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I'm working on a game that has a lot of dialog. It has a dialog system similair to Phoenix Wright, where the characters appear onscreen when they talk, either in sprite form or as a 3d model. Usually there's mouth and eye animations as well, and their facial expressions change depending on the context of the scene.

Here's my problem: I suck at drawing. Like, massively. I enjoy writing dialog and I already have lots of dialog written down. I even made a little program for myself, which mimics how the dialog would play out in my game. Something that I don't enjoy doing, however, especially when I implement the dialog into my game, is have tags everywhere that describe the characters mood/expression instead of showing it visually. Example:

John: mostly neutral, slightly worried How was your day?
Jane: sad Not so great...

Even in the prototype stage, I would like something more... visual, to convey the scene better to everyone else and really get the right mood and expression of the character across. That way, it would be easier for the future artist to draw the necessary poses, expressions, animations, etc. for each character.

What I would like to do is have placeholders of blank (mostly featureless) characters that have lots of different expressions to convey what I want the character to look like in that situation. I'm not asking where to find something like that, I simply want to know if there is some sort of game developer jargon/term for this kind of thing (animated or still), so I can narrow down my search a little.

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"Placeholder" is already the term usually used to describe assets hastily made and used as stand-ins while artists still work on a more production-quality version of them.

Placeholders should intentionally be made as ugly as possible. When they are not ugly enough, you might get so used to looking at them that you become blind to their lack of quality and end up shipping them.

My recommendation for dialog portraits would be to create the placeholders with MS Paint. Use the mouse to draw a free-hand smiley face conveying each emotion. To represent different characters, either paint in a different color or write the character name below it. Do not spend more than one minute on each one.

A practice you sometimes see is that people use assets ripped from a different game as placeholders during development. I would recommend you to not do this, because it is easy to lose track of which assets are placeholders and which are your own. If you accidently end up shipping a placeholder (or even just publish a development screenshot with one), you are committing a copyright violation which might get you into a nasty lawsuit.

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I generally use the term emoji.

The term conveys what it is, and since they're part of Unicode, maybe your infrastructure supports them out of the box.

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