Copyright © 2017 by SightlessKombat. The moral right of the author has been asserted.
If you wish to use any infomation from this report in any format, I would politely ask that you acknowledge me as the original author and contact me to let me know. This helps spread the word about my ideas, as well as letting me gauge interest in the information in question.
This Fellowship was undertaken because I felt and still do feel, that the mainstream games industry, regardless of what progress it has made, is still not doing enough to include those who have absolutely no sight, like myself, in mainstream videogames.
The UK games industry was, in 2016, worth £4.33 billion according to a fact sheet provided by UK Interactive Entertainment (UKIE). Moreover, according to this global industry breakdown from Newzoo globally 2.2 billion gamers will generate approximately $108.9 billion in revenue. These statistics serve to demonstrate that the market for accessibility in mainstream gamging is very much a worldwide prospect.
With these statistics in mind, I thought it better to focus on advocating to mainstream developers to make their titles as inclusive as possible rather than getting audiogame developers to try and live up to mainstream standards.
I am one of the latter, though I do still play audio only games from time to time (as there are occasionally ones that pique my interest).
Audio-only games are, however, limited by the accessibility of the tools that are used to make them. At times, developers of such titles will be forced to admit defeat as they try and add features that only mainstream tools can provide. These engines, such as Unity and Unreal are inaccessible to GWS using screen readers.
Such lack of access to mainstream engines, as well as what might be perceived as a lack of knowledge of mainstream mechanics, concepts and general trends, could be seen as the reason why audiogames have not, at least in my opinion, innovated significantly in the last decade or so, other than a few exceptions.
After playing audio-only games for a while, I realised that the mainstream games industry was not doing enough to help GWS achieve the same experiences as sighted players. I wanted to try and assist in moving the industry forward in an advocacy role.
The goal of the Fellowship was to understand how accessibility works at a development level and convince studios that accessibility to GWS is just as important as accessibility for other disabilities, including colour-blindness and physical impairments. Most of the time, these latter two disabilities are tackled in titles from independently developed games to the largest popular titles, whereas GWS are often left in the dust.
Whilst I do understand that other disabilities are important in accessibility, I only focus on my "area of expertise" as it were, that being gaming without any vision whatsoever as I can provide a personal perspective in that field.
The below report details what I discovered on my visits to a number of studios, what I learnt about their infrastructures and their various stances on accessibility. These findings, I hope, will provoke studios and publishers in the UK into providing greater accessibility in their products, as well as galvanising studios around the world into doing the same. If nothing else, I hope it will start discussions in the games industry about what can be done to assist those with disabilities, GWS or otherwise, in enjoying games
Accessibility is used in the context of this report to mean accessibility to GWS. If an alternative meaning is needed (such as the ability for new players to pick up a game), this meaning will be clearly stated.
Moreover, when I refer to developers, unless otherwise stated, I am refering to those responsible for mainstream games, not audio-only titles.
The questions were as follows:
Even throwing theories around is better than doing nothing, it seems, as the individuals at Valve stated that I had done the right and best possible thing by arriving at their studios to discuss the matter of Steam platform accessibility.
On numerous occasions through my Fellowship, I witnessed reactions of shock and bafflement as gamers and developers alike, who thought things would be accessible were forced to understand that, for one reason or other, they were not. These reactions were even able to be seen at the round table discussions I had as part of my visit to 343 industries, where I was able to show clearly that there were sound cues that even those present did not seem to know existed until they were demonstrated to be present by me. However, after one such discussion, I was approached by a 343 employee who was willing to discuss the prospect of improvements for the game based on what I had demonstrated.
Though the improvements in Madden are not all-encompassing (with no spoken menus at present), the changes that are being made are at least a good step in the right direction.
The CVAA, the 21st century communications and video accessibility act is a piece of American legislation passed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The long and short of it is that only the communication aspects of videogames are covered by the CVAA, not full accessibility for platforms and consoles. However, as the final exemption from the act is set to expire on the first of January 2019, there is a great potential for change amongst platform developers (and potentially videogame developers as well). Whilst the CVAA does not cover accessibility principles in terms of enforcing accessible game design, it does make sure that those with a variety of disabilities can communicate with each other. So for example, if I wanted to play with a player with hearing loss, there should be no reason why I can't hear their words transcribed into synthesised speech and they shouldn't be able to see my words appear on their screen via text.
Whereas Microsoft and (to a far lesser extent Sony) have gone above and beyond the minimum requirements, Nintendo has so far avoided this legislation altogether. This is a significant blow for the accessibility community given that the Switch is intended as a console for everyone to enjoy.
The simple fact that the Nintendo Switch uses a smartphone app for its voice chat service and other online functions is, as much as it might be a clever idea, a disappointing one for accessibility. This means that they have to do absolutely nothing in terms of making their platform accessible as the functionality that would need to be adapted is elsewhere.
