[To what end accessibility? Gamasutra speaks to Valve and other developers about creating games for different audiences about the very good reasons you should consider making your game more easily played.]
Aggregate the most popular video game blogs and websites over the past four years, search for the word "accessibility," and you're likely to come up with a handful of "how-to" articles, economic arguments for why this is an issue for game developers to pursue, or spotlights on adaptive devices.
There's an implied divisiveness here: the idea that designing games for the disabled is extra work, an extra step worth pursuing for remuneration, or an interesting display of technological evolution.
But tackling accessibility isn't just about improving access for some. Vibrating phones were originally designed as an accommodation to the hearing impaired. Predictive text was meant to assist the learning disabled.
Most of us take these everyday technologies for granted as advances meant for the general public, but they're sterling examples of the phenomena that when we improve circumstances for the disabled, everyone benefits.
Eleanor Robinson is the COO of 7-128 Software, a family-friendly development studio operating out of Salem, Massachusetts. Her company focuses on the development of accessible games, and she discussed some of their basic design methodologies:
"Any time you are developing a user interface for an accessible game one of your high priorities is to keep it as simple as you can," Robinson said. "If a blind person has to navigate your UI, they have to do it without the visual clues that sighted people have. This means you have to pay attention to things like making the tab order logical and consistent. This helps everyone to navigate your software more easily."
Electronic Arts could afford to let users futz through the extremely dense layer of menus for NHL 10. Ubisoft didn't worry too much about Assassin's Creed hitting the PC with a UI that required 11 steps to quit the game. It could be argued that rather than employing a different methodology altogether, accessible game designers simply don't have the same leeway as other developers in making these decisions. Difficult UI becomes a deal-breaker rather than something to try the user's patience.
"Lack of complexity is a bonus for not only the handicapped person, but for all users," said Robinson. "If all your game controls are laid out in a similar fashion, when you have learned to play one of them, the rest are relatively intuitive and don't require a lot of learning time." Certainly this is an apt description as to precisely what we're seeing in the MMO genre. New titles offer instant accessibility to genre veterans by playing off the tried-and-true World of Warcraft UI style which, in turn, was a distillation of all the successful MMO UI concepts which preceded it.
"Many motion-impaired users can't manage to hold down two or more keys at the same time for a game action," Robinson said. "If you design a user interface that requires only single keystrokes, you have made it much easier to remember the key you want to use and to speed up the game."
Reviewers regularly praise games with critical non-chording elements, especially when it comes to cover mechanics. Brink's new one button SMART system stands to revolutionize the way first person shooter gamers handle movement. Conversely, multiple-key-press PC control schemes are often cited as turn-offs for gamers who instead turn to simpler, control pad setups.
"I wonder how many beginning gamers get discouraged and stop playing a game because things are happening too fast for them to react to since they are just learning how to play the game," Robinson said. "If they can slow the game down a little, it is less intimidating and they can speed it up as they get more used to the game. They would also be more inclined to buy future games if they have fun and success with [the first one]."
The game throttle has actually become the basis for what may be two of the most interesting accessible games on the market. My Football Game and My Golf Game featuring Ernie Els are produced by VTree LLC in conjunction with EA Sports, and are based off the same code as Madden and Tiger Woods PGA Tour. Chuck Bergen, the President and CEO of VTree LLC, was the keynote speaker at Games Accessibility Day in Boston earlier this year, and spoke with us about the process of designing these games.
"In [My Football Game] the main thing was to break it down into 23 separate pieces for individuals to be able to play and to be able to build up cognitive muscles, or learn how to play with their adaptive devices, to be able to slow the game all the way down to 20 percent," Bergen said. "[For] someone with a traumatic brain injury, or an adult with autism, it gives them a chance at their pace to build up [skills] to play the whole football game.
"We take the player through practice rounds. You just pass, you just kick, and get used to the different features of the game. That's level 1. Then when you go into level 2, you might have five-on-five drills and tasks, and start picking up more of the game. Level 3 is really just like the [regular] games out on the market."
Sports games often feature drills. NHL 11 has a robust suite of player drills to allow users to get used to the tweaked controls from the previous iteration, or to practice offensive or defensive strategies with limited numbers of computer players on the ice.
What it doesn't have are speed throttles for these drills. This is not to suggest that all games should be broken down at the granular level into composite tasks with adjustable-speed drills, but for titles in competitive genres this sort of skill-attainment methodology could be immensely useful.
First person shooter players often live or die by the headshot, which boils down to muscle memory, or knowing how far to adjust weapon angles based on experience taking the shot from varied distances and heights. Imagine the potential utility of a headshot drill with a speed throttle for the FPS gamer trying to work his or her way back into the genre after a few years' absence.
The planning methodology that goes into producing an accessible game holds potentially valuable lessons for traditional game designers.
