Over at the People Can Fly blog, they shared a quick insight into the design process for the endless waves of enemy grunts in Bulletstorm. Check it out. It's actually quite a nice read and features a neat customization video.
Ed, the author of said post makes a good argument for reusing graphical assets (in this case, a base 3D character model, texture variations and accessories), mainly focussing on the noticeably smaller memory space enemy hordes like this would need. The key idea is to basically set up a character customization tool, like it is prominent in RPGs, MMOs and other games where the designers wanted to offer a sense of personalization to the player. And then, use this tool to create an army of in-game characters. You could either have some character artist customize the models by hand, one at a time or have a program randomly generating customized models. Quite a powerful way to manage your assets.
Games like Brink (check out the cool customs gallery) or Batman Arkham Asylum and Arkham City already show how AAA titles can benefit from thought out character customization, but also show the limits of this approach. For the Mass Effect series, the deep customization tool that allows players to create their own images of commander Shepard, was also used by the character artist to create the hundreds of talking NPCS and extras. But here the seems were showing, too. Many characters looked like belonging to the same family and the overall lack of unique elements, exclusive to one character, made very few of the characters visually memorable.
The clone-and-customize-approach to character design really isn't something new. While back in the golden days, repetitive enemy sprites in side scroll fighting games, platformers and such were no big deal. It was actually kind of funny to see the same mohawk dudes bite the dust in Final fight, maybe with some palette swaps here and there. 8bit and 16bit visuals asked us to do quite some suspending of disbelief and we gladly did. Nowadays you can't be that obvious and in your face. AAA visuals need to appear be to very complete, leave little space for imagination and just ask us to judge what we actually see on screen.
So judging from what I see, in the games mentioned, the models on display are either all siblings or clones, trying to achieve some individuality by picking different hair cuts. Still, the approaches above are clever and allow for massive amounts of NPCs to interact with. Maybe when there is more memory space and a wider range of customizing options, a clever engine to minimize similarities and character artists to add the x factor… but not yet.
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Thanks to Norbert for the tip.