Unfortunately, that did not come to pass, as Sony restricted their TTS to specific models of PlayStation 4 as well as tying it to the US, according to this linked page from the Sony online manual.
This proved to be the case when, on the launch of the Xbox One experience in late 2015, Narrator (the main feature of interest to GWS) was found to be able to be accessed outside of an official launch region of the US.
This access came via a workaround that, though it required sighted assistance to be set up, could pretty much be seen as a fire-and-forget option. It involved changing the language and region from the default to English (US) and, although it meant you were unable to buy content from your country's store, you could still use the main Xbox interface to launch games, send Xbox Live messages and party invites, amongst other functions.
The feature allows for the use of two separate controllers, with the input being treated as that of a single one. This allows for single player games to be more easily played by a GWS who has sighted assistance. Though clearly it is not a complete fix for the issue of inaccessibility of older titles on other platforms, the disadvantages of such input methods are even easier to see when said GWS has inconsistent sighted assistance to act as an aid to navigation and other tasks.
The process for setting it up involves, on occasion, usage of optical character recognition which is just about intelligible at best and garbled and unusable at worst. Moreover, the fact that the entire interface does not use standard windows controls means that screen readers, as useful as they are, cannot recognise the elements in the window and a GWS must resort to either getting sighted assistance or trying to work with functions that mimic the mouse cursor with relatively little success in terms of ease of use.
There are sometimes ways around certain elements, like the use of Steam chat via the mobile app to see the messages that have been written, but the key issues are navigation of the main interface and settings panels as well as being easily able to access game properties to launch new games, install them or work with their existing files.
Valve, though a fair few petitions have been raised to combat this trend, have failed to do anything meaningful in terms of accessibility that resolves any of the above mentioned issues for GWS and, as discussed later in this report, I fear that is unlikely to change any time soon.
Not absolutely everything I discussed whilst on the Fellowship can or will be detailed here, but I hope the information provided will be of assistance for those developers interested in making their games accessible to GWS, as well as those consumers who want to get a greater understanding of the ins and outs of initiating discussions within the gaming industry.
The event included press conferences from not only Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, but also publishers including Ubisoft and Bethesda. These events do, however, take place outside of the aforementioned 3 day period.
The event is for those fans who want that extra dose of Microsoft appreciation, with 500 tickets being released for the E3 2017 event. The tickets were free, though you needed a credit card to hold the ticket according to information on the website.
The event mostly concerned previews of the Xbox One X, announced at the Microsoft press conference (a little more on that later) and opportunities to socialise with fellow Xbox fans (whether through chatting in cues before the E3 Microsoft press conference or through discussing how different being a GWS is to the normal perception of gaming as a visual medium).
For me, one of the big surprises of the event, other than all the announcements of course, was that various individuals at Microsoft worked together to get me what they termed as a "reserved seat". Now this, I thought, would just mean a normal seat, but I was very surprised when I saw the final product.
This took the form of a haptic gaming chair that had been tweaked and adapted for additional comfort and rumble. The real clincher though, was that it had also been modified to be in synchronisation with the various trailers and pieces of gameplay shown off at the event, thus adding a whole other dimension to the experience for me as a GWS.
The individuals responsible for making this happen were under no obligation to do so. However, the fact that they did shows, at least to me, an unrivalled dedication to accommodating their fans in as many diverse and interesting ways as possible.
Such souvenirs are actually very accessible for GWS and allow for the creation of great memories in the sense that you are unlikely to forget that kind of generosity any time soon. If the souvenirs are figures of characters for example, it allows you as a GWS to get a sense of the character's physicality and sometimes even the aesthetic of the game itself (as discussed in later sections of this report).
Developers need to get fans involved in what they do, souvenirs can help drive the point across that they care.
Crackdown 3, more commonly just shortened to Crackdown, is a game that was, at the time I attended E3, expected to launch on the same day as the Xbox One X console. However, it has subsequently been delayed into 2018. I met Kris Mellroth (one of the audio designers for the game) at one of the FanFest party-style events and we had a fair amount of discussion about the game's potential for accessibility to GWS.
Kris works alongside Zachary Quarles, most noted for his work on Killer Instinct. Killer Instinct (discussed later in this report) is a game that whilst it is not fully accessible, is a stand-out example of how even with limited technology as described in this Gamasutra article, audio can be well crafted and helpful to GWS and the player base at large). Having both of these talented individuals working on the same team assured me that Crackdown would likely be a very enjoyable experience and have hidden subtleties that GWS would, with time, be able to pick out from the rest of the cues.
After the promising discussions at the aforementioned FanFest event, I hoped to be able to play Crackdown whilst I was on the show floor at E3 to better understand whether these improvements would actually work in practice.
