“Accessibility” is a trendy buzzword in gamedev lately. It’s awesome to see. People are starting to look at accessibility beyond a purely functional capacity. A decade ago, the focus was on braille and wheelchair ramps. Now, we’re finally looking at how to make art and culture available to everyone. That is amazing and heartwarming.
We’re still far behind where we could be in gaming, though.
I think it’s our perspective as indie game devs: we look at accessibility as a charitable act, as something you do if you have the spare time (we don’t), money (WE DON’T), and mental energy (hahahaha) to spend when production is done.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it is unsustainable. Indie devs are famously short on all of these things at the end of the project. That’s why my approach is a much easier and effective way to get more people playing your game.
My Accessibility Street Cred.
I’ve spent years working in the blind gaming community on a range of projects:
- Creating a custom game engine for blind gamers to make games code-free alongside three game devs who are blind
- Developing two fully visual games around the concept of full blind accessibility, yet intended for the mainstream market
- As sound designer for the world’s first blind accessible dice rolling app
- Speaking about accessibility and presenting Lost and Hound at PAX East and PAX Aus
- Teaching a blind-accessible sound design course on YouTube
- Playing D&D with a mostly blind group
I know, that last one is a weird flex but I’ve learned an immensely valuable amount of information in a very short amount of time. Dungeons and Dragons is a game that happens mostly in our heads, so it is naturally completely blind accessible with the help of custom character managers and dice rollers.
Here is the design work I've done, integrating accessibility from the very beginning.
Lost and Hound
I’m going to approach this in a cold manner at first, with talks of demographics, markets and opportunities. Then later we’ll get to the whole compassionate, serving humanity side of things.
The hardest part of any gamedev’s journey is finding the first 1,000 fans.
If a new game is suddenly accessible to a portion of society that doesn’t have a lot of games they can play, that group is going to consume that game with an insatiable hunger. It happened with Solara, a free to play mobile game about castle-building and resource management, with microtransactions. It happened with Infernium, which experienced more sales in the two days after an a11y patch than in the two weeks after launch. It happened with Spiderman, which is rated as the highest score on Metacritic of all time while having the best accessibility options of any AAA game so far.
Point is, fans will flock to you if your game has more accessibility options than average (read: none).
I’m experiencing this right now with Lost and Hound. I don’t have a marketing department and I can’t spend that much time promoting the game myself. I have a modest following on Twitter just because people that are disabled appreciate the fact that I’m designing a game around their needs. A part of that following is comprised of completely able people who just love the fact that I’m thinking of people that are not often thought about. I was described at PAX as being “aggressively compassionate.”
People, both able and disabled, love seeing accessibility in games. Consider that Uncharted 4 has a one handed mode, and that mode is utilised by one third of their player base. Consider that Into the Dead’s alternative controls are used by 75% of their players. Consider that Ghost’s “no death mode” is used by 50% of their players. I had an amazing conversation with fellow accessibility evangelist Ian Hamilton, and would like to thank him for that information.
Change your perspective. Accessibility is NOT some charitable act that might make your game a bit easier for some people. Accessibility is giving yourself access to hundreds of thousands of fans that your competition can’t get to.
Now the heartwarming part.
Gamedev is inherently a little selfish, isn’t it? It’s taking your favourite idea and spending hours and hours locked away alone, developing the experience. Now consider someone that has a disability: their game selection is minimal. Their definition of a quality game meets a lower standard than yours, because that’s just what happens with a much smaller selection. So you look at their needs and make your game accessible from the design phase. Suddenly, your favourite thing is their favourite thing too! Suddenly you have a group of people that love your game just as much as you do! I’ve been there. It’s incredible. It will give you hope and strengthen your resolve on the tougher days. It will empower you, and make you a better gamedev. These people that the world has forgotten, you will become their champion, and they will carry your banner out into the masses.
It's hard not to get a little romantic about this stuff.
I’m convinced, but how do I do it?
Design! The age of retrofitting is over. No longer can we reach the end of production and look back at the game we made, thinking, “how can I cram some accessibility measures in there?”
