It seems like some game character designers, not having to deal with physical items or the dangers of real battle, don't quite grasp some of the basics of functional armor design. Therefore, I present you with this is a crash course. If you have any interest what so ever in having armor in your game that at least isn’t obviously impossible or dangerous to wear, I hope you will find the guide helpful.
Before I start, I would like to point out that of course I understand why you would want to design cool and sexy armor with distinctive silhouettes – and by all means, continue. Not all armor needs to be realistic. I'd also like to point out that many of the mentioned games below are personal favorites. Parts of the character design having room for improvement does by no means make the games themselves less good.
So, why would a person choose to wear large amount of metal and leather on their bodies, if they are not going to a heavy metal concert? Well, most likely a person wearing armor expects to end up in a battle within the near future and does not wish to get injured or killed while in it. They expect the armor to hinder sharp object from entering their body and soften the blow of blunt objects that would otherwise threaten to for example break their bones. The heavier impact of the weapons and intensity of battle you expect, the heavier your armor should be. For example, a knight expecting lances to be pointed at him or her would do well to look at tin cans for inspiration, whereas longbowmen more or less could enter the battlefield in their pajamas.
Properties of metal
Just to make sure we are on the same page right from the beginning, I would just like to point out a few things. Metal, at least in our world, is heavy. Steel weighs about 8 g/cm3, which means that a 3 mm thick sheet of steel weighs in at 26 kg per m2. This might not tell you a lot, but let's just agree that a lot of steel strapped to your body is heavier than a little bit of steel strapped to your body. Carrying heavy things makes you slower, forcing you to use more power when fighting and making it harder to counter swift attacks.
Let's look at the armor of Sarevok from Baldur's Gate (BioWare, 1998). He certainly looks badass, which is nice. Another nice thing, however, is surviving. Those spikes are not going to kill anyone unless he has a very unconventional fighting style, meaning they will only make his armor heavier. Sure, people might think twice before even entering a fight with this guy – but if they decide to try their luck, Sarevok would find himself with easily ten kilograms of excess ballast just from the spikes. Back to the drawing board, Sarevok.
I doubt I need to remind you that metal is a rigid material while in its solid state – which is the state you want it to be in when you put it close to your mortal body. This means that a harness does not really move with the upper body. Making this look good is most likely enough to give an animator a migraine, but it's worth keeping in mind.
A Worgen of World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004).
Another thing you may want to remember is that metal isn't cheap. While noble knights might wear fitted full plate, the less fortunate would most likely have to settle for something simpler. If your lord demands taxes and the storehouse needs to get filled for winter, you are not likely to invest in a suit fo armor. Consider this when outfitting your characters.
Critical areas of the body
Since the purpose of your armor is to protect you, I would also like to establish which areas of the body you would make sure to cover when going into battle. To begin with, you really, really should try not to get a sword lunged into your face. Of course you want to show all the nice lip sync and hair physics you put in your game, but no soldier who uses their head would go into battle without protecting it with a helmet.
The neck contains things that are really helpful if you enjoy breathing and pumping blood to your brain, and the heart, while already protected by a ribcage, is vital for keeping even the most heartless person alive. The heart can be reached not only from the front and back, but also from the sides. The armpits are therefore two more areas you really should try and cover as much as possible. Apart from this, the stomach is easy to hit and holds all sorts of stuff you need in order to not die. The groin is a good way to access the stomach from certain angles, and also holds a lot of blood. Note: The groin and the armpits are notoriously hard to protect due to their position on the body, especially if the enemy comes up close with a ballock dagger – but you should at least try.
The rest of the body in nice to keep intact as well – especially areas with large blood vessels going through them. However, a wound in for example the leg, while likely to get you into a bad position or in a worst-case scenario severe enough to lead to an amputation, is less likely to kill you instantly.
Now that we have sorted out that, let's get to business. The first thing I would like you to consider is what the purpose of the armor you are designing is. Who is the person wearing it? Is he or she poor or wealthy, fond of stabbing people in the back or of using a claymore, a lowborn or a knight? What armor makes sense for a person like that to wear?
To show you what I mean, I would like you to look at my first example armor. This is Leliana from the Dragon Age series, clad in her armor from Inquisition (BioWare, 2014).
Let's consider who Leliana is. She is a spymaster, and as such, one would expect her to be a person who moves about in the shadows. Even if she doesn't do all the sneaking herself, her armor and clothes should indicate her choice of career (or not, if she wants to be truly sneaky). And indeed, the hood and mail do the trick. Fashionable as well as practical, they make a decent armor for a lady of her profession and rank. The problem, in this case, is further down. Of all places to wear heavy armor if you want to be able to move about without anyone noticing you, the feet is most likely the worst. Imagine trying to jump on someone while wearing skiing boots. Made of steel. Precisely. If you want to be sneaky, don't wear heavy armor. If you want to wear heavy armor, choose parts that actually protect your vital body parts.
Use out of battle
Believe it or not, even professional warriors will spend most of their time out of battle. This may not apply to your average game protagonist, but certainly anyone who actually gets tired after a few hours of running and hitting things. Before and after a battle, you would most likely cram together with your fellow soldiers in camp, and let's just say that spikes on your armor will make people not want to sit next to you at dinner. You might also find it harder to get a squire who's suicidal enough to put the armor on you as well. In fact, just finding someone who's willing to fight alongside you might prove difficult, since you are more likely to be shoulder-to-shoulder with a friend than a foe on the battlefield. Since game characters have a tendency to only have one outfit, they also have to deal with the weight of their armor not only while fighting, but also while walking for eight hours. Worth remembering, however, is that you would likely remove your armor and walk around in common clothes when for example marching, or moving about in a friendly city or castle.
