NPC concept art creation

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NPC concept art of Cyberpunk 2077, the Witcher 3 and Mass Effect

NPC or Non Player Characters is any game character the player can’t control directly. For example, Lydia in Skyrim is a NPC because you can’t fully control her actions.

npc character examples

Most modern games work with similar schemes: the player controls one character — a Hero — and interacts with non-playable characters. Those NPC may give quests, trade with players, fight him or just walk down the street to create an illusion of a living world. Believe it or not, the illusion part is the best use of NPCs, because you can’t create a story without characters. And to make a great story you need bright and memorable NPCs.

In this article we will tell you how to create NPC concept art, how to use NPCs to write a story and how to make NPC talk like real humans.

What is NPC in games

As we said before, a NPC is a character that the player can’t control. There are few types of NPCs you can find in every game:

  • decoration — these non playable characters just walk around, sometimes talk with each other and say something boring when you try to talk with them. They have no backstory, no value for the player and no original appearance the player can remember;
  • merchants — these non playable characters often stay in one place, rarely — wander around the map. The only reason they do exist is so the player can trade with them for ingame goods;
  • allies — the player can hire those NPCs to fight on his side or they are obliged to by the story;
  • enemies — players often do not call them non-player character, but they are NPC too;
  • quest-givers — the player has to interact with these NPCs to start and complete quests. These kinds of characters may be story-important ones like Ulfric Stormcloak from Skyrim or one-time used unnamed villagers who may ask for your assistance.

There is still one more thing about NPC which differs them from chests with loot and quest-giving notes — they live in the game world and follow its rules. For example, in old-school RPG every NPC has its own health bar, weaknesses, resistances, inventory and so on. The player can beat, rob and talk to every character in the game regardless of what kind of NPC it is.

npc in game development

In modern games NPC’s behavior may depend on what kind of character it is. For example, it may be impossible to rob a merchant or to talk with an enemy. And story-important npcs may be immortal until a specific quest is taken.

What is NPC concept art

There’s one important thing about games: most players will remember not the main character, but the NPCs. It is simple to explain: the non-playable characters are those who drive the story. They give quests, they talk and joke, they are those who set up the conflicts and those who resolve them. Non player characters give emotions and motivation to play. That’s why the players remember them most.

To make game characters more memorable, game developers must give them outstanding appearance. It may be lineament or face expression, stylish outfit, voice or extraordinary weapons. To do so you need concept art — variants how the non player character will be portrayed in the game.

game npc concept art

NPC concept art is a sketch of a character. The concept is often based on the character’s role in the story or what emotions the NPC must evoke in players. The NPC concept art must be clearly readable and tell the temper and capabilities of a character.

How to create game NPC concept art

The first thing to begin with is to describe the character in text: where he was born and grown up, what he is doing now, what he wants to do in the future and what he wants from the main character. 

For example, if the NPC is an elvish blacksmith, it must have iconic elvish features like flowers near the anvil, delicate hammer instead of heavy one, decorated apron and pointy ears.

fantasy game character concept

If the game character is a futuristic cyberpsycho with an addiction to explosions, he may wear a bomb proof suit, carry a grenade launcher and shout “CABOOM!” instead of “Hello!”. Maybe the concept artist will give him a few scars or a eyepatch to highlight his experience with explosives. Or even attach a grenade on his face.

cyberpunk character concept art

The game NPC concept art purely depends on what the player must think about it from the first look.

How to draw NPC concept art based on story

First step in production is to read a scenario and character description. The script writers often describe valuable NPCs like a book characters: their height, hair, face and clothes. The artist’s job is to feel what the character must look like to suit the game world and to draw in on paper.

Second step in game NPC concept art creation is to draw as many sketches as possible. Sketches may vary with clothes, hairstyle and body proportions. The goal is to reach a memorable and catchy design in at least three of them. Why do we need three? So there will be a choice and also a possibility to change the character’s clothing after some ingame event.

For example, Triss Merigold in The Witcher 3 had two costumes: a costume with a hood to walk unrecognized and an elegant dress for a specific quest. Yennefer also had two suits: a hunting suit for travel and a fancy dress for an occasion in Skellige.

triss merigold witcher concept art

Same thing was happening in the Mass Effect series. For example, Miranda Lowson had 10 concept art sketches where she was a blonde. Also she has different suits in every concept because the artists didn’t know how to display her nature of a genetically modified perfect human. So they decided to throw out all of previous concept art and created brunette Miranda and her famous white suit with hexagonal pattern. But still, they used one sketch for a battle suit she wears on the missions.

mass effect npc concept art

And yet another example of using many sketches is Cyberpunk 2077. Royce, a Maelstrom gang new leader from Prologue, has a very unique face: a dozen red sensors instead of eyes. Here’s a tip: Maelstrom is a gang which praises technology and body modifications.