Fortunately, though I expected I would be playing through the demo with someone not directly on the development team, as was the case with some of the other games I got to look at during the event, I had yet another surprise. When I went to play the game, I was not met by someone from a marketing division. It was, in fact, Kris who showed me the ropes and, having never played an entry in the Crackdown series before, I was glad of the assistance. Before I could even begin to figure my way around the controls, he began to rapidly reel off lists of audio cues, providing me with the reassurance that I was working with someone who really knew what had to be done to make an Xbox exclusive accessible to GWS, at least in part.
Kris showed a complete awareness of what was missing from the pre-release build, what was in the planning stages at the time and what could be on the cards in the near future. He was more than willing to receive feedback from a perspective that, arguably, remains unexplored by the vast majority of developers, from indie to big budget corporations.
This goes to show that if you have people who know the game inside out and the needs of GWS, for example, as part of your demo teams, it can greatly improve the experience for someone who wants to provide feedback.
In subsequent weeks, I was able to play even more of the game, finding a bug in the audio for throwing a power punch from the air, with Kris having a whole wall of notes behind me from previous discussions we had whilst I played. This is a further demonstration that if you allow for gamers to test pre-release builds, the bugs you might be able to fix, or suggestions that might become a part of the final game, might not have necessarily been considered without the help of a GWS.
However, given its team focus, as well as considerations that Rare (the developers) have already made regarding accessibility, I can safely say that the game has a massive amount of potential for GWS.
Ironically, steering the ship, I was told by one of the development team, was the most accessible role. Audio cues and haptic feedback proved this theory was correct and I had an entertaining time observing the rest of my crew and engaging in contributions during the course of the demo.
I think the fact that I was the only pirate who had not been killed by the end of the demo with a crew of 4 says something about steering the ship, namely that even if it's currently got some additional kinks to work out, it's probably the least likely to get you killed in game, at least for now.
Nintendo were not forthcoming with any kind of information regarding contacts for accessibility, they basically gave me a flat response saying that because I was not media, they did not want to talk to me. They also said you can talk if you have an appointment, but all our appointments are booked.
If you are going to attempt to talk with companies like Nintendo as a GWS, be prepared to be turned away. They may have sent a letter to a blind fan of the Rhythm Heaven series with an alternative version in Braille, but that does not mean they are willing to engage in any kind of dialogue that might be useful to the wider community, or so it seems.
If you are an exhibitor at E3, make sure that everyone who might want to see your games or talk with you can do so, whether they are a GWS or not. If the information is publicised clearly outside the event in locations where, say, free Wi-Fi is available for those who need it to get an app, then this should be far less of an issue.
As a side note, when I later examined the app, I discovered that it was semi-accessible, even including a box asking if the user has a disability. How far this accessibility extends at a live event is unclear though.
Individuals from HTC, as well as those exhibiting Dragonball FighterZ, Assassins Creed: Origins and Forza Motorsport 7 all seemed at the very least willing to pass on my information to higher-level individuals from the companies concerned (i.e. people directly involved with their games and products).
Hyperkin and Cryengine were more forthcoming and have engaged in direct conversation with me since E3. However, even without responses from every party involved, this does demonstrate that if developers are engaged with in person, the opportunities can potentially go far beyond what was thought possible before interacting with them.
When I first bought an Xbox One (an original model, as this was before the days of the One S), I began to play Killer Instinct. I was not particularly skilled at it, by any means. However, I understood, to a degree, what was going on.
Once Narrator came along as part of the New Xbox One Experience, I began to fight against a GWS that I knew wanted to try the game but hadn't really found a reason to pick it up. These exhibition matches went well, demonstrating that with the simple addition of a method of accessing the invite interface without sighted assistance, the game had increased enjoyment and entertainment value.
Once I got into ranked mode, which was a little before Narrator, I realised that there were issues with the game that needed to be fixed to allow for a more even playing field when fighting opponents who had any kind of usable vision, most prominant being the lack of information on how far you are from dropping your combo.
After voicing my concerns on the official Killer Instinct forums, I was surprised that the community rallied round me and supported me in my requests for accessibility features. What neither myself nor other members of the KI community knew was that the developers, behind the scenes, were working on solving the above issue and not long after my initial rant of sorts, a patch that introduced a beta version of a new character came along. With this new patch, however, also came notice of new audio cues, particularly for KV meter (the value that shows how far you are from dropping your combo).
The surprise for both myself and my previously mentioned fellow fighter was that it worked far better than I think we expected, making a pretty much night and day difference in both of our skill levels.
With these new changes in hand, I was able to get to the highest rank other than top 32, all because of a few simple but much needed additions to the game, with an adjustable slider to assist in calibration of the newly added HUD Volume slider.
