Typography in video games

Aren’t video games amazing?

Graphically stunning, the 3D is incredible, throwing round millions of polygons effortlessly, the lighting effects mind blowing, sun rays blazing through windows across rooms and highlighting dust motes. The typography… errr. 

Generally, the typography in video games is tragic. I was playing Motorstorm on the PS3 (after getting it on a two for £9.99 deal! score!) and was dismayed to witness the poor typography on the loading screens. All centre aligned, all caps in something like Trajan, orphans and rivers galore. How can this be? How can a game they put so much stock in visually and audibly have such shit typography?

I suppose it’s easy to see why. Screen like cut screens and loading pages will probably be done by one of the 3D guys whose handy with Photoshop, or one of the GUI (game GUIs, ohh, there’s enough for another blog rant in there!) or texture team guys, again, handy with Photoshop. There’s no one in charge of the games brand, no one to champion the look and feel as a design agency would.

Games are made by technical guys. I can relate to that, having one foot in the tech camp and one in design circles, but good typography is sorely lacking in most video games. We’ve worked with a couple of guys in the past who’ve been fantastic at 3D, and decent at all round design, but woeful at type setting. I think a lot of the guys in the industry will be adept at a few skills, like 3D, animation, texturing, and thus considered graphic designers, certainly with no traditional training, hence the misconception will be that they’ve got all bases covered.

There are of course exceptions. I’m a sucker for the Ridge Racer series, their interfaces and overall design work is great. I believe Colin McCray’s has good type. But I’m hard pushed to think of any that made me sit up and take note.

Next time you’re playing a game, just keep an eye on the type, and let me know what you see, both good and bad.

  • Ahmed Zaman Khan

    h, really interesting post here. I agree with you, and am actually going to write my Dissertation on this theme. i was wondering if you could give me a few pointers to any other websites or books of interest?

  • I can’t help in terms of websites or books, but I do have contacts in the games industry, who might answer a few questions.

    I was playing Lego Star Wars III the other day with my boy, and some of the kerning in there is terrible, but I don’t know that their programmers can see or fix it, even if the designers point it out.

    What bugs me even more is orphans and widows in passages of text in games, grrr!

  • (late reply, my apologies i thought i would get an email notification)

    hahaha do you think there is room for Typographers in the video games industry? one of the problems i have come across is that “typographers” don’t really understand or even take notice of video games and the average “gamer” has no idea about the rules and systems of Typography.

    in my own personal opinion i think Video games and Game design in general will never reach its potential if they keep ignoring the aspects of good typography…

    just wondering what your opinion is? :D

  • I think there is *plenty* of room in video games for typographic input. However, I think it’ll only come if one of the design team has a strong understanding of type, but probably not if the typographer is employed as an individual/consultant… not for a while anyway.

    I think the biggest problem is the time frame for development of a video game. You couldn’t hope to keep a typographer busy for the length of the games dev life. You can bring them in at the beginning, and hope their input is adhered to, maybe monthly consultations etc, but yeah, it’s a tough proposition for the moment.

  • Ahmed Zaman Khan

    hmmm thats quite interesting, i do agree with you maybe having a specialised typographer on the team at all times throughout the project would seem a little excessive as the responsibilities of said typographer would not be needed for the most part of the design process,

    i don’t know… but i think if they were not there throughout the whole process it would essentially undermine the entire idea and benefit of having someone trained with you as the ideas develop. A part time typographer might not get the entire picture having missed the meetings, setbacks and general evolution of the design process…

    maybe your right, the question could be not if ‘typographers’ are needed but more knowledgeable design teams, people who take into account more than the superficial and marketing aspects of design (for a game).

  • Buahbohan

    Big video companies (ya’ know, the type with huge independent marketing departments, producing stunning 3D graphics, etc.) aren’t just working on one game at a time!

    An on staff typographer wouldn’t be stuck on just one game, he would work on all of them. I would kill to have a typographer at my company… because I’m reviewing fonts right now, and I’m clueless. I want to make the fonts great, but I don’t know how and it really shouldn’t be my problem.

  • Tom


    I can say 150+ staff studios backed by publishers are generally working on 2 or more titles at the same time.
    But the off projects are staffed with a handful of Lead game designers and Lead programmers who work on the core concept and mechanics which will have a tangible effect on the project, there wouldn’t be any room for someone who’s only skill is picking a out a typeface. 

