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Accessibility in Games - Interviews

Here at Variety, in helping kids living with disadvantage, disability, or illness, we also think help involves being able to have fun and participate in recreational activities. Having well thoughout accessibility in games means a wider range of people are able to have a great experience. But what is the process of introducing accessibility in game development?

We've asked multiple game studios and accessibility consultants for their insights, so check out the interviews below! 

SMG Studio

We spoke to Studio Founder, Ashley Ringrose about the inclusion and importance of accessibility in Moving Out!

Ian Hamilton

Accessibility Specialist & IGDA Accessibility SIG Leader, Ian Hamilton, discusses his own experiences and opinions on the matter.

Uppercut Games

Director and Co-founder of Uppercut games, Ed Orman, gave us some insight on the processes and development of accessibility within Submerged: Hidden Depths.

Massive Monster

We spoke to programmer Will Mesilane in a podcast-type interview, to get his thoughts on accessibility in game development, and on the upcoming game; Cult of the Lamb!

Image description: Moving Out title image, with fun characters running away from a van overloaded with furniture.

SMG Studio - Moving Out!

What does accessibility mean to you? And/or why is it important to you?

It means removing barriers or adding elements to a game to allow it to be played by a larger/largest group of people. This is everything from physical to cognitive disabilities. Even for me it includes making the game playable by younger kids or non-gamers, and even those who just want less challenging games.

The real-world analogy would be a wheelchair ramp. This can be used by people in wheelchairs, or those who would find the stairs dangerous. The stairs are there also but now more people can access.

It’s very easy to forget that not everyone has the same abilities whether it’s physical or mental.

What do you think makes good accessibility?

Allowing players to toggle what that want on/off to tune it to their liking. The gamut of accessibility is wide so allow people to tune to their needs. It can be as simple as remapping buttons to turning off features all together.

How would you design something with accessibility in mind?

You need to plan from the start to make it as easy to implement as possible. Retrofitting is harder.

We’ve also learned a lot through playtesting. Some levels may rotate/spin and players complained about motion sickness. So, we can now decide if we tune this down or provide a toggle to turn these off. While ensuring the levels are still playable and fun.

What are some of the considerations and challenges of trying to create accessible experiences?

Knowing WHAT to keep in mind. Color blind and localisation and subtitles have been the bare basics that everyone knows.

But while making Moving Out we were put onto https://gameaccessibilityguidelines.com/ and it has a really great breakdown of all the things to watch out for. Some of which I hadn’t considered.

Just allowing people to skip a level or a puzzle won’t change your game drastically but can mean the difference to someone who hits a hard stop.

[In terms of challenges]  knowing that we can’t solve every issue in the game to be 100% playable by everyone. Moving Out has more complicated controls than most games (hold item, pivot, jump and then throw it), so while we’ve simplified it it’s still going to be too hard for some players.

So, that’s a challenge to know where we can draw the line as we’ll be disappointing someone.

How do you measure the success of accessibility in Moving Out?  

It’s very anecdotal right now based on messages to the team about how players thanked us. And seeing it IRL at events where people would play and toggle them on to have a better time.

For us it was less about a hard ROI [return on investment] to this and more it’s the right thing to do.

Sometimes developing accessible features can require consulting with external groups – Have you had that experience yourself? What was that process like?

We had a very good UX person (Dan Camilleri) who championed this, and we used https://gameaccessibilityguidelines.com/ and did a lot of playtesting. We also specifically had players who were disabled play and give us feedback which we implemented. One being pre-defined button mapping options.

We also tuned down the difficulty and this is just a toggle in the game and as we played and made the levels, we’d discuss what we’d toggle/tune for that. That was probably the most in flux element across as it changed per level.

Others were do once and it carries fwd. i.e. extend time, toggle skip level etc.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’ve said before but it deserves repeating that I do think the big platforms (Xbox, PlayStation, Steam, Switch, Apple, Google) should implement rules for new games to have core accessibility features. As long as clearly explained and given time all new games would start releasing with these.

They have guidelines for languages and load times etc. You could adjust the % of the store credit to incentivise this with those games without meeting the core guidelines giving up a % to then go towards non-profits in the space. Without that pressure from the platforms I think it’s relying too much on the good faith with studios. 

