_Or a better question: what makes a game? And what are the basic accessible options are the basic needs for a healthy game? The key difference between games and other entertainment is, that they are by definition – inaccessible; because they need a challenge to be recognized as a ‘game’, otherwise it just would be a toy or a narrative. This challenge could easily become a barrier.
_Every game has barriers which make them what they are, what makes them fun or – what doesn’t make it fun for some. Unlike in the Web content accessibility guidelines, it’s not a simple checkmark list, it’s more like an optimization process. How much can you strip away from the game, what is necessary to keep its core design? What’s unnecessary for the game and its possibility to be enjoyed?
_There are some key accessibility errors making huge impact in a games enjoyability which occur very often which could be avoided easily, like the text size, the use of colors, fixed controls, and the reliance on solely audio. The basic solutions for these problems would be, for example, a decent default text size which is still adjustable, other signifiers like visual or haptic cues instead of only sound, remappable controls and – believe it or not – implementation of basic subtitles. Its not depending on much research and development to implement such features – only thinking of them in the very early stages of development can solve a lot of troubles later.
_Game menus are widely known for their possible complexities. In this case, its about showing the right amount of complexity at the right time to the right people. Like bundling some options into a preset and present them at the start of the game and give the users to customize these even further; because some people like the ability to change many details and configurate, others don’t and want to just jump right in. Like in TLOU:PT2, when you boot up the game for the first time, you will get the option to choose between a few presets, which could help each with different impairments. But if you choose, you can go a level deeper and customize these presets completely to your needs.
_To sum up, defining early what’s necessary and what is optional really helps in designing with accessibility in mind, and create great games.
_Many game studios made pushes into the field of accessibility and the appeal of accessibility in games is growing ever more.
_For example, back then NAUGHTY DOG made UNCHARTED 4 and supplied it with options for motor impairments, and in 2020 they released THE LAST OF US: PT.2 and with their enormous advancements in inclusion they won the award for best innovation in accessibility. There is considerable work done in the various fields of the elimination of different barriers are getting explored one after the other. Back in 2018 we mostly talked about text customization, now we’re at full-blown shader alteration by AAA-titles.
_Mark Brown does a big analysis of each year game releases and examines them in all regards of accessibility and highlights their several achievements.
_On December 10th THE GAME AWARDS for the year 2021 took place in LA, where great games get acknowledged and, stating the obvious, awards. Also is this an event for game developtent companies to present their new projects to the whole world.
_Since 2020 there is an award in place for “Best Innovation in Accessibility”, which recognizes debvelopers that are pushing the medium forward by adding features, technologies and content to help games to be played by an even greater audience. Last year, this award was given to NAUGHTY DOG STUDIOS for their immense dedication to publish the most accessible game n a long time: THE LAST OF US PART II. This year, THE GAME AWARDS made the extra effort to make their show more accessible, including an audio-descriptive stream, an ASL (American Sign Language) stream and closed captions. Even on site one could see ASL interpreters standing in front of the stage, bringing ASL to the audience. The award itself was presented by Morgan Baker (Accessibility specialist and designer; also judge in this category) and Jacksepticeye (webvideo producer).
Games are for everyone.
They stated that it’s about honoring people, who work as hard as possible to share their work with as many people as possible by discovering new and creative methods to encourage inclusion. This year’s nominees were:
Far Cry 6 (UBISOFT)
Forza Horizon 5 (PLAYGROUND GAMES)
MARVEL’s Guardians of the Galaxy (SQUARE ENIX)
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart (SONY)
The Vale: Shadow of the Crown (FALLING SQUIRREL)
_Quick Summaries on what each nominee accomplished with accessibility options in their games:
Far Cry 6. This shooter is a quite unexpected newcomer in accessibility, with a wide variety of color customizations for different aspects of the game, like enemy laser pointers, to see where they are going to fire. Also closed captions, a colorblind mode, and texts to speech options.
