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Nadia Oxford | 29 Mar 2012 13:00
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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?

Once upon a time, in-game text was pixel-based. Developers typically had to make their letters work within a limited pixel grid.

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.

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