That’s weaksauce and you’re better than that. Instead, and this is what I alluded to above, design accessibility into your game. It’s so easy if you do it early.
The most accessible design aspect is probably avoiding using time/reflexes as a mechanic. This is just not possible in some genres like hack and slash or FPS, and that’s fine, more on that later. If you can manage a game mode that abandons time as a function, though, you’re suddenly catering to blindness, cognitive impairment, and mobility impairment disabilities.
- Rebuild 3 did it perfectly by making your game mode customisable: you can play in real time, timed turns or turn based
- Solara, as previously mentioned, was a mobile castle builder with microtransactions, and was the only game of its type accessible to blind people (just by use of making the resource numbers readable by a screen reader). Imagine having ZERO competition within a certain market!
- Pokemon (Crystal) or any JRPG turn based combat games owe a lot of their success to the fact that they abandon time as a mechanic
What if I can’t do that?
That’s fine! Let’s consider other genres, and what they’re doing right.
Street Fighter V, Soul Calibre, Skull Girls, etc: recently released 2D fighting games that feature stereo audio are blind accessible because the distinct, character based audio feedback tells the players where they are on screen
Madden utilises screen readers and the ability to scroll through players during playtime, as well as predetermined AI paths depending on which plays one chooses
Doom (2016) has really thorough and wide ranging accessibility options including aim assist, difficulty scaling, and multiple prefab control schemes.
While these are great, you can do better
None of these things are integral design elements of the games. I’m currently creating Legacies, a submarine narrative game that is designed around blind accessibility. Submarines naturally don’t use visuals to navigate, so while the game is fully visual and beautiful, the visuals are largely aesthetic. Submarines navigate through sonar, which I built as an in-game mechanic. Furthermore, it’s a narrative exploration style game, so any muscular or cognitive disabilities are already catered for (one handed controls also). I've expanded on the accessibility measures designed into the game here if you'd like to go deeper. Get it? Just a little sub humour for you there.
It’s time to think about how the information in your game is conveyed, and how you can take it further by conveying it through multiple senses. For example, the biggest game design sin that I see happening is footstep sounds still firing if you’re walking against a wall. You don’t even need a collision sound, you just need silence to tell a blind player they’re no longer moving anywhere. In Legacies, I have to find a way to tell blind players what their depth is: how high or low they are in the water, as an underwater game is true use of 3D. I do this by making the submarine creak more often the lower they are in the water, which is natural to the game world as there is more pressure on a vessel the lower its depth.
To put it another way, how can you transmit vital information in a way that is natural to your game world, and subtle yet purposeful?
Important questions to ask yourself:
- Does anything in your game inform the player of their health or status by nonvisual means?
- Can you integrate haptic feedback on a controller, or some sound cue to indicate important information?
- Is there any way that you can tell a player where they are, or where they need to be, through sound?
- Is all of the information my audience is receiving genuinely, perfectly accurate? (i.e. footstep sounds firing when running against a wall)
The Watson Mechanic
As you may have heard/seen me explain in the above linked videos, I rely heavily on the Watson Mechanic. In the Sherlock novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Watson serves one purpose: to keep us from feeling stupid. He asks questions we want to ask, he takes on the full burden of not reaching conclusions that Sherlock has reached, so that we, the reader, don’t feel inadequate. And he’s a doctor! The sole point of the character is to keep the reader comfortable, and it’s really clever narrative design. If people feel stupid while playing your game, they’re going to stop playing and give you a bad rating. A way to compensate for this is to add an in-game narrative element a la Claptrap in Borderlands, Cortana in Halo and the quirky British A.I. narrator in Defense Grid. Each of these examples not only explains things to us, but explains things around us, which increases immersion, understanding and satisfaction within your audience. Let’s also consider players with visual or cognitive impairments: it’s a powerful thing to have an in-game force narrating visual elements of your game. This is an accessibility measure, too.
It’s all about information, and how you get it from the game to your players. Whether it's through clever sound design, narration, haptic feedback, multiple visual options, or anything else mentioned, the way you'll get incredibly designed accessibility measures is to constantly ask yourself a question. That question should not be "Have I done enough?", but instead:
"What's another way I can send that information?"