Forza Horizon 5. The option to enable a in game sign language interpreter was added to this new racing game, besides of many other accessibility customizations.
MARVEL’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Various settings to alter gameplay and certain aspects of it, like changing received damage, ammunition costs, timers, and cooldowns.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. Options to customize the visual appearance of the game, like depth of field, screen shake, colors, high contrast outlines and more.
The Vale: Shadow of the Crown. A very interesting nominee; a game solely and entirely told through audio and almost no graphics with a focus on narrative and storytelling – perfectly designed to be accessible for blind and low-vision players.
_The winner for best Innovation in Accessibility this year was Forza Horizon 5 (also Best Audio Design & Best Sports/Racing Game) made by PLAYGROUND GAMES. They stated, that their team were so committed to accessibility, so they made it to one of their core pillars of game design in this project. According to them, there is a billion players with some sort of disability which makes gaming a challenge for them – they are happy to be creators who can add options and features which open the ‘magic’ of video games to more and more players.
When everyone plays, we all win.
_Immediately after watching this award category and its winner I pondered, what are the exact benefits of ASL as opposed to subtitles? Apparently, ASL – provided by a skilled interpreter – makes it easier for sign language users to keep track of the conversation, who is currently speaking; by taking on the certain aspects of the speaking character. This is achieved through the fact that ASL works completely differently as language, with a different grammar, syntax, and stylistic nuances. Also, subtitles rarely indicate music, sound effects or the atmosphere of the situation. In conclusion, ASL in conjunction with subtitles can greatly enhance the experience of games for people with hearing disabilities.
_Hands-on experience with DEATH STRANDING by SONY and Kojima Productions. This game is a beautifully crafted dark apocalyptic sci-fi game with an enigmatic story, a masterpiece in convoluted narrative, futuristic designs and rather complex systems and even more complex UIs.
_Last year I played the ‘base version’ – the PS4 edition – quite a lot and found my way around the complex systems after a while. I learned how the different features work and how to use them properly; and even how to exploit them as much as possible to make my life easier with this game. But there were many things which annoyed me, like non scalable text size which made me often scooch even closer on the couch to my rather big screen, only to read some menu texts. So even for me, it wasn’t satisfying from the beginning and now, almost more than a year later, the “Directors Cut” for PS5 got released – rumor has it, this version is now more accessible. So, I tried the new version of the game after a yearlong break on a PS5 and immediately notices many improvements, mainly quality-of-life improvements. Now the question came up, how good were those improvements really? For a start, I researched some accessibility reviews on DEATH STRANDING and gathered their findings.
_The 1st review was made by Steve Saylor, a blind gamer – his general thoughts and opinions on the accessibility of this game were very intriguing. The crazy and wild story did really impress him, yet did he feel held back by the limitations of accessibility. He tested the PS5 version, where they implanted a “large text” option to enlarge the text size in the whole UI – whereas text in the base PS4 version initially was considered rather small. But even with this new option, often it seems hard to tell where large text was applied, and small text remains. Paired with that, the game has a lot of Button prompts, menus, button maps and texts which take up a lot of the screen, making it rather crowded. To identify everything correctly, one is required to lean back and forth to the screen – which is tiresome.
Staying with visual barriers, subtitles exist through the whole game; yet they do not have any high contrast or background to them – no further settings except on/off. But weirdly enough, in some situations – like any open menu – where there is dialogue experienced, the subtitles get a nice black gradient as background, but only there. Besides that, hearing impaired people might also find difficulties: there is no menu narration, but there are audio feedback/cues, that play on selecting inputs. The two main accessibility barriers he identified were for people with motor or cognitive disabilities. Starting with the latter; in the game there are a lot of different subsystems, which require you to memorize complex input patterns and often it’s hard to determine, what the most important information on the screen is right now – or what is just eye candy. There are subtle visual cues to those vital elements, but often you are left with a ‘lost’ feeling in all these menus.