But overall, the industry is moving in right direction and we’re all borrowing and learning from each other. I know our approach was inspired by Celeste and I hope we inspired others ourselves. The AAA space has really upped the ante lately and now becoming the benchmark for when you want to do it best in class.

Follow SMG Studio and Dan Camilleri on Twitter!

Image description: Screenshot of Moving Out gameplay, with various characters lifting out couches from inside a house.

Ian Hamilton - Accessibility Specialist

What does accessibility mean to you? And/or why is it important to you?

Accessibility means avoiding barriers that, through interaction with a person's impairment, unnecessarily come between them and the kind of experience the developers want them to have.

Accessibility is important because games are important. They're a huge part of our culture and society, which means they're big deal to be part of, and an equally big deal to be excluded from. What games represent is access to not just culture but recreation, socialising.. things that many people take for granted, but if your means of accessing those things in other areas of life is in some way restricted, games can be a tremendous contributor to quality of life. 

What do you think makes good accessibility?

Good accessibility simply means players are having a good experience, rather than an unnecessarily poor one. There are however poor implementations that result in the goal not being met. Like trying to address colour-blindness through slapping filters on rather than designing in an accessible way. So, it's important not to make or lean on assumptions. 

How would you design something with accessibility in mind? What are some of the considerations of trying to create accessible experiences?

The most important factor is the stage of development at which accessibility is addressed. You need to think about it early. There is no point at which it is too early, you can even be doing formative user research, competitor analysis and guideline familiarisation before you write a single line of code or design a single UI element.

Even if you just spend a little time early on it'll be effective. Spent time thinking about which barriers your game may present relating to people's ability to hear, see, speak, interact with controls, and take in /process / action information. Ideally learn from people outside your team, from disabled gamers, from specialists, from the abundance of resources that are now available.

Come up with a plan, think about what you might be able to do by default just as good design - do you really need to require players to use all 16 buttons on that controller? Does your text really need to be that small and low contrast? Do you really need to use colour difference alone to communicate and differentiate that information?

And for the situations where that isn't possible, where there is genuine variance in player need, think about offering options. And think about process and workflow. Who is going to be responsible for what? What mechanisms will you have in place to track and validate the work as development progresses? 

What are some of the challenges of trying to create accessible experiences?

For a long time the biggest barrier was simply awareness. So many developers had never even thought about the topic at all, had no idea that disabled people even played games. That battle has now largely been won, it's hard to find developers who haven't at least heard about accessibility, and increasing numbers of studios have made really solid first or second steps into the field with their games.

So now it's about the detail. How can we take that initial experimentation and make it sustainable? How can we get it integrated into processes and workflows? How can we ensure we have the right tools for the job? How can we overcome persistent misconceptions about cost/benefit, and how that impacts prioritisation?

Image description: Ian stands behind a podium and laptop to talk to an audience. 

How would a team keep accessibility at the forefront of their creative process?

By starting early, it's that simple. It can't be a meaningful part of the creative process if you're only starting to think about it 6 months away from launch. And by formally working it into your processes, the same way as you would any other design consideration. 

Naughty Dog are a nice example. For Uncharted 4 they added a few things late in development. This had a fantastic reception, gaining them lots of personal feedback from gamers, which motivated the hands on developers, and compelling usage data, which motivated the higher ups. This gave them the green light to do more for The Last Of Us 2, and they succeeded, that game pushed the bar a very long way for the AAA industry, including being the first AAA designed to be fully accessible to blind players.

They achieved this by thinking about it early. This meant it could be an integrated part of the design process and design decisions. It gave them the time and space for plenty of engagement with players and consultants. It gave them the breathing room to put proper thought into process.

It's a great showcase of accessibility considerations themselves, but it's also a great showcase of the benefit of accessibility being an integrated natural part of the process from early in development.

[Content Warning: Last of Us 2 is only appropriate for those over the age of 18]

Who tends to be responsible for the accessibility within a team?

Currently, a lot of the time, it's nobody. According to the latest GDC state of the industry survey, we're still at a point where close to 50% of studios don't consider accessibility at all. But that's rapidly changing.

Typically it'll start out without any specific responsibility, just one or more people on the team who had a personal passion for the topic. Eventually that person might be given official responsibility, either part time or full time. And bigger companies are starting to built out whole accessibility teams, covering a range of different responsibilities and job titles. But to do a good job, it needs to be everyone's responsibility. Something that everyone on the team keeps in their mind throughout development.

