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.
- Breaking into the industry
- Your resume/CV, Portfolio, design skill test, interviews, negotiations
- Navigating your current career path
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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:
Next, character designers choose a specific concept, and carefully specify exactly how a character looks for other to replicate:
Illustrators work on a single representation of that character at a time, pushing a static image to the highest quality level possible:
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:
Or a 2D puppet rigged for animation:
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.
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.
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.
Representing how characters move and behave will substantially improve your ability to get a role in character design.
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
- Substance Painter
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..
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.
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 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:
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.