A man of letters

One of the many opaque elements of game development that players usually don’t ever have to consider is the simple matter of fonts. What is the problem, right? You have fonts on your computer, there are plenty you use every day when you write your documents. Just use one of those!

Sadly, it isn’t that easy. Using fonts for commercial use – and a video game is a commercial use – costs money, sometimes a lot of money. There are free fonts, or rather copyright free and free to use fonts but the selection is more limited. On top of that a lot of free fonts also lack all the special characters you’ll need when localising your game. Proper commercial fonts that contain everything you need are very expensive to license.

So what is a developer to do? In my case, I created my own. It was less of a consideration of cost but rather my strict technical specifications, or style specifications that made creating a bespoke font the easier option.

The first issue is that fonts are comprised of lineart and I obviously want a font based on pixels or at least a pixel resolution. Luckily you can set up Adobe Illustrator with a nice snappy grid, so I end up creating my individual letters like I would had I been painting in pixels.

Building a letter from pixels. Merging the pixels to create a solid shape. Clean up the superfluous curve points.

Once I am happy with how the letter looks I combine all the “pixels” into a single solid shape, and remove any superfluous curve points. The latter part isn’t strictly required, but it does show you a nice insight into my old-school game developer brain of keeping things as small and efficient as possible.

It took a few tries to get the letters to look good enough, to my liking. I settled on a 7×7 grid, more or less, for the base letter shapes, with some room to expand above and below the lines, for accents and lower case danglies. I could have made a 5×5 based font, which would have given me more room for text in-game, but it just didn’t feel as nice. A slightly larger, chunkier font felt it fit the graphical style of the game better.

All of the Piczle Cross Adventure letters and special characters.

Once you have the base set it is fairly easy to add all the special character versions. Your ñ or ç or ß are all included in my one font so that I won’t need to think of separate font files for the different Western languages.

Using BirdFont to create a font file.

Finally there is the simple matter of copying the letter shapes into your font creation tool. I use Birdfont, but there are plenty of alternatives available. In Birdfont it was easy enough for me to place the individual letters into a grid of a similar “pixel” density to give them all the proper “1 blank pixel” kerning space that I wanted. From here I can simply export the font to a TrueType, import it into my project and hey presto!

Now keen eyed and alert readers might note that my font does not include any Japanese or Chinese symbols. And there is a good reason for that. I am not (always) an idiot.

Creating several dozen letters by hand is a doable, even fun task. Doing several thousand really isn’t. On top of that there is one hard rule I have learned as a developer and designer in my almost two decades in Japan: DON’T. CHOOSE. JAPANESE. FONTS. IF. YOU’RE. NOT. JAPANESE!

A Venn diagram for your pleasure.

There is zero overlap between the Japanese fonts Westerners think look cool and Japanese fonts Japanese people think look cool. You will pick one, think woah, supercool! You show it to a Japanese person and 100% of the time they will turn their nose up at it. “Ugh, childish!” or “ugly!” or “old fashioned!” There is an entire culture and history behind lettering and not understanding any of it you are likely to pick the Comic Sans of Japanese fonts. Not recommended! No, ask a Japanese designer to propose a font for you, and use that.

Like in previous Piczle games, Japanese and Chinese fonts are worth the investment of purchasing. In Piczle Cross Adventure’s case I’m going to have to compromise and maybe “break” the pixel grid” constraints to keep the letters chunky but readable. There will be a disconnect in pixel density between art and text for the Asian version (once a font has been chosen, which hasn’t happened yet) but I will endeavour to find a font where that disconnect won’t be too jarring. Or rather I will have a font recommended to me where that disconnect won’t be too jarring.

At some point in the future, after some testing in the wild, I am planning to release the Piczle Cross Adventure western pixel font for free.

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