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Aspect ratio and gameplay

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I'm at the point in my game project where I need to make some decisions I've been putting off, one of which is how to handle the issue of aspect ratio as it relates to gameplay. There have been a few threads recently on the topic of different resolutions and aspect ratios in 2-d games. One of the issues that frequently comes up is how different aspect ratios can affect gameplay. People's opinions on this topic seem to fall into two categories, more or less: 1. If different aspect ratios can affect gameplay significantly, the aspect ratio should be fixed (e.g. by black-barring) in order to make for a uniform player experience. 2. The native aspect ratio of the monitor should be used (whatever it may be) so that people can make use of the full capabilities of their hardware. Whether the aspect ratio will affect gameplay depends on the game, of course. The game I'm working on doesn't have a multiplayer component, but it does have a rating system, and one of the features I'd like to add at some point is an online leaderboard. Unfortunately, being able to see more of the play area does offer an advantage (for example, it allows you to use long-range weapons more effectively). As such, it seem the ratings could end up reflecting not only the players' skill but also the hardware on which the game was played. At this point I'm stuck as to whether to: 1. Use the native aspect ratio and drop the leaderboard idea. 2. Use a fixed 4:3 resolution. 3. Use the native aspect ratio and let the leaderboard ratings be (potentially) affected by the players' hardware. This is probably one of those issues where there's no 'right answer' per se, but I thought I'd ask here to see if anyone had any advice or suggestions. Are there other options that I'm overlooking? Or do I just need to accept that there's no ideal solution to the problem?

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I like drawing at 720 pixels high at the native aspect ratio, scaling up/down to the native resolution. This strikes a good balance: HD resolution, people with huge monitors don't see twice the gameworld, but no ugly black bars. Yes widescreens see a little more on the sides. Some advantage maybe, but so is a higher framerate or lower latency.

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I like drawing at 720 pixels high at the native aspect ratio, scaling up/down to the native resolution. This strikes a good balance: HD resolution, people with huge monitors don't see twice the gameworld, but no ugly black bars. Yes widescreens see a little more on the sides.
Yup, that's how I'm doing things currently, more or less - fixed height, with the width dependent on the aspect ratio.
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Some advantage maybe, but so is a higher framerate or lower latency.
I assume by latency you're referring to multiplayer gameplay? This particular game doesn't have a multiplayer mode; as for framerate, the game uses a fixed update rate, so I don't know that a higher framerate would offer any advantage.

In any case, as you note, it really just comes down to being able to see a little more of the play area to each side. Not a huge deal, but I do think it could make certain parts of the game easier for folks with widescreen monitors.

I don't currently have a widescreen monitor available, so I'm not really sure how most games handle varying aspect ratios these days. Should I even consider pillar boxing? Or would that really put off people with widescreen monitors?

(Thanks for the reply, by the way :)

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I don't mind too much with black bars on the sides, though I do find it a bit worse than having them at the top/bottom to force wide-screen. What you could do is set a maximum reasonable wide-screen resolution, of say 16:10. Any wider than that gets bars on the sides, but any less wide instead sees less of the play area. Balance the game for that 16:10 resolution, and add the option for non wide-screens to play 16:10 with bars at the top/bottom.
Optionally do the same but the other way around, letting wide-screens see less vertically if they insist on using the entire screen.

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I pretty much do the same thing - constant height and expand the width to fit the aspect ratio. More details here. Menus are designed to be contained in 4:3 and centred within wider displays. And I agree with Krohm - most new displays are widescreen now (especially laptops) so it makes sense I think to default to 16:10 for your 'proper' resolution.

One nice compromise option you can offer is allowing the user to run in a widescreen window on a 4:3 display. They'll gain the "advantage" of seeing the game how it's supposed to be played even if it's not fullscreen. Plus you'll usually end up having to code this in for testing anyway.

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What's wrong with doing both? If somebody just wants to play the game at a resolution that might give them an advantage, give them a "non-competitive" mode to play. Let them know that any score they achieve won't be eligible for online leaderboarding, but they can still just enjoy the game on a "casual" level. Also have a fixed-ratio "competitive" mode to level the playing field. I've often found myself in both camps (ranked play and play for funsies) with regards to games, and would appreciate the ability to have both available.

