10 Golden Rules on Subtitles for Games

In this article, we take a look at the 2019 GDC talk by Ian Hamilton on the best practices for developers to accommodate the growing demand for well-executed subtitles.

In 2019 at GDC Conference, Accessibility Specialist Ian Hamilton discussed the subtitles in the game industry. It turned out that if we compare subtitles in the movie and game industries, the latter is in much worse shape. And this is huge because, according to Ian Hamilton's data, roughly 60% of gamers use subtitles for various reasons: hearing disabilities, low-quality audio hardware, the randomness of the audio in the games, etc.

Because of the importance of this issue, we decided to analyze this talk and Ian's arguments, and we collected 10 golden rules for making perfect subtitles for your game.

But before we dive into these rules, let's discuss the problems gamers often complain about. According to Ian Hamilton, there are 3 basic points – Size, Contrast, and Amount of Text. 

The picture above demonstrates what the developers should be aiming for. Easy to read font, there isn't too much text on the screen, and it is easy to distinguish from the background. The reason why the aforementioned points can be considered basic is that subtitles are needed for different purposes. Some people have hearing disabilities and they need the subtitles to be as clear and understandable as possible. The other category of people just glances at the subtitles occasionally, and they need the subtitles to be unnoticeable for the most part.

The question arises, how do I make subtitles that would fit everyone? The answer is – you don't have to, all you need to do is to create the variety and let gamers decide which way is best for them.

And some games already do that. For example, Assassin's Creed Origins has options to change text size, background, to add or remove the speaker's name, etc. And it was noticed, the game won awards because of that. 

Now, let's discuss the aforementioned points to understand, why these are so important and how not to make mistakes related to those different aspects of subtitle-making.

Size

Size is an obvious problem that doesn't need any thorough explanation. Ian Hamilton notes that game developers should consider different monitor sizes while deciding what size of the subtitles they should use. A good example Ian Hamilton provides is subtitles from Far Cry New Dawn.

The perfect size of subtitles, according to Ian Hamilton, should be at least 46px at 1080p. And if someone wants to have smaller or even bigger subtitles – let them! Make subtitles customizable with size variations. Then every gamer will be able to choose the size they require.

Contrast

Much like size, the problem of contrast is pretty much self-explanatory. There are a few techniques to get around this issue, you can put an outline on the text, you can add shadows to the text, but these approaches have a few problems themselves. Particularly because of dyslexia. For some people, additional imagery behind the text can make the subtitles difficult to read.

The best way is to add an option to turn on a black box behind the text, and ideally allow the people to change the transparency of the box as well.

Amount of Text

This problem actually relates to 2 lesser problems – the amount of text in the line and the number of lines.

As you can see, the problem is once again pretty obvious, the excessive amount of text makes the subtitles hard to read and understand. Ian Hamilton proposes a maximum of 2 lines per subtitle, 3 in exceptional cases, and no more than 38 characters per line.

Those were the basics, just the things that every game developer should be considering. If you don't have these things then, according to Ian Hamilton, what you have is not subtitles, they will not be functional.

Now let's discuss the 10 golden rules which will turn your subtitles from acceptable to actually enjoyable.

1. Accuracy

Make sure that your subtitles are accurate. You cannot rely on the voice actors having perfectly stuck to the script. And people will notice the differences between the subtitles and what is actually being said. So, double-check the accuracy to avoid having your game ridiculed because of the typos.

2. Comprehensiveness

Make sure that everything is actually subtitled. Often you see games where cutscenes are subtitled and the gameplay isn't or vice versa. Sometimes you cannot turn on the subtitles before the opening cinematic, which is not subtitled. And based on the data provided earlier that 60% of players use subtitles, it is wise to have them turned on by default. Or at the very least, have the ability to turn them on before an opening cinematic, like in Infamous.

3. Make the Subtitles Centralized

Your subtitles should be at the bottom in the middle. If they are somewhere else they can be mistaken for the interface or missed at all.

4. Add the Text from the Bottom

This problem doesn't come up very often but sometimes can confuse players. For example, in the picture above 2 characters talk to one another, and each of those characters has their own letterbox, therefore, when they interact, the subtitle appears in this character's letterbox. This, as you may imagine, is very confusing, so keep that rule in mind.

5. Indicate the Speaker

Make sure to indicate who is speaking. This can be done differently: you can add a portrait of the speaker, add their name, or use colors to differentiate. Keep in mind, that every single one of those options can be troublesome for some, so it is wise to add all of them and let the player choose.

6. Indicate the Direction

This is something rarely seen in games but in other media, it is a common practice. An example of a game that has this system is Minecraft, with arrows that point in the direction of the sound.

These arrows help to get more information about your surroundings and are very useful for certain genres.

7. Give People Enough Time to Read

This one seems pretty straightforward at first, just don't make the subtitles too fast. But the reality is that people speak fast, you will get a situation when people speak too quickly and the subtitles just fly by. Ian proposes certain timings that will help game developers to better understand, what pace their text should be on. 

Very rarely you can edit your subtitles, but keep in mind that it is not recommended, the text should match the voice lines.

8. Clear Font

Sometimes it is okay to forget about consistency in order to make a better product. For example, in the image above the developers used the font from the actual game to make subtitles. Consistency is good but in this case, the text's readability was hurt because of it. 

So, to make your subtitles readable use a clear Sans-Serif font and don't go full caps. If you have to make the text special, at least add an option to change the font of your subtitles.

9. Make Captions for Important Sounds

Don't mistake captions for subtitles, these are different and serve a different purpose. Captions are just those sounds that are important for the game's atmosphere and gameplay. The pioneers of caption-adding were Valve, who added captions for Portal 2 and Half-Life 2.

These are very important for people with hearing problems, so if background noises and random sounds are important for the game, make a caption for them. Gamers will be thankful.

10. Options

This was an underlying theme of the entire talk, to make the subtitles customizable. There are many gamers out there, and every single one of them has different needs and preferences. By adding customization to your subtitles you would be able to appease more people and gain some popularity just due to subtitles alone. And gamers would get an enjoyable experience. It's a win-win!

If you apply all these rules during your game development process, you can create great subtitles and make your game more enjoyable for the audience. We hope that these rules will help at least some game developers to better understand what gamers need from the subtitles.

You can check the talk by clicking this link, or visit Ian Hamilton's Twitter account to ask more about the accessibility of your game.

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