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What Does a Video Game Character Designer Do? And How to Become One?

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Alexander Brazie

Alexander Brazie

Alexander is a game designer with 25+ years of experience in both AAA and indie studios, having worked on titles like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and Ori and The Will of The Wisps. His insights and lessons from roles at Riot and Blizzard are shared through his post-mortems and game design course. You can follow him on Twitter @Xelnath or LinkedIn.

Game character designer is a type of video game artist who focuses on the look and feel of an entity for a video game. They work closely with the creative director, game designers, and other game artists from concept artists to 3D modelers (although they may also do some of this work themselves) to make visual designs that fit the gameplay and theme.

To clarify: Although the role “character designer” contains the word “designer,” it’s still under the video game art umbrella.

Because it’s important to understand that a game character designer doesn’t design game mechanics (what the character does in the game). That’s the job of a class or gameplay designer.

I’m a gameplay designer myself, but I get this question so often that I’ve put together this article to help communicate what this role actually does.

By the way, as you read this post, feel free to join #career-guidance channel in Funsmith Club Discord where you can seek advice from game devs of all levels including me on

  • Breaking into the industry
  • Your resume/CV, Portfolio, design skill test, interviews, negotiations
  • Navigating your current career path

You can also get notified each week on the latest game design job listings and actionable tips here 👇

How is Character Design different from concept art and other game art jobs?

There’s a lot of overlap between game art roles such as concept artists, illustrators, 2D artists and 3D artists. They all focus intensely on bringing characters to life and are familiar with the core concepts of character design.

However, character designers focus specifically on an existing character concept, defining who they are and how other artists will express them in future.

Here’s a breakdown of the kind of artwork each role creates.

First, concept artists explore a variety of different designs:

Darksburg concept art
(Darksburg concept art by Cécile Jaubert)

Next, character designers choose a specific concept, and carefully specify exactly how a character looks for other to replicate:

Example character artwork
(Example character artwork by David Revoy)

Illustrators work on a single representation of that character at a time, pushing a static image to the highest quality level possible:

Concept Art for Riot Game West Studio
(Concept Art for Riot Games by West Studio)

2D artists create the actual assets that will represent the character in a 2D game.

This can mean creating sprite sheets that show each possible frame of the character:

mega man sprite sheet
(Example from KindPNG)

Or a 2D puppet rigged for animation:

Example puppet Esoteric Software
(Example puppet from Esoteric Software)

Similarly, 3D artists create a full model of the character and texture it, before passing it on to riggers or technical artists to turn it into the final, animated game asset.

Art for Riot Games by Yekaterina Bourykina
(Art for Riot Games by Yekaterina Bourykina)

All of these roles work together and have overlapping skill sets, so if you’re considering a job in character design you may also qualify for other art roles.

It takes multiple artists in distinct roles to design a character’s personality, physical traits, and other essential components, alongside the game designers who are developing the mechanics and systems.

A single character can take over a year to develop, as new ideas and styles of expression are explored on an individual character. The character designer sorts through all of these ideas to determine the essential components of the character and brings them to life.

Skills You’ll Need as a Character Designer

Character designer is one of the most sought after roles in the video game industry. Here’s what you’ll need to know to do the job well and present yourself to potential employers.

Strong drawing skills

At a fundamental level, character designers should know how to draw in multiple styles. Your examples will be the standard by which everyone else creates game assets, so it’s vital that you can represent your ideas well.

You can start with character sketches, but also practice digital painting and more detailed illustration. Individual characters need to be represented from multiple perspectives and in many different expressions of the character’s emotional range.

Do you need to learn animation?

Learning animation isn’t absolutely required to be a character designer, but knowing enough to pose your characters will dramatically increase your value as a character designer.

<i>(Character Art by Max Song)

The example character art above was created by someone with an illustration background, while the image below is the work of a character artist with an animation background.

large min
(Credit: JD van der Merwe)

Representing how characters move and behave will substantially improve your ability to get a role in character design.