When I realised I would get the chance to provide further feedback to a team who had already created a very accessible product, I was unsure what to expect, other than of course, passion, determination and an understanding attitude towards accessibility.
These were both experiences that made me realise just how far Microsoft were pushing to try and make my time there as memorable and productive as possible. Playing a new character four days before the official release made me feel like any feedback I gave might be at least considered and those who were unsure as to how I learn new characters seemed to appreciate watching the process of discovery.
The exhibition set, between myself and Ken Lobb, proved to be quite interesting for both of us. As much as we have respect for each other, we both knew that during these matches, we were not going to hold back in terms of how we played. We didn't fight in the classic titles, but instead on the latest entry in the series that Ken Lobb had not only helped create, but where he even voices a character, namely Thunder, shown in the linked character trailer from Season one.
Getting this chance to face off against an individual who had also helped in the production of well-known titles like GoldenEye 64 was made all the more atmospheric due to our choice of controllers. Whilst my opponent used a fightstick, a standard sight for most fighting game players, I fought him on a custom controller that I'd built with sighted assistance and took with me on my Fellowship, to show that controllers didn't just have to be built to cater for a disability; they could be built for preference as well. Not only did this lead to numerous gamers and designers being interested in the result of my build and asking how much and where they could purchase one from, but it more importantly brought mine and Ken Lobb's set as close as I have come to playing Killer Instinct in an arcade environment.
When the final fight was over, with myself having emerged as the victor at nine matches won to my opponent's eight, I had a moment of realisation in terms of accessibility. Getting such an opportunity (namely to share a game with individuals responsible for its creation in one way or another) is a rare one. Being able to fight on a relatively even playing field, thanks to audio cues introduced partially because of my comments on the game during its second season, is an even more rare event.
If you are a developer and have the opportunity to play alongside a GWS, there's a chance that if they know you were responsible for the game being played in some form, the experience will be even more memorable, regardless of the outcome. Moreover, there will be opportunities to ask for feedback and gain insight that might not otherwise be obtained on both sides of the spectrum, for GWS and developers alike.
Making such opportunities open to a wider variety of opponents, not just the subscribers to developer streams, for example, can make GWS more willing to participate in discussions about how the games or other products produced by developers might become more accessible.
One such inclusion was, supposedly, accessible menus, which lead to a rather humorous moment when we actually went into the game. Hoping to be pleasantly surprised by the use of similar systems to Narrator speaking the menus, myself and the aforementioned community manager were met with absolute silence. We both burst out laughing when reality dawned on us that what we thought might be in the game actually was completely absent.
As a GWS, if you are told that accessibility options are in a game and they are not present, try and be as civil about it as possible so that you and the developers can have a laugh about it and progress towards getting what's needed into the game as soon as possible.
As you may remember, merchandise can improve how GWS perceive a company in terms of how willing they are to accommodate those attending as part of studio visits. I was fortunate enough to receive a few plush toys as a souvenir, along with some other additional items. The plush characters emulate the blocky qualities of the in-game assets with a reasonable amount of detail whilst also being an interesting conversation starter in terms of a general display piece. Considering Minecraft is not currently playable at all as a GWS, it's good to see that the merchandise side of things has been taken care of in a rather interesting way.
It was great to actually be able to discuss the possibilities of Minecraft's accessibility whilst also playing through a couple of worlds that had been built and testing things out as I went along. One of the interesting areas I had the fortune to play through actually involved an auditory puzzle which, after 30 seconds or so of metaphorically tearing my hair out, I managed to solve. Even though this puzzle was not necessarily intended as an accessibility test, but rather part of a larger area if memory serves, it was definitely a talking point that could be used to further Minecraft's development into an accessible title for GWS.
Moreover, representitives from Gaming For Everyone (G4E) and Microsoft employees from a number of departments got involved, asking questions, leading the event and making sure everything ran as smoothly as possible.
As a consumer and GWS, it was very interesting to see perspectives that, at times, I might not have necessarily considered (such as having difficulty playing a game with the use of only one hand), all given extra weight because the experiences I heard about were from people in the same room.
I had intended, as part of my own presentation, to discuss the differences between audiogames and mainstream titles, as well as my experiences with mainstream gaming since getting an Xbox One. However, due to some technical issues that I felt could not be resolved in a timely manner, myself and those running the event quickly reached a compromise that, in all fairness, worked out well. However, there were a few attendees who were interested to see the presentation and disappointed that it did not happen, though my improvised Q&A probably still had a reasonable level of impact.
For GWS seeking to present to developers or other interested parties, be prepared to possibly have technical issues, no matter how well prepared you are or think you might be.
Myself and a selection of others who attended the aforementioned GDBC were able to provide ideas in an unexpectedly informal and sometimes heated discussion as to the future of the series, what the current game does well and what could be improved for future entries.
