How do you remaster a game—a game made over twenty years ago no less—for a modern, accessibility-focused era, without disrupting the balance of what defined the original? Discussing that at GDC 2022 was Drew McCrory, UX and accessibility lead at Vicarious Visions under Blizzard Entertainment, who worked on last fall's Diablo II: Remastered, an almost beat-for-beat remake of 2001's Diablo II: Lord of Destruction.
In his talk, McCrory highlighted his personal philosophies behind making games more accessible, detailing what was altered in the remaster, what worked, and what didn't, based on the feedback of the remaster's players.
Legacy vs Modern
McCrory says they were many spirited debates early on in the remastering process over the issue of legacy versus modernity. Where's the line between sensible quality of life updates and honoring the original, authentic experience? For example, an early suggested change was the addition of a charm bag, something separate from the inventory to hold those performance boosters specifically. But while that change would make sense for modernity, it didn't support the game's legacy, nor did it necessarily increase accessibility, either. They eventually landed on a middle ground that emphasized making as little modernizations as possible except those that make the game more understandable and playable.
The list of what they included was numerous and included colorblind toggles, larger fonts and UI scaling, automatic gold pickup, hold to toggle options, camera shake disabling, an attack miss indicator, toggleable subtitles, and NPC greeting subtitles, among others. One thing they identified as a need for improved combat feedback, particularly an attack miss text indicator that would let players know when a hit did not land on an enemy (reinforcing the game's RPG feel). "The purists don't need it," McCrory explains, but those who don't prefer the option can simply turn it off. "Accessibility is all about customization and optimization." Let players tailor the experience to their specific preferences and needs.
Audio was another area to which a lot of attention was paid. The newly added channel sliders (controlling everything from the sound of footsteps to weapon impact effects) were designed to allow players to cull out anything they felt was unessential, giving an additional sensory filtration option. As McCrory points out, accommodations can be situational and not always a matter of disability; for example, as a parent, he uses the audio channel sliders to be more sensitive to his children's sleep patterns. Many accessibility options are quality of life updates.
For controller accommodations, McCrory says the team had a lot more freedom, because the question of legacy versus modernity was less of an issue. With no history or precedent of controller-based controls in Diablo II, they were able to be a little bolder with certain choices, particularly with regards to automation, for example, with potion usage, which with a controller can be done instantly without having to renegotiate from the main inventory (akin to the belt and number-mapped potion slots on PC). Auto gold pick-up was a source of much discussion, but ultimately was chosen in part because it drastically reduced physical repetitive stress.
McCrory himself expresses that he was personally not so much a fan of it, but that in the end, automation means more people get to play a game they otherwise may not, and that there's value, as a player, in understanding when certain features are simply not for you and not designed with you in mind. Many accessibility features, after all, can be toggled, and many (like subtitles) add value to the lives of players who don't have disabilities. And, as he tells an audience member later, accessibility options aren't terribly taxing from a design or funding perspective, so long as you take it into consideration early.
McCrory was honest about what he, and the audience, felt was missed, but said the overall reception was positive. He ended the session, however, with a call to sympathy and compassion to users who are emphatic in expressing their accessibility needs. "It's never enough, and it shouldn't be."