Screenshot: Skyrim, Bethesda (taken by Joe Humfrey)

Joe Humfrey, art and code director at game development studio Inkle, believes that the primary goal in designing text for video games is “making sure every word is effortless to read.” It turns out that making sure players can read and understand on-screen text is a more complicated task than you might think.

You might not spend a lot of time actively thinking about fonts, how to design text or user interfaces, but they significantly impact how a you interact with a game. In fact, you’ve probably recognized and struggled with one form of badly-designed text that’s common in a lot games: really small subtitles.

“I could probably rant for an hour about how most console games have tiny tiny text, probably because the developers sit right next to their TVs so don’t care. Please don’t do that,” Humfrey said in a recent GDC talk.

“Ideally, players should be able to play a game on a TV that’s sitting on the other side of a living room,” Humfrey elaborated to Kotaku over email. “Right now most games aren’t even in the right ballpark. When I play console games, I have to sit on a stool within a couple of metres of my TV, and I know many other players are the same. There’s also an issue of accessibility—games should ideally be catering for as broad a range of players as possible, including those that require a larger font size.”

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Inkle is the studio behind text-heavy game 80 Days, and they’re currently working on their first text-heavy game for console, Heaven’s Vault, which presents new challenges in making text and user interfaces engaging for players. “There’s an unfortunate culture among game developers, especially those developing for console, where the [user interface] tasks are seen as boring and unimportant, since UI takes a back seat to the 3D world being created,” Humfrey told Kotaku over email. “They are likely to be implemented at the last minute, and without any particular care or attention.”

Brendon Chung, developer of the games Quadrilateral Cowboy and Thirty Flights of Loving, said that many times he’s found a font that’s perfect, except it has some letters that are going to trip up a player. “I can’t overstate how often I find an absolutely beautiful, perfect font but then... it has a weird lower-case J. Or it doesn’t have the horizontal line in the capital G,” he said. “While people do have plenty of brainpower to decipher the weird lower-case J, I’d much rather they spend their brain power on other things.”

Designing type for games isn’t just about user interfaces, though. Every sign and fake logo you see in a game was made by someone. Chung pointed out that players are often pretty savvy at recognizing this kind of text design when it looks wrong.

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“I think we spend a large portion of our lives surrounded by products and advertisements and things, that we’ve become really good at recognizing when copy text is authentic,” he said. “Real-world things present information in pretty specific ways.”

Chung used a concert poster as an example. Concert posters will have “info on the headlining act, the date, the time, where to get tickets, the venue—and you have to arrange the text in some way that makes sense,” he said. “The amount of work to make it look like a real thing is absolutely not proportional to value gotten from it. It’s hours of an artist’s and writer’s time for a throwaway texture!”

When a game nails type design, it makes the game more cohesive. It might be the layout of a book, well composed subtitles, a clean user interface, or a good logo—these are all part of a whole that create a less frustrating and fuller experience for players. Chung told me about a carpet in Event[0] that he spent a number of minutes looking at from every angle. It’s a fluffy shag carpet with the logo of the company that you’re in.

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“There’s something great about when a game goes through the thought process of how a place would operate, and fully commits and executes on it,” he said. “Of course this 80s space station would have the shaggiest carpet and slam their logo on it. It just feels so right.”

“Part of it is building rules for how you’re using text,” Chung said. “Like, is this game going to put critical information in the text? Or is the text more incidental and fun and skippable? Does the game have some way of demarcating between different uses of text?” Once those conventions are established, players adjust to them quickly, but it’s still necessary to not make text that’s a chore to read.

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Humfrey said in his recent GDC talk that the two to keys effortless reading are focus and pacing. “I like to think of focus and pacing like harmony and melody,” he said.”Focus is like harmony—beautiful typography in a single moment. Whereas pacing is like melody—how the story flow is presented over time, as a sequence.” 80 Days is a good example of both these ideas in practice. Each line of text is spaced so that individual sentences and paragraphs are shown in readable chunks. As players click or tap through story choices, the new text animates onto the screen fast enough that the player isn’t waiting, but also slowly enough so that they can read it.

Before the player sees the choices in the narrative, the game pauses for just under a second for the player to catch up
GIF: 80 Days, Inkle

Legibility and readability are also important. Legibility is the ability to make out the individual letters, while readability is the quality that makes your eyes fly over the text with full understanding of its contents. These two are related, but not exactly the same.

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In Humfrey’s GDC talk, he used the books in the Elder Scrolls games as an example, in particular a book from Oblivion. The font developer Bethesda uses is appropriate to Oblivion’s world. It looks sufficiently medieval, and while it has a lot of flourishes, it’s legible, meaning each letter is distinct from each other. But it isn’t readable, meaning that the books take more time to for players to read. Humfrey demonstrated how he would improve it: in his talk, he changed the font to a variant of Calson, a typeface that originates in the 18th century, and put fewer words on the page. He also increased the spacing between the lines and made the margins bigger. These small changes made for a more readable page.

The original book appears on the right, and Humfrey’s suggested changes appear on the left.
Image: Joe Humfrey (Oblivion, Bethesda)

Humfrey pointed to the BBC’s subtitle guidelines as something that game developers should aim for when it comes to designer better subtitles, but also said that even cheap DVDs do a better job at subtitles than most games. “While the font may not always be pretty, it’s the right size, and they split larger quantities of text across multiple timed sections, allowing a smaller quantity of larger text, and preventing the eye from getting lost while reading,” he said. Those principles can be applied across different ways of designing type and user interfaces.

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“All of these typography improvements can help with focus,” Humfrey said in his talk. “They help the player concentrate on the text that’s important, and help them absorb it easily.”

“Just as people judge books by covers, or decide after the first couple of pages that the book doesn’t seem to their taste,” Humfrey said, “you need to convince players that your text isn’t intimidating or boring.”

Correction, 2:30pm: A previous version of this article misspelled Joe Humfrey’s name. Additionally, the quote starting, “Just as you don’t judge books by covers,” was misattributed to Brendon Chung instead of Humfrey.