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How to design a Street Fighter character, pt. 2

<p>Now let's look at Color and touch a little bit on Costume and see how the best Street Fighter character designs used both elements to their advantage. Color is an important deyail added at every level of a great design, from the color of the skin, eyes and hair, to the color of the clothes or uniform. Good use of color, an understanding of color theory, knowing how and when to apply complimentary and contrasting colors is essential to any good artist. With SF character design it is important that the color choices work well together because the character is ever present in the game, always from a side perspective and rarely secluded in shadow or obscured by the elements. Solid colors make it easier for the eye track the character as he or she moves and fights. A solid color is highly identifiable in a sea of fighting game characters. Having those choices helps the player identify with the character and their design, adding the first of many psychological elements to the design theory.

A single vibrant color is traditionally placed on the character. This can help define a personality or even highlight a physical trait. Think about the iconic SF characters, Ryu in white, Ken in red, Guile in green and Chun-Li in blue. All of these colors and how they were used helped define the character. These colors were also contrasted in subtle and not so subtle ways.
I had mentioned in previous blogs that the best SF character designs were the simplest and most "pure." These characters all looked like fighters first and foremost before any other elements were placed on them. The mistake that some designers make is that simply creating a character dressed in traditional fighting garb is enough to make them work in a fighting game. A character in a traditional costume does not make them an archetype. It is possible to make a character look too generic, to play it too safe and lose the quality that made the character unique. For example, a recent version of Akira from Virtua Fighter, whose gi (karate uniform), headband and foot guards were white and plain seemed very generic. That newer costume choice lacked the contrast elements that made the earlier models of Akira and his rival Jacky seem unique.

Memorable characters appear simple but are actually layered with details. Ryu seems to be a very plain design, but there is a world of difference separating Ryu from the generic character featured in Karate Champ.

These things go beyond the size of the sprite. The color of the character, their skin and clothing have to work well together. One of the exercises that makes for a good test on whether or not a SF design works is to see how the colors work when the character is subtracted and only the Costume remains.

The gi that Ryu wears is not as traditional as it first appears to be. The sleeves are torn and there is a large hole for his arms to move around through. His headband and hand guards are a bright red for contrast. This is good for several reasons. It allows gamers to see where the hands and arms are during the battle. From a development standpoint it allows the animators to visualize the arm position during movement rather than guess how it is moving underneath a sleeve. The opening also allows for exaggerated muscles to be seen by gamers. This sends a visual cue that this character is exceptionally strong. Too much clothing on any character makes it difficult to make the connection between size and strength. The bright headband made for a good contrast on the head and is also something that is not typically worn during professional or underground competitions. While the majority of sprites created for Ken and Ryu were almost identical, in a few games there was actually a difference between the costumes. This was rarely honored by designers and even less noticed by gamers. Study the art below and see what details you can make out with regards to Color and Costume.

Let us compare notes. Ken, in official character art and in early sprites, was given a hemmed gi. His sleeves were open for the same purpose of moves, animation and showing off the muscles as described for Ryu. The subtext behind that detail was less obvious. Ken and Ryu studied the same form of karate, however whereas Ryu took his fights anywhere and everywhere, Ken dedicated himself to a professional fighting circuit. The image that Ken cultivated was more clean-cut than Ryu. He sought out the spotlight and challengers that the public would recognize. In keeping to that ideal his gi could not be worn out or torn. His hair was a bright blonde but his eyebrows were dark, did he dye his hair to be flamboyant? The more likely reason for the contrast was to draw the gamer to his face, not unlike the use of Ryu's headband.
Ryu's gi was worn and ragged, the hem of his pants were also torn in some sprites and models. The vagabond fighting lifestyle became more apparent if the color of their skin was compared. The Japanese are supposed to have fairer skin than "Americans" but the sprites and 3D models for Ryu have almost always had darker skin. This was to reinforce the idea that Ryu was not only training outdoors, but was also traveling, living and sleeping out in the open. The mentality and training methods of Ryu were in contrast to Ken and they were demonstrated on the actual sprites and then reinforced in ending cinemas. Even though they shared the same master and form of karate, each character was designed to be unique through obvious as well as subtle Color and Costume choices. The outdoors lifestyle and harsh training that Ryu endures was borrowed from Mas Oyama, a real life karate practitioner that inspired a good portion of the Ryu character as well as founded the SF narrative of traveling the world and fighting the best fighters around. I'll mention the real-world inspiration behind good character designs in a later blog. There were almost no actual "traditional" fighting uniforms in Street Fighter. The designers created the illusion of culturally appropriate uniforms by balancing the costume with many other elements both traditional as well as modern. Another secret for the success of the SF II cast was the creation of Timeless Design. That was to create a costume with respect to a particular form of fighting, or something that highlighted a fighter's strengths, while trying to avoid elements that might date their origin. In the case of the karate fighters, those characters could have been set at any time in the past 100 years because little has changed with the traditional uniform. The differences that Capcom placed on Ken and Ryu made them unique while still recognizable with respect to their artform. Ken, Ryu and the understudy Sean all wore bright colors and sleeveless gi's. Makoto was closest to wearing a traditional gi, with little details like patches over the knee and discoloration from sweat to show that her uniform was worn from use. However her design challenged the plainness by adding a long yellow scarf that broke the lines of the material, allowed animators to show movement and contrasted the off-white fabric.

