TERA's Path to Creating Compelling Characters
GameZone has partnered up with En Masse Entertainment to provide to you an exclusive behind the scenes look at the upcoming MMORPG TERA. Each and every month you can expect to find the latest installment that delves into the development, creation, writing, art, design and much more up until the launch in 2011.
By David Noonan, Lead Writer, En Masse Entertainment
One of the biggest advantages of writing for an MMORPG is the first M: massively. We literally have a cast of thousands to work with, untold hours to tell our stories, and a special-effects budget that James Cameron would envy. But all those advantages don’t mean anything without compelling characters. Whether we’re talking about sinister villains or steadfast allies, those characters can motivate gameplay and advance TERA’s ongoing tale.
When we’re brainstorming character ideas around the whiteboard, we have dozens of different exercises that help us answer the fundamental question: "What is this character like?" Once we understand the answer to that question, the dialogue almost writes itself, and the characters effortlessly slip into gameplay like they’ve been there the whole time, waiting for the player to come along.
"What is this character like?" is a straightforward question, but it isn’t always an easy one. One of the things we’re keen to do with TERA is to give important characters a dramatic arc. As you interact with the other characters in TERA, they’ll change. You’ll find yourself in conflict with some, and you’ll help others in their own conflicts. We don’t guarantee happy endings to those character arcs, but the trajectory always leads you someplace dramatically interesting.
(It’s worth noting that you can make a great character who doesn’t have a particularly deep character arc. Static characters can be interesting if they’re particularly well-crafted. Think of Conan, James Bond, or Eastwood’s "Man with No Name." They’re iconic rather than dramatic, but that doesn’t mean they’re uninteresting.)
Here are some examples of how we developed characters for TERA:
Elleon: You’ll be drawn into Elleon’s character arc within a few hours of starting TERA. Everyone knows Elleon’s brother is dead, but Elleon can’t accept that. You accompany Elleon as he tries to figure out the circumstances of his brother’s death. His focus is very specific, but it’s an echo of a fundamental question: Why does a loved one have to die?
Elleon’s personality came into focus for us when we set up two strong motivators — grief and sibling rivalry — and let them crash into each other. As a player, you’ll have a front-row seat for that collision, and you’ll travel with Elleon as that combination takes you into some places that are indeed dark — both literally and figuratively.
Jelena: While you’ll understand Elleon’s grief right away, Jelena is a character you’ll come to know only gradually. You first encounter her as a mysterious stranger with equally mysterious motives. Jelena’s character arc becomes apparent after several clandestine meetings: She’s searching for a specific hero—a man of immense symbolic value—who suddenly disappeared. Jelena enlists the players in her search, and over time the player comes to admire Jelena as much as she admires the man she’s seeking.
The challenge in writing Jelena is that players are unpredictable (which we like!), and we couldn’t be certain which clandestine meeting with Jelena would occur first from the player’s point of view. We had to reveal Jelena’s personality and motives so that the narrative will make sense if you meet her in situation A, then situation B, then situation C…or C, B, A…or B, A, C.
Kubel: Elleon and Jelena have definite character arcs. Elleon is dealing with his grief and Jelena is searching for something (in both the symbolic and the literal sense). Kubel, a high-ranking military officer who takes the players under his wing, is more iconic than dramatic. Many of the people who inhabit the world of TERA follow Kubel’s orders without question—and they should, because Kubel is a generally admirable guy.
As we wrote Kubel, we were often tempted to give him some sort of character flaw to somehow "balance" his positive traits, but those efforts always made him less interesting, not more. Characters don’t need to be balanced to be interesting, and not every positive demands a negative. Our final take on Kubel started with an innocent question, "If Kubel is a collection of positive qualities, and if he stays true to form throughout the story, can we still put him to use?"
The answer was an emphatic "yes!" because Kubel isn’t the star of TERA…the players are. Kubel starts off as an ideal for a new player, but eventually he becomes a peer — and that reflects well on the player. Kubel becomes a sort of mirror that players use to look at themselves. And as TERA tells its stories, Kubel shows the players just how far they’ve come. Instead of having a character arc of his own, Kubel shows the players where they are in their own personal character arcs.
There are as many ways to make compelling characters as there are compelling characters, and I’m sure we’ll employ new ones as we continue to hone TERA’s storytelling. The only thing holding us back is our supply of white-board markers, and we buy those by the case.