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Stuck on that creature design? Here are some helpful techniques

In this reprint from the March 2003 issue of Game Developer magazine, Hayden Duvall lays out some tips and tricks for getting the character artist juices flowing.

September 25, 2013

10 Min Read

In this reprint from the March 2003 issue of Game Developer magazine, Hayden Duvall lays out some tips and tricks for getting the character artist juices flowing. As a young child, I never once remember having any trouble starting a picture. Perhaps it was the rampant imagination of youth, but as I have become older, I have often fallen victim to the Curse of the Blank Canvas. Faced with nothing but empty space in front of me, I find it difficult to kick-start my creative juices (if indeed juices can be kick-started), and I scribble junk for hours until I'm forced to give up and skulk away into a dark corner, defeated It is true that as artists, we are sometimes in "the zone," and creativity explodes from us like lava from Mount St. Helens, but the reverse of this elevated state seems to be the great white void that occasionally finds form in empty sheets of paper that stare blankly at us from our desk, daring us to fill them with something worthwhile. Like writer's block, it is an affliction that can cause the sufferer no end of torment; valuable time can be wasted if it drags on for too long. Artists over the years have developed many approaches to help keep the ideas flowing, and what follows are some of the methods I find useful, specifically when dealing with the area of creature design.


The game itself may require certain creatures to evolve in some way. However, even if the evolution process isn't part of your game, the design aspect of evolving a creature can lead ideas in interesting directions. If time is not too much of an obstacle, you can choose to illustrate as many evolutionary steps as you wish, starting with a quite simple creature and evolving it into an imaginary, intelligent descendant. If you're more pressed for time, you can perhaps take a sketch you have worked on previously and attempt to evolve it an extra step, seeing where that takes you. Why bother with this approach? The main thinking behind evolving something, rather than simply drawing another version, is that this process forces the artist to think about the world within which the creature exists, as well as the specific characteristics of the creature. Looking at how a creature works in its particular habitat and how it could change to better adapt to its surroundings could seem like design overkill. But coherence of a game world and its inhabitants can add to the player's immersion, while also upping the level of visual quality. You may even be left with a few creature designs that can be used, resources permitting, in areas where the environment is reasonably consistent. You can also use the same principles you've used in the evolution process to work backward toward a more primitive life form. You can use these more primitive characters to populate parts of a world where some of the principal character design has already been done, in order to provide more consistency in those areas.


Some of the craziest ideas often seem to be the ones that catch on. A man that turns green and sprouts an insane amount of muscles when he gets angry can't have been a completely straightforward pitch, even in the world of comic book heroes. Who would have thought that a game that lets players watch semi-autonomous characters mimic the mundane tasks of everyday life while they give them simple commands and buy them new furniture would practically outsell the Bible? So, in the spirit of mad invention, another method for generating ideas for creature design involves the juxtaposition of two (or more) unconnected ideas, which then need to be absorbed into a single compound creation. Here are some example methods to start the ball rolling: Animal combinations. This is pretty much as it sounds, but with some imagination and a bit of help from someone else, it can be worth a try. Essentially, you need two lists of animals (any living creatures, in fact), preferably created by two separate people. These lists are then paired up and you attempt to draw the resulting creature combinations. This can obviously be dull if the two lists aren't that imaginative, but with some work, you can achieve interesting results. Figure 1 shows a "crocobunny" conceived through this process. Extreme animal combinations. This time your second list is of any object you can think of, not just animals. Sometimes the obscure collision of a living creature with an everyday object can work. Figure 2 shows a "squidlamp" that resulted from one experiment.

Group Design

The group design approach is quite popular, and can take several forms. The most straightforward method is to have a group of artists begin drawing a creature, and after a short period pass their work to the next artist who then continues it, and so on until the creatures are complete. This mixture of styles and ideas is often more hilarious than useful, but it can certainly help shake things up if they have become stagnant.

Good and Evil

As most famously illustrated in a game context with Lionhead's Black & White, creature designs can be modified along the lines of good and evil. After starting with a creature that looks harmless or benign, the process of making this creature look evil can yield interesting results. Exaggerating aggressive features such as teeth and claws, lowering the central brow area, adding gratuitous spikes — all these methods can create the effect of evil. In Black & White, the use of a domesticated farm animal (a cow, the very essence of friendliness) made a great starting point for turning it evil. This process is usually most interesting if the point of departure is especially cute or fluffy. In contrast, redeeming an evil creature to reverse the process and make it look friendly and harmless can also be good fun. The best starting point for this procedure can often be creatures that are already present in films, books, TV, and so on, where plenty of quality time has already been put into designing the very epitome of menace. Try, for example, to make Giger's alien look cuddly, or the Uruk-hai in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers look like they just want to sit down for a friendly game of chess. It may sound like ripping off someone else's design, but if taken to extremes, the resulting creature is almost certainly going to be a completely original creation.

