When I was hired by Scavengers Studio, the Darwin Project had already been rolling for a month or two, and though the game was very different from the one we know today, there are a few constants that the team knew they wanted from the start and that still hold up to this day.
-the game had to be set in the future
-the player had to start as a classic orange jumpsuit inmate
-the environment was to be a cold and dangerous winter forest
Based on these constants, the team also knew a few other things early on;
-we knew we preferred a somewhat stylized game which would also distinguish our game from the other mostly hyper-realistic games of the battle royal genre
-we knew that we wanted the game to be tonally playful and not take itself too seriously, despite the ”kill everybody” aspect of it, for the same reasons as above
-And we knew that apart from the concepts art, all the visuals, modeling and animation were to be outsourced to another studio (we now have a full in-house artist crew, but initially the amount of out-sourcing was significant)
It’s hard to create a stylized and unique look with in-house artists and even more a challenge when all the artists are in another country!
We then decided to gather points of reference from the games we wanted to emulate; Team Fortress 2, Overwatch and Sea of Thieves were the obvious ones. Taking cues from these games would be helpful to us to easily express the desired look to artists on the other side of the planet, because we could rely on well-established stylistic guidelines and speak the same visual language.
I then proceeded to flesh out our first character; a male vanilla dude.
It was important that this character felt basic, as we wanted the new player to feel like a random person in an intimidating world, an orange inmate in a crowd of orange inmates, and then move on from there as he gets more ”established” in the arena.
The basic dude had to be a blank canvas in which the player could inject his or her own personality and not play a pre-established one.
I sketched a bunch of faces variations;
We settled on a sketch that conveyed the ”basic” desired aspect,
From this to that to that
and from that I continued to flesh out the rest of the character, which eventually lead to this;
a good amount of basic-dudery with an attitude; a starting point that could easily handle a whole bunch of potential skins.
The first iteration of our customization system was supposed to be a ”slider” system, where your guy could either be leaner, fatter or more muscular, so I drew an exploration of how a player could evolve from the basic inmate; a player could direct his or her character to become a muscular military type of guy, or from the basic female you could become an accomplished huntress, or a somewhat chubbier techy-girl.
This proof of concept sparked the idea of having a hero-based game, which we explored for a while. We eventually abandoned that option because of its lack of express-yourself flavor, but the red-haired huntress girl became the template for our vanilla female. We also got rid of the more-muscular-fatter slider idea, because we discovered that the way someone decided to dress, choosing between skull or fur, leather of metal, told more interesting stories and gave more personality to a character than slight variations in body type.
This set up the basis for the customization system we are currently building.
When we settled on having a unique body type female and male vanilla, I tried some stylistic variations, but eventually came back to our initial benchmark ref as these were deemed a bit too cartoony and would have been harder to infuse with multiple personalities.