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What makes a game character last? Top designers and executives share their secrets
Just what can developers and publishers do to create lasting franchise characters? Next-Generation speaks with leading game designers and executives to find out.
As of September 2006, Nintendo had sold 275 million Mario games worldwide easily making the little Italian plumber the best selling game character of all time. To put that into perspective, imagine all other notable game characters, combine them, and you still won't account for half of what Mario has sold. Not Halo, not Gran Turismo, not even Nintendo's own Pokemon or Zelda come close.
And he's still selling. "Mario is a gaming icon that has had and continues to have a huge impact on the gaming world," admits once Nintendo rival Takashi Iizuka of Sega. But even though single game sales may never resurface to the level of 1980s gaming, Mario isn't the only franchise character still thriving. The franchise formula continues to work to this day assuming the playable characters maintain their appeal.
So how do game characters achieve lasting appeal? "In order for a character to really take hold they need to be in a string of quality games," says Morgan Gray, a senior producer for Tomb Raider. "Over time the game and the characters within take on a life of their own. It's at that point where we as the fans feel both a connection to the character and a sense of ownership that a franchise character really becomes something special."
And while the games must be good, they don't all have to be blockbusters says the Eidos producer. "Basically a game needs to be highly regarded, not necessarily a huge hit, but very good."
"Very good" can deteriorate with age, however, given a publisher's inclination to merely re-hash sequels instead of truly enhancing them. "It's important to keep changing the fundamental game experience while keeping the character intact," says Sony's Mark Cerny who has been involved in the creation of Spyro, Crash Bandicoot, Ratchet & Clank, and Jak & Daxter to name a few. "Ideally, you have a series of games that combine familiar elements with something new."
"It is obviously a tough balance though because you have to retain the essence of what makes a character appealing while at the same time evolve them enough so the experience is current," says Capcom's director of brand marketing, Jack Symon.
But assuming developers complete the daunting task of creating a very good game, how does a game character become more than just an on-screen identity?
Iizuka, who is currently trying to reinvent the cult classic NiGHTS into a Wii game, believes the only way to maintain appeal is to treat the franchise as something more than just a game in addition to fresh gameplay. "Animations series, toys and comics all propel these characters to pop culture icon status," he says.
Though the effectiveness of plastering character faces onto cereal boxes has long faded, the idea is still the same. Microsoft's Master Chief, perhaps the newest franchise character on the block, is no different. The Halo protagonist can be found on t-shirts, as an action figure, on stickers, MP3 players, and even an adult-sized plastic helmet through the likes of Halo 3's $120 premium edition.
The result increases exposure, reach, and excitement surrounding a given game's upcoming release. Successful franchise characters have all been branded and promoted as something more than just a game, helping them transcend the very medium in the process.
How important is familiarity to franchise success then? "Nostalgia is immensely important," says the Sonic designer. " The same way walking into a kitchen that smells of your grandmother's baking takes you to a happy place, an unforgettable gaming experience can do the same thing. It is important to be able to, on some level, replicate that."
Sony's Mark Cerny agrees. "Despite extremely poor reviews, Frogger was one of the top selling titles on the original PlayStation," he says. "In that case, I think it was gamers who played the original arcade Frogger at age 13 returning to buy the PlayStation version at age 28."
But nostalgia has it drawbacks according to Tomb Raider's Morgan Gray.
"When a favorite character is in an obviously bad game, its almost more offensive then had it just been a new character," he says. "There are plenty of younger characters out there where nostalgia doesn't play a huge part. Good games make us love good characters."
So even though nostalgia and familiarity significantly help sell Mario, Sonic, Tomb Raider, and Street Fighter games, newcomers can still breakthrough so long as their games are good. As a bonus, they won't have to live up to any lofty expectations, at least for a while.
But having nostalgic characters at one time doesn't mean they stay that way. It takes constant effort and ingenuity to keep a game fresh while trying to maintain its appeal.
"Maybe they don't age well," muses Capcom's Jack Symon when asked why some franchise characters lose appeal after once having it. "That's not to say they can't resurge; just look at the recent rise in big-action 80s movies such as Rocky, Die Hard, Rambo, and Transformers. I think lack of innovation in gameplay and having the character not evolve over time can produce a dated experience and characters become old as opposed to 'retro cool' which can diminish their appeal."
Sega, which has struggled to consistently maintain Sonic's appeal, agrees. "The greatest cause for lack of appeal is the inability to update to modern day expectations," says Iizuka. "Ensuring that the nostalgic appeal can be brought together with a positive modern day gaming experience is a constant challenge for game designers."
But the balance of innovation and sticking to what works can be a double edged sword says the Tomb Raider designer. "In order to combat obsolescence, many developers go too far in new directions and loose their core spirit which is equally as bad to a character as simply sticking to the same winning formula," says Gray. "As long as the characters are in games that are modern, entertaining, and support the core essence of themselves, fans will continue to love and support them."
While franchise characters may not sell as well as they did in the past given the abundance of games available today, now is as good as any time to create new, lasting characters says Sega. "There are still games that leave lasting impressions," maintains Iizuka. "In fact, with the popularity of the internet today, there are even more opportunities to create a whole community around key characters. Master Chief is a great example of that as is Kratos in God of War. They may not be cute and cuddly but they remain an identifiable character and mascot for gaming as people are still looking for heroes."
"I would not bet against the creativity of game developers to come up with something in the future that changes the landscape," says Capcom's Symon.
So what's the secret then for creating characters with lasting appeal?
"Make a focused and enjoyable game that accomplishes its main goals without trying to be the king of all games," says Gray. "Make an interesting character to play in that game and provide just enough characterization to round out that character but not enough to drown out the player's own creative input into who that character is or what the game world is about. I'm now off to try to follow my own advice," he adds.
In short, great games beget lasting characters.