At first CD Project Red were planning to make all gang members look like robots. They did some sketchers and tried different options. But how do you make a recognizable and memorable robot if the whole of his body looks like a cable and metal mess? By making unique eyes, of course! Sadly, that didn’t work as desired so the CDPR decided to give humans robotic eyes. And it worked — Royce is far more memorable than any other cyber-freaks you’ll find in Night City.

cyberpunk 2077 npc concept art

How to make NPC concept art based on purpose

Sometimes the non playable character in game isn’t tied to a story: it is just a knight, a citizen or a lab scientist #622. In this case the NPC appearance should only suit the purpose of the character being in the particular place and time.

These kinds of characters are only needed to be a part of a crowd scene. The designer task is to make them look different from valuable story characters and enemies. Easiest way to do it is to draw a specific set of clothes for every type of NPC. For example, typical knights are recognizable by plate armor and shields and peasants — by baggy grey clothes and dirty hands.

non player character design concept

To make the decorative NPCs the developer should decide which purpose they will serve:

  • if it’s needed to show the army with dozens of soldiers or organized crowd the artist should draw one or two type of clothes they will wear;
  • to show a city crowd every NPC in line of sight should be unique, but still a part of the crowd. To do this the artist may draw a dozen unique clothing pieces and mix them up for every NPC;
  • an artist can show that the character is neutral or hostile by its pose, clothes or face. For example, peaceful guards near kings castle may have brighter or “kindly” armor. And the hostile ones may wear some rough, dark and dirty armor pieces.

Should the decorative NPC’s concept art be catchy and perfected? No. The player won’t be looking at them in dialogues and cutscenes all the time. the decorative NPCs should look neither beautiful, nor ugly, just ordinary and common.

How to create concept design for a game non player characters

First thing to start with is a story. If the character has a story behind him, his appearance should reflect it. It’s common practice to use stereotypes: vikings have axes, pirates have eyepatches and bad guys bear AK47.

The character concept design should support the story. Let’s take Cyberpunk 2077 as an example of the best visual design of 2020. Every character has a unique outfit and hairstyle to help the player to differ them with non-interactable NPC.

  • Victor the reaper has a special prosthesis on his arm which helps him to operate his patients. He carries a stethoscope around his neck so the player acknowledges him as a doctor. Also he has a Trauma Team ribbon on his pants — a symbol of elite medic corporation. With these details the players can be sure that Victor is an experienced doctor and not just a guy who knows how to insert the implant.cyberpunk 2077 character art and lore
  • Judy Alvares is a braindance editor. The player can see that she is passionate with her work: she has left the temple shaved so the hair won’t cover the ear-mounted camera. Also she has a firetruck tattoo as a reminder of how she has stolen a firetruck in her teenage years. She looks cute and sad at the same time which represents her storyline.
    judy alvares cyberpunk 2077
  • Goro Takemura is the bodyguard of Arasaka corporation CEO. He always wears a white shirt to highlight that he was a part of a big corporation back in days. His impressive neck augmentations show that he was badly injured, but the Arasaka valued him highly and paid millions so he will serve further.
    goro takemura cyberpunk 2077

Most little details in the characters looks must have its backstory and not be just an adornment.

How to make a character concept design look cool

The easiest way to make a character outstanding among peasants is to add colors and contrasts. As an example we may take Adam Smasher and a typical battle robot from Cyberpunk 2077.

Why does Smasher look dangerous and cool, while the robot is just “meh”? It’s because Smasher’s head is white while the rest of his body is black. Simple contrast draws attention and emphasizes that this thing is a human. At least for 5% is.
adam smasher cyberpunk concept art

Battle robot doesn’t have that contrast and the players don’t even try to examine its look.

Contrast trick works with other Cyberpunk characters as well. Judy and Evelynn have colored hair, Jackie and Takemura — visible face augmentations, and that guy with a grenade on his face has a grenade on his face.

Now look at other NPCs of Cyberpunk 2077. They have contrast elements too, but those elements are evenly distributed on their bodies. They have neon sneakers, revealing clothes, colorful prosthetics and stuff. But the tones are muted and the contrast does not draw attention to their faces so the player won’t remember them after 3 seconds passed. But still, they look original and interesting to stare at them for a minute.

So, where to get concept art for a game NPC?

There are three ways to make character concept art for your game:

  1. If you are an artist, draw it yourself. Do dynamic research, search references, play with forms and colors.
  2. Hire an artist to do the job. Control the work, time and money, face the “I know better!” problem.
  3. Ask game art outsource studio to draw NPC concept art for you. Higher price, but better result because game outsourcing studios have experience in game art creation.

The Kreonit game outsource studio will provide you with NPC concept design of the highest quality. We will study your game, organize a streamline and make our artist try their best to fit your needs.

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