Why a Standalone Character Creator Would Be Awesome

When I first started working to promote my books, I focused on the things that made me, personally, more interested in a story. One of those things, as with all entertainment, is artwork of the characters. I could describe my characters with words, sure, but there’s something special about having a picture of them. Having visual representations of characters has always, for me, made them feel more real.


[Sera Valence, as rendered in Black Desert]

I was fortunate that the Internet makes it easy to find talented creative folks, many of whom don’t live in the same state or even the same country I do. First, I found the talented Greg Taylor to do my book covers (his cover for Demonkin is particularly epic) and, for my author website, I found another talented artist in Jin Kim, who also, coincidentally, does contract work for the videogame industry (my day job).

I contracted Jin to create black and white images of my characters and loved the results, but professional art, as with the other costs of indie publishing (hiring an editor, buying advertising space, booking convention flights and stays, and so on) is expensive, and unless you have a day job to support your author aspirations, paying for art can be hard to justify. So what other options do authors have?


[Kara Honuron, as sketched by Jin Kim]

Interestingly, the ability to create unique, visually striking characters has been around for decades now – in videogames. Games going back all the way to the original Everquest and forward to the latest Mass Effect have provided detailed customization options to allow you to create your unique avatar, which is then rendered using the game’s graphic engine. These days, such images have become truly striking.


[Jyllith Malconen, as rendered in Black Desert]

This image and all the other color images in this post were made in the character creator for Black Desert, a popular MMORPG coming soon to the US. I did absolutely nothing to this image in Photoshop or anywhere else. It’s a straight screenshot from the game, and it looks stunning. Better yet, creating this required nothing more (from me) than selecting some options and tweaking some sliders.

Naturally, with a snow day on the horizon, the first thing I did with Black Desert’s character creation tool was to try to recreate, as closely as possible, the characters from my books in glorious CGI. Even in cases where I didn’t recreate Jin’s sketches precisely, I still feel like I was able to get the “feel” about right.


[Sketches of my characters, with similar shots of them in Black Desert]

Better yet, the CGI artwork makes so many of the more subtle details clear. Kara’s orange eyes. The fact that Tania is blind. Jyllith’s striking red hair. All of these graphical details come out far more vividly in color artwork, and this artwork is completely computer generated. Each unique avatar took maybe 20 minutes to create.


[Trell, as rendered in Black Desert]

While Black Desert includes one of the most flexible and gorgeous character creators I’ve ever seen (you can currently download it here and create your own characters, absolutely free!) the concept of creating customized characters using a toolset created by programmers and artists is nothing new. With the increase in the popularity of indie publishing and the number of people publishing their own work, there’s now increased demand for quality artwork for book covers and promotion. It makes me wonder if a properly robust character creation system, generating copyright free images, could provide those.


[Kara Tanner, as rendered in Black Desert]

Many computer-generated image (CGI) tools already exist, of course (3DS Max, Maya, and Poser are examples) but the barrier to entry is steep, with some (such as 3D Studio Max) costing thousands of dollars, and requiring a significant amount of artistic training before you can generate anything remotely professional looking. Worse yet, these tools require quality 3D models and textures to generate anything approaching professional looking artwork. Hopefully, this won’t offend any independent authors out there, but I can spot a “Poser cover” a mile away. These covers don’t look professional at all.


[Tania, as rendered in Black Desert]

So why haven’t character creators like this become more freely available independent of the games for which they’re designed? It seems like a no brainer – if you charged people a small fee to buy a toolset that allowed them to create character images this striking on their home computer, simply by tweaking sliders and selecting options, why aren’t there already a number of toolsets out here? It seems ideal for traditional and independent authors, roleplayers, tabletop gamers, and a huge market of nerds.


[Byn Meris, as rendered in Black Desert]

Better yet, since Black Desert’s character creator was released, even those who might not be dedicated gamers or roleplayers have found the fun, by recreating celebrities in the engine (as seen here) or creating truly monstrous, nightmare inducing abominations by tweaking the sliders WRONG (as seen here). People did the same with Fallout 4’s character creator and many other character tools. So why aren’t there already a dozen reasonably priced character creation tools out there for use by anyone?


[Aryn Locke, as rendered in Black Desert]

The simplest answer is that, like all game design these days, creating the artwork available in these tools and the tool itself is expensive – and in fact, far more expensive than even something like 3D Studio Max, when you add up all the developer salaries. The reason these character creators are so easy to use (for us) is because dozens of artists toiled away for weeks or months to create a huge library of high quality art that’s also used in the game. Talented programmers and UI designers then created an interface that allows us to “mix and match” this art into gorgeous images, dynamically rescaling models in real time.


[Jair Deymartin, as rendered in Black Desert]

Sadly, as much as I would love to see a character creation suite as powerful as Black Desert’s released for general use, I just don’t think there’s enough demand for it. Traditional publishers already have the money to contract professional artists to create their book covers, and indie publishers (and others who might be interested in quality CGI artwork, like roleplayers and tabletop gamers) aren’t a big enough market to justify the development cost of such a tool, at least as a standalone software package.

As striking as these images are, using them to create book covers would almost certainly run afoul of a significant number of copyright laws, and so for the moment, as great as they might look, they’re stuck in the same realm as fan art of copyrighted stories – fine, so long as you don’t try and sell it.

Despite this, I hold out hope that one day some enterprising company or Kickstarter will take a route similar to Heroforge or other 3D printed miniature makers, creating a toolset to create truly high-quality CGI artwork to the masses. For the time being, however, we can at least continue to play in Black Desert.

And, at least unofficially, bring the characters from our heads to gorgeous CGI life.