Every year the pace of chance accelerates. 2017 saw advances on a scale never before seen, and 2018 trumped that by considerable margin. I hope this post will share a sense of that change, of where the industry is currently at, and where it will be heading in future.
There have been too many advances in inclusion of gamers with disabilities to be able to cover everything here, so I’m concentrating on a few key themes; hardware/platform/middleware, information, advocacy & awareness raising, games, and a little on legislation.
Hardware, platform & middleware
Xbox Adaptive Controller in use at Craig Hospital
I won’t go into too much detail as awareness is now pretty high, but the short version is that it’s a device that can be used in conjunction with a regular controller to replace anything between one and all of the inputs with custom hardware, developed over a number of years in conjunction with Warfighter Engaged, Cerebral Palsy Foundation, AbleGamers, SpecialEffect, and many other individual gamers, advocates and specialists.
From a developer’s perspective it’s just a regular Xbox controller, so if you want to support it design for the people who use it. In particular think about flexibility and avoiding unnecessary complexity; not everyone is able to use 18 buttons or press three things at the same time.
What it is not is a device that takes care of accessibility so that you don’t have to. If anything the XAC increases the need for accessibility in games, as there are now more games who are able to get past hardware barriers only to encounter them in games.
The XAC has already had tremendous impact. Not only on the direct impact but also on general public awareness of and feeling towards accessibility – more on that later!
Microsoft also introduced a bunch of other nice things too. The Xbox Alexa skill. The input learning mode for Narrator. The new Xbox avatars, including wheelchairs and prosthetics. Windows gaze input API. Mixer’s share controller functionality, essentially operating as remote co-pilot.
It wasn’t just The Microsoft Show though. There were other hardware innovations, like the spherical therapy-focussed Mylo controller, and the excellent Game Control Mixer from Celtic Magic and OneSwitch which allows complex control through a single button.
With CVAA approaching there has been a bit of movement on communication tools; Origin patching in text to speech for chat messages, Twitch adding a text contrast option for usernames, and Discord kicking off a series of accessibility updates starting with colourblind options.
And a bit of progress with engines. While we’re not yet seeing the direct accessibility support that the main engines could and should be providing, there has been some more nice work done on plugins, such as the Unity Sinput plugin which aims to simply mapping across input devices with a focus on multiplayer, the Unity Racing Audio Display for making racing games accessible to people with no sight, and also the Unreal Accessible Realities plugin aimed at making VR & AR in particular more accessible to people with low/no vision. And last but not least ADL engine, a standalone multiplayer text adventure engine with a ton of nice accessibility things built in.
Information for developers
GMTK’s Designing for Disability video series
As always 2018 saw ongoing updates to www.gameaccessibilityguidelines.com, but a whole swathe of new resources arrived too.
- Accessible.games accessible player experience design patterns from AbleGamers and York University
- Accessiblegamedesign.com, UX focussed guidelines from Ruthie Edwards
- Lovely Designing For Disability video series from Game Maker’s Toolkit
- The Game Accessibility Conference expanding to Europe, with GAconf EU
- A record breaking number of accessibility sessions at GDC, including sponsored sessions from Ubisoft and Xbox
- Two mainstream accessibility conferences (A11yTO in Toronto and TechShare Pro in London) adding dedicated game accessibility tracks and exhibits
- TIGA’s VR accessibility guide
- Tara Voelker’s Accessibility Scorecard V2
Information from players
Josh Straub, Steve Saylor, Chris “deafgamersTV” Robinson and Cherry Thompson at Ubisoft Montreal
And of course a wonderful resource is simply engaging with your audience. This really kicked up a gear in 2018, in a few different ways.
Firstly gamers with disabilities being brought in to studios for events comprising talks, design sprints and co-creation workshops, often behind the scenes but with some companies like Xbox, EA, Sony, Ubisoft and Splash Damage talking openly about what they’ve been up to.
Collaborations with non-gaming advocacy organisations, including Sony & Gallaudet looking at accessibility of VR for deaf gamers, Ubisoft’s collaboration with AAPEI-EPANOU on accessibility for gamers with learning disabilities.
User research is a key part of it too. 2018 saw a big increase in the number of studios including people with disabilities in user research, including Microsoft partnering with the Shepherd Center to create the Accessibility User Research Collective; aimed at accessibility across all products but already with a number of research projects undertaken for gaming.
Feedback channels have also increased, with both EA and Mixer implementing specific routes for people to submit accessibility issues, in EA’s case tied directly to each teams internal bug tracking systems.
