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Nadia Oxford | 29 Mar 2012 13:00
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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'."

Developers can avoid font-related problems if they make some common sense choices early in a game's development.

"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.

Nadia is a freelance games writer who contributes to various magazines and online publications. She's also About.com's guide to the Nintendo DS at ds.about.com, and can be found on Twitter at @nadiaoxford.

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