The following article was originally drafted for Escape Magazine. A relink was kindly granted because it cites one of Grip’s great designers, Joel Derksen, who is also a friend and writerly compatriot to the Slide. The article’s author, Nadia, is a freelance games writer and About.com’s guide to the Nintendo DS at ds.about.com. Nadia can be found on Twitter at @nadiaoxford.
Reading text off a screen isn’t as glamorous as poring over a magazine page, but it has its advantages. With the touch of a button or the flick of a slider, we can adjust fonts at our whim. Want to fit ten sentences on a pinhead? Sure. Want to read web sites in Comic Sans, each letter the size of a Clydesdale’s hoof? Why not?
But while the people who build and engineer websites, tablets, and iOS devices understand the importance of making sure their audience can read what’s on the screen, modern day videogames typically don’t offer the myriad font options that are found elsewhere in the digital realm. In fact, poor design decisions sometimes render otherwise masterful games unreadable.
What keeps going wrong with in-game fonts, and what can developers do to fix the problem?
High Resolution Gaming for Some, Standard Definition for Others
Once upon a time, in-game text was pixel-based. Developers typically had to make their letters work within a limited pixel grid. There was little room for graphical negotiation, especially in an age where lower resolutions were the norm.
Of course, the 8- and-16-bit eras of gaming were also times of simpler engineering. Games didn’t require reams of text, aside from the occasional role-playing title, and in-game menus weren’t stuffed with skill options and item descriptions.
Moreover, aside from a few encoding differences between some countries and continents, developers could safely assume that their audience was playing on a standard color television set. Sure, some sets were small, others were large, and still others were decked out in fabulous wood paneling, but everybody across North America, Japan, and the UK was getting a consistent picture.
Nowadays, a person might play a Wii game on a standard definition television in his bedroom, while his sister plays an Xbox 360 game on the high definition set in the living room. There is no longer assured consistency between players’ experiences, and this, among other factors, has wreaked havoc on in-game typesetting.
Text, Menus, and Gaming’s Teenage Phase
When developers relied on rasterized text, the results weren’t always pretty, but readability was rarely an issue. Now that most videogame text is vector-based, developers can adjust text size to their liking — and most of them have apparently decided that they like said text to be as small and compact as possible.
Joel Derksen, a graphic designer and typographer based out of Toronto, Ontario, believes it’s likely that modern game designers have been caught up by the allure of the slim, sexy menus that are made possible with today’s high-res displays and vector text. “Thin, light, small type is like a designer’s dream,” he says.
Derksen, whose resume includes design and typography work for Blackberry/RIM and Labatt Breweries of Canada, also notes that videogames are still a relatively new means of expression that’s going through a bit of a “teenager” phase. In other words, designers can get caught up in a game’s looks to the point that functionality falls off to the side of the road.
“In every other digital and printed interface — books, pamphlets, mobile devices, computers, websites — if something is illegible, it gets thrown back in your face, and you’re told to clean up your act,” Derksen adds.
Your Fault, Not Theirs
Videogame technology is evolving at a stunning rate, and nobody expects developers to get everything right the first time. However, it’s been six years since gamers made their first loud cry over readability issues, and there’s still little effort being expended on making in-game text as easy to read as possible. Worse, when developers and publishers are confronted about poor font-related decisions, the response is typically a shrug coupled with, “It’s your problem, not ours.”
When Xbox 360 owners played Capcom’s Dead Rising in 2006, they discovered a gory but humorous take on the zombie-slaying genre. They also discovered that the game’s tiny text made it nearly impossible to read menus or follow the story if they were playing on a standard definition set.
It was a disappointing oversight to begin with, and it was made infuriating when Capcom said the problem was not going to be patched. EGM magazine confronted Dead Rising director Yoshinori Kawano about the matter in its September 2006 issue, and Kawano laughingly said, “People should definitely have an HDTV before buying an Xbox 360.” Few players were in the mood for laughing after paying money to squint at their television screens, however.
Derksen says, “Really, what it comes down to is eight engineers and developers around a 52-inch hi-def television screen with their perfect vision going, ‘Looks great to me, man, I can see it. I have the money for this big set. I am young and my eyesight is good.’”
