The Three Stages of Concepting

The Three Stages of Concepting

So where do we start with our concept? Do we sit down and begin to sketch? Just pour out our ideas onto paper? Nope. Not yet. If you go to this step too early, you might end up with a good design, but it will not be what your manager wants.

Concepting usually happens in the pre-production phase of a game, and sometimes earlier. During this time the designer, along with the concept artists, will work on the game's design and overall style. You will be approached by either your lead artist or the art director and asked to provide some concept artwork for the design. They will provide some basic information to start you off (for example, the general style and overall look of each character). You can then begin plans to flesh out this information; this is covered in more depth in the "Preparation" section.

The aim is to have a clear idea of what direction you're taking, having a vision in your mind of what the character will look like and why. Concepting a character has three stages:

  • Research

  • Preparation

  • Design

As you gain more experience in concepting, you may find that you need to do less during the first two stages and can more or less move straight into the design (sketching) phase. For the novice, however, it is important to begin at the beginning: researching the character.


    Our primary job when doing character research is to gain as much information as possible about the character. You can get the basic details from the lead designer, as well as information on game mechanics. All of this will tell you what the character needs to do in the game, which will have an impact on the design. Consult your lead artist and art director about the general style and look of the game. Ideally, you should have the basicsage, height, sex, and hair/eye/skin colorbut if possible you should get a more in-depth description. Just being told that the main character is a "guy with a gun" will not do.

    Having a brief history or biography of the character can be invaluable. Folding this insight into the character's personality will help you decide not only what they would wear but why they would wear it. Will the character have a distinguishing feature or some sort of visual scarring? What about the hair style and color? Your design should fit the brief; for example, a conservative character would not sport a bright-pink mohawkwell, not unless the game guidelines ask for it.

    A Sample Character History

    To help demonstrate the importance of character history or biography, I have come up with a basic game idea and two main characters, Kila and Grae. The following introduction gives you a rough idea of the overall game and introduces you to these key characters.

    It was a crisp autumn morning; the sun shone through the trees, gently melting the frost that had formed during the night. Kila lay quietly on the park bench. She had been awake for only a few minutes, but it felt like an eternity. Shivering slightly, she dared not move or open her eyes, for the moment she did, the hangover she had so far avoided would no doubt kick in with a vengeance. She could hear movement all around herpeople on their way to work, cars stopping and starting and idling in the rush-hour traffic. Life was happening all around her, and she wished it would be quiet. Carefully she lifted her head from the wooden slats of the bench. To her surprise and relief, her dizziness, nausea, and headache disappeared.

    Confused, Kila tried to recall the events that led up to her night on the bench, but her memory was patchier than usual. She could remember finishing work at the club and having a few drinks with her friends, but that was about all; the rest was a blur. She smiled, thinking that the lack of memory probably meant it must have been a great night. No doubt the details would trickle back to her as the day went on. Feeling surprisingly well, she rose from the bench and headed home.

    "Morning, Kila. Good night?" shouted her neighbor, Suzie.

    Kila, fumbling for the keys to her apartment, turned to face her friend. "Yeah, what I can remember of it," she joked as she opened her door.

    "Must have been good," teased Suzie. "You can fill me in on the details later!" As she passed on her way out of the building, Suzie added "Hey, cool contacts. Catch you later!"

    "Yeah, see you Suzie." The door closed behind her; Kila was home at last. She walked down her hallway toward the bathroom, where she turned on the shower and removed her jacket. Wait a minute…cool contacts? She suddenly remembered what Suzie had said. "But I don't wear contact lenses." Confused, she moved in front of the mirror, wiped off the condensation from the steaming shower, and stood still in amazement. Her once brown eyes were now bright green; they even seemed to glow. She moved closer to the mirror, inspecting her eyes. Maybe she'd got some contacts from her friends? After all, they were all the rage on the clubbing scene. She gently pulled her eyelids apart, and to her horror saw that the glowing green eyes were really hers. What was going on? How had this happened? She backed away from the mirror and walked into her bedroom, moving toward the full-length mirror in the corner.

    As she approached the mirror, she caught a glimpse of something dark on her left arm. Halting in amazement, her eyes crept slowly along the long, gothic tattoo that crawled all the way from her shoulder down to her wrist. Twisting to look at the back of her arm, she was faced with another shockthe tattoo spread to her back. Frightened, she pulled off her shirt and looked in alarm at her back. The beautiful tattoo covered nearly all of her back. How had she ended up with something like this? "This has to be a joke, I don't remember having anything like this done last night." Now panicking, she licked her fingers and desperately tried to wipe the tattoo off, hoping it was temporary, maybe a practical joke. It did not budge.