The lack of any in-game remapping of controls (PS5 version) comes to play at one of the core aspects of the game: while you deliver your items/cargo you will cross different types of terrain (water, rocks, mud, snow…) and for that you to balance your cargo. This is done by ‘ready yourself’ – pressing down left & right shoulder trigger – to prevent yourself from toppling over. The need to push them down constantly to stay upright might be a barrier for some people with motor disabilities. The adaptive triggers of the Dualsense controller do feel nice, but even without any dexterity problems it can get annoying and exhausting, because you will press the shoulder triggers a lot – fortunately you can disable the adaptive feedback. Later in the game you do get access to vehicles, which will help you with that, but it will take some time and exhaustion to get to that point. But that being said, these helping game features possess a durability system and do have to be maintained to work properly.
Buttons in DEATH STRANDING do have many different functions, depending on what subsystem you’re in. A good example would be the item “Repairspray”, which is used to repair worn out cargo containers. To use this item, you will have to:
Press the D-Pad right and hold it, that opens the item wheel
Select with your right analog stick the item
If it’s not on the first page of items, press the right analog stick to switch pages (often referred as R3)
Let go of the D-Pad, item is now equipped
Press left shoulder trigger (L2) to ready it (it now points forward)
Press square to point it backwards to your cargo mounted on your backpack
Press right shoulder trigger (R2) to activate it (until it runs out of gas)
Now you either but it back with D-Pad right or you hold D-Pad right, access the item again in the item wheel and press circle to drop it
Everything has such complex interactions und requires multiple button presses, even in combat and other stressful situations. His final words were that the “Directors Cut” does have some neat little improvements, but it remains just an upgraded & polished version with minor changes to the PS4 edition. It could be, that for many people the advances made are still too little.
_The 2nd review is by Michael Matlock who also came to mainly the same conclusions. Multiple button presses at once are difficult, and even remapping them within the PS5 integrated system options (which is possible nonetheless) is tiresome and exhausting. An interesting aspect which joined the barriers for people with motor disabilities was the camera: the right stick must be adjusted constantly to look around and an automatic camera would help a great deal; this would center/adjust the camera always behind the player character. It was mentioned that the difficulty setting “Very easy” was overhauled that everyone could beat the game, where penalties for dropping cargo are very small and combat is fairly simple – this would have to be tested, I might add.
Concerning accessibility options, the aim-assist is by default activated (changeable) and there is an option for “Keep balance”-sensitivity, which controls who difficult the balancing part is for the player. Also, there is now a “Hold Button”-option, resulting in overriding any quickly repeated button presses (quick time events) to just holding the button down. The analog sticks have adjustable dead zones, and some motion-based inputs can be remapped to ‘normal’ button presses. The HUD can be adjusted with selecting & deselecting shown icons to reduce visual clutter; and the brightness can be easily adjusted. Another interesting barrier, everything has subtitles – expect the frequent appearing music pieces. Yet not hearing them will not stop you from advancing further in the game, but sadly do they add a lot to the atmosphere of the game.
A big burden is lifted through the rather smart game design – the online component. As one might never meet another player in his own game world, yet these other online players might alter your own game world by leaving objects and structures to help you traverse the world easier – this feature often helps a great deal getting through the game. For example, at one moment you might struggle crossing a river and when you return later someone left you a bridge in the meantime. Final judgement of this review was partially accessible and again, a lot of helpful accessibility options, but still room for a lot of improvements – yet it has gotten substantially better considering earlier Kojima titles.
_3rd review of the game was done by Courtney Craven at CAN I PLAY THAT?: again, iterating many of the given problems. Interesting enough, the ability to plot routes, which will then be visible in the game world as dotted lines was praised as helpful tool while being deservedly difficult to operate (speaking again of multiple button presses). Also, the “very easy”-difficulty could eliminate combat completely, but I doubt stripping away this aspect completely does the game any good, but maybe there could be a workaround by maybe leaving the combat situation in the game yet removing the possibility for a “game over”.
