Hey everyone, it’s 2020, and we’re about to have a ridiculously busy year in the video games industry. There’s two new game consoles releasing before the year is over, the PS5 and the Xbox Series X, and with them we’ve got a year ahead of us likely to be filled with game announcements, arguments about specs, first looks at console boxes, fights over exclusivity rights, and a year busy with games trying to release before their target platforms become old news.
While new console release years are always exciting times to be following video game news, they’re also a great excuse for us to look at where the video game industry currently stands, what it is doing well, and perhaps more importantly where it could stand to improve going into the future.Today, I’m interested in looking at where games currently stand in terms of accessibility, and where they could stand to make simple but wide reaching improvements going forward.
A little over a year ago, Microsoft released the Xbox Adaptive Controller, a mass produced modular controller base, which supported first and third party peripherals designed to try and help make accessible custom gaming setups affordable for a wider range of disabled gamers. While it’s not a one size fits all solution, and still more expensive than a standard Xbox controller, it is undeniably a step in the right direction, lowering the barrier to entry price wise for custom gaming setups, and featuring thoughtful design choices such as packaging designed to be accessible just like the controller inside.
One thing to be excited about in terms of accessibility in gaming this year is that Microsoft has already confirmed that all Xbox One controllers, including the Adaptive Controller, will be supported going forward into the Xbox Series X. This means that when the newest Microsoft console releases toward the end of this year, it will be the first time we have seen a next generation console launch with an accessibility focused controller solution officially available day one. Additionally, because the existing Adaptive Controller is supported rather than a new design being released, people who have invested in an accessible controller won’t have to make that expensive controller purchase a second time due to forced obsolescence. This is undeniably a positive moment for gaming.
While we don’t know a huge amount about the PS5 right now, one feature we have had described by reporters is the existence of “resistive triggers” on the new Dualshock controller, which could potentially cause some issues for accessibility if not made an optional feature. The way the feature was described is that in real time, the controller’s triggers may become more difficult to push, mimicking the sensation of having to pull harder against a bow string the further you want an arrow to fire. The idea sounds neat as an immersion tool, but as reported in a previous article on LauraKBuzz.com, a whole host of players including those with arthritis, chronic joint pain, as well as people with wrist or general hand weakness could find having to push through a trigger that’s pushing back painful, exhausting, or just plain impossible. Obviously we need to wait and see what the execution is like, but this is one concern on our 2020 radar we hope to see addressed prior to the launch of the PS5.
Earlier this week, I went on Twitter, and asked a series of gamers who have accessibility needs when playing games what their personal most wanted accessibility features were going forward into 2020, and a new generation of games consoles. The answer from Twitter was consistent, simple, and concise. Time and time again disabled players I spoke with requested remappable controls, robust colorblind support, Text and UI size and clarity controls, button mashing and execution simplification options, and for all of these software level accessibility changes to become standardized on consoles with new machines on the horizon.
So, let’s break down each of these oft requested accessibility changes, why they’re vital, and where current options might fall short.
First up is remappable controls, and it’s easy to see why these should be a standardized option across the industry. On PC, most video games have allowed custom remapping of controllers for years because of the non standardized layout of input devices available to players. There is no one official PC controller, or one official keyboard layout, meaning whatever your default control scheme, it might not map well to someone’s cheap off brand controller, or comfortably their keyboard where everything is slightly differently spaced. On consoles, games tend to offer preset controller layouts, but fully remappable controls are far from an industry standard.
There are always going to be games out there which decide to map controls to things like motions, and party games like Super Mario Party which can’t really remap their arm wiggling motions easily to sticks and buttons, but in a game controlled purely with traditional inputs there is no reason not to allow those buttons and their functions to be switched around by the player. Allowing for full custom layouts allows for players to do things like move all their most vital functions to one side of the controller if they have issues using one of their hands effectively, or to move a vital function away from a single button they may find hard to press easily. Custom Controller layout options allow more people to more easily use the same in game actions as others, and this is something that would be great to see implemented on a system level with both of the new consoles, if not made a certification requirement for games.
Next up, let’s talk colorblind support. Varying forms of colorblindness effect a significant number of players, from the more common forms of Red/Green colorblindness, to less common forms where players may only see the world in greyscale. While there are some games that offer modes which switch up colors to try and ensure they are still playable by colorblind users, these tend to be games where telling the difference between two colors has obvious gameplay implications, such as color matching puzzle games. These modes often focus on simply Red/Green colorblindness modes, and often get left out of games where distinguishing those two colors would be highly useful, but not strictly vital.