    Kila sat at the foot of the bed, her head in her hands. Steam from the shower still running in the bathroom floated into the hallway. Only one thought hammered in her mind: "What happened to me last night?" She wracked her brains, trying to remember the slightest clue to how her eyes could possibly change color, and how she could have obtained the extraordinary tattoo. A tattoo of this size would take weeks to heal, but this one looked months oldyet yesterday it hadn't existed. She would quiz her friends, the other dancers she worked with at the club. Someone had to know.

    Later that evening, hoping to find some answers, Kila headed to the club where she worked. As she walked through quiet streets, she couldn't help but notice a car following her at a distance. Nervous, she picked up her pace and ducked down an alley that was guarded by two posts preventing vehicles from entering. Her heart was pounding in her chest and she could feel panic rising. Chancing a quick glance behind, she was reassured to see no oneshe was no longer being followed. Breathing a sigh of relief, she turned and continued on her way.

    "Hey, babe!" came a voice from the shadows. "What's a pretty thing like you doing in a place like this?" Kila spun around, squinting to see where the voice was coming from. Eventually she glimpsed six figures emerging from the shadows. "Look, I don't want any trouble," she pleaded, trembling, as the men surrounded her.

    "Well that's too bad, because we do," one of them replied. As they moved in, she could feel her heart racing, pumping adrenaline through her veins. She spun around to get her bearings, and then she felt it. Her skin began to warm; the heat grew uncomfortable, bordering on painful. She could feel something deep inside her body growing, taking over. Suddenly, as if a switch had been flicked, she stood perfectly still, no longer quivering, steady as a rock. Slowly she raised her head and stared directly at the one who had threatened her. Her green eyes were glowing wildly, her breathing heavier and deeper now. The thug hesitated but was only briefly impressed. "Nice trick, babe, but it doesn't scare me." He reached around to the back of his jeans and produced a long knife. "You see, I can be scary, too," he threatened, pointing the weapon at her. "Now hand over your cash like a good little girl. Then I think we'll have a bit of fun. What do you say, guys?" A murmur of excitement spread around the circle.

    Kila's glowing eyes were fixed on the leader. A moment passed and then she spoke: "You want it, come and get it." He looked her up and down, then moved toward her, still brandishing the knife. Kila was very still, eyes pinned on her adversary, waiting for the right moment.

    He was a few feet away when she made her move. In a split second, her left arm flung out in front of her, and what seemed like ribbons of flesh flew out of the tattoo, impaling the thug in his chest and throat. There was a gasp from the rest of his gang as they watched their leader seem to hang in midair, struggling to breathe, body twitching wildly. Kila smiled coldly; she seemed to enjoy seeing him suffer. She pulled back, retracting the deadly weapon, and his limp body dropped lifeless to the ground. The silence was deafening; no one moved or spoke. Through his fear, one of the others found his voice. "She…she killed Greg!" And from behind her, she heard "Get her!" There was a mad rush and they were upon her.

    Suddenly a brilliant flash momentarily stunned Kila's attackers. Her arms seemed to be forced apart by invisible hands, and she felt herself rising slowly from the ground. As she floated, tendrils spun out of her back and began to wrap around her body, layer upon layer, enclosing her like a spider wrapping up its prey. Meanwhile, something began to take shape, a form gradually being created by the tendrils: a torso, and then arms, legs, and finally a head. What was once Kila was now a 30-foot beast, a demonic monster. The thugs were horrified. With a mighty roar, the beast took a huge swipe at the circle, knocking two of them flying, into the surrounding walls. The rest of the men fumbled for their concealed weapons and let rip with a hail of bullets.

    The bullets entered the beast from several directions, but its body seemed to absorb them. They had no effect other than provoking it, making it angrier. It lunged for another thug who managed to dodge the attack, using the opportunity to escape. "I'm getting out of here! We weren't paid to handle this. What the hell is this thing?" He fled, closely followed by his comrades. The beast, once Kila, was alone in the alley. It looked around for another victim, its deep, rough breaths gradually slowing. As it calmed, it began to glow gently, and the wrapped tendrils began to retract back into Kila. Slowly, eventually, she was back to herself again. She glanced down and saw the lifeless body of the thug she had killed, dropped to her knees and began to cry. "What's going on? What was that?" she sobbed. Kila didn't want to kill anyone. Indeed, Kila hadn't killed anyoneit was that thing inside her who had done it.

