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How to Design a 3D or 2D Character for Your Video Game from Scratch

The road toward the perfect video game character design is pretty straightforward. At the most basic level, your jumping-off point could simply be a clear grasp of your video game art style.

Then from there, you could easily sketch out design prototypes until you arrive at the one you’re pleased with the most.

But if you need a step-by-step guide in designing the video game character of your dreams, you’re in the right place. In this article, we’ll give you actionable advice so your creative vision can begin to take shape.

Image credits to Canva

Your Map to Get to the Best Video Game Character Design for Your Project

How does one begin to design a video game character? Just like any creative process, there’s no “one size fits all” approach to character design. 

There are myriad ways artists and game developers go about it. A few may begin with a broad concept, ideating within the realm of their chosen motif. Others may start from specific things like a TV series they want to experience in playable format, or even perhaps a dream.

But if you’re creating 2D or 3D game art professionally, chances are you’ll need a more structured process. 

Here’s one surefire system to get your ideas to flow and, eventually, materialize.

Start with your video game’s art style 

More often than not, video games result from meticulous game design. Determining the design of your game — that is, everything from its overarching theme to art style to player experience — is the crucial first step in designing your video game character. 

WIthout it, there would be no context in which your character exists.

Take inspiration from different sources 

While the best ideas may spring from the most unpredictable sources, staring blankly into space might not always be the best plan of action. So, to speed up the process of fleshing out your character design, you need to do your research. 

Now that you know the type of game you want to develop and know full well what art style you’re going for, it’s time for you to scour different sources for information. 

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What have similar games done in the past? Depending on your game’s setting, how did people dress during a specific period? Gather data until you’re satisfied with your material.

Get set with the right tools 

No game character will ever be complete without the right tools that bring it to existence. 

If you’re unsure of the game development tools and software you need, simply take a look at what you’re working on. And when it comes to video game character design, all you really need to know is whether your desired output is a 2D or 3D game.

If you’re building a 2D game, the standard software required is primarily Adobe Photoshop. If it’s a 3D you’re developing, you’ll need more tools, such as ZBrush, Autodesk 3ds Max, and Substance Painter. But it’s important to simplify your toolkit and narrow it down to the essentials.

Prototype your ideas

Before you have your eureka moment, you’ll have to go through a series of failed attempts first. Once you’ve set up your work station — complete with research materials and the software you need — it’s time for you to breathe life into your ideas, no matter how bad they are.

So, sketch prototypes of your 3D or 2D characters until you’re confident enough about your design. Don’t worry, even Stephen Hillenburg had to do this before arriving at his final design of SpongeBob (apparently called SpongeBoy at first).

Seek out your team’s opinion

And just like Stephen Hillenburg, you’ll want the creative input of your team — or perhaps even of your friends. Get a fresh perspective on your work and see what points you can improve on.

Image credits to Canva

How to Design a 3D Video Game Character

Now, let’s get more technical. Having a system to get your creative juices flowing is good and all, but that’d be for nothing without execution.

In this section, we’re going to give you an overview of the workflow behind designing a 3D video game character.

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The following are the basic 3D modeling techniques for building a game character:

High-polygon modeling or sculpting: In order to form a character’s features correctly, 3D artists first sculpt the model in great detail. 

However, this hi-poly model will not make it to the game engine. Instead, the resulting look of this process will be used later on during the texturing stage.

Retopology: Because a hi-poly model is both difficult to animate and extremely data-heavy, artists have to optimize the character by reducing its polygon count. 

Through this step, a 3D video game character becomes easier to work with.

Texturing: This last stage in creating a 3D video game character involves multiple steps, including UV mapping, texture baking, and coloring. 

Here, the hi-poly model becomes the skin of the retopologized model, making the character look polished without sacrificing your video game’s performance. 

It’s also in texturing that artists add other important details, including the character’s roughness, base colors, and other qualities.

Image credits to Canva

How to Design a 2D Video Game Character

Let’s move on to designing a 2D video game character. In a 2D video game character design, expect much fewer polygons and way more lines. 

This is because the different types of 2D games in the market today tend to be stylistic and cartoonish, making little to no attempt at appearing realistic. And really, isn’t this the charm of 2D game art? The reason we’re still drawn to them today?

So if you’re developing a 2D video game, here are the techniques you need to know:

Rough sketching: There are two ways you can create rough sketches of your 2D character. First, by sketching directly on your chosen software application via your tablet or some other device. And second, by going to an archeological site and unearthing the very ancient sketching artifacts that are the pencil and paper.

Kidding aside, you can certainly use manual sketches to begin creating your 2D video game character. Digitize your sketch, import it into your digital art application, and you’re good to go!

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Digital outlining: Once you’re satisfied with your rough sketch, it’s time to make the pieces of your 2D game character. Yes, you read that right — we mean pieces. Because in order to animate your 2D character, you’ll need to outline your sketch on different layers.

You should have a layer for your 2D character’s head, another for its arm, and even a separate one for its hair! This way, you’ll have no problem bringing this character to life.

Coloring: Similar to modeling 3D game characters, the final step here is to finalize your character’s appearance with color. Even if you envision your game to be in black and white, you’ll probably want to add highlights and shadows to your character anyway.

In Summary

How does one design a video game character? Depending on your preference, you can devise your own system or simply wing it every time you have to sit down and design one.

However, if you need 3D or 2D characters for professional reasons, we recommend this system:

  1. Start with your video game’s art style.
  2. Take inspiration from different sources.
  3. Gather the right tools.
  4. Prototype your ideas.
  5. Get other people’s opinions.

And if you want to know the basic steps to create a 3D or 2D video game character, they are simply as follows.

To design a 3D video game character, take note of the following techniques:

  • High-poly modeling
  • Retopology
  • Texturing

As for designing a 2D video game character, the techniques are:

  • Rough sketching
  • Digital outlining
  • Coloring

Need more talent on your 3D game art team? Congratulations, you’ve landed on the right page.

Through 3D game art outsourcing, you can instantly scale up your team of expert digital artists! And if you want to see what we can do, check out NarraSoft’s portfolio.

Add us to your team today. Send us an email at sales@narrasoft.com or leave a message our way through our chat box or contact form. We can bring your game to the next level!