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Put a Little Dude on There

A game development retrospective - Character Design and delusion in a small San Francisco game studio between the years 1995 to 2000

Not long ago I found my fourteen year old son Sam, hunched over his sketchbook (The big black leather-bound kind you get from Powells books in downtown Portland. Worth the twenty bucks.) tapping his pencil against a muddy, eraser-chewed page. The source of his frustration, barely visible through the lead smears and pink eraser bits was a kind of Boba Fett looking character with an oversized head holding a spear-like weapon. Sam, in this predicament was a mirror image of myself at fourteen. And eighteen. Twenty five. Thirty one. You get the picture. Our conversation went like so:

“What's up Sammy?”

“Oh nothing, I just cant seem to get this guy right,” he sighed. I nodded, knowingly.

“He looks good,” I told him. What's the issue?”
“He's just too generic.” he said throwing his pencil down. “He looks like every other dude out there. He needs something, like on his spear or whatever.” I held up the book, squinting my eyes to make out the silhouette.

“Put a little dude on there,” I said, matter of fact.

“Do a what?” he asked.

“Put a little dude on the spear,” I repeated. “When all else fails, put a little dude on there.”

“Like what kind of dude?” he asked, unconvinced.

“Put a little dude on his spear thingy. Make the little dude the weapon. Give him a big munchy mouth that bites enemies, or a bird of some sort. He needs him a Compelling Accoutrement. A little dude can solve that.”

“Okay Papa, I'll give it a shot. You are so smart and cool.”

Okay, I made that last part up, but the rest of it is true. Before I tell you how the story ends, let me give you a little history on how I came upon that little piece of advice,and the term Compelling Accoutrement. I cannot take credit for it. It was a wise man who opened my eyes. A sage of sorts. It all started around 1995 at a small game development studio in San Francisco. This paragraph is getting hear chimes...echoes...1995....

I had just secured my first industry job as a concept artist at a little developer called Blam. They were located in an old Victorian above a bar called Micks Lounge on the corner of Union And Van Ness. I came on board as a refugee from the dot com explosion just in time to watch all my friends get rich. It was like leaving the Billboard Top 40 and joining SST to print zines and book punk shows. This was fine by me because at twenty years of age, I had plenty of time to get rich. For the time being I just wanted to hang out with the cool kids, and at the time the cool kids were making games.

My first impression of Blam was that of a house party that never ended, but all the party goers had a purpose. The smell of stale beer, microwave popcorn and Wu Tang's 36 chambers takes me right back to that time. The beer smell was from out back where the bar stored its empty kegs but the popcorn and Wu Tang were a Blam thing. Not sure why popcorn, I think it was a programmer thing. There was a strange focus to the place. It was the first time I had seen people whose lifestyle and job were one in the same. An ideal I have a hard time letting go of to this day.

Each room in the building was reserved for a discipline, with designers in one room, programmers in another, artists in the living room, etc. The concept art room, where I was stationed was stocked with every art supply you could ever need while the TV played a constant loop of Miyazaki flicks, Ninja Scroll, Akira and Bob Ross.

Vince Castillo, the lead concept artist was a Pacific Islander who could crush me with his earlobe but instead let me watch him paint these delicate concepts with watercolor pens. CJ Guzman, my other office mate was a regular character machine and I still don't fully understand how he pulled out some of the designs he did. I'm not fully convinced he wasn't a closet mescaline case. Normal people just don't spend that much time in their sub conscience and come out normal.

Before Blam I had many lives. Holiday shop window painter, graphic designer, screensaver animator, dishwasher, line cook, interior trim contractor, web designer, but I had never seen anything like this. It was intimidating. I wasn't sure if I should thank the Gods for such a cool job or get out of there before I woke up naked and delirious with some vital organs missing. Still not positive I did the right thing, I chose the former and spent the next six years of my life at Blam as a concept artist, 3D artist, animator and eventually art director before I left to start my own game art studio in 2000. But that's another story.

Blam went through several reputations, most negative towards the end but for a while there we were known as the creative studio and were often tapped by EA, Mindscape and Stormfront for original IP's. They were looking for the next Crash Bandicoot or Spyro the Dragon and for some reason believed it was going to come out of that little Victorian on Van Ness. We drank that particular brand of Kool Aid ourselves and believed we were one concept away from immortality, fame and fortune. It didn't occur to us at the time that while they trusted us with original ideas, they weren't so confident in our execution. Who cares right? The fun part was writing design documents and making characters, as far as I was concerned.

I remember one design, specifically, I was married to. It was an action/platformer that took place in the land of nightmares and monsters accessible via the closet doors of children. (Keep in mind this was a few years before Monsters Inc.) The main character was Prince Boogie, the son and heir to the Boogie Man's throne.

Boogie was a little blue Pokemon-like cat creature with bat wings and a half moon emblem on his belly. I was getting close to a final concept but ended up blocked for a week or so and it was getting to me. The character was missing something and I sat there staring at the page, foreshadowing my son's predicament twelve years into the future. I'm convinced I would still be there today, like some modern day Rip Van Winkle, if it wasn't for CJ and his sage advice.

“He just needs something on his tail,” I said to him. “His profile isn't unique enough.” CJ thumbed through my concepts for about a minute or two.

“Put a little dude on there,” CJ said. The rest of the conversation was the same one I had with my son twelve years later. I put a little dude on his tail and it was perfect. The rest of the game practically wrote itself, all based on the little dude on there.

This advice became the foundation for a game character and design process developed over Blam's remaining years by the President, Jay Minn, CJ and I. We apparently couldn't finish a game to save our lives so we became scholars on the subject instead. The character portion of the process simply states that at its core, any good game character must have at least one Compelling Accoutrement.

A Compelling Accoutrement can be anything, as long as it identifies the character and will stand out on screen no matter how swamped the screen is with visuals, enemies and NPC's. There can also be more than one per character, but too many will create noise and defeat the purpose. It has to be simple and iconic. Cloud had his giant sword. Mega Man had a cannon for an arm. So did Samus. Yoshi had baby Mario. Mario had his hat and overalls. Sonic had his sneakers. Kratos had his swords chained to his arms. Klonoa had his ring with a little dude on there. The list goes on and on.

Often the Compelling Accoutrement would be the conduit for the Compelling Mechanic, such as Kratos' swords, but that's a whole other essay.

Bottom line is, when all else fails, put a little dude on there. It has yet to fail me. Sometimes it opens up a whole new world of opportunity for game design and character personality. Try it out. You can test it on anything. A bland game character, a photo of Andie Macdowell. You can make anything compelling by putting a little dude on there. Even Andie Macdowell.

Blam dissolved at some point after I left. I believe the old Victorian is now an overpriced, bay-view apartment building. Last I drove by there was still a bar on the ground floor full of white people from Marin dancing to Smash Mouth. CJ is still churning out amazing work. He recently sent me a graphic novel that had one of his stories in it. The first panel is a whale with the number 7 on his side, like some sort of racing vehicle. Brilliant. A racing whale.

Sam finished his character. After all that he didn't end up putting a little dude on there, but the experiment led him to add another compelling feature that worked, and that is the point after all. The exercise is to herd your train of thought down a different, less traveled road. He came upon the Greek symbol for Omega and used it as the shape for his visor. Well done. I bet CJ would approve.


-Paul Culp is The Studio Director of Cinematics, a game art and animation studio in Oregon.

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