    As Kila wept, a dark figure of a man in the shadows at the far end of the alleyway took a long drag on a cigarette, then dropped it to the pavement and extinguished it with his foot. The stranger was pleased with what he had seen; this could work out better than expected. Satisfied there was nothing more to observe, he turned and got back into his car and drove away.

    This story sets the scene for the game. A young woman's life is turned upside-down when she finds herself part of a symbiotic relationship with Grae, the organism living inside her. Grae can manipulate Kila's DNA in numerous ways, the main one being to show his true form. Throughout the game, Kila struggles to find answers as to why this has happened, while struggling with the overpowering evil that has invaded her body.

    From a design point of view, Kila should be quite average looking, nothing too fancy or flashy. There are two reasons for this:

    • Keeping her appearance average will allow the player to relate to the character.

    • A plain and not-too-fancy Kila will provide more of a contrast between her and the monstrous Grae.


    This first, unremarkable design for Kila will work well as an introductory character for this book, allowing me to discuss the basic principles associated with creating a real-time character.

    Grae's design should be completely different from Kila's. To start, he will be larger and his parts will have more outrageous proportions. He should include some of the more advanced elements associated with modeling creatures for games, such as wings and double-jointed legs (dog legs).


    The Grae character will comprise advanced areas of character design for the reader's instruction.

    At this point, you probably have a few ideas of your own about how Kila and Grae should look, but before we move on we need to gather some more information on the two characters. The following tables are a kind of "bio," presenting basic details and some set pieces of information about the characters.






    5 feet, 6 inches (1.7 meters).


    Exotic dancer in a nightclub.

    Main Outfit

    Ripped jeans and short top. Overall outfit has a slightly stylized look.

    Hair Color

    Dark brown with a red tint.

    Eye Color

    Green (originally brown, before the evolution to Grae began). Her eyes appear to glow.

    Brief Background

    Taken away from abusive parents when she was 8 years old and raised by a foster family. At 16, she left home without their consent. Alone in the big city, she finds herself the target of pimps and crooks and resorts to crime to get money to live. Eventually, at 19, she got a break as a dancer in a local nightclub, where she has been earning an honest living ever since.


    On the outside, Kila is quite a strong character, very confident and sometimes cocky. This is just a front, however; on the inside she is vulnerable and sensitive.

    Other Details

    She has a large, visible gothic tattoo that starts on her back and left arm and spreads down to the back of her left hand.


    Grae, or GX-792.




    30 feet (9 meters).




    His body is made up like a mummy, with strips of flesh wrapped and layered to build his body.

    Hair Color

    Grae is hairless.

    Eye Color

    His eyes should glow green to tie in with Kila's.

    Brief Background

    Part of a secret experiment, Grae is almost 100% manufactured; the key component of his structure is of extraterrestrial origin. Kila is an accidental test subject, the intended subject being the scientist who created him. On the night before he is due to inject himself, the scientist goes out for one final night as a normal man. He meets Kila and they go back to his apartment. She is accidentally injected with GX-792 when thieves invade the apartment; the scientist is killed, but Kila escapes.


    Grae is evil; he delights in the pain of others. The only person he looks out for is Kila. His main mission is to protect his host, although this protection is purely selfish (if his host dies, then he dies, too).

    Other Details

    Grae's wings will consist of tendrils. If possible, these will have constant motion when they're out, but they will be stored away in his back most of the time. Although Grae does have a mouth, he does not have the ability to talk.

    Technical Limitations

    With all this information at hand, we have a pretty good starting point. From the introductory story, we know a little of how the game begins and we have insight into the main character's personality. Next we have the set details listed in the foregoing tables. These are explicit guidelines about the character that we must follow when we begin to design.

    Normally this is all you need for character design, but for the project outlined in this book we are creating a real-time character; that means there are other considerations that could affect your design. As with any game artwork, you are expected to work within certain technical limitations. Examples are polygon count, texture page size, animation data, and even joint limits (all of which are covered in later chapters). The lead artist, having worked closely with the lead programmer to come up with the numbers, will impose these restrictions.

    So how does this affect your character design? Let's look at two examples.

