Somehow following the current developments around Nintendo Switch, I was studying the most recognizable and most revenue generating game characters today. And the franchises they created vs. more modern game franchises, which seems what mainstream game designers appear to be all about. The hall of fame appears to be most focused on comic characters with few notable exceptions such Tomb Raider and the guy in Half Life which also appeared to inspire the NetFlix series around Mr White. Having comic dominate might be a typical feature of lowering character identification that comes with realism untill it reaches a certain level of hyper-realism, which is taught in every game character design class. Interesting enough, there is a pattern that Nintendo showed in its earlier years that appears to have vanished from their focus.
The original playbook appeared to be:
- Build a likable comic character with a love and hero/lost story.
- Bundle the character with a new potentially genre defining game play. Think of how Zelda RPG differs from Mario Jump & Run with quests, slower paced but heavier fire mega man and TMNT game play or the accelerated (Sega-invented) Sonic. Happened later with C&C’s Kane, Half-Lifes Gordon Freeman.
- Bundling game play and character was leveraged over the series to recognize the combined feel of the character world and the game play, and to re-use the brand for titles on the next gen consoles.
- Strengthen the character richness using comics and prime time TV series – which now would be more like a character having a Snap/Instagram/Vine channel or posting Tweets all day around and licensing the character for guest appearances in throwaway mobile games or as a paid for benefit in freemium online games. Use them to design a story and personality around the character.
- Build off-platform merchandise to use on trade-shows, fairs, carnevals, fan t-Shirts, branded mobile covers, etc.
Somehow, Nintendo stopped producing new characters for a while and lost a bit of its engagement edge. Fear of cannibalization? Playstation shock? Sega’s demise? First it attempted to focus on higher multi-player capacity with Gamecube, focusing on simpler graphics, but not offering new gameplay. Stepping up on identifying new game play opportunities with Wii, failing completely with Wii U, leveraging graphics and portability with its 3DS series. At the moment, it appears that Nintendo tries to focus more on engagement – mobilility and free-of-charge multiplayer capacity in Switch – and reverting to comical visual design that allows for the magic of character identification to work a bit stronger than in previous generations. Abandoning the multi-gadget strategy that it had for a while to allow development for a single platform to reach a wider audience at lower development costs for its content providers. Stepping a bit back on the „invent new forms of game interaction“ and clearly separating its visual strategy from the other platforms. Let’s see where this goes. If users can have shared experienced when meeting in the real world as is planned in 2.0 Pokemon Go, there might be a shot to capture some market share from the alternatives.
And who knows, maybe the increasing level of fantasy elements in popular music culture is a hint that people are ready for less realism and a more playful experience. And since VR appears to take a bit longer to make sense of how it wants to create meaningful multiplayer engagements without people stepping on cats, this could be timed well.
Talking about lovable characters, why is there no fireball shooting banana riding a pink pony yet?