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You can also make it impossible to have an advantage, making a non-standard ratio strictly a disadvantage. Whenever a screen-size doesn't fit the correct ratio, and the user has selected fill-screen mode, stretch the direction that would have bars to the edges, and let the other direction go outside of the screen. This way no one can have an advantage, but if someone feels OK with with a disadvantage they can still have their screen filled. This way you don't have to handle different modes of play, other than the way you display the graphics to the screen.

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It is not that hard to accommodate both ratios. Unless you plan on having some special scene where an object fills the viewport exactly, the code to support both is relatively painless.
Hm, I'm not sure what you mean. Can you clarify?

Just to be clear, the question was not about the technical details of supporting multiple aspect ratios (which, as you note, are fairly trivial), but rather about how different aspect ratios can affect gameplay.

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I just want to point out a technical element that is often (and can't be) left out:

When you put black bars, you're potentially inducing to cause screen burn-ins because 1/4 - 1/3 of the screen has been completely still in black for countless hours (of gameplay)

Interestingly, I realized about it when I read my LCD's manual which didn't recommend the 4:3 mode (which puts black bars on the sides) because it can potentially cause burn-ins or differences in brightness when you remove those bars.

As for the gameplay side, I'm interested how this thread may evolve.
A cheap way may be to rearrange the HUD elements for different aspect ratios, so that they cover the "advantage" parts.

Gameplay advantages coming from Hardware differences are inevitable.
This doesn't apply just to aspect ratio.
People with fast systems have advantage in Fighting & Racing games than those with slow HW (or other fast paced games).

Those who have a brighter screen have an advantage in games with very dark elements (Left 4 Dead) or where darkness plays an important role (i.e. Thief series) than those who have an old TV which it's white is equal to a recently bought TV's gray.

First Person Shooters with support for 7.1 sound systems, those who have it will have an advantage because they can quickly tell where the enemy fire is coming from.

Gamepads often have less lag than keyboards to get the input (don't ask me why). Players playing with gamepads in fast paced games have again advantage over keyboard-users

I remember Sis 630/730 users had a terrible disadvantage in Warcraft III because of what it seemed to be a bug in the gpu's gamma correction: the game was VERY dark.

Nowadays everyone has a mouse with a scroll-wheel, but years ago those who had it held an advantage because it was very useful (i.e. quick zooming) while other players had to look for the key combination to emulate the same behavior the wheel provided in an instant.

Bottom line, you can minimize the gameplay differences coming from the users int your market having different HW, balancing it, and pretending it stays fair. But there's a lot of variety out there and we have to be clever how to minimize the impact.
Of course, having a specific market (i.e. targeting a console like the PS3) helps a lot because you reduce variety a lot. But still there are things left to do (like in this case aspect ratio and speaker's quality)

Cheers
Dark Sylinc

PS: Whoa, I was just going to post about the technical side, and ended up writing a long post.

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When you put black bars, you're potentially inducing to cause screen burn-ins because 1/4 - 1/3 of the screen has been completely still in black for countless hours (of gameplay)

Interestingly, I realized about it when I read my LCD's manual which didn't recommend the 4:3 mode (which puts black bars on the sides) because it can potentially cause burn-ins or differences in brightness when you remove those bars.
Ah, I hadn't thought of this - will definitely take it into consideration.
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Gameplay advantages coming from Hardware differences are inevitable.
Agreed. As you note though, what effect variations in hardware will have depends on the game. I think there are some types of games (the game I'm working on falls in this category) where aspect ratio is more likely to affect gameplay than some of the other variables you mentioned (system speed, input devices, sound, etc.). In these cases, I think trying to address the aspect ratio issue can be important from a gameplay perspective.

Again though, it just depends on the game.

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If a larger screen space allows the player to see more than they should, you can normalize the problem in the game, instead of on the screen.

You can limit the vision distance with something other than the screen edge like fading objects past a distance threshold, using fog, "fog of war" (ala Warcraft), or something more creative. Instead of cutting the view area down to a single size, make it so the extra view space doesn't show the player anything that would give them an advantage.

In my little top-down sea-creature project, I use something I call "extended-vision" to show the player what is outside the camera space. Its just a bunch of soft circles that indicate the direction, size, and distance of objects outside the camera area, within a maximum distance. The device is called a "compass" in this article on Gamasutra. I align the circles to a radius, and limit them by the screen bounds.



