Game UX Summit
So first of all the inaugral Game UX summit on May 12th/13th, organised by Celia Hodent of Epic Games. A day of conference talks in Durham followed by a day of masterclasses at Epic HQ down the road in Cary. Myself and Josh Straub of DAGERS were invited, I was due to do a talk during the conference, and Josh to do one during the workshops. The invite itself was a big deal for fan-boy reasons, sharing a line-up with the legendary Don Norman. I’d highly recommend his Design Of Everyday Things book, which should be required reading for anyone doing any kind of design in any industry.
Octogenarian UX visionary Donald Norman exploring play at Epic HQ
I’m going to a little off-piste now, but bear with me, I am going somewhere with it. I work across a few different industries, and as a UX designer as well as an accessibility specialist, and elsewhere I’ve been a bit jaded with UX. I’ve often come across other UX designers who are solidly focused on the X at the expense of the U. Walking the talk and talking the talk, but ultimately more driven by defining novel interactions than representing the users.
So because of this (and other reasons too) accessibility in other tech sectors can often be regarded by UX as being a technical issue, an inconvenience to be left for programmers to worry about. But developers can’t magically turn inaccessible designs into something accessible, which means that UX can end up being a blocker to accessibility.
But it shouldn’t – can’t – be like that. The U in UX / UR stands for ‘User’. User eXperience, User Research. It does not stand for ‘certain proportion of users who don’t currently happen to have any kind of impairment’.
Accessibility is something that all disciplines make a difference to, but UX is the one where it is literally written into your job title, where through expert reviews, recruitment profiles and especially through sharing video footage of sessions amongst colleagues you can make a really incredible difference both to individual games and to the level of accessibility maturity across the organisation.
It’s not all bad by any means. There are many many excellent user focused UX designers, user researchers and so on, and I’ve managed to convert a few along the way too, but coming across ‘UX’ colleagues outside of gamedev who are actively opposed to the needs and goals of some of the people they’re supposed to be representing can be pretty demoralising.
So how is any of this relevant to the Game UX summit?
The summit was a very big deal for me. Seeing it the way it should be. I had more people approach me over the course of those two days than I have had at any of the other sixty or so conference talks that I’ve given, and all had the same attitude and mindset… People who understand, care, and see how it fits perfectly into their discipline. UXers who care about their whole audience. Excited to learn about ways to give a better experience to more of that audience. The response to Josh’s talk was no different. And it wasn’t just the delegates either, Epic were paying close attention over the course of the two days.. always fantastic to see more big players taking an interest in accessibility.
Josh Straub speaking at Epic HQ
So aside from the usual awareness raising and so on that comes from speaking, it also excised some personal demons for me. Certainly something that gives me great hope for the future. If you have the opportunity to work with her either in-house or publisher level user researchers, ask them about accessibility, they’ll be able to make a big difference.
Following on from the Game UX summit was Global Accessibility Awareness Day, a worldwide event aimed at raising awareness and understanding across all industries. As part of that I took part in a 24 hour stream of accessibility talks called Inclusive Design 24. ID24 runs every year and has never had a gaming talk before, but this year they had three – as well as mine they also had Bryce Johnson from XBox on platform level accessibility functionality, and Naughty Dog/Sony on accessibility in Uncharted 4. There were also a number of other nice articles, talks and so on taking place throughout GAAD from Turtle Rock, MeepleLikeUs, AbleGamers and OneSwitch, which I’ve written about separately, and also shared some of my favourite quotes from throughout the 24 hours.
Naughty Dog/Sony’s ID24 talk was tied in with the announcement of a raft of motor accessibility features in Uncharted 4, which came about initially through collaboration with an accessibility consultant, and furthered by user research sessions with motor-impaired gamers.
But the features don’t end there. There’s also a fair bit of accidental accessibility, in the form of unlockable bonus modes. Thief vision, chalk dust, slow motion, bullet time – all great for reducing vision and motor barriers. Thief vision in particular has generated a fair bit of excitement amongst legally blind (defined as significant impact on life but can still have some residual vision) gamers. Combined with the targeting assist and bullet time modes, Uncharted 4 could quite easily be the most accessible game of its genre for low vision gamers.