Information for players
EA’s accessibility information
As part of the same accessibility portal that the reporting system falls under, EA launched a resources section, hosting detailed accessibility information for several of their titles. Buying games that turn out to be inaccessible is still a really significant problem, so offering information to allow gamers to make informed purchase decisions is a really wonderful thing. This was quickly followed by Ubisoft’s accessibility FAQs, another FAQ for Forza Horizon 4, and a really wonderful extensive blog post for Shadow of the Tomb Raider. SOTTR’s in particular stood out as it was put up several weeks before the launch of the game.
Review site Gamecritics upped their game, including screenshots of subtitle presentation and default controls in every one of their reviews, together with info on whether/how each can be configured. A really simple thing to do that requires no accessibility knowledge, yet still provides vital information for many players.
Advocacy & awareness raising
Solomon Romney on stage at the Forza Horizon E3 presentation
This was an area of incredible progress, with not just the industry and not just the industry and gamers but the population in general leaving 2018 with much greater awareness of, acceptance of and excitement about the possibilities of accessibility than they entered the year with.
The Xbox adaptive controller led the charge here, with Microsoft putting some considerable weight behind spreading awareness about it, from the Forza Horizon 4’s E3 presentation including a Solomon Romney up on onstage playing with a XAC together with a one-handed stick peripheral through to Microsoft’s holiday commercial. For one of the big tech companies to dedicate their holiday commercial slot solely to raising awareness about the importance of game accessibility is still mind blowing for me, for someone working in advocacy it really is a dream come true.
Xbox got up to plenty of other nice things too, from working with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson on an event for amputees, holding a gaming tournament as part of the Special Olympics, working with advocacy organisations in France under the TousGamers initiative, and Phil Spencer using his DICE keynote slot to issue a challenge to the whole industry to tackle accessibility:
“And lets commit to absolutely including gamers with disabilities. Not just giving them access, but keeping it fun for them too. When we truly design for all, we help make the world equal for all.”
But of course, again, although they did a ton of great things last year it wasn’t just Microsoft making a difference:
The ESA’s work at E3 to facilitate meetings between gamers and developers and holding a mixer with gamers and senior industry figures to raise awareness about the issues faced. The ESA again, collaborating with TDI (Telecommunications for the Deaf Inc) on sponsoring a Global Game Jam diversifier to exploring use of haptics for accessibility.
Reggie Fils-Aime making a public statement on the importance of accessibility.
Steve Spohn of AbleGamers being honoured as a Global Gaming Citizen at The Game Awards, which was not only well deserved recognition for all he does but also again means accessibility being put front and centre on a huge stage.
PlayStation sharing a rare behind-the-scenes look into the development of their platform level accessibility functionality.
CESA (Japan’s industry body)’s efforts to raise awareness in the Japanese industry through a 30 page segment on accessibility in their annual white paper.
Record breaking number of accessibility sessions at GDC, including Microsoft and Ubisoft sponsoring accessibility sessions.
And more companies gaining full time internal advocates and specialists. Not too long ago the number of people in those roles was zero. Now it is seven; Brannon Zahand joining Evelyn Thomas at Xbox, David Tisserand taking up the role at Ubisoft, several new additions elsewhere that aren’t publicised, and of course Karen Stevens still heading up accessibility efforts at EA.
It is becoming less and less common with each passing day to find either developers or gamers who haven’t at least heard of and understand the importance of accessibility. Compared to even just a few short years ago it’s a huge turnaround.
So, what has all of this been leading to?
Celeste’s assist mode, which consists of a number of configuration options
This post has so far been pretty focussed on big companies, but traditionally over the years it has always been indies at the coalface, pushing things forwards. This year was no exception. Celeste grabbed headlines for its range of assists and the way it described the options, but there were so many other people doing great things. Just a few examples, with plenty here for other devs to learn from –
- Pig Eat Ball’s wide range of considerations, building on Nathan Fouts’ extensive accessibility background
- Infernium’s extensive accessibility options that were patched in 2 weeks after the game launched; the game sold as many copies in the 2 days following the patch as in the 2 weeks following the launch.
- Unravel 2’s slow motion function, choice of player colour and progressive hint system
- Wandersong’s work on making a game based on colour and rhythm accessible to people who are deaf or colourblind
- Cross Code’s highly configurable slider based difficulty
- Tau Station’s full accessibility for blind gamers and a wide range of other areas too, through web standards
- The King’s Bird’s wide range of assists from speed to collision detection, with detailed remap that allows any input to be combined or turned into a toggle
- Virtual Virtual Reality’s hybrid captioning system
- R-Coil’s stress-free mode and fine grained control over sensory load
- PBS Cyberchase’s wide range of considerations; this is just the start of a wider initiative so keep an eye on their future work
- sa11ytaire’s compatibility with a wide range of accessibility technologies. This includes Narrator on Xbox, making the game a significant landmark for the industry; the first console game to be accessible to blind gamers though compatibility with platform level text to speech.
