I've got some game reviews (of RPGs) in the works, but I'd like to comment on character designs.
As you may or may not know, I do a lot of idle character designing. My face-to-face games of whatever kind typically have a lot of characters in them, and I generally draw all of them. This has been especially true lately, so I have gotten to thinking about it in more detail.
In my opinion, the secret of character design is simple: look at your design. Would people draw fan art of that character? If no, redesign or scrap. If yes, what parts of the design draw in the fan artist? Tweak them up a notch.
That's what I'm going to be doing from here on in.
Of course, there are other concerns. For example, both FFXII and Rogue Galaxy use a set of totally generic Japanese love interests - young, uncertain, eager, irritating as hell. Their dialog is limited to variants on "Help!" and "Golly!". If the writer is really feeling his oats, they write a few lines where she feels an emotion.
Presumably, this boring design is because that kind of girl is romantically acceptable to the largest chunk of their target audience.
I don't know about Japan, but are there any Westerners who played FFXII who didn't think the game would have been better if you just wrote out Vaan, Penelo, and Ashe? Is there anyone who wouldn't like a Balthier and Fran romance ten times better? Do people actually get turned off by characters with personality?
(Vaan and Penelo did serve an important role, as they were the children of the party - always excited and eager. In that respect, they were good. But... the main character? No. I wanted to pull a Palom and Porom.)
This problem isn't as pronounced in a face to face game. Personalities and appearances can be tweaked, even entire characters dropped in response to what the players think of them. You put in Ashe and they don't like her? Have her get her throne back and stop adventuring, or tweak her character so she has some spark. Or kill her. Whichever.
This is more difficult in a computer game. It's not impossible by any means - if you let the player choose his party, you can assume that he likes the characters in his party. This would let you tweak things however you preferred. But you'd have to write in hundreds of lines of extra dialog, maybe even a method of permuting characters on the fly. It's expensive.
My guess? That's why there are so many boring boring boring boring mind-numbingly boring characters in RPGs in general. The other option is that the designers are such bad writers they think their characters are interesting. That would be depressing...