And hot on the heels of that, the launch of Overwatch. Another hugely popular game, again with fantastic accessibility consideration. Some of through options, such as detailed and separate remapping profiles available for each individual character. I’ve seen lots of heartfelt stories now about the difference that remapping has made, stories such as this one, from a gamer with cerebral palsy. And some simply through design, from the outstanding audio design to the huge variety in classes. The difference in playstyles between the classes allows access by a huge variety of players, all able to fill a valuable role on the team according to their own abilities. If you can’t handle the dexterity requirements of leaping around between rooftops, leave that to someone else, and play a valuable role as Bastion.
And although not released, we’ve also had the announcement of a slew of vision-focused accessibility considerations coming in Madden 17.
Those cover the games that have had all of the big press for their accessibility efforts, but were great things being done elsewhere too, from Doom’s wayfinding assistance and timer-free text to Battleborn’s configurable team colours and extensive array of motor accessibility options.
Games considering these kind of things isn’t something new, indies and AAAs alike have been including individual features like these for years. But to have all of this hitting at the same time is big, and for them all to be such highly rated big name games is even bigger again, they can’t fail to have an influence on the industry, on other games that follow them. We’ve seen it before, strange now to look back and think that as recently as 2014 colourblindness was a rare enough consideration to be big news, all it took was a first couple of big name AAAs to get that kind of media coverage for awareness to raise, for it to move from rare to commonplace, approaching standard.
Next came E3. A key part of Microsoft’s E3 announcements were unprecedented commitments to accessibility –
“To truly have a lasting impact requires a culture shift, one that won’t happen overnight. However, our team is committed to get better each day, to teach one another to pause in our decision making process and think about the amazing diversity of needs, abilities and interests amongst gamers around the world. It has forced our team to think differently across the entire gaming experience – from hardware, to games and service.”
“How do we help our engineers better understand the needs of those with varying levels of physical ability?”
“We are committed as a team that if our mission was to put gamers at the center of everything we do, we need to better understand – and better represent – the needs of ALL gamers.”
“We can and we will do better as an industry moving forward.”
“Some games will be tailored to people with disabilities. Xbox team members have been trained in the art of “inclusive design” and have met with deaf gamers and a parent of an autistic child, among others. An accessibility lab collects and studies controllers designed for disabled hackers; one has a switch that’s triggered by biting down. Microsoft knows its efforts to attract more women, minorities, LGBT, and disabled gamers could spark a backlash from the usual suspects. “There is going to be a portion of our audience that responds in the most immature and inappropriate way to what we are doing,” McCarthy said. “But I guarantee you the wave of the masses will be with us.””
“Xbox is embracing inclusive design as part of our Gaming for Everyone effort,” said Phil Spencer, head of Xbox. “In this ongoing initiative, every single person on Team Xbox is working together to try to make gaming accessible, equitable and sustainable for all.”
“What is a gamer? Who is a gamer? A big part of Gaming for Everyone is enabling all types of gamers to play as they want, in the way they want. We need to challenge all of our perceptions.”
“An inclusive design approach encourages us to understand the needs of a lot of people and think about them intentionally,” said Johnson. “We want everything in Xbox to be as fluid and accessible as possible. It’s not about simplifying the games but improving and tailoring to specific needs.”
This was all part XBox’s Gaming For Everyone initiative, a company-wide dedication to making sure no one is unnecessarily excluded from gaming for any reason – not just disability. Even just two years ago, the idea of any big company in the industry let alone a platform making these kind of statements about accessibility would just have been fantasy.
That takes us up to now, with the month being nicely capped off with the announcement of some very nice sounding icon-based colourblind support in Re-Core, and a little story from Cliff Beszinski, describing how he became aware of the need for accessibility through meeting a disabled veteran.
All of the above is just a selection of highlights from the month. Plenty of other exciting things happening, some of which can’t be talked about yet, some of which there just isn’t room for here, as it’s already a long post. But as I said that the start, this month isn’t a one-off. It’s part of an ongoing exponential curve, with the pace of change accelerating every year.
Curve or no curve, progress in accessibility is not a given. A quick look at the lack of subtitles in the first crop of VR games is an easy enough example of how things can slide backwards. But the more people think about it, the more people implement it, the more gamers and studios will be able to benefit from everything that accessibility in gaming can bring.