And that’s why providing readable (and preferably adjustable) fonts in games should never be a joking matter. Not everyone can afford a high definition set. Even if everyone could afford one, there are still hundreds of thousands of game lovers who have poor eyesight, or who are hard of hearing and rely on clear subtitles to follow a story, or who simply don’t want to lean forward and strain every time they open a game menu.
To be fair, there have been instances wherein developers and publishers have acknowledged and fixed in-game font issues. When the demo for Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts hit the Xbox 360 in 2008 and people complained that much of the text was unreadable on standard definition sets, Rare patched the issue.
Commendable, but it shouldn’t have been a problem to begin with. What’s more, poor typesetting is still a major problem in games. Legibility should be a priority; it’s disappointing that developers are not taking simple steps to make their titles as accessible as possible to their increasingly diverse audience. Why spend all the time, money, imagination and effort necessary to make a tremendous world of dragons and sorcery if you’re just going to lock out audience members who don’t have 20/20 vision?
Like the rest of planet Earth, Derksen fell in love with Bethesda’s massive RPG, Skyrim during the Holiday 2011 season. Though he thoroughly enjoyed playing the game, his experience was marred by Bethesda’s choice of font (Futura Condensed), which, Derksen recalls, made reading important information in the game difficult at times.
“The thing about Futura is that in its natural incarnation, it’s a very round font,” Derksen says. “It’s basically very stout and wide. So this idea of ‘Futura Condensed’ actually goes against the nature of what Futura was conceived to be.
“Futura Condensed is an OK font overall, but when it’s applied to Skyrim, you see its bad side.”
What’s the “bad side” of Futura Condensed, exactly? Derksen pinpoints how Skyrim highlighted the font’s troubles. “The letters are pretty tight together, which creates a lot of flickering around the letters, and they also tend to blur together. The definitions of the shapes become less clear, so what could be an ‘o’ may actually be an ‘e’ or ‘c’.”
“Also, Futura Condensed’s x-height [the height of the lowercase letters] is small so that the font ‘feels’ smaller. In this particular application, it means less pixels to express letters and their counters ['counters' being the spaces in letters, like a 'o' or 'e'].”
“It’s uncomfortable to read even on high definition settings, but on lower resolution settings, it’s nearly impossible.”
Granted, developers have enough on their minds when assembling a game of Skyrim’s magnitude. It’s hard enough making sure that dragons fly forward, so it’s understandable why Bethesda might have said, “Screw it, the text looks good, and that’s all that matters.”
However, that doesn’t make poor typesetting excusable. Given that game developers don’t have to face legal repercussions for engineering inaccessible text (unlike webpage developers), it’s up to game studios to start taking players’ complaints seriously. This isn’t a handful of fans swearing and squabbling on a message board because their favorite character didn’t make the cut into a fighting game. This is an accessibility issue that leaves players out in the cold for reasons that they have little control over.
It’s not as if decent typesetting requires a great investment of resources, either. Developers can avoid font-related problems if they make some common sense choices early in a game’s development- precisely when it should be done, not weeks after thousands of players have complained about not being able to read in-game text.
Fixes: Quick and Otherwise
What do some of those “common sense choices” entail? As far as Skyrim is concerned, Derksen believes improved performance is as easy as a font swap. One of his recommendations is to switch Futura Condensed with Interstate, which, true to its name, is used in North American highway signs specifically for its high legibility in sub-optimal conditions.
“Interstate’s e’s and a’s are much more open and distinct compared to Futura Condensed,” Derksen points out. “And you actually don’t want a big height difference between capital and lower-case letters.”
“The fix is low cost,” Derksen adds, “and the testing is negligible, compared to bug testing. The impact area, however, is huge.”
Making good font choices is a major and necessary step for resolving the typesetting problems that plague today’s games, but it’s only one step of several that need to be taken. Players need more control over in-game fonts, and developers need to realize that every single person who picks up their game deserves to be able to read menus and text. That includes the man who can’t afford a high definition television, and the woman whose eyesight is less than optimal.