    As someone who works in the industry I think you have to look at the bigger picture, when slating games for their type choices. Its important for the dev’s making the game, the advertisers selling the game and the consumers buying the game to know where the title sits on the shelf, a glance at any screen from the game or the box the consumer needs to know weather the game is in space, from history. Grounded in reality or a crazy fantasy.
    This clear readability is fundamental to a games success.

    As such a lot of visual short hand has been created to convey this message.
    which to your sophisticated type pallet may seem crass, but to the 13 to 25 white male helps them determine weather they are going to spend $60 on your game because they like space marines or not.

    As well as there being technical limitations on what can be used; a typeface on a sprite sheet which looks great at 1080p may not look good on your old CRT monitor which by the way is a technical certification requirement to publish titles for Nintendo, Sony And  Microsoft and their respective consoles.

    As well as the studios relationship with the publisher, box art is generally done by out sourced advertising studios, if the Dev’s don’t like the box art the may not be any room to negotiate.

    Thats not to say there are not exceptions I point to Wipeout which famously used UI design and elements from Designers Republic to create the text and feel of that title, Or Rockstars Red Dead Redemption.

    As a final point. games have more going for them than other media. In creating advertising or a website, yes a typeface is very important in communicating the intangible feel or tone of a product.
    But games use sound, modern 3D graphics, story, pacing,  and player control. when it comes to crunch if a typeface sucks or the controls suck what do you expect the developer to concentrate on to fix?

    The is a general feeling about fluff features is they will help a game which is an 80% reach 90+% but you need the core game there first.

  • Ahmed Zaman Khan

    Hi Tom and Buahbohan, thank you for your comments, really interesting to read your views :D

    I understand where your coming from Tom, but as ‘Buahbohan’ said wouldn’t a typographer be working on multiple games or even in multiple departments of the company at the same time?

    The role of a “typographer” wouldn’t only be restricted to choosing typefaces and such, but designing the Textual and iconographic in game elements for the games them selves. As typography is less about choosing appropriate typefaces but understanding why they are appropriate, the context and then the content. Things like Legibility, Communication, how people see, read and interact with information. The core principals of all (good) ‘Graphic design’.

    and surely these elements come into their own when talking about in game menus, interfaces and HUD’s?

    its my belief that a typographer or even a Designer with Specialized knowledge of typography could help Video game Designers create a deeper sense of immersiveness that is surely one of the pivotal aspects to the design of any Video game, not only that but as you said with the Designers Republic and wipeout, the design of the case, booklet and the tangible elements gave the game a personality of its own, the continuity between all the elements is one of the major reasons people loved and still love the game today…

    thank you for your post, it was really informative and interesting to hear your opinion, which i almost completely agree with :D

    Ahmed Khan

  • Jamie Lowes

    I work in games, as a programmer. I’ve written many a “font tool”, that convert TTFs to a set of pre-rendered textures and generate the kerning and justification data. I’ve worked on a fair few menu interfaces, including Colin McRae 1, 2 & 3. I’m also “into” typography, in a small way. I’m no expert, but I have an appreciation, (on holiday this year I read “Thinking with Type” by Ellen Lupton, for example).

    A lot of thought went into the designs of the main menu interfaces of CMR 2 & 3. And just look at the main menu of 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CI6ppRGxGsY It’s made almost entirely of type! I did that spline letter thing BTW, and if you enter “hello razu and flea” in the name entry it turns into a cat, as those were the names of my cats at the time :)

    So, that’s all you need to know about me, I also have some points to make!

    Kerning is one thing. Poor kerning shouldn’t happen… well, at least not in English. Oh, wait a minute.. The game I’m working on right now supports over ten different languages, some share fonts, some don’t. We pull the kerning data out of the TTF, but when you render it to a relatively low screen resolution, one pixel either way can make a difference. So, for best results you need to hand edit the kerning data… Painful enough. Made worse by the fact our character set is generated by scanning our language data. So if a bit of text adds a new character, the fonts get rebuilt. And so you’d have to redo the kerning adjustments, by hand, again…! So we settle for what comes out of the TTF.

    The other thing is the lack of control we have over type. We can pretty much pick a corner to justify the text to and apply a scale to the whole line of text we’re drawing. We don’t have the option to stretch text to fit a column by adding space. We have no control over character spacing per line of text we draw. We got nothing! We could add in this control, but it would never get used as we’d have to set every piece of text for every language. Not cool. And, as it is, text is cheap. A 60 frames per second game gives you 16 milliseconds to update the game and draw it. If we add in more features to the text rendering it’d eat into our drawing wizards and giant enemy crabs budget.

