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Accessibility ideas and testing tips from Dreams developer Media Molecule

"One thing was to not make assumptions about what a player might need or use. You can't assume that just because a player has a certain disability, that they're definitely going to use X,Y, and Z settings."

Making Dreams accessible was a huge undertaking. The sprawling PlayStation exclusive allows would-be developers to bring their most fanciful ideas to life in a bid to populate the ever-expanding 'Dreamiverse' with a colossal platter of user-made content. 

It's an ambitious pitch, to say the least, and Media Molecule wanted to ensure as many people as possible could immerse themselves in its bubbling creative cosmos by making Dreams an experience for all. Explaining how the company set about achieving that goal at GDC 2021, studio producer Alexandra Perry and PlayStation user researcher Joe Florey indicated the real key is to make accessibility a top priority. 

It might sound mind-numbingly obvious, but they reiterate that any developer who believes they can make accessibility an afterthought and still hit it out of the park will be in for a shock. Perry explained it took a concerted effort from Media Molecule to make Dreams usable for the widest range of people possible, with the studio starting out by working closely with accessibility advocates and other experts to get educated and light a fire under the dev team. 

After those consultations, the UK studio pulled together a "master list" of all the features that, in an ideal world with unlimited time and resources, it would be able to implement. Of course, the dev team knew some of those ideas would have to fall by the wayside, but Perry said the wishlist provided the studio with a perfect jumping off point so it could effectively decide what to prioritize.

"Some of [those accessibility features] offered a lot of bang for buck and could be done in time [for launch]," explained Perry. "Some big wins were implementing a no-motion control scheme and implementing toggles instead of holds as a setting. We also managed to implement sliders for a lot of the settings so users would have greater degree of control over them. 

"Unfortunately, some things would've been incredibly beneficial but just weren't possible at the time. For example, button remapping is always really high at the top of the wishlist for people in the disabled community for various reasons, but unfortunately Dreams has so many commands assigned to each button that it was going to be too complicated to achieve within the time available."

Although Media Molecule couldn't land every moonshot, it managed to get a number of accessibility features implemented in good time. At that point, it was time to put them to the test to ensure there weren't any hidden flaws, and Florey explained there are a few considerations worth keeping in mind when it comes to accessibility testing. 

"One thing was to not make assumptions about what a player might need or use. You can't assume that just because a player has a certain disability, that they're definitely going to use X,Y, and Z settings. It's best to let players discover that for themselves because you'll see what their needs really are," they explain.

"One other big thing is to allow plenty of time. Getting set up for an accessibility session can take longer than you might expect, and you don't want to put pressure on somebody who's made the effort to come in. So allowing plenty of time for these kind of sessions is definitely a good thing to do.

"Otherwise, just treat it like any other usability testing session. What you're essentially doing is finding out 'do these things work' and 'can people access and use them as intended,' so from that point of view its just like any other usability test."

In the end, Dreams launched with a wide-range of accessibility settings (many of which are detailed over on the Dreams website) that made the game more infinitely more welcoming. For more words of wisdom from GDC 2021, click here to access even more tips, pointers, and tidbits from the conference.

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