"We sit down with the parents, therapists, or teachers," Bergen said. "It's much more personal and we get much more detail [than traditional game designers get]... We design it, we build it, but in reality they design everything we do. It's all done up front even before we start."
There are assuredly extra costs associated with this sort of focused market research before any programming takes place, but would they be greater than the costs of crunch time, or calling an audible during the late stages of game development when unforeseen problems pop up?
"We have to hit our mark from the beginning of the design," Bergen said. "You can't design level 1 a certain way and by the time you get to level 3 and you design that, find out that level 1 doesn't help you get to level 3. All of them have to be done at the same time."
Halimat Alabi is an instructor of game design at The Art Institute of California-Sunnyvale, and focuses on teaching accessible game design methodology. "It does take more planning [to create an accessible game]," Alabi said, "but what you put in on the front end, an extra 10%, can pay off hugely at the back end."
Where Bergen discusses these issues in terms of the economics of successful sales, Alabi comes at them from the academics of design, illuminating what may be a fundamental misunderstanding of accessible game design concerns.
"I think a lot of game designers are putting in functionality that helps the disabled community, but they're not calling it that, and they might not be aware that that's even what it is," Alabi said. "They're trying to give the user a wider range of experience, they're trying to up emotional engagement, they're trying to raise the stickiness of whatever the experience is. There aren't as many companies making decisions based on disability, but they are giving various demographics what they need.
For example, game designers with the DS designing for the older demographic, and for kids. That's made it much more accessible for those of us who are in the middle." If the market for video games is naturally widening, then the perceived gulf between accessible game design, and design which may not specifically take these issues into account, may be a misconception.
"It's a very simple visual effect, but [FarmVille] put an arrow over your options in the game," Alabi said. "You have a little arrow over the trees for you to harvest, a little arrow over the animals for you to feed, areas get red when there's a snake in the grass. There's also a built-in redundancy with sound effects. That absolutely helps the disabled gamer, helps the child gamer, helps the gamer who is not literate enough to read the goal." Given, Farmville is a social game and thus a far simpler design than complex hardcore titles, but it neatly reinforces the idea that accessibility and profitability are not always set in opposition to one another.
We wanted a solid example of design that seamlessly blends commercial and accessibility issues, and spoke with Mike Ambinder of Valve Software.
Valve is highly-regarded in the disabled gaming community, particularly for their work with adaptive control devices.
"Most of the accommodations we make for disabled gamers (closed captioning/subtitles, colorblind mode, in-game pausing in single player, easier difficulty levels, re-mappable keys/buttons, open-microphones, mouse sensitivity settings, use of both mouse and keyboard and gamepads, etc.) stem from functionality added to improve the experience of both able and disabled gamers," Ambinder told us.
"For example, both groups of gamers benefit from the ability to pause Left 4 Dead 2 if they need to take a break or escape from the action, and the addition of subtitles allows all gamers to process the in-game dialogue/sound effects through an alternative visual medium if that is their preference.
"We may design for an optimum experience, but any accommodations we make to extend the accessibility of our games should benefit folks (both able and disabled) who choose to consume our content in an alternative fashion," Ambinder said. "For example, in the initial implementation of Left 4 Dead, there were no glows around the survivors indicating their location in-game. In our first experiments, we thought that verbal cues transmitted from other players would be enough to enable cooperation and to guide players to teammates in need.
"We soon found out that more information was required, as relative locations could not be adequately described in sufficient detail nor with sufficient speed to enable a cohesive experience. To remedy this, we added in the glows (visible through walls) which silhouette each teammate and provide a salient, visual cue to in-game location -- improving the communication between teammates for all gamers (and especially for gamers who have difficulty hearing or speaking)."
As the Wii and Kinect demonstrate, increasing usability through accessibility can open up exciting new avenues of gaming that permanently change the playing field. "We're always curious about alternative control devices and are constantly researching and playing around with nontraditional controllers in the hopes of finding an approach that might lead to an interesting gameplay experience," Ambinder said.
"In particular, we're intrigued by the potential of eyetrackers and the eventual ability to let gamers use their eyes as active controller inputs. For example, it may be possible in the future to let the eyes act as a proxy for the mouse cursor, letting gamers transmit navigation and targeting inputs via eye movements. If you couple this approach with the use of blinks or other proxies for button presses, you may remove the need for a mouse and keyboard (or gamepad) all together."
Eliminating the narrative of divisiveness around "accessible design" and rather focusing on usability will turn these sorts of considerations from an added cost into a value add. It's the innovation behind improved usability that winds up serving us all, and the more we can encourage game developers to tackle the challenge, the more varied, deeper, and ultimately enriching our gaming experiences will become.
(FarmVille image taken from Lynspirations)