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Dev Diaries IV: Creating a good character

Welcome to the fourth issue of EFS19’s Dev Diaries. Today we’re focusing on the processes involved in creating our characters. Because what you see on your cards is just the tip of the iceberg! In reality, designing a character card requires aligning numerous characteristics – the character’s ability, traits, and story – with the SCP lore. The following description is by Anna, who has been working on the EFS19 team for many years and has been involved in the creative process of every character card to date.

“I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.”

This quote is from Stephen King, but it could very well have been the motto of our Dev team while working on the 26 characters included in Escape from Site 19. And it is true that good characters are at the core of every good book or movie. It is they who live the story that unfolds before the reader’s eyes, and if written well enough, they can feel like friends from faraway lands on endless adventures.

Of course, the characters in games are even more important. The players become them and experience the game world through them, and influence every action and decision with their specific views, opinions, and experiences. Therefore, it was clear from the beginning that, if Escape from Site 19 was to be a roleplaying game, it would need to have good characters. Characters with compelling backstories and useful abilities, but also with enough ambiguity that the players may mold them to their own wishes.

When we started working on the characters, it was already clear that Escape from Site 19 would be a cooperative game. With that in mind, we started brainstorming how to actually define a character. Should all of them be Foundation employees? D-class? Researchers or security guards? What would their distinguishing features be? Or, to put it another way, why would the players want to play as them? The Foundation’s role as the major faction on Site 19 was very clear. But if we could come up with a way to bring others onto Site 19, it would create a more diverse experience for the players. Maybe also a bit of tension, since some of the factions are hostile to each other. And so we started thinking about which factions we wanted to include, because we knew we couldn’t manage all of them. In short, the first thing we needed to have for any given character was a reason for their presence at Site 19.

And then there were the abilities. We wanted each character to have a different set of abilities to promote replayability and teamwork synergies. So each of the 26 characters has a positive trait and a negative trait. The traits are balanced pretty evenly, and apply at all times.

Next came the Special Ability, which has to be activated and paid for with game tokens (“Authorization Keys”). This was supposed to be the masterpiece, the secret weapon… except it wasn’t. In the early tests, we discovered our test players didn’t put that much stock by the Special Ability, though that also may have been because they rarely accumulated enough Authorization Keys before losing the game. They did, however, notice some very interesting synergies between various characters’ traits. This led to numerous interactions between personas that would never communicate with other under normal circumstances: Dr. Wondertainment conversing with a Foundation agent while a Serpent’s Hand shaman yells at some poor guy from the Alexylva University. Those interactions were amusing, yes, but at that moment, our characters ceased to be two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. In these interactions, the players brought them to life.

On the less lyrical side of game development, I could talk for hours about play tests, balancing the characters individually and together, making sure that no special ability was too godlike, and that they were neither too cheap nor too expensive. I could also talk for hours about the concept of the Saboteur and carefully narrowing down his paths towards victory. Creating a good character takes a lot of hard work and leads to a lot of frustration, and there are many occasions where you’re sent back to square one because a betatester has uncovered an obstacle or combination that you haven’t thought of. One example of this was the issues we had with testing the impact of the traits and abilities on our various SCP-0001 cards. We simply couldn’t get enough testing to cover all scenarios, because our test players kept losing the game before getting to the SCP-0001 square. Oh, we were so bummed!

Creating a good character is, to some extent, magic. But the rest of the creative process is a lot of thinking and careful balancing. Not only the traits and abilities, but also the story of each character. We want the players to immerse themselves in the characters we have created, so they need to have enough backstory to get the role play going, while also having space to grow. This will allow each player to insert themselves, their own goals and fears, ambitions, and experiences.

Actually, scratch the last statement. Creating a good character is definitely magic, and the spell becomes more powerful with each successful playthrough of our game!