“Sure, Bob, your armor looks sweet – but that spike is kind of piercing my kneecap.” (Monster Hunter, Capcom, 2004)
Getting armor on and off
Speaking of squires – I would find it wonderful if a game would make use of the fact that a suit of armor takes a long time to put on in its narrative. While you don't want to waste the players' time with hours of putting on and taking off armor parts, you could use it to create suspense: The friend was gone so the hero didn't have time to put on a harness before the camp was attacked *gasp*. The full plate armor of a knight is hard to get on without someone to help you, which means that you probably won't go for one if you don't have servants, or helpful friends with a lot of spare time. Mail is easier but still forces you to strike interesting poses, as shown in this wonderful illustration from a medieval manuscript.
Deflection, not direction
Example armor from Guild Wars II (ArenaNet, 2012).
Let's go back to the topic of spiked armor. Apart from giving you +2 on pissing off the people you fight alongside, the spikes can actually make the armor more dangerous to the wearer than it would be without. As mentioned earlier, one of your armor's purposes is to deflect weapons so that they slide off your body without doing any damage. Look at the picture above. In this case, a spike would actually catch the blade and direct it towards your arm rather than off it, greatly increasing the risk of wounds on what is the preferred hand for 70-90% of the population. This sounds like a pretty bad idea, in my opinion.
Boobs are soft
Okay, let's get to the topic of breasts. Some of you may have touched one. If so, you might have noticed that they are usually quite soft. This means that they will take no damage if temporarily stuffed into a harness. If they would have, a few hundred years of fashion featuring corsets would have ruined generations of innocent breasts. This means that so called Boob Armor, this being plate armor with bulges for the breasts, is totally unnecessary. In fact, it is more dangerous than a regular harness. As mentioned above, you want to guide the blade off your body – not towards, you know, your heart.
Suggestion: Choose the left option (that woman wins swordfights). Armor to the right from Skyrim (Bethesta Game Studios 2011).
Now, let's examine the armor of the Night Elf above (World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment, 2004). If I wanted to kill this lady, I would most likely try to thrust my sword into her face, neck, chest, stomach, or possibly groin. Of these, only the latter is protected what so ever. I do appreciate her attempt to protect her legs – which I do admit is a good idea if you plan to kick people repeatedly our counter kicks with your own legs – and the outside of her arms. The lower arm will after all be one of the parts closest to your enemy in melee combat. Still, I have to point this out:
Tight armor and layers
Looking at the Demon Hunter (Diablo III, Blizzard Etertainment, 2012) above, you will notice that while her shoulder pads and scarf increase in size with her armor level, her waistline does not. In this case, it looks like she keeps wearing only some sort of leather corset to protect her stomach, while strapping on enough excess metal on the rest of her body to build a spare suit of armor. Honestly, I would have advised her to trade the sexy female silhouette for actual protection. This would mean adding for example a gambeson and maybe also a mail under the harness, which would make her waistline several inches thicker.
This Tumblrer, while most likely not having this in mind while drawing the images (I'll spare you the last two in the series), shows roughly how Commander Cullen's (Dragon Age: Inquisition, BioWare, 2014) armor could look layer-by-layer. While you would most likely want the layer that looks like leather here to be padded to soften incoming blows, and the harness probably is too tight to actually move around in, it shows quite well how layers are put upon layers in heavy armor. This sadly means that you'll have to choose between looking like an hourglass and surviving while fighting.
Speaking of the Demon Hunter... Have you ever seen a person in high heels run? Do modern female soldiers wear pumps? If your answers are yes and no in that order, I am pretty sure that you can figure out what I'm getting at here. If not, I do wonder who you are and where you are from. We have already established that the purpose of armor is to protect the wearer and also that not dying is nice. With this in mind, I am willing to bet that most women are ready to give up having a nice posture for a few hours if this means that they can actually move around properly and decrease the risk of getting maimed by their opponents. This means that no woman with any sort of self-preservation would ever go into battle in high heels. If you want to design a character who's a fashion victim to the extent that she would literally rather die than wear flats, be my guest. Just please don't put them on otherwise sensible women. It simply makes no sense. Oh and that's Fran from Final Fantasy XII (Square Enix, 2006) to the left.
One place where it could make sense for a lady to wear high heels is if she was to ride a horse, since some suggest that heels were originally designed for this purpose. However, this has hardly been common practice historically.
Bullets? Skip heavy armor
Finally, just like cannons once made hiding away in your castle ineffective, increasingly efficient guns make heavy plate armor less and less useful. Why would you strap 30 kg of armor to yourself into battle when you know that a single bullet could pierce it and kill you anyway? Long story short, better and better guns on the battlefields of history meant that soldiers started wearing uniforms rather than armor made of metal, since you might as well increase your agility when armor doesn't help you anyway.
To the left: armor from Pillars of Eternity (Obsidian Entertainment, 2015).
You have all the artistic freedom in the world when you create your characters – but if you want to design realistic armor, start by considering why the person chose it in the first place. Few people do things “just because” – especially when their life is on the line. You have to be pretty damn confident in your own fighting skills if you don't think you need any sort of protection in melee battle.