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[To what end accessibility? Gamasutra speaks to Valve and other developers about creating games for different audiences about the very good reasons you should consider making your game more easily played.]
Aggregate the most popular video game blogs and websites over the past four years, search for the word "accessibility," and you're likely to come up with a handful of "how-to" articles, economic arguments for why this is an issue for game developers to pursue, or spotlights on adaptive devices.
There's an implied divisiveness here: the idea that designing games for the disabled is extra work, an extra step worth pursuing for remuneration, or an interesting display of technological evolution.
But tackling accessibility isn't just about improving access for some. Vibrating phones were originally designed as an accommodation to the hearing impaired. Predictive text was meant to assist the learning disabled.
Most of us take these everyday technologies for granted as advances meant for the general public, but they're sterling examples of the phenomena that when we improve circumstances for the disabled, everyone benefits.
Eleanor Robinson is the COO of 7-128 Software, a family-friendly development studio operating out of Salem, Massachusetts. Her company focuses on the development of accessible games, and she discussed some of their basic design methodologies:
"Any time you are developing a user interface for an accessible game one of your high priorities is to keep it as simple as you can," Robinson said. "If a blind person has to navigate your UI, they have to do it without the visual clues that sighted people have. This means you have to pay attention to things like making the tab order logical and consistent. This helps everyone to navigate your software more easily."
Electronic Arts could afford to let users futz through the extremely dense layer of menus for NHL 10. Ubisoft didn't worry too much about Assassin's Creed hitting the PC with a UI that required 11 steps to quit the game. It could be argued that rather than employing a different methodology altogether, accessible game designers simply don't have the same leeway as other developers in making these decisions. Difficult UI becomes a deal-breaker rather than something to try the user's patience.
"Lack of complexity is a bonus for not only the handicapped person, but for all users," said Robinson. "If all your game controls are laid out in a similar fashion, when you have learned to play one of them, the rest are relatively intuitive and don't require a lot of learning time." Certainly this is an apt description as to precisely what we're seeing in the MMO genre. New titles offer instant accessibility to genre veterans by playing off the tried-and-true World of Warcraft UI style which, in turn, was a distillation of all the successful MMO UI concepts which preceded it.
"Many motion-impaired users can't manage to hold down two or more keys at the same time for a game action," Robinson said. "If you design a user interface that requires only single keystrokes, you have made it much easier to remember the key you want to use and to speed up the game."
Reviewers regularly praise games with critical non-chording elements, especially when it comes to cover mechanics. Brink's new one button SMART system stands to revolutionize the way first person shooter gamers handle movement. Conversely, multiple-key-press PC control schemes are often cited as turn-offs for gamers who instead turn to simpler, control pad setups.
"I wonder how many beginning gamers get discouraged and stop playing a game because things are happening too fast for them to react to since they are just learning how to play the game," Robinson said. "If they can slow the game down a little, it is less intimidating and they can speed it up as they get more used to the game. They would also be more inclined to buy future games if they have fun and success with [the first one]."
The game throttle has actually become the basis for what may be two of the most interesting accessible games on the market. My Football Game and My Golf Game featuring Ernie Els are produced by VTree LLC in conjunction with EA Sports, and are based off the same code as Madden and Tiger Woods PGA Tour. Chuck Bergen, the President and CEO of VTree LLC, was the keynote speaker at Games Accessibility Day in Boston earlier this year, and spoke with us about the process of designing these games.
"In [My Football Game] the main thing was to break it down into 23 separate pieces for individuals to be able to play and to be able to build up cognitive muscles, or learn how to play with their adaptive devices, to be able to slow the game all the way down to 20 percent," Bergen said. "[For] someone with a traumatic brain injury, or an adult with autism, it gives them a chance at their pace to build up [skills] to play the whole football game.
"We take the player through practice rounds. You just pass, you just kick, and get used to the different features of the game. That's level 1. Then when you go into level 2, you might have five-on-five drills and tasks, and start picking up more of the game. Level 3 is really just like the [regular] games out on the market."
Sports games often feature drills. NHL 11 has a robust suite of player drills to allow users to get used to the tweaked controls from the previous iteration, or to practice offensive or defensive strategies with limited numbers of computer players on the ice.