Coming up with a title for this was pretty difficult. What I am trying to briefly talk about is designing RPG classes, or MOBA characters, or any sort of character or archetype which can be sewn together or craftily designed for a game. Obviously, specific genres demand different takes and touches, thus the topic might as well be worth an entire book. I, by far, lack gaming experience (since we can be talking about archetypes in fighters or ever kart racing games), the knowledge regarding game design and psychology and the proper writing experience to spawn something decent enough to call a proper ‘article’. What you are about to read is merely rambling, trying to explain what I have noticed about the topic, and how I am attempting (as a most novice and beginner, unpublished, unlaunched game developer) to do my own designing.
An archetype is a primitive mental image inherited from our earliest of ancestors, supposedly engraved in the collective unconscious. This, however, is no essay on Jungian Psychology (though, it is something that goes well with game design). A shorter, more fit, explanation for the every day gamer is that an archetype is a pattern certain characters, roles or entities fall into. Commonly in both older and current RPGs, we have the classes or roles a class can take. World of Warcraft defines different specs as able to dabble in/ are proficient in Tanking (otherwise known as taking damage for the team), DPS (otherwise dealing damage to the enemy ranks) and Healing (yeah, well – that’s healing your guys; people don’t like to die). The same game can offer different archetypes regarding a different perspective: a class can be melee, ranged, caster or auto-attack based. Archetypes are required in order to enable the player to better understand how the game works, and how the game’s characters work.
Let us take another example: League of Legends (the example is comparable with other MOBAs as well, since most follow the same lines regarding certain things). All characters can fit a certain archetype regarding their roles: that is, carry, pusher, assassin, support etc. All characters fit a certain meta-role, or archetype defined by the player community, and not the game itself: solo laner, mid laner, jungler etc. We use these sketchy, simple “tags” to understand what a certain champion/hero is and understand, at its very core, how it is played. Obviously there are countless gimmicks: the meta-roles, since they are defined by the players, can change easily and are fluid; the way certain roles work are not set in stone, because to them are added more and more ‘mechanics’ or ‘themes’, such as ‘spells consume health’, or ‘all your abilities are skillshots’. Archetypes can contain other archetypes within themselves. Add to this the way lanes, the way itemizations and character progress work, and you get what Extra Credits called ‘Perfect Imbalance’.
A more clearer example regarding League of Legends is the following: ‘Mage’ is an archetype used to define, generally, ability-reliant champions. They can be both a melee-archetype (Maokai) and a ranged-archetype (Ziggs), both ability-spammers (Xerath) and auto-attack users (Kayle). Marksman are generally auto-attack reliant champions: they can be built crit-based (Tristana), or do not require critical strike to properly function (Kalista). Sometimes, they don’t even require attack speed, and can be played more of an AD Mage (Sivir, Varus). However, despite the archetype of Marksman being able to include or blend with other archetypes, all Marksman are ranged. There is no melee Marksman, same way there is no ranged Fighter.
Here we have some nice figure from League of Legends: Braum. If you are interested in hearing the game designers from Riot (to be read Rito) talk about some champion design, take a peek here. What I got from that video, and some of the articles Riot has posted regarding the design behind recently published champions, is that there are two main components regarding champion design: the aesthetics and the mechanics. Perhaps, aesthetics is not the best chosen name, since through it I try to encompass both the lore and the artistic choices. Both aeshetics and mechanics (or how the character is played) generate the identity of the character. Such identity can be crafted, through combining or linking archetypes, in a trial and error process – or it can be discovered, quite organically, by following a certain concept – as abstract as it sounds.
Let us try to use the above-mentioned model and dissect Braum (since reverse-engineering might be a bit too much of an elaborate term). Braum is this loyal, charismatic man, which gives a sense of both trust and strength, both through his looks and, perhaps, the look in his eyes (more like, his posture). Mechanically speaking, he is a tank able to block and move to his fellow allies. The two blend well, creating a character which literally dashes to his allies to help them, who literally protects them, not only by offering a feeling of safety which the player can feel (having a big guy with a shield in front of you), but by also having so many attacks directed at you blocked – literally, again.
You might say that this is obvious – good game design, as I’ve learned, feels simple (reaching it is far from simple). Let us take an example of bad champion design: there is Annie. She is a child who likes to burn stuff, and masters fire magic at a young age. The fact that she is a child is reflected in her ultimate: her companion teddy bear of death and immolation, Tibbers. The fact that she loves playing with fire is obvious – all her abilities are fire-manipulation. The child playing with fire is a common trope – apart from that, her lore doesn’t reveal anything. Her abilities, themselves, don’t reveal much either. She is titled ‘The Dark Child’ – yet apart from the fact that she got some dark arcane abilities, and some dark lines, that’s that. What do players know her as? What do players feel like when playing as her? She is blank, her aesthetics lacks depth and also lacks enough ‘synergy’, so to speak, with her mechanics. Mechanically speaking, she is one annoying champion, able to disable anyone – she is obnoxious and sort of easy to play. Does this reflect her personality, or does her identity reflect her itemization? Quite not, considering that this small child can be played as a tank, and that’s entirely valid and meta-game.