After the discussions ended, I was pleased to be approached by one of the employees present at the talks, who seemed very much interested in some of the ideas I had presented using a prototype Halo map and mode I had helped construct with sighted assistance. This further shows that even if you just get to talk to one person, that can at least ignite the spark of interest needed to get accessibility to be a higher priority than it is at most companies.
As most Halo fans might already know, 343I has a museum dedicated to Halo as a franchise. Whether through displays of sealed copies of the games and their various editions to toy weapons and action figures, or through having life-size costumes from various commercials and small screen films and commercials, it's certainly a very interesting place to explore.
What though, you might think, would a GWS like myself even get out of such a visit? The answer, in fact, is a pretty logical one. In my experience, when playing videogames, though I might not have any kind of idea as to what the characters look like, my mind works to fill in the gaps in combination with the sound design. These images, though sufficiently accurate in the imagination of a GWS like myself, may be flawed compared to the real thing in various aspects like height compared to the player character.
However, when you are able to gain a physical cross-reference, such as the objects in the museum (especially when they are at least close to life-size scale), it can really enhance an image of a character. For instance, as much as any Spartan action figure I have can give a vague idea of the general proportions and the armour style etc, that's nothing compared to standing as close as possible to what is essentially, the closest thing you are going to get to a real suit of the Mjolnir armour. Standing with a statue of an elite (one of the more formidable enemies in the majority of Halo games) towering over you, you certainly have the opportunity to gain a whole new set of perspectives as a GWS on just how access to such resources can make a difference in understanding the in-game world and even the expanded universe of books, films and other alternative media when available in accessible formats.
Having the opportunity to see the alien creatures, such as the aforementioned elites (also called Sangheili) and Jiralhanae (more commonly known as brutes) up close, even though they were just costumes, breathed new life into the large, hulking but at times graceful forms. It made me realise that if developers have such costumes or even smaller-scale models, they should allow them to be displayed in public with accessibility accommodation for people with any number of disabilities, including GWS. Allowing these experiences, whilst it does provide the benefits of cross-referencing listed above, also allows consumers to gain a deeper understanding of the characters featured in the in-game universe and could serve as a useful jumping off point to get players interested in franchises they might not think of exploring otherwise.
Well, the way I saw it before I undertook my Fellowship and even more so after the fact, accessibility in gaming comes under several categories, as follows:
After receiving a GTX1050 graphics card as a gift, I understood that graphics cards, as much as they might not seem important as a GWS, are crucial in getting any modern game to play smoothly and without issue.
However, altering the settings on such cards, I discovered, is not something you could do without sighted assistance. Contacting Nvidia, I was pleased to see that they were willing to talk.
Even though my attempts to demonstrate the issues experienced when trying to play modern games on lower-end hardware went somewhat awry thanks to some rather unexpected actions on the part of the laptop I was using, the points I was trying to get across were nevertheless understood. If you want to involve yourself in mainstream gaming, you will need hardware that is better than minimum.
In terms of accessibility, Nvidia demonstrated that hardware manufacturers can help with solving issues that might not allow mainstream games to run well. Such issues might include a card not being able to process enough information, solved by overclocking which is, as stated above, currently not possible with screen reading software and graphics card modification programs.
My thoughts on wider areas of accessibility, including software that works in conjunction with games, do not just stop at Nvidia though.
My impressions of Valve Corporation when I went into the building were relatively different from those I had when I left. Partly because of something that does not seem to be public knowledge to me, the fact that Valve's staff is between 300 and 400 people and they do not have a standard hierarchy. The employees change from project to project on an irregular basis, coming up with ideas as they go. At least that's what I understood from the talks I had.
After the various employees I got to talk to understood how I play videogames, the conversation took an interesting turn. In trying to exit Steam, I was able to demonstrate that doing so with a screen reader was next to impossible and there was usually no solution other than killing the process via Task Manager or rebooting the machine completely if that fails. An employee's advice that big picture mode might be an alternative solution backfired through a practical demonstration of how it prevented the screen reader from being able to work with any elements on the screen at all after it was initiated, prompting me to have to force shutdown the machine and start from scratch.
The conclusion that was reached, whilst not ideal, would have to do: Valve understood there was a problem and my presentation and Q&A had actually been the best possible thing I could have done to make them aware of any issues. However, they gave no sort of time estimate on when these issues might be fixed. This was because, ostensibly, they would have to get enough dedicated team members on board with an accessibility project like this in order to start fixing the various issues, with no one knowing when that might happen. At least it's a start.
It yielded some interesting results in that there were questions from the art team, which meant I had to clarify my position as a GWS, discussing the benefits of being able to cross-reference in-game models with physical media like action figures (similar to what I discussed earlier surrounding the 343 museum visit). Not only that, but it also served to show the amount of advantage competent players with sight have over those relying on sound alone and that, when the tables were turned, everything changed.
