Visual design in games is a very iterative process that takes significant thought and effort to capture the exact vision developers have in mind to represent what they are trying to convey into narrative and to the player. The way certain developers go about achieving this is mostly the same with few variations in getting to that end.
There’s a constant pattern that doesn’t seem to change across different companies where narrative is a vital aspect to them. It’s important to developers when creating a character’s look that they know who they are, the journey they will be taken through and how it will change them. From that insight they explore related integral interpretations of how this character might look, respond, behave, the tone they give, posture and how they express themselves in different situations when put in the world they live in. The timeline in which the character exists can also influence their outward appearance, for example in Alice: Madness Returns, Alice lives within the Victorian era and so her apparel noticeably follows suit to the style of the time she’s in. In Bioshock Infinite Elizabeth and Booker are dressed appropriately for the 20th century, the time they’re in. It’s also interesting to note that not just time, but a world built on unique, or unusual visual aesthetics can also influence a character’s design in order to make them belong there and not seem out of place, they’ll parallel that world’s characteristics so every element can realistically conceive an interconnected life of their own without breaking the suspension of disbelief making the world real. A clear example of this is again in Alice: Madness Returns, the transitions between Wonderland and London and Alice.
Early on it doesn’t have a strict order on which areas are made first, but it is between either iterations of the face or clothes. This at times is a difficult and tedious task to get it right in the end as it seems that designing both is partly a matter of trying many different looks and choosing between which one encompasses the character closest, reiterating until you find that look and also keeping in mind that a character’s face has to be able to express all the emotional ranges that their story arc will take them through. Commonly you will see that during the design iterations having a bad design is advantageous because it informs you of what isn’t giving off the right tone, is leading the character in a different direction, what might be being over or under emphasised, things that take or bring attention to the wrong areas, age, or concepts that just shouldn’t ever make their way into the final design for example. It can and usually is just a long process of elimination until you meet the character’s traits through these two aspects.
After you have something reminiscent of the general look you feel the character would have you build on it and begin to tweak parts of it to get the design more closely representative of the character, this can be many, few, large, or minimal changes such as age, hair style, colour schemes, add, take, or change clothing pieces for example until you have fully embodied the character in the text honestly.
Naughty Dog developers instruct that when a character gets close to their final look developers will do black and white personality sketches to explore how the character would respond, behave and express themselves in different situations. This helps to further develop the character’s personality. You can also observe that personality sketches don’t always come in a structured way, for example the art of Bioshock Infinite, sometimes the character’s personality is still going through development and not completely determined so simple character studies are done with loose constraints exploring different ages, looks, demeanours and dispositions.
It seems that based off of a few art books on the development process of characters in video games there doesn’t seems to be a clear indication as to when to start adding colour, in fact it’s up to the artists it seem when they want to do that. The art of The Last of Us was methodical, one concentrated step would lead to the next controlled stage, these stages had a predetermined chain to follow to fill certain criteria and colour was added to all the work as it came near to the look Naughty Dog were after. The art of Bioshock Infinite is split half and half for the clothing, half coloured in and the other black and white, this I assume is due to the characters not being fully fletched out when the artist were given the task to make them. Elizabeth’s face however was all black and white until the right look was found; and the art of Alice: Madness Returns has every piece of development coloured.
At times a character can have a vehicle of theirs, the look of their mode of transport will realistically fit into their time, or world. For example Mario in Mario Kart has a race car it being a racing game, Halo Characters have high tech cars and ships being in the future, Grand Theft Auto has contemporary cars, bikes and planes being from our timeline (2015), Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 makes use of the future’s advanced vehicles having anticipated how it will progress in later warfares based off current developing technology and Mafia 2 uses old 1940-1950s cars being set in the past. So you need to know the world and or time to determine what vehicle(s) are plausibly available to your character.
Though it’s a less explicitly described part of a game it’s clear that vehicles need to be in the right context and so I don’t see why vehicles can’t follow the same design process as character design, except with multiple technical drawings to have a selection to choose from and in order to know how to precisely model all of them to realistic standards, or using that variety to develop a vehicles look into something more original, so I’ll do that since it seems like a reliably way for everything to function altogether.
The art of The Last of Us
The art of Alice: Madness Returns
The art of Bioshock Infinite