ALL CHARACTERS SLAMMED IN THIS THREAD ARE CRITIQUED BECAUSE OF THEIR VISUAL DESIGN, NOT THEIR STORY ARCS, WORLD OR ANYTHING ELSE.
The industry is always striving for a boost in graphical fidelity and pushing more pixels. While I welcome prettier games, I believe this is going to come to a head on the next gen of consoles into either a massive blow or boon for the console (and pc) industry.
My hypothesis is that the increasing cost of game development restricts publishers from taking risks and therefore limits artists from doing what they do best - solving problems visually.
Character Design Has Become Homogenized.
Back when I was a lowly computer graphics animation student in 2003 I needed to start with the basics. Silhouettes were a big part of character study, and they still are. Here are a few examples of excellent silhouettes from different mediums.
As you can see, each of these characters are easily identifiable and unique in the most basic form possible. This is extremely important with any visual design. Your brain will process the silhouette of the character before color, attitude, movement etc...
It's very easy to see that Lara's ponytail, guns, boots and holster help identify her as a unique character. Leaving the sexism of zero suit Samus (sexy pose when she is naked versus hero pose suited up....) for another day, the design of zero suit Samus is rather weak. To a layman, she is barely distinguishable from Lara. Samus with the varia suit however is one of the strongest character designs in any medium. Right up there with Batman. You just aren't going to easily forget what Lara & Samus look like after seeing them. Which brings me to my next point.
Weak character design makes forgettable characters. Samus is easily identifiable by just her visor, not to mention her shoulders or her suit in general. Characters in more recent AAA games are remembered for their guns and the aliens they fight instead.
The final silhouette example I will give is of the distinct difference between independently made games and AAA titles.
via www.kmarois.com The bottom gives us hope!
Nathan Drake and Master Chief are clearly designed to be completely average in every way. In my opinion, their character design is the epitome of homogenizing stereotypes into something as inoffensive and broadly appealing as possible. Fenix is a typical no BS gruff space marine, while commander Shepard is sort of the blank slate character the bioware gives you. Their selling point? The gun they are holding and what kind of alien they fight. While there is nothing wrong with creating a character an audience identifies with, their designs say nothing interesting about them. There are no creative details to set one character apart from others in the genre.
This is not because the artists couldn't design an incredible character that sparks curiosity and excitement. I know they can. It's because we are down a funnel where the big studios can't take a risk. Drake NEEDS to have a gun. Marcus NEEDS to have a gun. When they can't take a risk, they have to fall behind tropes and stereotypes they know we will buy.
When the order comes down from the bigwigs that we are going to have a male character shooting his way out of all kinds of problems, how many options are available? A chainsaw gun, a witty attitude, or a Halo style melee blade. Of course there are more, but it's always the weapon that is unique. This has even happened to Bioshock, whose original box art consisted of one character - the superbly designed Big Daddy and Little Sister combo. What happened to Bioshock after great success and a bigger budget? The box art now contains Booker and a fleeing Elizabeth on the back (again, the sexism of Elizabeth's relegated to the back and looking terrified despite her equal footing with Booker in the game, will be a topic for another day).
What's my point? The franchise went from selling completely unique game characters, to advertising a male lead you rarely see in game, who looks just like the rest of those guys in the image. Seriously, his defining features are stubble and a shotgun... never saw that before. I guess Shepard and Drake won't have his scarlet bow tie (kerchief?) so carelessly left undone.
Assets for that big beautiful landscape, the painstakingly painted textures, incredible animations and AI cost so much more money to produce, taking risks with character design (what's on the front of the box) is more financially risky as well. Because of that, the bigwigs limit their artists not with a blank page, but limit them to archetypes, stereotypes and the lowest common denominator that the market can agree on.
The artists aren't technologically limited very much anymore. They are limited by sky high bureaucracy. Business will do as business does, they need to make money. They can't take risks with potentially monumental business crushing losses. The artists themselves no longer make creative decisions, the suits do. This stifles all creative development in the industry.
The artists in the video game industry are hands down some of the best, so why let John Doe in marketing decide what the hell your game is going to be about? Because he did a focus group and showed you some stats from the previous year? Of course, people will like what they know already, but we will LOVE what we didn't know was possible.
The developers have lost their way when it comes to character design. They see it as a real risk of alienating potential customers. What they should learn is that not all of us gamers want to play as a sexy female or stubbled bro-type. We like games like Journey, Okami, Beyond Good and Evil and countless others that prove them wrong. Using the technology available to create an amazing original character has the potential to bring many more people into gaming.
This focus on graphics has led our industry to neglect the basic principals of design. The mounting pressure for your game to be bigger and better looking has hand-cuffed our studios to stale sequels and re-boots.
I hope that next gen studios have better tools to create games more efficiently, and use them to take greater risks, and freeing artists to create greater games.