- Super Slime Arena’s efforts to support every type of controller possible
- EyeMine, SpecialEffect’s modification to Minecraft to work with a bespoke eye gaze interface
- Switch and eye gaze portal, again from SpecialEffect
- Barbearian’s great work across controls, difficulty and visuals
Spider-Man’s accessibility menu
But as you can tell from the rest of the article what has really set 2018 apart was it being the year the the efforts of the larger studios really started to be felt.
If I was to reel off a list of games like this:
- Forza Horizon 4
- The Crew 2
- COD: Black Ops 4
- Shadow of the Tomb Raider
- State of Decay 2
- Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
- Battlefield V
- Sea of Thieves
- Madden 19
- Monster Hunter World
- FIFA 19
- God of War
- Read Dead Redemption 2
… that just sounds like a list of the year’s top grossing or most awarded games, but it’s actually a list of some of the AAA games of 2018 that put hard work into accessibility. And that list includes PlayStation’s two top grossing games of 2018, both of which had great acclaim from players and critics alike; Spider-Man and God of War. I think it is now safe to say that the common misconception that accessibility = harmful watering down of the experience has been disproved in really the most conclusive way possible.
It was only a couple of years ago that any AAA at all putting significant effort into accessibility was a huge thing, as seen with Uncharted 4. And now, this burgeoning enthusiasm for accessibility at the big budget end of the industry… I really cannot understate how much of a big deal this is.
It hasn’t only been about the new games either, older games have been on the receiving end of accessibility patches… remap + colourblind mode + comms wheel + deaf mode for Fortnite, new colourblind mode + comms wheel for Overwatch, haptic cues for blind gamers in UFC and audio ping for blind gamers in Gears 4, and many more.
There have been a few common threads, in particular the recognition of the barriers that QTEs and button mashing present, and finally finally some movement on subtitle presentation; control over size and contrast and even some starting to include options to show captions for important background sounds in addition to speech.
But I don’t want to sugar coat it, this is still only the beginning. We’re still a very long way off from where accessibility could and should be, none of the above games yet manage to address even all four basic most common complaints; text size, comprehensiveness and presentation of subtitles, full in-game remapping, and colourblindness. In particular gamers’ frustration over text size (even gamers with 20/20 vision) is now overtaking the others to be – from my own social media observations at least – the most prevalent accessibility barrier in games. Designing for that giant monitor two feet from your face doesn’t cut it, if your game doesn’t work well enough on a 40 inch screen at ten feet away it’s harming the experience of gamers in general, let alone those with any degree of vision loss.
It’ll be a wonderful thing when gamers can pick up any game safe in the knowledge that at least the basic fundamentals are likely to have been covered. And while we aren’t there yet, we’re at least now squarely on that path, the future is looking increasingly.
CVAA requires accessibility of player to player communication functionality
The year came to a close with the expiry of the final CVAA waiver on Dec 31st. Awareness is improving so I won’t go into too much detail here; in a nutshell it’s legislation signed in in 2010 to ensure accessibility of communications technology across all industries, with games granted a series of waivers to allow for time to be spent on research and implementation. It currently affects all games for sale in the US market, 2019 will see the introduction of the European Accessibility Act which brings similar rights and protections to consumers across the EU.
So all games with voice/text/video chat functionality launching after Dec 31st are legally required to ensure both the communications functionality and any UI or info used to navigate to and operate it must be as accessible as reasonably possible to a wide range of groups, including people who can’t see, have limited strength, can’t see colour, can’t speak, have 20/70 – 20/200 vision, and so on.
“Reasonable” takes into account the resources of the company to avoid undue burden on smaller ones, and can take into account how far through development a game was when Jan 1st hit (though obviously over the coming years that will cease to be relevant)
CVAA has already had a profound impact on the industry, not just relating to communication but in shifting the accessibility dialogue higher up within companies, and that greater organisational awareness in turn enabling accessibility work way beyond communications functionality, and in games that have no communications functionality.
Without giving away too many spoilers for next year’s post, the start of 2019 has already seen games launching that fundamentally change the course of how accessibility is approached in games.
So on that note, I hope that while not comprehensive this post has still given some flavour of where things are at and the trajectory that we are on. 2018 was like no other year that had come before, but from all that I’ve seen of what’s in the pipeline 2019 is set to surpass it. 2019 will be a year of highs and lows, of challenges and innovation. The result of which will be more people able to enjoy more games, wins for both gamers and developers, the industry continuing to grow and change for the better. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited.