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How to Get People to Read Text in Your Game
by Peter Angstadt on 05/01/14 01:19:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This was originally posted on our website where we occasionally share what we've learned while making Cannon Brawl.

We started doing everything wrong when showing character dialogue and text to players in Cannon Brawl. People would often get confused by something that was explained in text they had skipped or ignored. We didn’t even have that much text in our game!

After a lot of playtesting and studying other games, here’s what I’ve learned about how to get people to read in your game. I hope to this can help you better communicate information to your players. Here we go:  

1. If you can do it without text through either visuals or voice acting, try that first. Otherwise...  

2. Everything must pause in the game when text is on the screen. Sounds obvious, but hey I messed this up the first time. People can only focus on one thing at a time.  

3. Try to minimize the amount the player’s eye must move around the screen to process what you’re showing. So, do not put more than 8-10 words on a line. If you have more words, drop them on to a second line. You know how the pages of novels are pretty narrow? That’s not only to help you hold the book, but also to help you eye easily move through the text. To better illustrate this, here’s an example from Banner Saga:


They have very long lines of text. My eye must travel pretty far from the characters faces to the text and pretty far to read the text itself. This makes it slower to read and harder to digest the story. In contrast, here’s an example from Fire Emblem Awakening:


They have short chunks of text (and it’s overlayed on top of who is actually talking). My eye barely has to move and my brain has to do little work to digest the text. This 8-10 word 2 line rule applies for all text in a game, item descriptions, mission briefing, etc - not just character dialogue.

To further drive this home, subtitled movies have the same issue as games (people must read and look at the visuals) and they too generally follow the 8-10 word rule.  

Going further, I'd recommend that you don't show more than 2 lines at a time. If you have more than two lines, show them sequentially. Players quickly ignore walls of text, they are more likely to read it if it's presented in two lines at a time.

4. Show dialog text one word at a time, revealing the full block shown over about a full second. In our experience, revealing it word by word (but quickly) sparks a fraction of a second of intrigue from the player, and makes them more likely to read it. Of course, always allow them to reveal the full block with the press of a button immediately.  

5. If you are trying to teach things in text (which we do in Cannon Brawl), color specific important words differently. Comprehension went up in playtests of Cannon Brawl after we started inline coloring words. Zelda games do this a lot, here's an example from Wind Waker:


And finally, here's all those rules applied to our game Cannon Brawl. We're trying to communicate to the play that they could try shooting around a shield (instead of trying to pound through it). Before we applied all the rules, no one tried flanking shields. Afterwards, the majority of people try it:


Hopefully this helps you get text information across to your player more effectively! If you have any other tips, lets hear them in comments!

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Tod Semple
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I'm a big fan of the 8-10 words rule. I think it's physically impossible for me to read more while I'm playing a game.

Ara Shirinian
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Do you think you could have accomplished the same result without stopping the game or even asking the player to read in the first place?

Peter Angstadt
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I was hoping my first point spoke to that a bit:

"1. If you can do it without text through either visuals or voice acting, try that first. Otherwise... "

And ideally your game is so intuitive and uses such effective and natural metaphors for gameplay that you don't need text at all. But sometimes for a variety of reasons you might have to fall back on text.

In the case of Cannon Brawl, sometimes text was the option that made the most sense for us.

Ara Shirinian
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Actually, I was asking a direct question. This is a topic with enough depth and subtlety for the nitty gritty of the resource/cognitive read tradeoffs etc. to be a worthwhile discussion.

Peter Angstadt
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I don't we could have achieved the same results without text. For better or worse, a few of our mechanics don't have good pre-existing metaphors, so we typically use a strategy where we show some text saying 'here's what's about to happen', then we'll demo it to the player in the game (in the form of the enemy using it against you), then we let the player use it. This approach has been the most successful for us.

Roger Tober
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It's really too bad we've gotten so far from text in games. I look at the Zelda games and they were amazing at how they used text. The right pauses. The words being shown one at a time. I think that, and turn based gameplay being forsaken makes me feel depressed because it seemed so much more fun to me. Now it's just sit back and watch the characters do their thing and then upgrade them or whatever. Management, not strategy.

Michael DeFazio
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Concerning #4

4. Show dialog text one word at a time, revealing the full block shown over about a full second. In our experience, revealing it word by word (but quickly) sparks a fraction of a second of intrigue from the player, and makes them more likely to read it. Of course, always allow them to reveal the full block with the press of a button immediately.

I actually wrote a little "system" I called "cadence" that allows text to be spelled out 1 letter at a time , and each block of text had an associated "reveal length in milliseconds".

... for example I might initialize a block of text like this:

"Well", 100,
"...", 300,
" shoulda known better ", 120,
"...", 320,
", I",300,
" hate to do this to you", 120,
", but, uhh ", 200
" yer gonna have to come with me", 100

so... you can slow down or speed up the delivery of the words, and, it gave the dialog quite a bit of extra "punch". (I like the "progressive disclosure" but it's also nice to implement things like a "dramatic pause" on certain words ... (seems more natural and less "robotic", and more like a conversation)

In addition you can have configuration setting with a slider to increase the speed with which dialog is delivered (you can do this realtime to speed up or slow down certain conversations)
textSpeed = 1.0 means normal speed
10.0 is blazing fast... and 0.5 might be for kids or slower readers...

It's super easy to implement, and I think it adds alot (I should probably whip up a quick Javascript prototype to illustrate...)

Peter Angstadt
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Wow, that's a really neat idea to build that level pacing into the delivery!

Michael DeFazio
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Ohh, just to be clear...

the textSpeed is just multiplied to the value... so for 1.0
"Well", 100, (100*1.0 =100ms per letter)
"...", 300, (300*1.0 = 300ms per letter)
" shoulda known better ", 120, (120*1.0 = 120ms per letter)

and for 2.0 (1/2 normal speed)
"Well", 100, (100*2.0 =200ms per letter)
"...", 300, (300*2.0 = 600ms per letter)
" shoulda known better ", 120, (120*2.0 = 240ms per letter)

or .3 (3x normal speed)
"Well", 100, (100*0.3 =33ms per letter)
"...", 300, (300*0.3 = 600ms per letter)
" shoulda known better ", 120, (120*0.3 = 40ms per letter)

so you can change the speed of delivery relative to the other words, (so readers at different levels can find the appropriate speed in general, and also allows you to speed up text mid-conversation)... I got it working locally in Javascript, but doesnt seem to play nice on JSFiddle (dunno why)

Keith Nemitz
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Are players allowed to click through, if they want to rush the pacing? FFing text seems like a critical option for many gamers.

Craig Timpany
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Yeah, this. There's a huge variation in reading speeds across the population, particularly if children are playing too. Not letting me read at my preferred speed is extremely frustrating.

Michael DeFazio
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Here's an illustration (used dialog from from the Alpha for Wasteland 2)

tried to show the difference between "robotic text" and cadence text...
(BTW I realize Im not gonna get any points for good code, this is a prototype proof of concept)

if youd like to look at the code and adapt it to a more suitable form:

...also you can add more features... like pausing and resuming and all that stuff, I'm just trying to show the difference it makes between just writing text robotically verses using some simple cadence for dialog delivery... I'll write a legit blog post to describe better.

Evan Skolnick
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Very nice! To this list I would add: don't use ALL CAPS for body copy. Uppercase/lowercase is much easier to read if there are more than a few words.

Joshua Darlington
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Make sure your text is entertaining.

Have it voiced through a star character.

Add dramatic hot sauce.

Lu Phan
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may I translate this post into Vietnamese for our community ? I will backlink this post . This is a very helpful and interesting post . Thank you :)

Peter Angstadt
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Sure, that'd be cool!

Jack Everitt
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I have a different take:

1. Put important, relevant information in text, rather than stupid stuff (such as what the player already figured out).

2. Make it extremely readable on the screen. (Like, Fire Emblem. Not, like Banner Saga.)

3. Show all of the text - don't ever think of time delaying it.

4. Don't dumb-down your text.

5. Used mixed-case, NEVER ALL CAPS. (All-caps is typewriter legacy because bolding wasn't possible.)

6. Repeatedly edit your text until it says exactly what you want to convey, in as few words as possible and is 100% grammatically correct. (That Wind-Waker text above just makes me cringe.)

I'd also like to not thank the Game Designers of the past 20 years for putting so much stupid, crappy, inane, time-wasting text in their games that they've made the newest gaming generation simply hate text in games.

And to Peter, the author: "If you can do it without text through either visuals or voice acting, try that first." - I think you should use visuals or voice acting if it makes the most sense to do so, not to just simply not have text. Example: Icons are great if your players quickly understand what they mean - and terrible if they don't.