5 Things We Learned About Developing An iOS Game for Blind Players
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
In April 2013, Psychic Bunny released an audio adventure game called FREEQ. It's sort of an interactive radio drama, where you play as switchboard operator and listen in on the phone calls and radio transmissions of a future civilization. Eventually, you try to save the world. The vast majority of FREEQ's content is professionally voice acted audio, with some light graphical gameplay and menus to hold the experience together. The game got some nice reviews, moved a few copies, and settled in for a long existence as a highly niche game for audiophiles and branching narrative geeks.
And then the emails started coming. A reviewer on iOS. Some posters on Facebook. Direct emails to our support address. All from blind players who'd read FREEQ's description, purchased the game, and were disappointed to learn that its visual interface meant that they couldn't play it. Some were fairly angry, but most were polite. "Can we make this happen?" they would ask. We honestly didn't know. So we replied to their messages and asked for their help. And here is what we learned along the way.
1. Blind people play video games? They use iPhones? How?!
That was our first question, too. Everyone at Psychic Bunny is a sighted gamer, and it had never occurred to us that this was even possible. We were extremely curious how such a visually-oriented device could be used by a low-vision or totally blind individual. We knew that FREEQ was audio-heavy, and even suspected that it could be audio-only, but had never managed to crack that nut. As it turns out, Apple has it covered.
Meet VoiceOver, iOS's built-in system for turning any app into an accessible app. VoiceOver will read the contents of your screen to you, highlighting areas that are interactive. A gestural touch language helps you swipe through menu options, double-tap to select buttons, and basically do all of the basic navigation things you would want to do in a typical app. As a developer, all you have to do is enable it. iOS already has hooks in place to grab your buttons, text, dropdowns, etc. and translate them for VoiceOver users. Or at least, that is how I understand it. You see...
2. Unity3D does NOT support VoiceOver
At first, when we started looking into VoiceOver, we were excited to see how it easy it would be to work with. Just enable it, maybe adjust a few tags here and there, and done! Alas, we built FREEQ with the Unity engine, an engine we are rather fond of and know inside and out. And Unity does not produce .ipa's that provide the hooks that VoiceOver needs to function properly. A player who started up FREEQ with VoiceOver enabled would be forgiven for thinking the thing had utterly crashed. The touch screen completely stopped responding the minute FREEQ launched. The only fix was to use the home button to completely exit the application, and then just never start it up again. Boo and also hiss.
But, that didn't mean that VoiceOver was a total non-starter for us. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we decided to learn what we could from how VoiceOver handles interfaces, and then recreate that usability in FREEQ. It turned out that we could lift quite a bit, even if we couldn't use it directly. The gestural language that users were used to, and the audio conventions for how an interface was read aloud, could easily be rebuilt in Unity. Especially in FREEQ, which was already fairly light on graphics, this proved to be the simplest and easiest way to get a usable experience quickly.
3. The vision-impaired gaming community is organized, and eager to help
When we made the decision to make FREEQ accessible, we knew we were in over our heads. We were not vision-impaired, and we didn't know anyone who was, so we were bound to miss a lot of things. However, we DID have the contact info of a small, passionate group of people who both knew about the game and wanted to make it accessible--the folks who'd complained to us in the first place. We reached out to them, telling them that we were willing but only maybe able, and asked for their help.
The response was immediate, and enthusiastic. Within a day or two of sending out feeler emails, we had assembled a core group of players who were willing to assist in any way they could. They provided feedback on our proposed usability retrofit, helped with bug testing, and got the word out to their friends that the game was coming.
As release day drew near, our testers told us about AppleVis, an online forum dedicated to reviewing iOS and Mac applications' accessibility. We created an account and started poking around, and sure enough, there was a review of FREEQ, with a big old "NOT EVEN REMOTELY ACCESSIBLE" grade on it. We knew that if we were going to get the word out that FREEQ was accessible and available, this was the place to do it. So we responded in the bad review's comments, apologizing for our ignorance and promising a fix.
As with our testing inquiries, we got an almost immediate and eager response. Forum members responded with their excitement, their questions, and promises to download the game when it came out. An AppleVis editor came to us, asking if we would mind if he ran a contest to drum up interest, with a handful of FREEQ download codes as the prize. The response to the contest was entirely positive. When the game did go live, members were online within hours to rewrite our poor review into a glowing endorsement.
