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What to do about aspect ratio? Should it be forced or should it always fill the player's screen?

A topic by Clearleaf created Dec 09, 2016 Views: 540 Replies: 7
Viewing posts 1 to 5
(Edited 2 times) (+1)

Steam hardware surveys have shown that there's a lot of diversity in the displays people play their games on.

16:9 is considered a standard and the majority of Steam users have 16:9 screens in a variety of resolutions. However the number of people using alternative aspect ratios such as 21:9, 16:10, or 4:3 is nothing to sneeze at. There are a lot of reasons why somebody would use a non standard aspect ratio, but the point is that as game designers we have no control over the types of screens our games will be played on. So this presents and interesting choice.


Letterboxing

Pros:

  • The designer can be absolutely sure of what will and won't be onscreen for every player at any time.
  • Composition and framing are much easier.
  • UI glitches will be less common. Problems like buttons overlapping each other or elements going offscreen will be easier to avoid if your menus are never put in an unexpected situation.
  • It can be used for effect. Some games use an ultrawide aspect ratio for a "move-like" feel. Many games with a pixel artstyle use a square aspect ratio to make it feel traditional.
  • Most players won't notice or care about black bars on their screen.

Cons:

  • Some players actually will notice and care about the black bars on their screen. People HATED this about The Evil Within and created mods that removed the bars. Other games that use letterboxing don't get as much flak as Evil Within did, but mods that remove black bars are still common for nearly every game that has them.
  • If you're ambitious and want to port your game to lots of different platforms, a forced aspect ratio will make that a lot more difficult. Especially if you want to enter the world of mobile phones and portable consoles.
  • The rigidity of a forced aspect ratio is something that some designers will disagree with.

Filling the screen

Pros:

  • A properly designed game can be played at any aspect ratio (to an extent), so there's no reason a game has to be one ratio over another when it can fill the whole screen. Most PC games I play will conform to both my 16:9 and 4:3 monitors with no differences in gameplay. A lot of games even offer you the choice of several very different aspect ratios and it never seems to affect gameplay at all in those games.

Cons:

  • Cropping can affect the difficulty of your game. 2D Sonic games are so much easier in widescreen that 4:3 feels like a handicap in comparison. In multiplayer games, players on a wider screen have a clear advantage over players with a narrower screen. Blizzard made a deliberate choice to force all Overwatch players to play at 16:9 no matter what monitor they're using.
  • Some players who have ultrawide screens or multi monitor output might be able to see things you don't want them to see, which can break the illusion or even allow them to cheat.

So what do you think? In a general sense, is it acceptable to force an aspect ratio on the player if it gives you more control over the experience? Or should we design our games to work no matter what ratio is being used? This is something I've been wrestling with for a while now so I would love to hear the community's thoughts.

Moderator

How about we design our games to run in WINDOWED mode and be done with it. Because, you know, this is the 21st century, screens are more than big enough and people Alt-Tab all the time anyway.

If you have a game that's meant to be run windowed, you can make it any aspect you want so that's a pretty good solution.

Another data point: I just had an Apple TV game rejected by Apple because of "black bars on the side".

Oh wow. It really depends on the taste of the reviewer.

Yeah, I think the Apple reviewers assigned to games fancy themselves game designers. Now I have the background fill the screen, but the reviewer still doesn't like having a 3D window over astatic background. The game was originally designed for a tall projection screen in arcades and changing the field of view of the 3D window that much for a widescreen TV isn't going to work without redesigning the game and content from scratch. Which actually they told me to do over the phone (after I appealed to their review board) when I submitted the same game to the Mac App Store because they said it was too much like the iOS version. But in that case I waited a few years and resubmitted and now they're OK with it.

I use 16:9 and I have started to implement percentages rather than strict resolutions. I still remember someone complaining I didn't have his resolution size... what size is that? 960 x 144. Well then... percentages!

At some point I tried letting people type in the value of their own resolution. It had hilarious results as people would type in resolutions far too small to see or correct it. So then I had to put in a five second fail safe to restore the screen.

Streamers enjoy having windowed mode, so make sure you have windowed mode available and I personally enjoy full screen. Another issue is some people have 2 or 3 monitors and if they want to play on monitor #3 you better let them.

Other than that I've discovered surface stretching where the surface can be stretched to specific resolutions. You need to tweak it a bit so it doesn't look like an ugly mess. I have a few monitors 4:3, 16:10, 16:9 and a TV to use just for screen tests. Now that I have it set, I don't ever want to touch it or mess around with it. It turns into a compatibility nightmare.

(Edited 1 time)

There really isn't a one-size-fits-all answer for this. Different games may be affected differently by both the aspect ratio and the resolution.

Think of Factorio for example, it's a sandbox game where you build a factory however you please where ever you please, it doesn't matter what kind of aspect ratio it has, plus you can zoom in/out at will.

Now compare that to Cave Story or a shmup game, the level design may be specifically designed so you see something at a certain moment, and your vision reaches only to a specific distance. Furthermore Cave Story is "pixel perfect", so you can't start rescaling it to any resolution size you want without getting a jaggy pixel mess.

Imagine that you have a cutscene in which a character approaches you from outside the screen, stops a certain distance away from you, and then starts talking to you. If you allow the player to use any aspect ratio and vision size, they could completely break the cutscene because the character may end up outside of the screen when it starts talking, or be blocked by a wall that you're not supposed to see when they're meant to approach you.

Nuclear throne has a window that can be scaled to any size, but the aspect ratio is fixed. That game suffers from the "jaggy pixel mess" problem unless you scale up the window enough so it isn't easily visible.

The ideal window is what Factorio has; scalable to any size, zoomable to any size (with reasonable limits), but you can't use it for all or even most games. Next best is Nuclear Throne's window, and you could improve it by allowing the player to force even pixel multiplication in the options and then fill both extra vertical and extra horizontal space with black bars.

You really have to think what suits your specific game and go with that, and generally speaking that applies to EVERYTHING about your game. Thinking that you have to target everyone and every device and every playing method and mentality and phsyical disability is harmful for your game. Jonathan Blow has talked a bit about this in regards to The Witness, you can't make a good game if you force yourself to make it accessible to everyone. Compromise where you can but ask yourself if it's really worth it to sacrifice your game design just so a few more people can play it. Less people may in fact play it because you made the game worse.