An interview with Game Accessibility Guidelines

In the future this blog will host articles on various topics relating to game accessibility, but until then to kick things off I’m posting an interview I did with BeefJack about the Game Accessibility Guidelines project when it launched back in September 2012.

They asked some really great questions covering attitudes and ideas from the angles of both gamers and developers, so I’ve republished a few of them here.

Barbarian facing off against a large demonic boss in Diablo 3[republished with permission from BeefJack]

What do you feel is the biggest bar to studios taking into account the number of disabled people who could be playing their games?

There are some common misconceptions about making your games accessible – that this is complex, expensive, only benefits a few people, that those people aren’t going to want to play games anyway. None of these are true. Also there are some studios who don’t have any of those misconceptions but simply don’t know where to get started. So in all of those cases it’s simply a case of lack of awareness and of knowledge, which is what the guidelines set out to address.

It is extremely rare to find a developer who intentionally wants to exclude players from enjoying their game. People working in the games industry are generally a very nice bunch who really do want to do the best by their players.

Obviously there are multiple instances on your website of advising developers to implement the guidelines that are most appropriate to their project. But you’re dealing with potentially far-reaching changes that sometimes run counter to accepted wisdom. How do you mitigate any potential impression that you’re telling people what to do, rather than advising them?

Well, the only people who can flat-out tell studios to do anything are publishers. They do already do that to some extent, for example Ubisoft’s requirement for all of their games to have subtitles. But in general guidelines do have to be just that: guidelines, rather than requirements. The reason for this is the huge variation in game mechanics. There aren’t a huge numbers of things that can apply 100 percent to every single game.

There are really compelling reasons why studios should want to think about accessibility, so really it’s a case of communicating those reasons, whether they’re human or business reasons. Once that foundation is in place, once the common misconceptions are dispelled and the developers simply want to open up their game to more people, then the guidelines themselves are just common sense.

A good starting point is often for developers to just to have a skim through the guidelines. Doing that dispels several myths in itself, as it quickly becomes clear that many of them are either easy to implement or are already included in their existing games.

Scooter driving across a bridge in Heavy Rain

Large parts of a game like Heavy Rain would be difficult to play or simply inaccessible to a lot of people, thanks to multiple instances of hammering quickly on a button or buttons, or timed inputs. How do you approach cases like this? Obviously you can’t say to David Cage, “Oh, you shouldn’t be making a game like this.” But do you skew more to thinking, “There are some games various segments of the disabled market just won’t be able to play,” or thinking, “If developers would only start moving away from using design principles like this, then it would open games up to so many more people”?

The majority of accessibility work is simply good game design. Things that benefit all players, but which for certain groups are absolutely essential.

But they can be optional too. Studios need to decide what’s appropriate for their game mechanic. Certainly no-one should decide to can a game idea on the basis of accessibility. If the game didn’t exist then it would be inaccessible to absolutely everyone.

It’s just a case of offering a little reinforcement and flexibility. To allow people to still enjoy the same core game but without unnecessary barriers getting in their way – and that’s the key thing, the word unnecessary.

So to take the quick time events as an example. The thing to consider would be how important they are to the game. Are they the reason why people spent their $60? So they could do some QTEs?

Sometimes the answer is yes: Guitar Hero is another game where large parts of it consist of nothing but QTEs. But the developers know that different people find different levels of motor skill requirement enjoyable, so they address it very nicely by simply reducing the number and frequency of them on lower difficulty levels.

Another approach, depending on the mechanic of course, would be to offer an option to remove the timing completely so that you just have to perform a certain action, rather than a certain action at a certain time. Another, if these sequences are pretty trivial and just there to add variety, would be to offer an option to skip them completely, as L.A. Noire did with its car chase scenes.

The advanced guidelines are things that aren’t widely applicable. They’re really for developers who want to design game mechanics targeted at specific groups: a recent example being a suite of games that are fun for kids in general but designed specifically to meet the needs of autistic preschoolers. That’s the idea with splitting things into basic, intermediate and advanced, to give developers a way to quickly judge what might be most relevant for a game.