One thing that we noticed gradually, that sort of snuck up on us, was that this community was different from the gaming communities we were used to. They asked, rather than demanded, that we help them. They always expressed appreciation for our work first, before offering criticism or bug reports. Sometimes they contacted us just to say thanks, and that they liked the game. There wasn't a troll for miles. When they said they were going to buy a copy of the game, they meant it. In short, they were all so NICE. Which isn't to say that every sighted gamer community is an awful boorish hellscape, far from it. It was just so surprising that there wasn't a single bad apple in the whole bunch. It was refreshing, and it made us want to work that much harder to make sure we gave them the best game we possibly could.
4. Small details matter
As we were retrofitting FREEQ, we made a couple of choices that at the time seemed small, but ultimately helped a great deal in reaching our audience and giving them an enjoyable experience.
The first was the trailer we created for the accessibility release. We had already done a trailer for FREEQ, but it was pretty heavy on visuals. When we realized that we ought to update it for this new release, one of our team members said "Oh sure. I'll go update the title card at the end to say 'Now accessible for blind and low-vision players' and get that up on YouTube today." We nodded at each other, walked away....and about five minutes later walked back, with the certain knowledge that we were idiots. What good was a title card, text on a screen that you have to see to read, to a low-vision player?
While the trailer had a fairly compelling audio track, so you could theoretically listen to it and kind of figure out what was happening, it was clear that it wouldn't cut it as a standalone thing. So we cut together an entirely new trailer, using only audio from the game, and released it as a "radio commercial" on SoundCloud.
Our players were so excited. Apparently, hardly anyone takes the time to market to them directly, and so for most things they get by with reading descriptions of YouTube trailers and trying to piece together what was happening from just the audio. One of our testers described to us his experience of The Last Of Us, how all he could do was listen while a sighted partner played the game, and as a result he found the whole thing rather boring. Our audio trailer let our players know that we understood, and we were trying to do right by them.
Our other major win, from our players' perspective, came from our inability to use VoiceOver. You see, VoiceOver uses the Siri voice. For everything. So it doesn't matter what you're listening to, whether it's a travel app or a medieval fantasy story or the settings menu for the phone itself, it's all read to you by Siri. And as you can imagine, that can get rather old, rather quickly. But because we couldn't use VoiceOver, we had to record our own "Siri" voice. Our lead designer just so happened to also be both a voice actor in the game and our primary sound engineer, so he locked himself in his office for a couple of afternoons and recorded every piece of voiceover we'd need to provide instructions and interface cues. And since he was the one who had processed all of FREEQ's audio to begin with, adding filters and additional effects here and there to make it sound unique, it made sense to do the same for our replacement VoiceOver reader.
This was one of the most popular parts of the game, among our blind and low-vision players. The fact that the game provided the functionality they needed, but did it in a way that didn't break their immersion, was something they really liked. Everything about the game existed "in-world", and we have heard again and again that they very much appreciated this extra little bit of polish.
5. Accessibility is worth it
So at the end of all this, was it worth the effort? A whole second cycle of code, audio recording, new design, bug testing, and marketing? YES. Yes it was.
In the three days following the release of our accessibility update, we sold as many copies of FREEQ to blind players as we had sold to sighted players in the previous six months. Which is not to say that the game suddenly rocketed to a #1 slot, and that we can all retire to our yachts now. Hardly. The games industry has been telling blind players for years, both indirectly and directly, that video games are not for them. That you have to be able to see to really enjoy them. To expect them to suddenly appear in droves to rally around our tiny game would be silly, ridiculous even.
All the same, we found an incredibly passionate, eager audience for a game we couldn't get sighted players (and the press that write for them) to pay attention to no matter how hard we tried. And now all of those players are our evangelists. They tell their friends about FREEQ. They get on Twitter and talk about it. They get in touch with us, just to say thank you, and to ask if we'd consider doing an expansion, a sequel, an entirely new game. We probably will. We think they have been ignored long enough.
Will every game we make be blind-accessible? No. Some concepts are genuinely good, and just as genuinely not suitable for an audio-only experience. But we'll be thinking about accessibility with every game we make. Looking for ways to open it up, invite more people in. Maybe not blind players every time, but what about color-blind? The very young, the elderly? If we plan for accessibility from the start, surely we can accommodate a few more players. At the very least, we never want another group of players to have to come to us and say "You were SO CLOSE. Why did you leave us out?"
If you have any questions about accessibility for the blind, especially for Apple products, I highly recommend contacting the fine people at AppleVis. The community there is made up not only of users, but developers as well. They were a great resource for us, and we know they'll be a great resource for you, too.