The goal for budding designers is to try and create a Timeless Design. The challenge is that designers have to have faith that a design is not too boring or too bland. A mistake that many designers make is to try to appeal to trends and pop culture. While this satisfies the zeitgeist of the gamer it also betrays the potential for a design to be a long-term success. A designer should rather than ask if their design will hold up over sequels or revisions without feeling dated. Ken, Ryu and the other karate fighters are going to age well in the series because of the timelessness of their design. Here is another exercise in understanding the importance of Color and Costume in the SF universe. Try to identify the elements that contributed to Chun-Li's design.

Chun-Li was given blue, a strong primary color with a gold trim for contrast. A white belt with a dragon motif painted on it and boots helped accent the color choices. The cut of her dress created the illusion of traditional kung-fu clothing, while not being authentic Chinese at all. Her arms were not bare but covered in a short but puffy sleeve that allowed her shoulders a wide range of movement. Her wrists were adorned with spike weights. As a female character she was drawn with arms much thinner than those of her male counterparts. The spike weights on her wrist created the illusion that her strikes had as much force as the men in the game. It was as much an aesthetic choice as it was a psychological cue. The ways in which the illusion of movement, mass and weight for strikes and special attacks will be described in a later blog. The cut of her dress allowed her legs to show, move and strike with range. This dress gave animators the freedom to give her a broad series of kicking moves without being restricted by a hem on a skirt. As a show of class and modesty Chun-Li was given tights so that her legs were not left bare. Instead of slippers or flats Chun-Li wore wrestling boots. The boots, exposed thighs and spiked bracelets countered the dainty "China Daughter" that was originally proposed for SF II. Her design incorporates a hint of the Timeless Design property as well. While wrestling boots are the closest thing to being modern and really dating her appearance. Even then the cut and shape of those boots have remained relatively unchanged since the early 1900's.
The design of Chun-Li was not perfect in their first attempt. Capcom needed a strong female character for the SFII lineup. To make the character more than a token girl she was originally presented as a female police officer. The concept was good but it would not have had the same impact if the solitary female had been the only character wearing plain clothes. This was not to say that a police uniform made her weaker in canon or purpose but rather that gamers needed to see a fighting archetype in the lineup. Police officer does not automatically equate to fighter. Her costume, color choices and appearance had to spell out explicitly what type of fighter she was. This costume had to hold up to be representative of a particular fighting art even if these cues weren't culturally accurate (or appropriate) as the other characters in the game. In concept it sounded bland and uninspired that every character in the game would have to pander to stereotype (or archetype depending on your point of view) but in the long run it was one of the most important contributions that the designers at Capcom gave the series. One of the challenges for budding designers is to create a character that has a timeless quality and not feel obliged to add modern cues in an attempt to make her more hip or trendy to the moment.

The designers at Capcom thought that Chun-Li as an officer made her interesting. It helped make the character more well rounded than simply being a fighter for the sake of fighting. In later versions of the series they wrote her in as an ICPO officer trying to bring down Shadolaw. They would even present her in a police uniform in some endings, mirroring the idea that Chun-Li had more substance than poorly conceived female fighters. At no point did her purpose in story ever supersede her look in the game. IE she never flashed a badge or put away her gun before staring a fight. These details and concepts were applied a few years later to Cammy, another female fighter whose costume beguiled her purpose. Like Chun-Li her endings showed that she was a trained agent and part of a bigger plot. Would the illusion of traditional costumes be able to withstand the test of time? What about characters that were not representative of a form of the martial arts? How would these "plain clothes" fighters fit into the game? Capcom was able to mix a broad number of influences from the world of manga, anime and film into the SF universe. We will study these characters in the next blog.
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About BigMexone of us since 12:35 PM on 11.24.2009

I'm an active blogger on 1UP and a semi-active blogger on Capcom-Unity. I'm linking my previous Street Fighter blogs here for anybody that's interested in some of the history to the best work out of Capcom.