    Better type is possible, and I’m all for it, but another barrier to it is that not all game artists care too much about type. Rick, the artist I worked with on CMR 2 & 3 did, and I think that shows. People I’ve worked with since haven’t shown that level of interest and it also shows. The title I’m working on right now would cause your typography eyes to detonate on sight!

    In summary, to get all the type looking good in a game that supports 10+ languages would be way more work than you think, and way more work than most developers would be prepared to do, or would even have the time to do. And since most people don’t seem to notice janky typography, we find ourselves here, in Fuglyville. We’ll fix it one day.

  • Hi Jamie,

    Excellent response, and thank you taking the time to enlighten us. Loving the easter egg!

    Very interesting you think that poor kerning shouldn’t happen, but you make do with what comes out of a TTF. TTFs contain kerning data, and it doesn’t matter what language we’re in, a letter ‘o’ after a ‘W’ should be kerned closer. This leads me to think the fonts you’re using are free and/or just badly kerned in the first place.

    I’d be interested to learn more about this type tool you have, as adding a character regenerates the fonts? Is it possible that in the (seemingly unavoidable) fence jumping you have to do to render the correct language, you’re pulling out letter shapes but ignoring kerning information?

    I will take a picture of one of the level loading titles in Modern Warfare 2 and show you guys. It is actually the thing that kicked off this blog piece in the first place. Holy crap bags, how the fuck do they think it’s ok to leave anything in Bank Gothic set like that?! You could drive a tank through the gaps!

    I do understand a lot of the problems about multi-lingual games, because as a front end developer, I’ve worked on CMS systems that support over 10 languages, and like a game, will pull the right bit of data out of a database (but not having to generate a texture etc). It is difficult to flow text nicely, but it’s not always the tools and the method that are the problem.

    In instances where copy would be leaving orphans or flow badly, we’d encourage the client to slightly tailor the copy to fit the available space. I can’t tell you how annoying it is to see a game where the English “instructions” on the loading screen wrap and have a widow. No one is taking ownership of that problem. Is it because they don’t actually see it as a problem?

    This has nothing to do with the developers, more to do with the creative director of the project. They should have put their foot down and got the copy re-written. It’s not difficult (yes, even multi-lingual) and all part of the presentation. It’s quite easy to set word/character counts and get copy written to fit. The designers should also keep in mind things like passages of text in German are on average 20—30% longer, and design with this in mind.

    In general, I agree with you, and you agree with me, we both know a lot more could be done, but you nail the problem when you say “not all game artists care too much about type”. Game artists? They shouldn’t be allowed near the type! They’re artists, not graphic designers. You’re lucky to have been paired with Rick, by the sound of things! How is a game artist supposed to know about typography? One thing I’ve learnt about type, is the more I know, the more I don’t know and more questions open up to me.

    I agree these things will get fixed eventually, but it is without doubt something that elevates a game from being good to being great (CMR being one that obviously has paid attention to its presentation). It is also, in my mind, the one area of video games that has showed the slowest change in 20 years.

  • Tom, to reiterate (and condense!) what I’ve replied to Jamie —

    It’s not so much the tools or the technical output that’s the problem. It’s the choice of fonts, set ALL IN CAPS, centre aligned, the widows and orphans of text sat on the last line, the times when the general rule of thumb for ‘words per line’ is completely ignored…

    The technical teams are only programming what’s been designed and handed to them. It’s the appreciation of typography in the actual design that’s the problem.

  • Oh, and Jamie, would you mind answering my Desert Island Video games question? http://www.systemerror.co.uk/2011/05/24/desert-island-video-games/

  • flighty

    no decent typography work in vieo games?
    clearly you guys missed out on bioshock c:

  • Clearly you missed the part where I said “Generally, the typography in video games is tragic”, and then also bypassed the bit where I say “There are of course exceptions”. ;)

    For what it’s worth, Bioshock is a great example of well researched, well executed period typography.

    Thanks for bringing it up.

  • Typography in video game is such a good thing but some video gaming console not provide a typography in video game. Good typography is good for video game.

  • It isn’t very often an article interests me enough to get engrossed in the information.

  • You have put great unique views in this content.

  • Y8

    I applaud your efforts for taking time to research your information before you write.

  • Your article is writing I can really appreciate. Keep up the good work.

  • Bob Bobbington

    thanks for bringing this up-I’ve been thinking the same thing and not many people have addressed this blasphemy.

  • Pingback: Typography in Gaming | Kaleigh Mercer()