Video Game Readability

Only recently I played through an old game from the 90’s that was ported (very nicely done, might I add) to mobile. A game that I had played in the latter end of the golden era of 2D platformers which, back then, I thoroughly enjoyed. My 7 year old self didn’t quite grasp the concept of readability back then, he was just taken back by the supreme sense of speed and vividly coloured stages. If you haven’t guessed it by now I’m talking about the 1993 game Sonic CD.

I probably shouldn’t have played this game as my 29 year old self as I’ve possibly ruined the nostalgia but here we are. Things are different now and I could sit here and type out a thousand things wrong with this disappointment of a game and I’m sure many would agree, yet on the other side of the coin, many wouldn’t. I will refrain from bringing up any type of gameplay awkwardness and talk solely about its readability (even though they tie in with each other a fair bit) as in my opinion, this game is a great example of what not to do.

I want to get this out of the way for the final time before you pick up your pitchforks:

This is my opinion and the entire game isn’t like this, only certain levels and areas.

Skittles, Taste the Rainbleuuugh..

Empty space? Fill it with stuff, then more stuff!

Look at those screenshots above and make a note of the walls, grounds, dangers, background and foreground elements, enemies, GUI, then put it on my desk when the time is up.. BZZZT too late! Some of you may have aced that test, but I can assure you many won’t have because looking at each image for less than a second isn’t enough to break down and study your surroundings in a game based upon speed. What if there were a set of spikes in front of you, but there were 10 other things to look at whilst running at top speed, is it your fault for not seeing the spikes? Nope, it’s the design of the placement and most importantly, readability.

Since playing Sonic CD it got me thinking about one of the most important aspects a well designed video game should offer, clear readability. Have you ever noticed when playing a 2D platformer for example, how little you actually look at the character that you are in control of? It seems really obvious when you think about it, I mean, you don’t constantly stare at your own feet when you’re walking in real life, you look at your next destination, whether that be 2 steps ahead or the building's entrance you're heading towards. The point I’m getting at is that it is extremely important to make sure everything on screen during gameplay is readable through both direct and peripheral vision, you don’t want to have the player constantly bouncing their eyes around the screen then take damage or lose a life from badly done visuals. Yes, it’s always nice to add a bit more ‘life’ to your game and give the player a little more of a visually pleasing experience by sprinkling in bushes, trees, grass tufts and the like as long as it’s not overdone, remember, less is more. Below is a comparison of three identical levels, one with no decorations, one cluttered with them and finally one that is finely tuned.

This porridge is too cold.

Ouch, this porridge is too hot.

Ahhh, this porridge is just right.

As you can see there's a difference between making an area look nice and bombarding every possible empty space with stuff, use decoration wisely and don't overwhelm the player. Again, Less is more.

Tiers of Readability

When designing a game and/or a level within a game, it's always helpful to keep this in the back of your mind or noted down somewhere to have close by. My 5 stages of readability are as follows:

Tier 1: The controllable player, the main objective and anything dangerous (enemies, spikes etc.).

Knowing where the player is at all times is first and foremost for obvious reasons. Your current main objective should be clear too, even if it’s just exiting the current screen it should be known to the player that this is their current goal before anything else. Anything that can hurt the player should be very clear, again for obvious reasons.

Tier 2: Interactable objects (Breakable blocks, switches and air bubbles (for extra breath) etc.).

These things should follow the above tier as they are important to progress onwards and should always be understood by the player once introduced.

Tier 3: Grounds, walls, ceilings. (If applicable)

Anything solid that the player cannot pass through should be clear and concise, but only after the player has spotted any dangers (tier 1) and figured out the reason why they need to go through a certain path (tier 2).

Tier 4: Decoration.

Fancy bits and pieces to spruce up the area shouldn’t have much focus from the player, but to only exist for making it look pretty. Be careful not to make decoration look threatening or solid though as this could confuse the player.

Tier 5: Backgrounds.

Everything behind the play field should be non-intrusive and have zero-distractions from gameplay. No matter how beautiful your backgrounds are you should always keep in mind that in most cases they are there to make your games looks nice, so stay away from high contrast/patterned backgrounds if they clash with your tiles and/or stage elements.

And there you have it, I'm no artist when it comes to visuals but I have learned that keeping things neat and readable throughout the game adds massively to an overall better user experience and following the above should help keep your games clear, coherent and most of all, enjoyable.

Good luck, Case.