Above is an image showing a 4:3 screen ratio over 16:9. This is the range of ratios I support. The white circles on the outside show what is nearby but not on-screen. The small advantage of a larger screen is practically nullified because you're aware of what you can't see.

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Original post by Pete Michaud
I tackled this exact issue for Kōtiro, but I approached it a little differently. I wanted to strike the right balance between visibility and emotional connection:

Resolution and Emotional Connection

Then I followed it up with this, which covers what actual distances mean:

Environment Conventions
Interesting articles - thanks for the links!
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Original post by Slather
You can limit the vision distance with something other than the screen edge like fading objects past a distance threshold, using fog, "fog of war" (ala Warcraft), or something more creative. Instead of cutting the view area down to a single size, make it so the extra view space doesn't show the player anything that would give them an advantage.
That's an interesting idea as well. (I wasn't able to run your demo - probably due to my outdated hardware - but the screenshots look very nice!)

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Original post by Matias Goldberg
I just want to point out a technical element that is often (and can't be) left out:

When you put black bars, you're potentially inducing to cause screen burn-ins because 1/4 - 1/3 of the screen has been completely still in black for countless hours (of gameplay)

Interestingly, I realized about it when I read my LCD's manual which didn't recommend the 4:3 mode (which puts black bars on the sides) because it can potentially cause burn-ins or differences in brightness when you remove those bars.
The screen in the picture is a plasma. Modern LCDs are not supposed to suffer from image retention at all, while plasmas do, and are generally not used for gaming for exactly that reason. Devs throwing a bone to plasma owners, like a slowly moving background picture instead of black bars, is obviously not much work and offset some image retention, but that isn't enough to make your software "burn-in proof". For that, you also couldn't have a static score counter, a health bar, or anything of the sort. In short, not worth doing. The only thing that works is not to get a plasma in the first place, or to obey the owner's manual and strongly moderate the relative amount of gaming and off-aspect video viewing you do on it.
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Gameplay advantages coming from Hardware differences are inevitable.
This doesn't apply just to aspect ratio.
People with fast systems have advantage in Fighting & Racing games than those with slow HW (or other fast paced games).
So what advantage do people with fast systems have in a fighting game, in comparison to people with systems with average HW specs and reasonable graphics settings? I'm thinking none.

Where I can see there being a difference is first-person shooters, especially ones with visual stealth as a key component (Crysis with a custom dense jungle map?), but even then, I see differences of network lag, selective use of low graphics settings and cheating to be much more prominent technical issues than possible hardware advantage.

Driving games would admittedly grant something of an advantage due to your speed perception improving with more detail. Not being big on driving games, I don't know how significant this advantage is, but I imagine it will be at its strongest in high-accuracy simulation and very strong players who have developed beyond braking point / entry speed driving. Arcade racers won't see a difference.
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Gamepads often have less lag than keyboards to get the input (don't ask me why). Players playing with gamepads in fast paced games have again advantage over keyboard-users
Got a link, or any information at all about this supposed systemic keyboard lag? I do not believe it exists. There are valid reasons to use a gamepad or arcade stick over keyboard, of course - accuracy of input, speed of input, and analog input capability. Key jamming and ghosting are legit issues for users of low-quality keyboards but can always be rectified by switching to a high-quality keyboard.

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Original post by Stroppy Katamari
The screen in the picture is a plasma. Modern LCDs are not supposed to suffer from image retention at all, while plasmas do, and are generally not used for gaming for exactly that reason. Devs throwing a bone to plasma owners, like a slowly moving background picture instead of black bars, is obviously not much work and offset some image retention, but that isn't enough to make your software "burn-in proof". For that, you also couldn't have a static score counter, a health bar, or anything of the sort. In short, not worth doing. The only thing that works is not to get a plasma in the first place, or to obey the owner's manual and strongly moderate the relative amount of gaming and off-aspect video viewing you do on it.

That is a common missconception. Vendors thought they were resistant to image retention, but practice proved them wrong. This is why recently shipped LCD manuals now come with a burn-in warning.
Yes, the image links to a plasma TV; and no, LCDs are affected by burn ins (although, to a much lesser extent).
Also, one thing is two have a static counter which occupies 1/32 of the screen, and another one is two have 2 black bars which occupy between 1/4-1/3 of the screen.