You can watch the resulting exhibition set in this linked playlist
The employees I got to speak to (including a member of the audio team and the NRS Community Manager) were, once they understood how great an issue accessibility was, certainly open for suggestions. The ideas that were thought up during those discussions (including panning left and right to allow easier determination of which direction to press for a character choice in I2's story mode) were a little surprising to me, given that I had not prepared those as concepts to expand on during the meeting.
As with previous studio visits, I got to fight one of the individuals present, namely Steve Brownback A.K.A Osu16bit, a player that those familiar with NRS regular streams will have seen coaching and sometimes fighting against those in the recording space.
Needless to say, the fights were not in my favour. In a sense though, that's what I went to the studio to prove: that far more can be done in terms of allowing GWS to have a fair fight against those with sight who can work with the relative simplicity of animations to defeat their opponents.
Dropmix, a party game that's actually almost a board game as well, was also a point of discussion, with the main bombshell that the app that comprises the game itself not being accessible hitting hard but with a positive outlook afterwards. The mention of a Unity plugin that can allow IOS apps to be made accessible in a number of days sparked hope for the project and when I left that smaller meeting, having had a demonstration of the product, I think it's fair to say that I had high hopes for it being accessible, if not at launch then in future iterations.
As with other studios, I was filmed for the purposes of providing internal footage for employees to look back at later. Having the opportunity to be in the same space that Harmonix actually uses for their streams was quite surreal as well, but being undermined by the latency between the TV and the game itself did not really help my reputation as someone who has learnt a couple of songs on Rock Band to a fairly decent level.The humorous angle on this was that my sighted bandmate, an employee at Harmonix, also had issues with the TV's lag in places.
As much as being filmed in their streaming space was an interesting experience, the real highlight of the visit to Harmonix was not just being able to play a game that's been a large part of my previous generation console experience, but getting to play it in VR.
Having only played a small VR tech demo or two before that (though not of the game itself), as well as having heard reports and seen clips of Rock Band VR in action, I was surprised to find out just how intricate and interesting my first full VR experience really was.
VR is not the most accessible of mediums in terms of public perception, given that most experiences are given over to high-quality visuals and not much else. Rock Band VR is different in that it manages to totally immerse you in the feeling of playing in front of a live audience. Other than the plastic guitar in your hands, of course. The croud is deafening, the amps squeal as you play even before you begin playing the song, as the head tracking allows you to hear the surroundings from different angles.
There are even tiny little quality of life adjustments (or should that be quality of live) to make the game even more of an immersive experience, including having the song previews come from speakers apparently in the ceiling.
I used these previews to test head tracking with the rift and I must say I was impressed. That was nothing compared to my reaction of being in the game and playing along to a song that though I knew it well, I had never heard it quite the same way as in Rock Band VR.
That's not to say the accessibility experience was completely flawless, however, with the necessity to look at interface items and the drummer to begin the game causing problems. Not to mention, of course, the fact that the controller and the rig itself seemed to have a few technical issues of their own, which were, I'm glad to say, eventually fixed.
Harmonix, like the majority of the developers I spoke to, seemed positive regarding accessibility, once they realised what it entailed. I just hope that, in the future, it is integrated into their products at an earlier stage, not as a retrofit. Nevertheless, I am more than happy to see they are willing to go the extra mile to make their experiences open to a wider demographic.
In terms of developments specific to this report, I actually had a breakthrough regarding Capcom (who I had partially demonstrated as being hard to get in touch with regarding reviewing their games). It turned out, through various contacts I managed to obtain, that they were happy for me to review Marvel VS Capcom: Infinite for accessibility, providing me with a code a day early on request so that I could download the game and start working on content around it.
Moreover, having not had the chance to play Destiny 2 at E3, I was very surprised when I got in touch with an individual from Activision and they were also interested in my accessibility feedback from a review for the game, providing me with a code then and there.
These two examples alone show that mostly, if you reach just the right contact with the right pitch, you have a greater chance of succeeding where you might have previously been unable to do so. However, it also shows that it's certainly not what you know, it's who you know in this industry that allows for accessibility to flourish, which is unfortunate. Personally, I would say it's similar to the classic vicious circle of employment:
Either way, you cannot really win. All I would suggest to potential accessibility advocates is to find a niche for yourself, carve it out and hope it works out for you. It is tough, certainly. Sometimes, though, it can definitely prove to be rewarding.
Madden, mentioned in the resources list below, has also, thanks to an EA employee who is now the accessibility lead for EA Sports titles, had accessibility improvements moved to a higher priority. Knowing nothing about American football and consequently being far less interested in it than, say, an accessible Battlefront title, I was, regardless, pleased that a corporation like EA had actually made an effort to move into the untapped market of GWS.