Support for colorblind players really is as simple as knowing in advance that colorblindness exists, checking color schemes against colorblindness filter programs to see if they remain easy to interpret, and keeping in mind that if you use for example red and green together, things like the level of light or darkness in the shade can be a useful tool to ensure players can still understand what is happening on screen. It’s a problem that we need artists working on games to consider as part of their production pipeline from day one, in order to know where fixes might be needed.
Colorblindness is a common enough issue, with easy enough fixes, that it would be a great step forward to see colourblind modes or screen filters standardized for this next generation of consoles.
Next, let’s talk about text and UI size. This entirely isn’t a new issue in gaming, we have faced it before in our industry, but it’s rearing its head again for many the same reasons it did previously. If you look back at the launch period for the Xbox 360 and PS3, when HD TVs were available but far from mass adopted, many users playing games had trouble reading on screen text and UI elements with ease. This was in large part because games were developed for large HD monitors, not for smaller or Standard Definition screens. Today we’re seeing the same issue again as more games are developed for large 4K screens, rather than for people’s existing HD sets. This is a recurrent issue when consoles take a step forward before mass adoption of screens has caught up, and one we need more developers to consider when making early next gen games.
However, the issue of text and UI size and clarity stretches beyond that of simply transition into a 4K era. Sure, for the average player this is starting to cause issues reading text, but even in games that most players find the text easy to read in, we still need to address text and UI in a more inclusive fashion.
Put simply, as subtitles and UI in games are typically not pre-rendered elements, we should be asking for developers to where possible treat them as something more customizable, to better serve more players. I’m talking about the ability to increase the size of subtitles, increase the font size of in game text logs, increase UI size, set a background behind subtitles, change the color of text, change the color behind the subtitles, and basically just mess around with text settings so things are easier to read. We need more systems to offer settings like the screen zoom feature on Switch, which allows specific sections of screen to be magnified temporarily. We need standardization of on screen visual cues for audio important moments. We need to really invest in making our text and subtitle options more adaptable, so we can help a wider number of players see what’s happening in game text and UI. Making this a standard on the new consoles would be a huge step forward for gaming accessibility.
The last change I would love to see become standardized, rather than simply an option some games choose to offer, is options which simplify Quick Time Event execution for players who may struggle to either react quickly, or mash one button repeatedly.
Now, over the past few years, an increasing number of games have gone out of their way to support accessibility options for QTEs. Spider-Man on PS4 and the recent multi-platform release of Man of Medan for example both allow players to hold a button down rather than mash it, and offer turning off timer based failures during QTEs, which both help a lot in making those games playable by more people. While it would be great to see more games offer Celeste levels of customising game speed, ability cool downs, and health to increase playability, that sort of customized difficulty feels difficult to enforce on a wide scale. QTE button holds and timer removals in single player games are pretty unanimously good settings to offer players, and seeing them made a standard in the industry would be a simple but powerful step forward.
Lastly, let’s talk about one area of gaming that’s unlikely to see massive steps forward in accessibility in 2020, VR. With the release of stand alone VR devices like the Oculus Quest, VR is getting ever cheaper, more convenient, more accurate, and closer to being a mass market appeal product. However, as has always been the case for VR, it comes with some major accessibility hurdles, particularly considering the direction the VR space is trending.
Most VR headsets being developed today are geared towards supporting, and in many cases requiring, room scale play, where players stand up in a room with plenty of free space, rotate and move around in 3D space, use two hands to motion control the world, and are built very much around a lot of standardized assumptions of player height and ability. Very few VR games offer customizable controls, and those which do often don’t fundamentally allow players to do things like playing one handed, or without motion controls. Additionally, VR games require the ability to see in stereoscopic 3D to function effectively, and cause motion sickness for many users, both of which are tough barriers to access to overcome. This doesn’t seem likely to change in the coming year, and would require more radical thought to see revamped and moved forwards with.
While 2020 is currently barely begun, I’m actually really confident for the year ahead. The Xbox Series X supporting the Adaptive Controller from day one is exciting for the industry, and the biggest accessibility hurdles I see being asked for are software level fixes that, if we voice our concerns about now, have time to be more commonly implemented. Even if these features don’t end up as standards on the new consoles, this still seems a great time to start asking for those features on a game by game basis, and to show that these are things that matter to us as people playing games.
Games are great, and the more people we can open them up to, the better.
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