The statement was made, that if you struggle with holding down the triggers, you will not really be able to play DEATH STRANDING – which, given the number of times you will have to press it, is most likely true. Regarding the font sizes, it was mentioned that even the “large text”-option looks like rather ‘normal’ text size. I agree on that; the ‘large’ text was just right for me, yet somebody might need it even bigger – and that’s just not supported. Final words in that review that this game is one of the most barrier-ridden games in a long time but not a complete accessibility failure – although many people might not be able to enjoy this game.
_My own small notes on this game are that I was rather surprised by the given accessibility options, because Japanese productions often suffer from a poor approach to accessibility – maybe it was SONY helping hand – but it was nice to see that there were some ideas, thoughts and time spent on making the game more easily enjoyable for a broader audience. What I still struggle with, which is funny no one mentioned it in my research; the sheer amount and variety of complex, new and unknown icons often leave me pondering, what they want to tell me – although this is for another time.
_On November 11th, the World Usability Day 2021 was also celebrated in Graz with a special online event, dedicated to this very special day. Informative talks, back-to-back were held and one of the speakers was Michaela – aka Ela – Peterhansl an UX Designer at Ubisoft Düsseldorf. Her topic: From Accessibility to Universal Design in the Game Industry.
Our own experience is not everyone else’s experience.
_Accessibility is Usability for all, which means according to Ela, products and services, features and even certain aspects of a product should be useable und enjoyable for everyone. But why is that important? There is a huge list of reasons, why this is such a crucial thing: equity and equality for people with disabilities, innovation & new standards, breaking the cycle of decreased quality of life and many more – only to name a few. But also, is it a legal question; since there are accessibility laws in place with very large fines for compliance failures and subsequent violations, and many more will be introduced. For example, the EU accessibility law is official since 2019 and will be applied by 2025.
_Extended list of examples fpr the importance of accessibility:
Equality and equity for people with disabilities
Break cycle of decreased quality of life
Accessible products/services are beneficial for everyone
Innovation and new standards
If a user’s experience is bad, a design is insufficient
Our interaction experience is going to require accessibility as we age
And many more…
Yet, despite of all the evidence for the importance of accessibility, there seems to be a huge gap in education. But there is no need to wait for this to catch up, one can make awareness and create demand now. For starters, to get into the mindset of accessibility: have an open mind, willingness to learn & unlearn, focus on empathy. But beware: empathy could easily lead to a slippery slope of pity and patronizing users. The biggest temptation to invest into accessibility might be that it’s a direct investment in our own future – our generation is highly tech-dependent, so there will be a high demand for accessible solutions in the future.
The most important key aspect was, that accessibility is a mindset – it doesn’t just ‘happen’. It needs to be brought back into thoughts and decision making at every step of the design process. The reason, why it isn’t already a standard, is because we tend to make unconscious decisions based on our own experience and bias.
The environment we created makes people feel disabled.
Also, the famous bubble – the social factor – plays a big role in our process of designing products. About society and people with disabilities, it’s important to note that the latter is often stereotyped, and many disabilities stay invisible and often go completely overlooked. How a disability looks is a very complex and very much individual question – many people might not even know that they have a disability. Two examples on the topic of inclusion/exclusion were brought up: Molly Burke – a blind influencer – feels in control and comfortable in her house; but as soon she steps out into the world, she loses all that control. This brings us to the question; how many talented people don’t get the opportunity to ever live up to their full potential, because the environment we made doesn’t allow them to do so? Another analogy made by the blind filmmaker, James Rath: just because someone can’t drive a car, it doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to look at cars, like them, go near them, be on the passenger seat or take a cab. The main essence from this is, it’s not about competing, it’s about facilitating fun. Video games have a positive impact on all players; hence they bring an increase of quality of life. For people with disabilities, it’s crucial to have a medium where they comfortable and accomplished with.
