Design Space: Field of view and its effect on gameplay

With the advent of virtual reality and the re-popularization of the first person shooter, it’s become the standard for most games to include a “field of view” slider in the options menu. You generally want to set your field of view to be equal to the actual visual space your monitor takes up. The field of vision of the average person is about 170-180 degrees, so PC games set their field of view at around 90-100 degrees because PC gamers sit so close to their monitors. Conversely, console games run at a 60-70 degree field of view because console gamers tend to sit further away from the TV. FOV sliders allow users to tweak this range for their own personal comfort. A wildly offset field of view can cause nausea or motion sickness, especially in VR.

But field of view isn’t just an option that you toggle for comfort. It’s a parameter that affects the way you move through a game. When players change their field of view setting they may be changing the core game experience without even thinking about it.

Room to Move

To see how field of view affects gameplay, all we need to do is look back to the days of the Gameboy.  While popular and innovative for its time, it had several limitations, most notably in resolution. The Gameboy could display 160x144 pixels, as opposed to the Nintendo’s 256x240 pixels. This meant that characters made of a similar amount of pixels would take up more space on the Gameboy screen. This also meant that players would see less of the surrounding environment because there were fewer pixels to draw it with.

Compare these two images of Super Mario Bros 3 and Super Mario Land 2 scaled to be similar sizes. The increased resolution of the NES allows you to see more of the stage in front of Mario. This allows the player to make educated guesses about what is coming up next. However, the decreased resolution of the Gameboy effectively zooms the camera in and less of the environment is shown. The player has less of an idea of what’s coming up in the level, so this change in field of view affects how players move through each game. The increased information of Super Mario Bros. 3 allowed Mario to move more quickly. Players would know well in advance if an enemy was coming toward them or if they had to make a jump, so they were more likely to hold down the run button. As a result, SMB3 designed several mechanics around speed, like the P meter. This increased screen real estate allowed designers to put multiple enemies on screen at once, which lead players to navigate around them instead of defeating each one.

The limited information of Super Mario Land 2 made the game more dangerous. In fact, many Gameboy platformers failed because jumps that would be acceptable on the NES became blind leaps of faith on the Gameboy’s resolution. So Mario was designed to move slower, and his jump was made “floatier” to make jumping safer. This made platforming slower and more calculated.

However, it also reduced the amount of platforming in the game altogether. This is why you saw so many gimmicks, like auto-scrolling space levels and maze-style levels, in Gameboy Mario titles. Enemies were also a bigger threat because they could attack suddenly from off screen, so players were more likely to spend time defeating each one. This is why Super Mario Land 2 has an increased focus on unique boss battles compared to Super Mario Bros 3. Where platforming was removed, combat took its place.

Both games were built with same formula in mind, but a simple change in field of view made them two completely different experiences. Modern day games are not limited by resolution in the way the Gameboy was, so field of view has become more of a design choice than a necessity. But a small change in field of view can still have a massive effect on a game’s mechanics.

Room to Fight

Let’s compare three popular modern-day fighting games: The King of Fighters XIV, Street Fighter V, and Tekken 7.

Street Fighter V can serve as a baseline. The camera is set at a medium distance from the characters. When a match starts, there is approximately a character’s worth of space in front and behind both players. This allows either player to advance or retreat when the match begins. The camera also shows approximately one character’s worth of height above each character’s head. This allows players to perform and defend against jumping attacks.

Street Fighter has always been the middle ground of fighting game mechanics. It’s not too aggressive and not too slow. Player approaches are limited to dashing, walking, and jumping. Movement gimmicks take a backseat to fundamentals. This is the general formula that other fighting games were based on.

Compared to Street Fighter V, the camera is zoomed out in The King of Fighters XIV. This makes characters appear smaller and puts more space in front and behind them. There is much more space over their heads. To utilize this space, KOF has more movement options including short hops, super jumps, dashes, dash jumps, and more. If the same systems were included in Street Fighter V, characters would routinely jump off screen. Having more ways to move gives you more options when attacking, which makes KOF XIV feel like a more fast-paced and aggressive game. You might note that other aggressive games, like Guilty Gear, the VS. series or Skullgirls, have fields of view that are zoomed out even more, allowing characters to air dash, fly, and perform all sorts of movement tricks.

Tekken 7 takes its field of view to the other extreme. It pushes it in close, showing less space in front and behind the characters and very little space over their heads. Tekken characters can jump, but not very high. They can run, but this telegraphs as attacks. The majority of movement in a Tekken match is performed through small steps in close quarters. Much like we saw in Super Mario Land 2, Tekken characters move slower than Street Fighter or King of Fighters characters and gameplay itself becomes slower. This makes matches come down to footsies and spacing rather than movement oriented mix-ups.

Room to See

So how do modern-day games change when you fiddle with the field of view?

Examine the recently released Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Say you are doing an all stealth run. If your field of view is set to narrow, the game becomes tenser. You see less of the world around you, which gives you a greater chance of being spotted by an enemy off screen. This causes you to move slower and more cautiously, as we have seen in past examples.

Expanding the field of view gives you more information and makes it less likely that you’ll be noticed by someone off-screen. This empowers the player, allowing them to more easily handle enemies and possible obstacles. This feeling of power makes the player more likely to use stealth to kill an enemy rather than avoiding them. As a result the game’s tone changes. With a narrow field of view, you feel like a spy trying to get in and get out before anyone notices, but with a wide field of view you feel like an assassin, examining the behavior patterns of guards to set up a silent path of death.

This is why fast first person games, like flight sims, tend to have very wide fields of view, while slow first person games, like horror games, narrow your field of view in order to increase tension and unease. Case in point: No Man’s Sky has a very wide field of view which allows you to find new discoveries out of the corner of your eye as you roam from planet to planet. Five Nights at Freddy’s, on the other hand, doesn’t even let you check to your left and right without performing an action.

Now, all this isn’t to say that modern games should remove their field of view options, but rather that designers need to think about how including an option effects gameplay. A possible solution is to include a field of view adjustment guide, much in the way games include a guide for adjusting brightness. This would allow designers to help players tweak the field of view to produce exactly the experience they intended. If the player decides to change the field of view further and their experience suffers for it, then only they are to blame.

So the next time you start fiddling with your field of view slider, don’t just think about avoiding motion sickness. Think about the type of gameplay experience you want to have and adjust accordingly. You might even find a whole new way to play some of your favorite PC games.