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Understanding 2D Character Design and Modeling

Character design is crucial to many game projects, particularly those featuring engaging narratives and vibrant worlds. Whether using two-dimensional or three-dimensional graphics, having a dedicated team of artists and animators is essential. In projects with 2D graphics, the initial group focuses on creating detailed 2D character designs. Usually, it takes several iterations to get from initial sketches to what can be considered game-ready art. So, let us discover the topic in-depth and learn new tips and nuances of character creation together.

The impact of 2D character modeling on modern games

Today, we see various 2D characters in games, ads, cartoons, and promotional materials. Each one was carefully designed and brought to life by talented artists. It's easy to overlook the many details that complete these characters' unique look and imagine how much time was invested in their development. This is especially true for games' 2D character modeling process, where central figures matter immensely. Many titles rely on their distinctive characters just as much as they rely on the gameplay. So, what does it take to create memorable and adorable characters for 2D video games? How is it done, and what peculiarities are inherent in this process? You'll find the answers to these questions in our article!

2D modeling basics

Creating a two-dimensional (2D) environment involves using artistic techniques to simulate depth and perspective on a flat plane. 2D environments rely on visual cues to suggest space and volume. Key elements and processes are involved in 2D modeling.

Artistic techniques are foundational in creating the illusion of depth in 2D modeling:

  1. Perspective makes objects appear smaller as they recede into the distance, converging towards a vanishing point.
  2. Shading and lighting add dimension by applying light and shadow, giving objects a sense of volume.
  3. Texturing further enhances this effect by adding detailed surfaces ranging from realistic to highly stylized.

Designing the environment involves creating detailed backgrounds that set the stage for the game. These backgrounds include landscapes, interiors, and atmospheric elements that enhance the game's setting. Foreground elements, such as interactive objects and obstacles, must be visually distinct and functional, integrating seamlessly into the gameplay.

Animation in 2D modeling can be done through frame-by-frame animation, where each frame is drawn individually to create smooth motion, or through skeletal animation, which uses bones and rigs to animate characters more efficiently. This allows for more fluid and dynamic movements, bringing characters and scenes to life. The choice of animation technique depends on the desired style and complexity of the movements.

Characters and environments must fit in, so good collaboration between the art and animation teams is key. Continuous feedback and revisions help refine the artwork and address any issues that arise during development. This collaborative effort ensures the final product is visually appealing and functional within the game’s context, ultimately creating an engaging and memorable player experience.
Gorgeous-looking yet terrifying vector art from Guacamelee!

Where 2D character modeling begins

Long story short: experienced character designers start their work with preparation and thorough research. Before initiating the drawing process, they need to think of the hero's story or even a full biography, develop a matching personality, and create an image. It’s much simpler when they already have some concept art to work with. But if they don't, drawing sophisticated gear for a character that doesn’t yet exist won’t help, no matter how cool it may be in their mind. Every hero needs a background that makes them feel like a real person.

However, that last part is the job of narrative and game designers, and it is also partially related to concept artists. When a foundation in the form of a story and concept art is done, it’s time to ask character designers to work their magic. This process is not one-sided but rather collaborative, meaning that teams or individual creators can share feedback, suggest new ideas, and change the initial or final work. Understandably, to execute such a procedure smoothly, all artists must know the game lore, understand the plot, and have some narrative design skills.

How to Draw 2D Characters

Now, let's briefly discuss the process of drawing 2D characters. It starts with visualizing the descriptions provided by story makers and adapting concept art to bring individual 2D characters to life. Heroes typically have specific traits, features, and unique personalities, all of which can be conveyed through drawing. How characters stand, move, and what they wear are all essential aspects. Creating distinguishable facial expressions and mesmerizing poses in 2D requires skill, but it is achievable.

Proper anatomy plays a major role in drawing 2D characters in most cases. Artists need a solid understanding of human and animal anatomy to create realistic and believable characters. Some game art styles, however, use exaggerated bodies and figures, which can also be effective as long as it aligns with the game's world and lore.

Multiple designs of a single character are often created, with elements added or removed throughout the process. This iterative process helps refine the character’s appearance and ensure it fits seamlessly into the game's environment. The final design must be approved before moving to the animation stage.

Once a 2D character design is green-lighted, "model sheets" are created, showing the hero from different perspectives, including front, side, and back views. These sheets may also include close-ups of crucial details like facial expressions, accessories, and unique features. These sheets are essential for displaying the character correctly in each animation frame.

The process of 2D character modeling involves extensive communication between teams and departments. This collaboration ensures the character design aligns with the narrative and gameplay mechanics. Due to the complexity and need for specialized skills, 2D character design is often outsourced to dedicated art studios like Argentics instead of being handled by freelancers. These studios have the expertise and resources to efficiently manage the intricate details of 2D character creation.

How to Model a 2D Character: The process – from Start to End

Different studios have different approaches to creating two-dimensional content, but the core principles and pipeline usually stay practically the same no matter what game they work on. It could be a platformer, action, or simplistic runner, but the fundamental stages of the 2D character design process remain unchanged.

Stage #1: Game designers write a document with detailed descriptions of the main characters. This text may also include specifics about the hero’s animations, skills, and even iconic personal quotes. All of these elements are crucial for building a relevant protagonist image. In addition, the document comes with a collection of references and suggestions.