After the studios, how do you plan on addressing able, dedicated gamers who might view this project as infringing on something they feel very strongly about? Most people are willing to listen, to do more than make angry message board posts, and they don’t seriously believe the disabled shouldn’t play games. At the same time, though, in some sense you’re still asking for games to be easier and simpler, when making games harder and more complex can be an art in itself.

There are some people who believe that people with disabilities shouldn’t be allowed to play games… just as there are some people who believe that women shouldn’t be allowed to play games. Thankfully these attitudes are rapidly disappearing – certainly over the last year or two the kind of articles that routinely attracted intolerance are now almost universally filled with support. There could be any number of reasons for this, from the work that individuals and organisations have done to raise awareness – in particular AbleGamers and SpecialEffect demoing assistive technology at trade shows – to the increasing prevalence of features in high profile games – such as Call of Duty: Black Ops’ colour-blind mode – reassuring players that there’s no harm involved. Even more recently you can include the effect the Paralympics have had on attitudes to disability.

The most important thing for gamers to bear in mind is that no-one would ever advocate making a game less enjoyable, or for making it more enjoyable for one group at the expense of another. Quite the opposite; the goal is for it to be just as enjoyable, but for even more people.

It’s simply a case of offering some reinforcement, like the fact the red button on the Xbox 360 gamepad has a B on it, or a few extra options to allow people to turn off those things that might prevent them from enjoying or even playing the game at all – regardless of how much they might practice. And they’re just that, options. No-one is forced to use them. It’s nothing new: games have offered the ability for players to play at a level that’s enjoyable for them for over 30 years.

Even if you’re talking in terms of a level playing field, it’s easy enough to link achievements to settings, and offer match-making preferences for features that may allow an advantage [which is mentioned in one of the guidelines].

Again, it’s also not about making games easier; it’s about removing unnecessary barriers. While offering an additional option of an easier difficulty level may be essential for players who are unable to play at harder levels – just as an option of a harder difficulty level is essential for players who would be bored or unchallenged by an easier one – many of the things the guidelines deal with are completely unrelated to gameplay. For example, using symbols as well as colours on a map, or text prompts disappearing when the player presses a button, rather than after a fixed time. These things might seem trivial, but they affect some of the largest numbers of people, and they can mean the difference between whether or not they’re able to play at all.

Do you see your ultimate goal as a happy medium between reaching out to anyone who can’t or chooses not to play for the challenge and those people who want to test themselves? Would the industry have balanced itself out and got to that compromise in the end? Or do you think it’s stuck, to some extent, given the status quo is still profitable overall?

Well, it’s not about whether or not there’s a challenge: it’s that the same degree of “challenge” means different things to different people. It’s all relative. Take Bayonetta’s very easy mode, where players can execute complex combinations of attacks with a single button press. For some players, that’s going to be just as enjoyable, as challenging as the hardest difficulty will be for other players. Players at both ends of the scale are still enjoying testing their motor skills to the very limits of their abilities.

Bayonetta executing a special move against a boss

And there’s not too much of an issue with wanting to maintain the status quo. You only have to look at things like the success of the Wii, or how even triple-A studios have been moving into mobile or casual gaming to see how much of an appetite there is for reaching new or under-served audiences.

Of course it’s inevitable the games industry will become more and more accessible eventually, when you consider how accessibility makes complete sense from both a human and a business angle. You don’t need to look very far afield to see that: the internet and construction industries are both further down this path than the games industry is. We’re not the only people doing this, either. There are other individuals and organisations working very hard to raise awareness and educate studios, and many players are finding their voice as well, requesting features be added by the studios.

It’s just a question of the steps needed to get it there, and efforts like these guidelines are a part of that journey. It’s a worthwhile journey to have embarked on! Games are the highest grossing form of entertainment on the planet, and even relatively small changes have the power to make a huge difference to people. Games are culture, art, entertainment, and socialising. These are the things that make the difference between existing and living.

[Full interview available at BeefJack]


Write a Comment