Field of View (FoV or Field of Vision) is the representation of what your playable character can see on your screen in a first person shooter.
In recent years field of view has been decreased in many games despite wider screens becoming the standard which has a negative impact on many games and can even cause motion sickness in some people.
The human eye
Before we get started with the article, it’s important to know the science behind a humans eye sight. Humans have a horizontal field of view of almost 180° and a vertical field of view of approximately 135°.
This translates quite well onto screens, since the old standard 4:3 is slightly wider than it is tall and 16:9 displays are even wider still, closer matching the ratio of horizontal and vertical field of view the human eyes are capable of.
History: Field of View in First Person Shooters
For many years the standard screen ratio was 4:3 and most FPS provided a horizontal field of view of around 90°. 90° is only half of our actual field of view, but due to the shape of the screen it wasn’t feasible to increase the field of view in games much beyond 90°.
Why 90°? Well my guess is that 90 is a nice round number. 4:3 being almost square, 90° makes sense. It allows you to see the rest of a room if you’re standing in the very corner looking at the opposite corner.
Introduction of the widescreen
When the Xbox and PS2 hit many families had Plasma or LCD TV’s in their houses, but a lot of gamers with small setups in their room were still gaming on small CRT TV’s. So whilst that generation of consoles supported widescreen HD, few people actually took advantage of it.
It wasn’t until the Xbox 360 and PS3 came out that 16:9 widescreens had become the standard for gaming. Up until then widescreen Plasma and LCD screens were still a relatively new technology. CRT’s were being phased out, most of them being 4:3 and the most hardcore gamers were still clinging onto their CRT monitors since LCD screens had high response times.
The spread of widescreen TV’s and monitors was awesome for gaming as the screen ratios were a closer match to what the human eye is actually capable of seeing meaning you could fit more onto the screen…
Or so we thought…
Graphics > Gameplay
It is often repeated over and over: “Gameplay is more important than graphics”, and “You shouldn’t sacrifice graphics for gameplay”.
Well unfortunately wasn’t isn’t the case for many AAA titles. While PC gamers had been enjoying the benefits widescreen offered, console developers were trying to find ways of squeezing every last drop of power from these consoles.
There’s only so many tricks and optimisations a developer can do to make a game look amazing and still perform well within hardware limitations, especially when graphics technology has far surpassed the aging console hardware.
Think about it, the Xbox 360 came out in 2005. The Xbox One came out in 2013. That is 8 years, which might as well be 80 years when it comes to graphics technology. During this time game developers are making better and better graphics for their PC games or PC ports of their console games and they don’t want these assets to go to waste.
In the end the developers usually end up sacrificing something to get these superior graphics onto the inferior hardware. In some cases resolutions are dropped to below the standard 720p, sometimes frame rates are reduced to 30FPS and one of the best ways to increase the graphics quality is to reduce the field of view.
Why? Well the lower the field of view the less things appear on the screen at once. Less special effects, less lighting, less shadows and less polygons.
Unfortunately, since most console games outsell the PC version, PC gamers end up putting up with a field of view that was designed with limited console hardware in mind even if their PC is more than capable of running it.
Why is a low Field of View bad?
A low field of view is bad for many reasons. Here’s some of the most important points:
Wider screen = Less vision
A widescreen is supposed to fit more information on a screen, not less. It’s absolutely crazy that games designed with 4:3 screens in mind had a higher horizontal field of view than a widescreen. If someone had told me that was going to be the future of gaming 10 years ago I would have labelled them insane.
Rather than taking advantage of a screen that can more closely mimic our real life eye sight developers have gone completely backwards in the name of pretty graphics and fancy shading effects.
Low Field of View feels unnatural
A reduced field of view usually doesn’t feel right. Your screen is supposed to represent what your character in game can see (within reason). A low field of view may feel like you have tunnel vision or that you’re constantly zoomed in – This is because reducing the field of view and zooming in practically accomplish the same goal.
If you walked around the streets wearing magnification goggles it would feel unnatural. The exact same thing happens when playing a game with a low field of view. Experienced gamers will often feel the like they’re playing on a low field of view before they even see they’re playing on a low field of view.
Low Field of View limits what a player can see
Well duh, but why is this a bad thing?
In a single player game a player may miss out on a scripted event around them because they weren’t focusing their narrow field of view on the event at the right time. They don’t get to see as much of the environment around them that the developers have put so much effort into. They may not feel as immersed in the world as they could be with a larger field of view, especially in games in set in an open environment such as Skyrim, Far Cry or Battlefield.