Software experience

The general categories of useful computer software are drawing and digital painting tools; modeling tools; and texturing tools.

Among many others, here are some common examples of these are

  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Blender
  • Krita
  • Substance Painter
  • ZBrush

I won’t claim to know exactly which options you should choose, but it’s essential to have the technical skills to use software to supplement your inherent illustration ability..

Visual Storytelling

Every character tells a story through visual language. Who are they now? Where did they come from? What are their goals and values?

A character’s appearance is more than just graphic design, it conveys their entire personality.

Beyond a static concept, every detail of animated characters has to be decided by the character designer:

  • How does the character move?
  • What facial expressions do they make?
  • Which components change in different skins or situations, and which stay the same?

The different angles and physical settings your character will appear in can be more unpredictable than in other media, and have unique constraints.

Design around this by considering the camera angles and cinematics the game will support. Warcraft 3 and League of Legends emphasize the upper bust of the characters, while World of Warcraft and Overwatch need to give equal detail to the entire body.

Understand how your work translates to gameplay

Unless you’re designing characters for cinema or other types of non-interactive content out side of video games, then you have to have certain level of understanding of how your characters will interact with the game world and players.

So make sure you learn enough game design to have this context, which will also improve your ability to communicate and collaborate with other game designers.

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You can use this framework to understand design decisions are made and you can network with other pro game designers in the Funsmith Club Discord.

Video Game Character Designer FAQs

Do you need a college degree to become a character designer?

You do NOT need a college degree to be a character designer, but experience in traditional rendering techniques can help.

If you don’t get this training in a traditional art degree, you can still develop these skills with regular practice, curiosity and the support of online courses and tutorials.

What makes a good character design portfolio?

Your portfolio should contain two things at a minimum:

  • Your very best work
  • Several pieces showcasing your flexibility with style.

Quality is more important than quantity. If it’s not recent, high-quality, or showcasing something unique, it’s better off not there.

Yekaterina Bourykina’s portfolio is a good example of a reasonably-sized, high-quality selection.

Unlike a game design portfolio, it’s much more direct to showcase your skills because of the nature of the discipline.

How much money do character designers make?

character artis salary
(Average salary chart from Glassdoor)

Character designers earn $50,000 to $60,000 generally in the US, or about $30 an hour. This will be higher in some places and less in others.

How do I start learning character design?

If any of these forms of character design sound intriguing to you, there are many routes to success. However, they all require you to have a strong understanding of visual design and the digital tools needed to bring characters to life.

You can find some affordable tutorials in character design on Udemy and other, similar educational websites.

Yekaterina also has a video series on ArtStation.

Also, feel free to check out my conversation with 20 year veteran game artist Peet Cooper on practical advice to get hired as a video game artist:

Get creating!

Character designers develop ideas that will live on for generations. It’s a challenging and captivating role that is only achieved by those with the time and dedication to wield their knowledge to bring iconic characters to life.

As a game designer, it’s always a joy to see the project I work on brought to life in vivid, beautiful ways.

If your ambition is to create the next Zelda or Zagreus, come share your artwork on our Discord—I’d love to see it.

By the way, whenever you’re ready, here are 3 ways to help you start or level-up your game design career:

1. First Principles of Game Design: Skill Development Program: Join game devs who got hired or promoted across 51 AAA and Indie game studios including Riot, Blizzard, Ubisoft, Bethesda, and etc.

Improve player retention and word of mouth by learning to accurately diagnose why the players are losing interest in any game and how to adjust accordingly – one of the main skills studios hire for.

2. Game Design Mentorship – Get access to live weekly video calls and chat feedback support directly from veteran game designer with 25 years of industry experience (see example sessions).

3. Game Design Career Goal Strategy Workshop: A live workshop to help you figure out exact action steps to reach your goal, whether you aim to

  • Break into the video game industry
  • Get promoted (or pivot) from your current position
  • Ship a successful Indie game

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EXPERIENCE & BACKGROUND:

[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan