made them really memorable.
Hmm, interesting notice.Must say it was worth reading it whole.
An older article, but still extremely relevant to the projects of today. Giving life to your characters is very important, but remembering to give the life of their own to minor NPCs helps make for a more memorable experience as a whole. Just as in the article, you do not have to go overboard; but adding little quirks and nuances to characters and towns goes a very long way. Excellent read.
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