Way Of The Passive Fist (WOTPF), a game I had heard about but I mistakenly believed was only releasing on PS4 has released across Xbox One, PC and PS4. After discussions with the developer, who read some of my accessibility reviews and had conversed with some gamers without sight before conversing with me, I was informed that accessibility support was actually going to be included as a post launch update including full stereo audio for positioning of enemies and objects (given that the limitations of the engine they're working in are overcome first).
Even though I have stated before that retrofitting is not the ideal course of action, the developers' willingness to be open about the issues they're having and the things they've learnt during the development process makes me feel confident that even if they don't manage to implement accessibility into this game to the level they hope for, their committment to adding accessibility to their future titles will still stand as a progression of their learning process.
As mentioned above in the section on Nintendo's platform accessibility, the final waver for exemption from the CVAA for the Electronic Software Association or more specifically its members expires at the end of December 2018 as shown in the linked PDF from the FCC. This has the potential for great positive accessibility-centric change with companies like Valve, Sony and the aforementioned Nintendo as even if they have accessibility improvements in the pipeline, they will be forced to start putting their plans for greater accessibility into action sooner rather than later.
I was invited to speak at the 2018 Game Accessibility Conference in San Francisco, an event featuring perspectives from gamers with a range of disabilities as well as talks by developers, including one of the founders of Household Games. Household Games, for those who aren't aware, developed the aforementioned Way Of The Passive Fist.
My Presentation discussed my findings from my Fellowship research, some of my experiences from the events I attended and company visits, as well as a couple of genre-centric tips for improving accessibility.
The event was a positive reminder of just how engaging not only fellow advocates but also developers and attendees can be when videogame accessibility is the topic of discussion.
Speaking of developers, I actually interacted with a few smaller developers whilst at the event, including one of the individuals behind a game that is currently in development called "Mighty Fight Federation". This multiplayer 3D brawler, hopefully due for release at the beginning of 2019, should have gameplay footage released soon and the developers are open to accessibility feedback from constructively-minded advocates for mainstream accessibility. I will provide more information on the game as and when I can here.
In the US, there are E3, the Game Developer's Conference (with the Game Accessibility Conference as an event around the same time) and the Evolution Fighting Game Championship (Evo), to name a few events where such opportunities would be fairly easy to come by if you have the money and the sighted assistance to get to the locations.
From my research, there are far fewer scenarios where such opportunities are open to GWS in the UK (though conventions like EGX do exist to showcase what seem to be smaller, independently developed titles for the most part). This could be remedied, I believe, through studios working together so that larger, higher profile games, not just independant developers, can feature in presentations in the UK, allowing for wider audience feedback and constructive criticism on accessibility.
Working with companies like Microsoft and other developers who have offices in the UK in a variety of areas around the country would potentially provide enough accessible areas that GWS who wished to could travel there with sighted assistance if needed.
These areas could host, for instance, accessibility-centric tournaments (such as the Halo tournaments held in Microsoft stores in the US), allowing for sighted players and GWS to go head-to-head in an environment where accessibility might not even be thought about, let alone discussed and reflected on.
Continuing on the theme of conventions, an often overlooked hurdle is that even if you can attend, you will not necessarily know where the items or exhibitors you want to see are located, even if you have sighted assistance as a GWS. The solution to such a problem would be to have staff on-hand to assist those with disabilities, not just those with no sight, to help them through the registration process as well as directing them to the various booths and areas. Such considerations could reduce the strain on those attending conventions and allow for a far more pleasant experience in which accessibility for GWS can be discussed as an open topic.
Other than where games are presented and how accessible these presentations are, whether they are at conventions or not, there is a further barrier. Legislation. In the UK, there's no equivalent to the CVAA, mentioned earlier in this report, which attempts to force platforms to make their systems more accessible. However, as has also already been highlighted, some companies have found a way to circumvent the ideals of the CVAA. The UK equivalent is the Equalities Act (link to full text) which, unfortunately, only governs the supply of goods and services, but not the goods themselves according to the Citizen's Advice Bureau.
A series of guidelines put together by Ian Hamilton and others to attempt to categorise accessibility priorities at varying levels of difficulty, whilst also listing their benefits.
Some information on how CoPilot works, taken from the Microsoft support site
Information on activating Narrator, courtesy of Xbox support.
A page with links to further information on all the ease of access settings on Xbox One consoles
The main page on the developer's website, providing information on the Tolk Screen Reader Abstraction Library which has been used to achieve full accessibility for GWS in Skullgirls (see the next subsection for more details on the game itself).
For those developers who might be interested in developing products with Tolk integration, you can find the Github repository on this GitHub page.
A blog post covering a plug-in facilitating mobile accessibility in unity games to GWS, including a link to download the plug-in itself.
