AbleGamers Foundation: Developers Supporting The Cause


Posted June 29, 2012 - By Cassandra Khaw

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Do video game developers do enough to facilitate the enjoyment of their games by those who are disabled? I asked this question on Twitter earlier this week and the response was an unanimous 'No'.

Darius Kazemi commented, "When I was working in QA on D&D Online back in 2005, I filled a bug about a puzzle that red/green colorblind people couldn't solve. Red/green colorblindness affects 10% of men, which I'm guessing given the typical audience of a D&D game is probably close to 10% of all the players."

Kazemi added somberly. "The real reason is that when you're trying to ship a game, you care about changes that make what you perceive to be the biggest impact. So in the mind of certain (I would say most) devs, it's 'Oh, that's a bug that only happens 10% of the time, so it's low priority.' This is a terrible way of thinking about it. What you need to think is, 'Oh, that's a bug that affects 10% of our players 100% of the time, and it affects them because they have a disability we didn't bother to consider -- rather than a compatibility issue we overlooked.' I want more devs to think the second way.”

"These kinds of problems are what I would call "irreducible": you can't reduce a percentage of your audience to a bug frequency percentage, even though they're both percentages. You have to think about the entire context around what's happening."

Luckily, it looks like the number of developers who share Kazemi's viewpoint is growing. For Boston-based Children of Liberty's Game Designer Dan Silvers, accessibility has an important component of his design process, something that stems from the fact that one of his closest friends is both colorblind and a loyal play tester. "I find it's best to keep accessibility in mind from the start, so that your design doesn't need to become less challenging for the majority of your players and everyone can enjoy the game equally."

Children of Liberty

However, Silvers was also quick to note that it can be 'a tricky balance'. " On the one hand, as a designer, the last thing you want is for your game design to suffer just for the sake of accessibility. On the other hand, to completely ignore those who want to play your game but can't because of various disabilities is to shun your audience and that should never be done in this industry (or any other, for that matter)."

Spreading this understanding is one of the key aspects of the AbleGamers Foundation's mission. Since their conception, the nonprofit organization has been responsible for helping developers like Minicore Studios, the people responsible for Tanks for the Memories, enhance the accessibility of their games.

"It didn't take much convincing for us to decide that AbleGamers would be an integral part in our development cycles. I think we're an interesting case because I'm a disabled game producer, so AbleGamers' mission hits close to home. I don't have profound disabilities that require the accessibility options we're talking about, but exclusion in general is something I'm familiar with. I love AbleGamers because they have such a positive message -- it's not about pointing fingers and getting into shouting matches, but rather educating developers and telling meaningful stories. We want to be a big part of the mission." CEO John Warren explained.

While originally designed to be played with two hands, a dialogue with AbleGamers led to the realization that something had to be done to accommodate those who could only use one hand. "Normally, you would play the game by holding down a fire button and touching the screen to shoot in that direction. After talking with AbleGamers, we patched the game so that the fire button is a toggle instead of a hold, allowing players to toggle fire and then touch the screen."

Tanks for the Memories

Like Kazemi, Warren thinks that the lack of accessibility may be the result of business-minded executives at large publishers looking at numbers and thinking 'this is not a priority'. "Those numbers, whatever they are, don't tell the whole story. They can't tell the whole story. Read about gamers who have degenerative conditions - games are often ripped from them because of a lack of options. Stories of developers who listen to these requests, make the changes, and get those players back in action are few and far between, but moving."

"Caring about accessibility is just a good thing that developers need to start." Warren implored. For numbers-obsessed executives, just think about gamers positively affected by accessibility options being added to games -- their numbers may be not be great in comparison, but they'll champion your company forever. That's huge."

MiniCore Studios were not the only ones to take AbleGamers' evangelism to heart. Uber Entertainment, the makers of Super Monday Night Combat, has been in contact with the nonprofit since the closed beta of their game. "A couple of the AbleGamers editors were fans of Super Monday Night Combat. Around the time it was in closed beta, they got in touch with us. We stayed in contact and got great feedback on ways to make the game more accessible. We hadn't worked with them in the past and just getting to know AbleGamers and their mission inspired us to do more."

"Accessibility is always a concern in terms of gameplay and overall user experience for us." Executive Producer and Art Director Chanadana Ekanayake noted. "We try to include as much player customization in control remapping and hot-keys where we can. We thrive on feedback to improve. Several months ago, we were working with a disabled gamer on our forums who was chronicling his experience with Super Monday Night Combat. It was just so inspiring to see how he was able to customize controls with the help of other forum members and setup macros that allowed him to play hundreds of matches."

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Though it has yet to become a prevalent theme amongst mainstream developers, some have already begun the idea of accessibility. In January 2012, Bioware's Star Wars: The Old Republic was awarded 2012's Accessible Mainstream Game of the Year award. According to the press release from AbleGamers, Star Wars: The Old Republic had went the extra mile by taking the time to implement colorblind friendly options, full subtitles, and control options to let those with mobility impairments play the game however they needed to.

According to a representative from Bioware, the team had taken all of their players into consideration when implementing accessibility options. “An option such as area looting is definitely something that makes the game better for disabled gamers, but it’s also something that most other players appreciate as well.”

When asked if they were concerned that these options may be abused, the representative stated, “It’s possible if you a design a game with aim assisting as an accepted part of the game for all gamers. You just have to accept that it will be used by everyone and design around it.”

While far from being a widespread practice just yet, Bioware's methodology in regards to accessibility is certainly a step in the right direction.

AbleGamers Foundation: Developers Supporting The Cause


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