Good character design, in settings in which characters have extraordinary powers (but not necessarily), implies building an identity as a harmonious balance between aesthetics and mechanics – even if one of them leads, the other one has to be decent, otherwise the whole identity of the character suffers, which in turn is one of the causes for forgettable characters. Surely it’s also a matter of uniqueness, and a matter of fitting certain roles (if it is designed that way) – but the topic is so complex and deep that it makes it impossible for me to do it justice.
Note that Riot has matured a lot in its champion design.
I think that, logically, there are 3 ways one comes up with character design. You either start with the aesthetics, or with the mechanics, or somehow you got an idea for both (by chance of some divine revelation). Let me talk a bit about how I experienced the first two.
Aesthetics preceding Mechanics
In the case of aesthetics first, there’s the tiny guy above. I worked a little (~ a month) on a project in which you would have been able to pick a class and play through different, unrelated, campaigns and levels, while all the progress you made was saved on your character. You had leveled up and invested points into a talent tree, with three different specs. I wanted all classes to have their subclasses really unique, in the sense that they could be considered another class altogether. The guy above is a Druid. Druids are pretty different from one game to another, but all of them are meant to be wielders of nature magic, generally living outside the mainstream society, in forests or someplace. They have been portrayed in games as nature mages, healers and shapeshifters. The main thematic I chose for the Druid was ‘the Wolf’ – everything was wolf-centered, from abilities, to the play style of both being an able loner and a pack hunter.
The first subclass was the Shapeshifter. I wanted to give the impression of acquisition of beastly attributes, whilst not trivializing what entirely changing your human form meant. Thus I decided that the Shapeshifter temporarily transforms into a werewolf to use a different set of abilities centered of sustain (since wolves are scavengers) and movement (because wolves). Giving the player access to entirely changing their form only at the end of the tree offered the sense that there is struggle in achieving the animal form, and thriving for it is tough.
The second subclass was the Spiritcaller. Druids are, in essence, practicing shamans of a certain tradition – spirits were involved. And since wolves are known for not only being loners (like the Shapeshifter), but also hunting in packs, I had to make a summoner subclass. Since spirits are volatile phenomena, it didn’t feel right to have them pets, have an AI, run around and attack – instead, they were summoned for a brief attack, then they faded back to their realm.
The third subclass was the Beastmaster. It emphasized the communion between man and beast – it wasn’t the invocation of the principle of the Beast into carnal form (like the Shapeshifter), nor was it an evocation of the totemic spirit of the Wolf (like the Spiritcaller). It was a survivor, a man with a wolf companion (pet) that understood how nature works: you hunt, or are hunted. You prey, or are prey. It is less of a fantastical or metaphysical approach of the Druid, but it felt right.
Mechanics preceding Aesthetics
In the same project, I wanted a character able to switch from one state to another – a true jack of all trades, master of none, but able to adapt to every scenario if played well. Thus, I developed the idea of having a system of buffs/boons/strengths the player had to switch around. Every single ability had to offer versatility, enough to make the guy feel comfortable and organic to the player.
Trying to fit these ideas, I thought of plenty of themes: such as a wielder of magic, capable of modifying magic itself. Able to control their bodies, or their energy in such a way that it would behave differently in different situations. Another idea I had was making someone able to control their own bodies, and gain shells, or claws or such – but it would be too thematically similar to the Shapeshifter Druid I mentioned above.
The last idea I had, and with which I settled, is having a shaman, a wearer of masks, a buffoon. It came to me that it had to be someone who’s able to laugh at reality and make fun of the enemies. It had to be a Divine Jester – a shamanic archetype not only resembling the Trickster ,but ,by itself, it was an archetype able to ‘wear’ other archetypes as masks. Thus the character able to wear a chicken mask in order to lay around explosive eggs was born!
Unfortunately, regarding the last ‘priority’ of champion design, having both the aesthetics and mechanics being come up with at the same time; I am unable to offer a good personal example. Maybe there is no proper middle ground, and starts ultimately have to be made either on a side or the other. Maybe I have not achieved the level, or had the insight necessary for talking about the harmonious generation of both at the same time.
I have tried to structure it as much as possible – in the end, it’s still personal opinion and rambling. Despite that, I feel like, since I started making class/ability designing some year ago, I have matured in my design and been able to discover, explore and grasp ideas which would had been outside my reach. Hopefully, I synthesized well the model I am using when it comes to such design and, perhaps, it turns out to be useful to other people as well.