[Intel sponsored feature] Games have built legends, but how much effort should we put into character development?

FEATURE: Pac-Man for Prime Minister?

A couple of weeks ago I was at a friend’s party. He throws great parties and you can usually guarantee that a good feisty argument will start in the early hours, when the last bottle of ropey red wine has been opened, and someone decides it’s time to get highbrow and talk about politics.

Well, to my delight and entertainment, things got heated a lot earlier in the evening: while reminiscing about the 80s, someone asked “So, who is your favourite video game character of all time?”

Frankly, things soon descended into chaos and it looked as though it might get ugly, until someone said “Daley Thompson”, which lightened the atmosphere when they were reminded he was actually a real person.

On the way home, I started thinking about who my favourite character was, and in the end settled on Pac-Man. It’s probably a generational thing, but thinking about his attributes, I decided that I liked the fact that no matter how dire the situation got, or the pressure he was under, he always managed a smile and seemed pretty relaxed facing impending death.

On a more serious note, I did wonder why everyone got so excited by the discussion – the passion with which people argued their nominations was like they were defending a dear old friend and I found it fascinating. Why do people care so much about the characters in games? Can the characters make or break a game? And how much effort should we as developers put into character development?

There are some obvious answers to this. A character might be your favourite just because they were in the game that you first really got into as a child, or in modern games, characters are so intelligent and nuanced that it takes time to get to ‘know’ them, bring out the best in them, or defeat them. After all, everyone loves a baddy.

In modern games, back-stories have become comparatively complex and help you become immersed in the role you are playing and the mission that lies ahead. They’re almost cinematic in nature and are recognised through an array of awards. As an example of how cinematic characters have become, movie magazine Empire published a “top 50 video game characters of all time” list earlier this year.

Whether you agree with the need for it or not, characterisation and back stories have become very important, even for some of the simplest games. Depending on your audience they can make or break sales, and draw an audience into a relationship that could span a series of games featuring that character. But the thought of getting involved in these ‘softer’ skills may fill you with dread once you have the basic game idea for a game.

There are of course specialists in these areas, many of them coming from film, television or writing backgrounds. It’s not always realistic to employ people for story development, but there are some things that you could do to make sure a story hooks people in.

Firstly, make sure you have decided on the audience and demographic for your game – is it niche or broad, teenagers or adults? Create characters for your chosen audience. Another possibility is to take a creative writing course to learn the skill of building a story and characters with depth.

The fact is that the skills are needed and the games market is so crowded that developers have to do everything they can to stand out, so it might be worth exploring characterization to give your games an additional edge.

Here’s a final sobering thought. If ‘favourite’ was defined by the first character you spent a lot of time with, then I would have an unhealthy fascination with the Pong ball…

This blog post is written by Softtalkmobile, and is sponsored by the Intel AppUp developer program, a single channel for distributing apps to multiple devices, multiple operating systems, and multiple app stores.

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