    • Example A: John Doe In this case you are creating a generic character who will be onscreen with a hundred others, plus vehicles and the game world. The polygon count limit is between 500 and 1000, but you are urged to go as low as possible, as is always the case when creating real-time artwork. The less overall memory your character takes up the better, as the entire game will have to fit inside a tight budget. In addition, let's say you are informed that John Doe will have to use a basic skeleton, which will probably mean a limit of about 15 joints. You are not going to see him up close, so there is no need for significant detail.

      With such small polygon and joint limits, you won't be able to build long flowing hair, or that complex rocket pack you had in mind. Instead, you will be better off sticking with a basic model: arms, legs, head, and probably hands that are fixed in a certain pose because you will not have enough polygons or joints for separate fingers. In addition, you won't have sufficient polygons to have nice, rounded muscle tone, so you will have to rely on the textures to show any needed detail. Since the character will always be positioned away from the camera, however, any detail in the texture will be lost.


      When compiling your research, try to get a good idea of how big the character will be onscreen, this will allow you to get a good idea of just how much detail you will need.

    • Example B: Hercules This is the game's main character; he will be seen both close up and from a distance, but the game is predominantly viewed in the third-person perspective (from behind the character). As the game's cut scenes are rendered real-time, Hercules will also need fully posable fingers, as well as facial animation. Your polygon limit is 3000, and the character needs to look good at all resolutions.

      This should give you scope to create a decent design for Hercules. You have sufficient polygons to get the detail you need. Plus, his being the main character means you can go to town on making him look great. Sufficient levels of detail can be adopted to make sure he looks good at any distance while ensuring he only uses the needed polygons. (We talk more about levels of detail in Chapter 10.)


      Here's one thing to remember when creating a character who is viewed from the third-person perspective: Chances are that 99% of the time the character will be viewed from behind, so you will want to make the character's back interesting for the player.


      An RTS (real-time strategy) gamea top-down, isometric, Diablo- or Warcraft-type gameoften requires some extreme proportional distortions for its characters to read well onscreen: Head and shoulder areas often need exaggeration, and limbs might require thickening to make sure they don't "wink out" at distances (become too negligible in width to merit a pixel onscreen).

    Animation Considerations

    You can see how a game's technical restrictions can affect the look of your designs. Another important question you should ask is, "Will it animate okay?"

    Implementing a cape, ribbons, or hair into your character concept may look coolbut when it comes down to it, do you have the resources to animate the feature successfully? Take the cape, for instance. Essentially, if it's hand animated, you can consider it an additional character. So do you or the other animators on the project have time in the schedule to animate it? Your programmers may have a nice dynamics engine which will drive the cape cloth for you while obeying real-world physics, such as wind, drag, and gravity. This will save time, but will it give a good enough simulation? Will it move convincingly? There are dangers in employing a dynamics simulation to animate cloth or hair, and if done wrong it can destroy the player's connection with the main character and the game. If the simulation moves unpredictably or pops through the character or surrounding area, it will distract the player from the game and ultimately become annoying.

    Some other animation issues to consider: When designing clothing at or near joints, think about how these areas will behave when the joint bends. Loincloths, skirts, shoulder pads, long sleeves, cuffs, and overlapping armor can cause some of the most frustrating problems when skinning your character (covered in Chapter 11), and often require additional control bones not allowed in your joint budget.


    Consult your technical director or lead animator about any design element that looks troublesome or that might need substantial secondary animation or many control bones. And do it before embarking on the modeling stage; you may be saving yourself a lot of rework later on.

    Summing Up the Limitations

    So let's summarize the basic technical limits for our two characters.

    Technical Element



    Polygon Limit

    4500 or less

    5500 or less

    Joint Limit

    No more than 60, if possible

    No more than 60, if possible

    Texture Pages

    Two; 512x512

    Three; 512x512

    This is quite a short list, and on a real project there will be other areas to consider. How will facial animation be handled in the gamewill it be joint driven or will you use blend shapes (we will discuss this in Chapter 13)? What about extra texture effects like alpha, specular, bump, or normal mapping? Will Grae's wings be joint or dynamics driven? These questions may look scary to the uninitiated, so for now we will concentrate on the basics. Other technical considerations and concerns will be covered as we work through the book, building, texturing, and rigging our characters.

    Luckily, Kila and Grae are the main characters, so we have been given generous polygon, joint, and texture limits. Grae is quite large and also has wings, so he will need more joints, polygons, and (possibly) texture space than Kila.