Playing with Scale

I hate spiders, and even though the worst a spider in the U.K. can do is run menacingly across the floor in front of you, when seen up close with all those eyes and hairs and giant pincerlike fangs, well, I'm just glad I'm not half an inch tall. The world of insects and microscopic creatures is a goldmine for interesting creature design ideas. Most of us have seen electron microscope images of such things as dust mites and any number of tiny parasitic beasts, the majority of which are weird and incredible and often quite scary. Rescaling these creatures to the size of a lion or elephant can be an easy way of coming up with interesting-looking creatures that actually have reference photos from which to work. Sometimes, it will be best to adapt these tiny creatures somewhat, so that they look less insect-like and more mammalian, by removing antennae or replacing mandibles with a regular jaw. The opposite scale process is usually less successful. Large creatures (unlike their microscopic counterparts) are very recognizable, and a small rhino, for example, isn't exactly exciting. In general, a game world deals best with creatures that are around the player's scale or above. In this respect, taking larger animals and shrinking them usually isn't going to yield impressive results.

Feature Positioning

Creating new and interesting creatures isn't just about the initial design ideas. Once you are happy with certain elements of your design, or once you have a specific idea that you feel works, there is plenty of scope for small-scale changes to refine your design. For instance, you'll have to address the issue of feature placement. Consider faces: implicit in our interpretation of faces are certain ideas about the character traits of the person or creature we are looking at. Figure 3 shows three basic faces all made from the same lines. The top face represents normal human feature placement, the middle face has its features compressed to emphasize the chin and give the impression of a lower brow, and the bottom face has a significantly higher forehead. Crudely speaking, we are inclined to interpret the second of these faces as belonging to a person of lower intelligence, and the third as someone of higher intelligence. While the exact meaning of where features are placed may not be that important for a particular design, it is sometimes worth experimenting with these features, to see if the same basic design can be improved by moving them. You can see in Figure 4 how, by changing the placement of the eye, you can change the interpretation of a creature's personality.

Other Things to Try

Big brother, little brother. Using either a design you have already done, or an existing creature from another source, attempt to create both its big and little brothers. This is not a matter of merely making scale changes but extrapolating a design for a particular creature to three stages of its development, assuming that the starting point you have is the middle stage. Once again, resources permitting, having three age-dependent variations of the same creature can add depth to a game's visuals, especially if animations and sound can also reflect these three states of maturity. Random word generator. In the same way that music can sometimes create a visual impression in your mind, so can words. Using one of the random word generators on the Internet (this one, for example), attempt to derive a creature that fits a name generated at random. Weak and strong. Keeping in mind the same concept as Good and Evil, create two variations of a source creature: one that is pathetic and weak, the other that is powerful and intimidating. Figure 5 shows how this use of contrast can be effective. Alien food chain. Starting as low down as you like, create a food chain (entirely imagined) that leads to what would be an apex predator. If you take this food chain seriously (within reason), it should take into account such things as habitat, and include a physiology that would lend itself to catching and eating the creature that is one step below. Additional limbs. Take a design and add extra legs, arms, or both. Rework it so that the creature is able to maintain a reasonable center of gravity, and so that it doesn't look like you've just added extra limbs for the sake of it. From the sea to the land. Taking one of the exceptionally bizarre creatures of the deep and transforming it into something that would survive on the land can produce interesting results. Silhouette or outline. You can try this technique on your own or in a group. Draw a creature in silhouette (or just its outline) and then fill in the detail. This way you can avoid the sometimes daunting task of creating a whole detailed creature in one go. The outline describes its mass and basic form, and then you can fill in as much or as little of its features as you find necessary. Even if you don't always find these methods usable in practice, elements of the individual designs should stand out as interesting or worth pursuing. After a while, a workable result can begin to emerge. Creativity is sometimes about industry, method, and finding ways to help crystallize ideas and explore them in new directions. Ultimately, the more industrious you can get, the less you'll have to stare at a blank sheet of paper waiting for inspiration. You can read more features and columns from Game Developer on the GDC Vault!

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