A short excursion about universal design, which means it should be usable by all people, with out any adaption or some special addendum. Accessibility though is often seen as something ‘extra’ – a feature to add in hindsight. This approach only leads to adding complexity to an existing non-accessible system. ‘Special’ solutions are further stigmatizing, and it is highly inefficient, ineffective & costly. But not only disabled people profit from accessible solutions – everyone does.
_Final Takeaways form this very informative event, it’s about the first steps in accessibility with lots of useful resources and important mindsets. Rather fitting start for our beginning into this journey – next stop: hands on experience.
_Games are a great interactive and beloved medium – but only few take their time and establish accessibility options. Yet in the last few years many games started to focus on becoming more and more inclusive.
Every disability is unique. Every game is unique. But that shouldn’t stop developers to make their games more inclusive.
Mark Brown, GMTK
_Accessibility is on the rise and is observable in small indie productions and big AAA-games – yet it is not state of the art. The sophistication of said inclusion can vary a lot between games, but some patterns seem to be visible: it started with the customization of inputs and soon simple colorblind or high contrast options were added. In 2020, the game “The Last of Us: Part II” collected several nominations and prizes and also won the award for ‘Best Innovation in Accessibility’. With over 60 different accessibility options, it did set the bar high for the gaming industry. It’s just better for everyone – even a lot of able-bodied people tend to modify and adjust the game to their specific needs; be it just bigger subtitles or getting help with target acquisition. There are many other ways to make games more inclusive, like the “copilot” function on Xbox – it makes it easier for those who need assistance from another person with game inputs through a separate input device. Better inclusion enhances the overall UX of a product – ultimately making it better.
_Why is accessibly in games so important? Simply put – because games are important. Not only by huge difference they can for people’s lives in regard to creation, recreation, culture and socializing – which can sometimes be inaccessible for some people – games can make up for these missing pieces; it’s a 100$ billion industry. Being left out or even locked out of this form of entertainment by excluding people with lack of accessibility options would be a huge loss – not only defining it by financial loss, also in a huge loss in community members. Designing games in an accessible way can make a huge difference in people’s lives. Also, since 2019 there are legal requirements for new games which hit the market in various countries, (e.g., the CVAA in the USA) making it a requirement for every game to be accessible to wide range of people with impairments since January 2019.
_Right of the bat – accessibility should be a key factor from the beginning of every game development – or even project. The earlier it gets implemented and thought oh, the easier it will work out in the end. Most accessibility issues can be dealt with as long as they are considered early enough in the development cycle. Many indie developers begin to implement accessibility options into their projects. Yet there are many views – mainly misconceptions – on the implementation of accessibility in the industry; AAA-studios often worry about the market size for it, their return of investments, how to convince the whole team and, often in large studios with huge projects, managing its implementation with their already big enough workload and often too tightly planned schedule, which is often already set up to end in horrible crunchtime (unpaid overtime). Indie devs often worry to much about its inherent costs for implementation and often only start thinking about it too late in development. Basically, it’s an awareness problem now.
_The field of accessibility spans over a big area and it’s nearly impossible to cover everything, due to its highly changing nature. With every impairment taken into consideration, more questions and possible ways to approach them will crop up. Advice for starting developers? Just do something – anything helps. It may sound trivial but keeping it in mind and raising awareness for the topic by just including small customization for a start helps a lot – it ultimately cements it in the brains of the users as the default options which should always be there. If you just see the huge mountain of possibilities and get overwhelmed by it, being afraid to not get everything done and in the end do nothing – would be the worst outcome for your project. No matter how small, for a first attempt in accessibility and gradually building on these learnings will turn out perfectly. Just start with the easy things – like adjustable text size.
This journey will lead us through the vast possibilities of making games more accessible and will explore what might be best way for designers to implement said accessibility features.
_Best Practices in the field of Game Accessibility: PlayStation, Microsoft, The Last of Us: Part II, Spiderman: Miles Morales
_Literature & Resources
Mark Brown, GMTK: How Accessible Were 2020‘s Biggest Games?