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Aegis Defenders & Nausicaa - Character Design Process

Bryce Kho, Game Director & Lead Artist of Aegis Defenders, talks about the comparison between the character designs of Aegis Defenders and Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa.

First off, allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Bryce Kho and I’m the game director, lead artist, and story co-writer at the GUTS Department, a new game studio working on its first title called Aegis Defenders. Today I’m going to tackle a very important issue - the comparisons between Aegis Defenders and Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa and the perceived plagiarism. We have come out openly saying that the game was Miyazaki-inspired however that term was meant to express how we wanted to channel the same feeling as his films - in the same way that we wanted to channel classic Super Nintendo games like Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda. At no point did we attempt to copy or even reference the character designs from Studio Ghilbli's Nausicaa. Unfortunately for us, when you compare our character designs side by side, it does look suspiciously similar and our pure intentions can begin to look murky.

 

This blog post will chronicle the real story behind the Aegis Defenders' character designs, my personal point of view, and how there was never any intent to steal from Nausicaa. I'll go into more detail on what our plan is to rectify the situation at the next line break(TLDR - we’re going to adjust them).

 

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Aegis started as a student project. Because our game started out as something completely different, where you played as a couple of old engineers who were building a mech while being chased by giant monsters - the main characters were originally just a couple of cute, old bearded men.

 

Some crude concept drawings from when we first sat down and discussed the idea

 

The inspirations for Bart's character design came almost entirely from Final Fantasy's recurring character Cid. I also referenced fan art from the second Hobbit movie which had recently come out at the time. So Bart was created in about two passes. It was pretty straight-forward and had been done hundreds of times before - an old man with a beard, goggles, and a hood.

References: Cid(Final Fantasy 6), Cid Fan Art, Cid from Final Fantasy Tactics, Hobbit Fanart

 

First pass of Bart’s sprite, second and final pass on Bart’s sprite

 

It's also important to point out that all of the art done at this point was in pixel art - so the actual style of Bart’s design was really due to the innate limitation that comes with pixel abstraction. I was really into the art of Super Time Force and Swords & Sworcery. Their games feature simple, elegant designs rather than using intricate details for differentiation and in our case, a pointy hooded cape is about as far as I wanted to go.

 

Other inspirations: Super Time Force & Swords & Sworcery

 

After iterating on the game’s design, we eventually grew tired of the idea of only old white-bearded engineers because it would be too boring in a single player campaign to switch between two characters that did the same thing - we thought a gunner would be a simple and cool way to mix it up.  We color swapped Bart to a complementary color and given that we had to draw a new shooting animation, naturally changed it a bit as well. Thus, Clu.

 

Clu was drawn quickly by simply doing a color swap on Bart and then adjusting some details.  Normally, you’d give a new character a completely different outfit but because we were working under tight time constraints, this was simpler.

 

Aside from the color of the cape, the gunner was basically identical to Bart - I even used the same color as Bart’s gloves for Clu’s hair and the same color cape for her gloves. If you want to get all meta, you could even go so far as to say that one of the reasons we decided to make them blood-related was because Clu’s design was born of Bart’s ilk. We picked blue because we wanted to give her a strong color that didn't sexualize her like red or pink might have. She was just going to be a cool, sarcastic girl who was a badass. What could go wrong? Seemed like a progressive, forward-thinking thing to do.

 

And that was that. We wouldn't revisit the characters ever again. When we showed it to classmates who all enjoyed it and would hear comments that it reminded them of several different franchises - Nausicaa was one of them but so were a many others. People constantly would tell me it reminded them of their favorite game of all time that I had only vaguely heard of or not at all. The only time I was accused of ripping something off was when my friend told me that Aegis itself looked like a Shadow of the Colossus clone.  “Fair enough,” I said and immediately tried to rectify the situation.

Shadow of the Collossus, Three iterations of Aegis’ design

 

It wasn't until months later, when our in-class project was almost complete and we had started to think about the KickStarter that I even bothered to look at their designs again. By this time, in my mind I had owned these designs - aside from that, could an item as common as a hooded cape really be in danger of copyright? Whenever I did see Nausicaa, the details or similarities were as similar as Clu was to countless other franchises. She's blonde, wearing predominantly blue, and has boots and gloves but so do countless other characters from other games, from Zero Suit Samus to the new Link design for Zelda Wii U. My limited exposure to Nausicaa and naivety told me that people would see the similarities in the same way that so many other games pay homage to Studio Ghibli films.

 

Clu’s Earliest Concept Art(based off of her sprite)

 

Various Nausicaa images - in my defense, Nausicaa's character design is fairly flexible. Some of them look very different from Clu while others look very similar.

Various IPs that I thought were similar but negligible - Metroid, Towerfall, Legend of Zelda, Princess Mononoke

 

Most importantly, my main concern with the game was its overall story - something I had been working on for several years for a graphic novel. The premise of a future where humanity worships robots as if they’re gods felt pretty unexplored. Besides, Aegis was always just a prologue to a bigger story anyway, meant merely to introduce us to a world that the graphic novel would further expand upon.  With those things as my major priority, a passing mark in character design felt like the least of my worries.

 

And my naivety continued and this idea that everything was fine was strengthened when we showed off the game at anime conventions.  At both Anime Conji and Anime Expo, people would say it looked like Princess Mononoke(my personal favorite Ghilbli film), Risk of Rain, Minecraft, Cave Story, and dozens of other games.  Nausicaa definitely came up but when it did, it was always an overwhelmingly positive reaction - the type of reaction that not only validated the design but encouraged the comparison. Part of the reason we never looked deeper is that no one ever challenged the art or criticized the comparison. I suppose that might have been because (A) the movie came out before many of the convention goers were born - including myself - and (B) because people were too polite.  In either case, our sample size was thousands of people and yet, no alarms went off.

 

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