In competitive multiplayer it limits players in a negative way. It makes it harder for a player to defend a certain location as they have to keep on looking around since they can’t see all entrances at once, even if theoretically it would be possible to see all entrances in real life with the naked eye.
A great example of the frustration can be felt in Halo 3. In Halo 3 your field of view is quite limited and the game features quite a lot of close quarters combat. To make matters worse the player jump height is quite high so in many close quarters battles a player would just jump during an encounter and disappear entirely from the other players screen for a significant amount of time. It was a mechanic that was just anti-fun and looked quite ridiculous from a spectator point of view.
Some may argue: “Well it just means players need to be more aware”, or “It takes more skill”, to which I’d simply reply, well if a lower field of view is more skilful why not just reduce it even more to say, 40°? I don’t think players should feel as though they’re fighting against the game because of completely unnecessary limitations.
Arguably the best competitive shooters such as Quake, Unreal Tournament and Counter Strike all have a high field of view or at least have the option to adjust it and I don’t think anyone would dare question the amount of skill it takes to play those games at a professional level.
Low Field of Vision is unrealistic
Most FPS games are designed to be as realistic as possible (to an extent of course and within the rules of the games universe). Things like only being able to sprint short distances before becoming tired and gun recoil are evidence that game developers want the first person shooter experience to be authentic, so why would they limit your in-game FoV to less than half of your vision in real life?
There are some cases when game developers may opt to reduce a games field of view for artistic reasons. For example, a horror game may reduce the field of view to give the player a sense of fear, claustrophobia, limited peripheral vision, etc. For most games this simply is not the case.
Low Field of View can cause motion sickness
Some people may actually experience motion sickness from playing games with a low field of view (This may be further impacted by a low frame rate as well, another trick game developers often use to increase graphics).
When your field of view is small it means player movements and looking around have more effect on the camera movement. Things like head bobbing from running become a lot more noticeable and jerky camera movements are more common. On top of this your brain expects to have peripheral vision to make sense of the surrounding environment which you no longer have. Your body doesn’t like this which can make you feel nauseous after playing for a while.
Some games now are catering to colour blind players by allowing options to help colour blind people see certain game elements easier and most games offer subtitles to help those who are deaf or hearing impaired. It only makes sense to at least allow the option to increase the field of view for gamers that may suffer from motion sickness.
Gameplay > Graphics
A lot of hardcore gamers would take my side in the argument that a higher field of view is more important than the latest GPU heavy lighting effects. Unfortunately most major game developers do not agree. Game reviewers will often praise a game for having spectacular graphics, even if it means the game has a claustrophobic field of view and only runs at 30FPS and these reviews sell games.
In my opinion graphics should never be placed above gameplay. I may be impressed by a games advanced lighting and shadows for about 5 minutes and then I’ll never notice it again but I guarantee I’ll feel the negative effects of a low field of view every minute I play the game.
Game developers shouldn’t be trying to push graphics so hard on limited console hardware. A game is supposed to be suited for the console. If 8X Anti-Aliasing means my field of view is limited to 70° then just drop the AA to 2X’s instead. If a high polygon count on an NPC model means less NPC’s need to appear on the screen at once then drop the poly count on the 3D models.
One argument against this may be that the limited field of view in console games are intended for people sitting further from a screen. I think anyone that buys this excuse is incredibly naive. It becomes incredibly apparent when games are running at sub-optimal FPS or when frame rates plummet during action scenes that game developers are simply trying to squeeze more out of the consoles than they’re actually capable of.
If this was the case, wouldn’t game developers leave FoV adjustments in game for gamers who don’t sit on back on their couch playing on their large lounge room TV? Many gamers I know personally (especially the competitive crowd) prefer playing at their desk on a smaller monitor so shouldn’t these gamers also be catered for?
Thankfully some game developers are now including the option to adjust the field of view in their PC games however the option still very rarely exists for console games (In fact, the only example I can think of is the original Bioshock on Xbox 360). Many PC games can be played with a better FoV, however it requires editing configuration files outside the game which no one should be required to do for an option that should be considered standard.
My hope is that developers will realise that not all console gamers sit far away from their large TV’s while playing games and that the new generation of hardware will allow developers to start introducing field of view options into console games as well without negatively impacting the games performance.