Interesting, the exact opposite argument you're giving me was being used years ago, since Plasma had lower latency, it was better for gaming. Nowadays no one cares about it since LCDs have come a long way.
Although, I heard Rock Band (or one of those music games) has an option for LCD HDTV lag compensation.
Furthermore Criterion Games also mentions something about it:
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Alex Fry: Very sensible. But as you probably know, most of the latency in gaming today comes from the processing going on in the LCD TV. They often have five, ten frames of latency.


I agree with you though, that a moving animation instead or black bars has to be carefully thought or else it will cause more harm than they cure. This happens with poorly designed screensavers.
And at some point, something will always be susceptible to burn in and yet never hurted (i.e. most of us have the start menu on the bottom of the screen, almost always still).
But 1/3 of a screen being black is something significative that can't be taken lightly.

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So what advantage do people with fast systems have in a fighting game, in comparison to people with systems with average HW specs and reasonable graphics settings? I'm thinking none.

Better response as they can predict enemy movements more fluently and input faster.
Also, you're comparing a High-end system with an "average HW specs and reasonable graphics settings".
You have to compare high-end, average, and below average. Unless you're not targeting the last group. Oh, but the point of this thread is to include as more people as possible having the same (exact?) experience, so we can't exclude them.

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I see differences of network lag, selective use of low graphics settings and cheating to be much more prominent technical issues than possible hardware advantage.

Ahh, yes. But single player also comes into discussion here.
How many times you've heard someone "For god sake I've pressed the damn key! why didn't he move??!" or "WTF? it stalled for 1 second and now I'm dead??"

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Got a link, or any information at all about this supposed systemic keyboard lag? I do not believe it exists. There are valid reasons to use a gamepad or arcade stick over keyboard, of course - accuracy of input, speed of input, and analog input capability.

My keyboard for example.
A cheap USB Genius Keyboard that came with my Mobo. It lags as hell (and I still don't know why) compared to my other PS/2 keyboards.
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Key jamming and ghosting are legit issues for users of low-quality keyboards but can always be rectified by switching to a high-quality keyboard.

Ahh.... so we arrive at the original problem: Fairness of the game when dealing with different Hardware.
The solution you're proposing is analogous to forcing everyone to buy a 4:3 monitor (or whatever the developer decided) or else you can't play the game.
The solution we're looking for is "you have a widescreen monitor? No problem, we've got something special for you so the game feels the same"

Cheers
Dark Sylinc

PS: Thanks Michaud! Excellent articles!
PS2: Slather: Lovely solution!

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Original post by Matias Goldberg
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So what advantage do people with fast systems have in a fighting game, in comparison to people with systems with average HW specs and reasonable graphics settings? I'm thinking none.

Better response as they can predict enemy movements more fluently and input faster.
Also, you're comparing a High-end system with an "average HW specs and reasonable graphics settings".
You have to compare high-end, average, and below average. Unless you're not targeting the last group. Oh, but the point of this thread is to include as more people as possible having the same (exact?) experience, so we can't exclude them.
No, the point of this thread is fairness in a competetive setting with different sets of hardware. "The same exact experience" requires either the same exact hardware, or hard-capping the game to the weakest supported hardware.

Regarding fighting games, if the hardware can run the game at minimum detail and resolution (solid 60Hz of course) then the fight is fair. It doesn't matter if the opponent throws ten times as much hardware at the game, has a ton more resolution than you do and everything cranked to eleven, because the extra detail doesn't actually help him win.
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I see differences of network lag, selective use of low graphics settings and cheating to be much more prominent technical issues than possible hardware advantage.

Ahh, yes. But single player also comes into discussion here.
How many times you've heard someone "For god sake I've pressed the damn key! why didn't he move??!" or "WTF? it stalled for 1 second and now I'm dead??"
I have no idea what that has to do with anything.
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Got a link, or any information at all about this supposed systemic keyboard lag? I do not believe it exists. There are valid reasons to use a gamepad or arcade stick over keyboard, of course - accuracy of input, speed of input, and analog input capability.