Stage #2: The character designer studies the document and produces rough sketches presenting different ideas for the required concept. These drafts are mostly black-and-white silhouettes that define the body size, general vision, and notable features.

Stage #3: It’s time to choose a general image of the character and specify its forms and details. Various suggestions or complete solutions for specific nuances can be proposed. Refined sketches receive major improvements and start to acquire the desired appearance.

Stage #4: After approving the monochromatic drafts, the character designer returns to the drawing board to tinker with colors and determine the appropriate color scheme. Once the colors are chosen, the final sketch is completed.

Stage #5: At this stage, the 2D art acquires its final form through Photoshop. All of the character's features and elements are drawn in separate layers following the hierarchy of overlapping objects. All layers are marked and named accordingly to simplify the export process. This organization also helps find particular character elements, which is especially useful in highly detailed art pieces.

Stage #6: This stage is called "beautification." 2D character modeling involves many secondary but important aspects, such as lighting, shading, etc. Well-adjusted lighting, for example, can significantly affect the atmosphere and have a dramatic effect.
Lighting has a massive impact on any scene, even without any characters in it (source: ZENVA Academy)
Stage #7: The art director thoroughly inspects the final version of the character design. Once approved, the task is complete.

The finalized art is saved as a .psd file to continue its journey to the animators' den. Preparing the final PSD file is a finishing touch—ensuring all requirements and technical constraints are checked and met. This includes proper color depth, removal of all unnecessary layers, and confirming the image's size.

Important bits and tips for 2D character modeling

Remember that your characters must be visually "readable" at first glance, clearly showing who they are and what they do. They need to stand out from the crowd and the environment. After all, what kind of hero blends into the grey mass of extras or gets lost in the background? However, balance the "coolness" factor appropriately—you don’t want your heroes to look out of place in the game world (unless you're creating a game about actual extraterrestrial adventures). Additionally, avoid sacrificing character readability for the sake of specific designs.

We believe stylization and unification are the best tools for creating recognizable and unique characters. Take the famous cartoon sitcom South Park or its major game adaptations ("The Stick of Truth" and "The Fractured but Whole"), where all 2.5D characters are drawn in the same simplistic style. It may not be realistic, but it works perfectly because it is the key distinguishing feature. Of course, creating such a unique art style can be challenging, but who said it would be easy? So, invent, experiment, and keep moving forward with your vision.

An ordinary battle in South Park: The Stick of Truth
Another tip for games with a quick development cycle is to focus not only on your characters' looks but also on the convenience of scaling. For instance, it becomes much easier to multiply and replicate characters when creating a small platformer if they have minimal detail and typical silhouettes. The more sophisticated the characters are, the harder it will be to create graphic design and animation.

What tools to use for 2D character modeling?

While art finalization for 2D games is often done in Photoshop, other options are available. There are several decent alternatives for drawing characters, such as GIMP, Inkscape, or Illustrator. Illustrator is particularly popular for creating resizable two-dimensional art. Clip Studio or Manga Studio are also recommended for working with non-vector imagery.

For those who work with animation, programs like Spriter and Spine are preferred. Both are effective for skeletal animation. Additionally, Spine features official Unity support, which is beneficial given Unity's popularity as a game engine.

Factors Influencing the Cost of 2D Character Design

The cost of 2D game character design can vary widely based on several factors. As a professional, understanding these elements is crucial for budgeting and delivering high-quality work. Here are the key factors that influence the price of creating a 2D character model:

  1. Complexity and Detail: The level of detail and complexity in a 2D character drawing significantly impacts the cost. Characters with intricate designs, detailed costumes, and numerous accessories require more time and skill, leading to higher costs. Simplistic designs with minimal detail are generally less expensive.
  2. Art Style: Different art styles, such as realistic, cartoonish, or stylized, require varying expertise and time investment. Some styles require more advanced techniques and meticulous attention, which affects the price.
  3. The Number of Views and Poses: Creating multiple views (front, back, side) and poses of 2d models for games adds to the workload. More views and poses mean more drawing and refinement, which can increase costs.
  4. Animation Readiness: Preparing a 2D character design for animation involves additional work. This includes creating clean, separated layers for different character parts and ensuring the design is compatible with animation software. Characters intended for complex animations typically cost more.
  5. Experience of the Designer: The expertise and reputation of the 2D character design studio or individual artist play a significant role in pricing. More experienced designers with a robust portfolio can command higher rates.
  6. Number of Revisions: The number of revisions included in the initial quote can impact the cost. More revisions mean more time refining the design to meet the client's specifications.

In conclusion, the cost of 2D character design is multifaceted, influenced by the complexity, art style, views and poses, animation readiness, designer experience, turnaround time, number of revisions, software and tools used, and licensing and usage rights. Understanding these factors helps set realistic budgets and expectations for creating compelling and unique 2D characters for your game.

Final words

The gaming industry is constantly evolving and expanding. Projects are becoming bigger and beefier, while gamers are getting more demanding for graphics and original characters. The only way to stay on top for game studios is to improve their product quality by carefully studying and enhancing each element. This is where character design becomes crucial because the audience wants new, unique personas to associate with. Hence, all 2D characters must be catchy, memorable, and lovable. So it means you will need talented character artists to make them for you.

Argentics can be your medium in the world of 2D art. Our highly experienced and seasoned digital artist team is always ready to hear you and help you visualize your ideas in the most effective and economical way. We take pride in our work and guarantee top-notch results in every area of 2D art.
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