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Cardboard Utopia was started from the belief that the best, most cherished games are the ones that engage you through gameplay, story, and characters. Games that are not just flashy experiences that leave your thoughts once you put down the controller, but make you think, plan, question and discuss. These are the things that create memories for future years. These are the types of games we make.

Founded in Montreal, Quebec, the game development capital of Canada, we are currently developing a Tactical JRPG that plays off our love of classic games like Shining Force and Final Fantasy Tactics, but with a modern, boardgame twist.

The Ins and Outs of Character/Visual Design - Part 1


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The Ins and Outs of Character/Visual Design - Part 1

Erica Lahaie

Hello, hi! Your lovable chucklehead of an artist here at Cardboard Utopia is back to give you another glimpse into the process of making games. This time, I’m going to go over some character design stuff. I’ll be showing some explorations and designs of the Toran, one of War of Zodiarcs’ enemy factions, which includes both defining the look of a single unit and the army as a whole. I hope you guys like fashion~ This is a five-part series that we'll post once a week on Wednesday, so look forward to it!

Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

A quick bit of lore: the Toran Empire is a gigantic empire founded on the principle of war, the war economy, and territorial conquest. Cities are conquered for their resources, not for the growth of their society. The Toran are oppressive, merciless, and unwavering in the face of adversity. They’ve taken over a considerable part of the world in War of Zodiarcs and whatever part of the land they’ve settled in, they make their mark by constructing obelisk-like towers as a sign of their empire's footprint.

With that in mind, our task looks like this: establish the visual style of the Toran Empire’s army as well as its most basic uniform, a swordsman. Through a couple pages of lore and some in-studio back-and-forth, we have a pretty clear picture of what the Toran stand for and what we think they should look like to represent that. The challenge is to find a unique spin on those ideas while turning it into something we can really make our own. 

The initial ideas for gathering reference started with the more obvious ideas, things like communist/fascist uniform and styling. You’ll frequently run into concept artists and characters designers who have some form of Nazi/Soviet uniform reference in their collections, and for good reason. Both regimes have decades of history attached to their attire, instantly informing people on what stance those wearing the clothes might take. 

Armbands, for example, are frequent in use. Military Police across the world use them and they are a frequent sight on police and journalists in Asia. Put a wide, bright-red armband on any kind of grey/neutral toned coat, though? You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t think of what you’re thinking of right now. Even without the white circle or swastika inside, the contrast of the band and coat evokes not only a specific regime and time period, but immediately projects a set of ideals onto that person.

So, how do we, as character designers, play with that? Well, like pretty much everyone has done before us, we think of something that looks good and wing it.

Alright, there’s maybe a bit more to it than that. 

Using the general concept of sticking with ostensibly-oppressive regimes, or even something that thematically resembles this, our art director, Jin, collected an initial set of reference that served as the basic foundation for what would be the Toran swordsman. In addition to this, we look at armor styling since, this being a fantasy game and all, the swordsman would need some kind of protection on them. As we’re not especially influenced by western fantasy design, we try and stick to Asian/East-Asian armor and influence.

The key takeaways from this set of reference collecting are the Zrinska Garda of Croatia and the black/red samurai armor. We settle on black/red being the color scheme for the Toran because for one, it’s pretty well-accepted that red=Eeeeeevillllll. More importantly, red is a bold color and while having a largely-red uniform with black accents makes for a decidedly evil-looking character, black with red accents makes for something that looks intimidating but considerably more restrained. 

With that as a base, we started thinking about more unique features. We liked the overall look of the Zrinska Garda a lot but it lacked a “theme” we could carry across not just soldiers, but the Empire as a whole. Elites, high-ranking officers, government officials, etc. We brainstormed some and liked the general idea of fur as an accent, not too dissimilar from Killzone’s Helghast army or the Disith in Last Exile. I also looked into some more unique design for armor/uniforms from Eastern RPGs—I’m a big fan of Minaba and Kamikokuryo’s work on Final Fantasy XII and Kazuma Kaneko’s art, especially for the Devil Summoner series. That, alongside some more interesting armor ideas like the frog-mouthed jousting helm pictured above, are what rounded out the references for the very first pass at concepting the Toran swordsman. 

The first goal is to form a solid base for that character. When that’s locked down, we see what stands out the most from it and what could then be turned into the consistent thematic for the Toran Empire’s uniforms.

At first, the plan was to establish the look of a basic and “Elite” unit. My mistake here was going WAY too detailed with the rendering of the character--it took way longer to draw than it should have, especially for like, literally the first pass on this stuff. DON’T DO THE SAME MISTAKES I DO—STUFF GETS THROWN OUT ALL THE TIME, WORK FAST AND LOOSE WHEN CONCEPTING. Otherwise it gets tossed out and you think of the time spent and then you cry a lot.

At any rate, here’s what we deciphered from this first pass. For one, they all look a little too sci-fi. The thinness of the accents, the straight edges, impractical armor—all of it made us think too much about space fantasy, which is largely my fault. I know sci-fi infinitely better than fantasy but that’s fine. I’m always up for a challenge. A L W A Y S.

The one take away from it, though, was that the shape of the helm was unique, the slits in its visor looked cool, the fur accent worked well, and the flat-tipped sword stands out as interesting and unique to the main cast’s weapons.

That's all for now! Next week we’ll look at expanding on the elements we nailed down here.