My keyboard for example.
A cheap USB Genius Keyboard that came with my Mobo. It lags as hell (and I still don't know why) compared to my other PS/2 keyboards.
One crappy keyboard != endemic keyboard lag. The vast majority of gamers never have trouble with their keyboards, and do not even specifically pick a keyboard for gaming, much less get a gamepad to fight some widespread lag problem with keyboards which I maintain does not exist.
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Key jamming and ghosting are legit issues for users of low-quality keyboards but can always be rectified by switching to a high-quality keyboard.

Ahh.... so we arrive at the original problem: Fairness of the game when dealing with different Hardware.

The solution you're proposing is analogous to forcing everyone to buy a 4:3 monitor (or whatever the developer decided) or else you can't play the game.
No. I neglected to mention that games are already designed around those issues, so successfully that the majority of gamers are oblivious even to the possibility of these phenomena. A keyboard which jams and ghosts so badly that it's unusable is an exception, just as a keyboard with lag is. Replacing such a keyboard with a normal, functional one is the reasonable fix. Software cannot accommodate every deficient piece of HW in existence. The line of minimal requirements has to be drawn somewhere.

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Original post by Stroppy Katamari
"The same exact experience" requires either the same exact hardware, or hard-capping the game to the weakest supported hardware.

Couldn't agree more. I'm just saying that it doesn't prevent us from trying to minimize the gameplay experience differences (ideally, the exact same experience would be great, even though we know it's impossible if they don't have the same HW, it's where we're heading to.)

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Regarding fighting games, if the hardware can run the game at minimum detail and resolution (solid 60Hz of course) then the fight is fair.

Oh that's what I was getting at, those machine who can't get 60Hz.
I agree there's no difference if they get solid 60hz.

Some poorly designed games might give a slight advantage when running with maximum detail because some stuff is drawn differently (or in low quality it isn't drawn at all) which may increase sharpness or distract more/less. Though that's off topic.

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Ahh, yes. But single player also comes into discussion here.
How many times you've heard someone "For god sake I've pressed the damn key! why didn't he move??!" or "WTF? it stalled for 1 second and now I'm dead??"
I have no idea what that has to do with anything.

What I meant is that a game should attempt to attract players.
It's a shame and frustrating for the game designer when the overall gaming experience was ruined because of technical difficulties, even worse when the player ends up hating the game or thinking it's not fun because of this.
I view this from a design & marketing point of view.

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The line of minimal requirements has to be drawn somewhere.

Yes sure, and agreed. My original point was that unfairness because of different Hardware is unavoidable, and I was giving an example of it.

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Why not just move the radar and player data off the viewable area in the letter box view?

That would solve the black issue and it won't be obvious to the player that their be punished by a 4/3 aspect ratio display.

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Ok I can't resist saying this,

"Think outside the box". The letterbox that is lol!

Another thing you could put in the black area is a chat window. Although as some previous mentioned you could also slowly adjust the coloring so the huds outside the letterbox don't have to high of a brightness to distract the player from the in game lighting.

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Returning to the main point of the thread, I think Erik Rufelt and Krohm nailed it. A game with a competition aspect needs fixed aspect ratio to ensure fairness. Where it fits, by all means include another optional mode which fills the screen (and is designed to be either equal or inferior to "the" ratio in every aspect of doing well at the game).

I think most of the criticism against letterboxing is unfounded. People don't complain about it in movies.

Now, how exactly to choose the fixed aspect ratio?

The thing that comes to mind would be to pick the ratio the majority of your users have, which is not unreasonable. But it is better to think of some other things as well. Considering the current state of display technology, if I predict 7/10 of my users will have 4:3 displays and 3/10 will have 16:10, I'd likely still make 16:10 the fixed ratio. The superior screens on the market (size, IQ, etc.) are 16:10. Because of that, the users who care about optimal presentation and/or control already tend to have 16:10, or will switch to it. To set the game to use 4:3 ratio will result in a good bit of antipathy from the widescreen folk. Proportionally far fewer people with 4:3 are going notice or care about the results of setting the game to 16:10. Going the other way would also potentially put people in the silly situation where they have to downgrade their hardware overall if they want an optimal experience with your game. Obviously, if there were displays that are better than ones available in 16:10, they would still have to be common enough to warrant ending up as the fixed ratio.

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