A further post demonstrating how quickly an existing Unity app can be made fully accessible to both Voiceover on IOS and Talkback on Android.
The dedicated email address, set up by Microsoft, to receive any accessibility feedback.
Any suggestions for accessibility improvements and new accessibility features for Xbox should be posted to this page. The team will, at the very least, read these suggestions, though posting an idea does not mean it will be acted on at the time of posting, if at all.
A prime example of accessibility retrofitting, Mike Zaimont of Lab Zero games managed to implement the accessibility features including fully spoken menus, tutorials, training modes, and everything else save the art gallery and credits in a matter of days spread out over the course of a week. This works via Tolk, the screen reader abstraction library (linked above), allowing for similar functions to the MSSA, but on Windows PCs rather than consoles. As a side note, the console version of the game, though it is backwards compatible on Xbox One, is not accessible via this method or the MSSA in any way shape or form. This lack of accessibility also extends to invites as with all current Xbox 360 backwards compatible titles.
For the best PC experience, I recommend purchasing both the base game and the second encore upgrade, as the Second Encore expansion contains the fully voiced story mode and it's uncertain as to whether the base game comes with the Second Encore upgrade by default.
If you intend to play on consoles and Windows 10, given its relatively good value for money, I suggest you get the Definitive Edition. This contains seasons one, two and three, with any additional bonus fighters (including Shadow Jago), in addition to some behind the scenes content (such as interviews with Ken Lobb and other staff who worked on the KI franchise in its various iterations). Purchasing this edition digitally will allow you to utilise Xbox Play Anywhere's main selling point of owning the game on both Xbox One and Windows 10, giving you a choice of when and where you play if you have the hardware to run it on multiple devices. The Steam version does run on Windows 7 according to various sources, though no specific mention of Windows 8 or 8.1 is seemingly present in these comments. It is likely, however, given that it works on Windows 7 and Windows 10 that Windows 8 and 8.1 should, theoretically, run the game without any issues relating to operating system (OS) compatibility. If you do choose to run the game on these OS versions however, please note that I will not be held responsible for any issues caused through doing so. Though I have tested the Steam port on Windows 10 (and found it to perform very much the same as the console counterpart, aside from the use of Steam's own non-standard systems as opposed to Microsoft's accessible interface), I have not had the opportunity to test it on other operating systems that should run it.
Unfortunately, the Steam version has no free to play (F2P option) unlike its console and Windows Store counterpart. Instead, you get all the content that's been released (29 characters including Season 3 bonus characters Kilgore, Shin Hisako and Eagle), 20 stages, all costumes and colours, and all modes for one price. If you pay a little extra, you can purchase the Killer Cuts Edition (exclusive to Steam) that gives you the soundtracks to Season 1, 2 and 3, including the classic Killer Instinct 1 and 2 soundtracks. Whether this includes Kilgore, Shin Hisako's and Eagle's themes is not clear from the Steam site, however I can confirm that these themes are included amongst the 68 loose soundtrack files stored in the game's root directory.
Note: The below links to Microsoft storefronts may direct you to the US pages. If you are not redirected to the page for your country, try searching for the game yourself in your device's store.
This game's marketing was a prime example of how to include sighted gamers in an accessibility-centric effort. Not saying that this is "an audio game with graphics" or similar is actually one of the game's greatest strengths, with the quality of the sound design and music, funded in part via Kickstarter, demonstrating just how much you can get out of an audio only experience if you involve a wider audience. Given that the game's Kickstarter goal of $2000 was beaten at least 4 times over, it was clear that without the support of sighted donators, the game probably wouldn't have achieved such milestones.
If you are a developer who has implemented accessibility for GWS into a mainstream game and wish to have the title feature in this section as a result, please feel free to contact me and let me know.
If I believe a game has the potential to be accessible without sight, even with moderate adaptation, I will endeavour to contact the developers as well.
It's not just shooters that accessibility is missing out on though: A fully fledged version of Tetris that can rival the original has not yet, to my knowledge, been made accessible and there's a distinct lack of pinball games compared to offerings even on Steam or Xbox One. Realtime Strategy (RTS) games, similarly, are lacking, with anything even remotely approaching the scope, scale and depth of Halo Wars or its sequel having come nowhere near fruition.
It's not just about having enough willing advocates either, as there are certainly a fair few other than myself who know mainstream games well enough to feed back on their faults and praise their positive aspects.
The onus is also on developers and publishers to allow those who want to reach out and provide their thoughts for consideration the ability to do so. Being shut out by companies is frustrating and having more ways and means of feeding back on accessibility concerns for any disability would, I hope, move the industry into a greater era of appreciation for disabilities as a whole, not just with specific use cases.
Accessibility is achievable. It can be done. This is the front line. Where do we go from here? The answer... we will see.
As Churchill once said,
"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."