There are process and workflow methods that can facilitate this too, things like speccing out accessibility in design docs or styleguides, or integrating it as criteria for milestones. 

How do you measure the success of accessibility in a game? 

The measure of success is the players. The primary means of this is through user research during development, but there are some other sources too, like tracking social media sentiment on launch, or accessibility review sites like caniplaythat.com

Developing accessible features can require consulting with external groups (such as yourself), what is the process like?

First I'd say that it is not required. There are three core pillars;

  • Existing generalised guidelines on good practice;
  • Working with specialists and consultants who have prior experience of solving similar design problems, and;
  • Engaging with and learning directly from the audiences you want to reach.

IF you can use all three of those, through workshops, playtesting, etc. If you can do all three of those, you stand the best possible chance of as much of your audience as possible having the kind of experience you imagined. But even if you're only able to use one of them, you'll still make a difference.

And it's important not to be put off by feeling like you can't do everything. It's an optmisation process, there's always more that could be done but every little thing makes a positive difference. 

There isn't really a fixed process for engaging with consultants. Typically a company will get in touch with me for one of two reasons –

  1. For expertise they don't have internally
  2. They have expertise but not enough resource, those people are too busy to be able to cover everything

Beyond that, it's a question of sitting down with the team and figuring out exactly what their needs are and how I might be able to help. And that's really varied. I've been brought in for everything from build audits to writing guidelines, from sourcing workshop participants to hands on design work on features, from training presentations to QA test criteria.

Want to learn more? Go follow Ian on his Twitter!

Image Description: Two siblings, dressed for an adventure, sail a small boat through ancient ruins. Some dolphins made of vines jump alongside the boat.

Ed Orman, Uppercut Games - Submerged: Hidden Depths

What does accessibility mean to you? And/or why is it important to you?

From a business perspective, we make games so people can play them, and we want as many people as possible to have that opportunity.

Accessibility allows our games to reach the broadest possible audience. And personally, I grew up playing games - why shouldn't everybody have the same opportunity?

What do you think makes good accessibility?

It's a question of quality AND quantity. You want to implement as many accessibility features as you can, but you also need to do them well enough that they are actually useful to the end users. The best accessibility is done in consultation with the end users, something we want to do better on our future titles.

What were some of the considerations of trying to create an accessible experiences?

With Submerged: Hidden Depths, we are fortunate in that the game is by design somewhat simplified and automated in places. That let us consider things like having one-handed play modes for controller and mouse/keyboard users, something that a more complex or twitch-reaction-heavy game might struggle with.

Who was responsible for the accessibility within the team?

I handled the accessibility design, and Ben Driehuis was the programmer that did most of the heavy lifting in implementation.

So now it's about the detail. How can we take that initial experimentation and make it sustainable? How can we get it integrated into processes and workflows? How can we ensure we have the right tools for the job? How can we overcome persistent misconceptions about cost/benefit, and how that impacts prioritisation?

How do you measure the success of accessibility in Submerged: Hidden Depths?

We can pat ourselves on the back for putting the features in, but really we'd like to hear from players who have found the features useful (or not). It's those players who are going to tell us whether we've been successful or not.

Sometimes developing accessible features can require consulting with external groups – Have you had that experience yourself? 

Not really, and it's the thing we recognized as the biggest short-fall of what we've done. In future, we hope to consult more across the entire development of the game, not just the final year.

What are some of the features of Submerged: Hidden depths that you’re proud of? / Would like to highlight?

I've already mentioned the one-handed modes, which I actually used myself at some stages of development. But we also have some color blindness-friendly options, keyboard/controller remapping, and advanced tuning for stick deadzones. Hopefully that whole raft of features adds up to something helpful.

Follow Uppercut Studio, Ed Orman, and Ben Driehuis on Twitter!

Image Description: Two siblings manning a small boat tredge through ancient ruins. The ruins are taken over by pink flowers and long green vines. Ahead of the siblings lies a large tower with an ambiguous human figure on top. 

Massive Monster - Cult of the Lamb

Check out the interview on accessibility in game development between Massive Monster's "code monster", Will Mesilane and Variety's Community Engagement Assistant, Lauren.