Character Portraits

A character portrait, normally appearing in a small window, displays the face of someone in the game world—either the avatar, a member of the player's party in a party-based game, or a character the player speaks to. If the main view uses an aer­ial perspective, it's hard for the player to see the faces of characters in the game, so a character portrait gives the player a better idea of the person he's dealing with. Use character portraits to build identification between your player and his avatar or party members and to convey more about the personalities of nonplayer characters. An animated portrait can also function as a feedback element to give the player information; Doom famously uses a portrait of the avatar as a feedback element, signaling declining health by appearing bloodier and bloodier. This portrait also allows the player to see his avatar even though he is playing a first-person shooter.

Screen Buttons and Menus

Screen buttons and menus enable the player to control processes too complex to manage with controller buttons alone. They work best with the mouse as a point­ing device but can also be used with a D-pad or joystick. Because a console doesn't have a mouse, console games make less use of screen buttons and menus than do PC games, one of several reasons why console games tend to be less complex than PC games.

Screen buttons and menus should be so familiar to you from your experience with personal computers that there is no need to discuss them in detail here, though you should keep a couple of key issues in mind. First, putting too many buttons
and menus on the screen confuses players and makes your game less accessible to casual players (see "Managing Complexity," earlier in the chapter). Second, unless you use the desktop model, try to avoid making your buttons and menus look too much like an ordinary personal computer interface. The more your game looks like any other Windows or Macintosh application, the more it harms the player's immer­sion in the game. Make your screen-based controls fit your overall visual theme.


Most games contain a fair amount of text, even action games in which the player doesn't normally expect to do much reading. Text appears as a feedback element in its own right, or as a label for menu items, screen buttons, and to indicate the meaning of other kinds of feedback elements (a needle gauge might be labeled Voltage, for example). You may also use text for narration, dialog (including subti­tles), a journal kept by the avatar, detailed information about items such as weapons and vehicles, shell menus, and as part of the game world itself, on posters and billboards.


Localization refers to the process of preparing a game for sale in a country other than the one for which you originally designed the game. Localizing a game often requires a great many changes to the software and content of the game, including translating all the text in the game into the target market's preferred language. In order to make the game easily localizable, you should store all the game's text in text files and never embed text in a picture. Editing a text file is trivial; editing a picture is not.

Never have the programmers build text into the program code. Never build text that the player is expected to read into an image such as a texture or a shell screen background. Store all text in one or more text files.

The only exception to this rule applies to text used purely as decoration when you don't expect the player to read it or understand what it says. A billboard seen in a game set in New York should be in English and remain in English even after localization?'/the bill­board text doesn't constitute a crucial clue.

Note that a word and its translation may differ in length in different languages, so that a very short menu item in English can turn into a very long menu item in, say, German. When you design your user interface, don't crowd the text elements too close together; the translations may require the extra space.


Make your text easily readable. The minimum height for text displayed on a screen should be about 12 pixels; if you make the characters any smaller, they became less legible. If the game will be localized to display non-Roman text such as Japanese,

12 pixels is the bare minimum, and 16 pixels is distinctly preferable.

If you're going to display a lot of text, learn the rules of good typesetting and use typefaces (fonts) that have been specifically designed for reading on a computer screen, such as Verdana. Use mixed uppercase and lowercase letters for any block of text more than three or four words long. Players find text set entirely in uppercase letters difficult to read; besides, it looks like SHOUTING, creating a sense of urgency you might not want. (On the other hand, in situations that do require urgency, such as a warning message reading DANGER, uppercase letters work well.)

Choose your typefaces with care so that they harmonize both with the theme of your game and with each other. Avoid using too many different typefaces, which looks amateurish. Be aware of the difference between display fonts (intended for headlines) such as Impact, and ordinary serif and sans serif fonts (intended for blocks of text) such as Times or Arial, respectively.

Avoid monospaced (also called fixed width) fonts, such as Courier, in favor of propor­tional fonts, such as Times, unless you need to display a table in which letters must line up in columns. For other uses, fixed-width fonts waste space and look old-fash­ioned and unattractive.

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