Accessibility is quickly becoming synonymous with PlayStation studios and their varying titles. The recent release of The Last of Us Part 1 Remake included every accessibility feature from Part II, as well as a brand-new option for AAA titles—audio descriptive cutscenes. But Naughty Dog is not the only PlayStation developer to prioritize and include accessibility in their games. This November, God of War Ragnarök, from Santa Monica Studio, will be the newest addition in a beloved franchise that demonstrates its own commitment to accessibility.
God of War Ragnarök continues the story of Kratos and his son Atreus as they fight for survival against the Norse pantheon. And as the former Greek god of war will undoubtedly grow and develop as a character, Ragnarök is also a story of growth and progress for the studio. Mila Pavlin, lead UX designer at Santa Monica Studio, discusses the process of creating an accessible sequel, as well as working with the disabled community to ensure current and future titles will include as few unintentional barriers as possible.
“One of the earliest steps we had when developing our feature set for God of War Ragnarök was to facilitate a deep dive with accessibility consultants into the concerns and blockers that emerged after the release of God of War,” Pavlin says. “We also reached out to numerous community members to gather qualitative feedback around key areas of accessibility to develop an initial strategy for time and scope. Our team committed to regular play tests with members of the accessibility community and consultants during development to ensure we were meeting our objectives. We also have internal representative staff members from the accessibility community in multiple departments.”
These interactions with the disabled community were crucial to discover what worked, and more importantly, what was lacking. Accessibility reviews and impressions, as well as discussions on social media platforms like Twitter, provided insight for the team to properly understand how they could make future games accessible and enjoyable.
“In response, the team did an internal postmortem on the feature set we had at launch and realized that there were many areas for us to do better in the future. Following the postmortem, we brought in accessibility consultants to do a deep dive and recommend feature improvements. We also felt it was important to meet with other Sony Interactive Entertainment teams that were in the process of developing accessible content at the time to get their perspectives.”
The 2018 release of God of War did provide some accessibility features such as customizable controls, speaker indicators for subtitles, and the option to skip quick-time events. However, it lacked other crucial options. As a result, the team set out to focus on what Pavlin describes as four major areas of accessibility—motor, vision, auditory, and onboarding. Shortly after God of War’s 2018 launch, the team began work on developing an extensive set of accessibility tools for disabled players. Still, the console version was not the only time Pavlin and others received feedback.
In January, PlayStation rereleased the original God of War on PC, bringing with it new accessibility options previously unavailable in the console version. Now, certain settings that had long been requested for the original game were available. And not only did the PC iteration create opportunities for physically disabled players to play the game, but it also let people test those new options and features, and subsequently voice their concerns.
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“Since the tech needed to address some of those points hadn’t been developed at the time of launch for God of War, we were able to build it while working on the PC port,” Pavlin says. “The infrastructure for the new accessibility features we added to the game for the PC release was used in tandem by our team to develop features for God of War Ragnarök. With the release of new accessibility features in God of War on PC, we were able to get direct feedback from our players. Features like Block Toggle and Aim Toggle were ones that we especially wanted to get feedback on to ensure they were ultimately benefiting players, as well as how we could improve them in the future. We were better able to understand the complexities of key binding and controller mapping, which opened us up for a lot more customization options in God of War Ragnarök. Hearing what the community found useful and how they like to use these features was extremely helpful in keeping us on track.”
Ragnarök’s accessibility features contrast from the 2018 prequel, as disabled players can choose to activate over 60 options to help alleviate potential barriers to play. This trend of adding dozens of accessibility features is not new to PlayStation studios either. Developers like Naughty Dog and Insomniac Games outfitted several of their recent releases with a bevy of accessibility offerings. The Last of Us Part II set a precedent for accessibility within the games industry, not because of the sheer amount of settings available, but rather how each feature worked within the game. Players with physical, auditory, and visual disabilities, among others, could choose to turn on one or dozens of options to play the game without removing any of the intentional challenges. Pavlin explains that this level of detail was a direct inspiration for certain features within Ragnarök.
Despite Part II’s overall success, Pavlin notes that it’s not a competition to create the most accessible game, but rather a collaborative effort between internal teams to consistently create products that can be played and enjoyed by disabled people.
“We are incredibly thankful that in the game development accessibility community there is a desire to share knowledge and encourage each other to improve,” she says. “The Last of Us Part II released when we were already well into development on our accessibility feature set, so many were already functional in-game at that time. That being said, we definitely were able to look to them for inspiration on areas where we could expand our feature set and use existing systems to further push accessibility. For example, audio cues for button prompts were a direct inspiration from The Last of Us Part II and we even have similar sounds for key actions. We were fortunate to have a member of their accessibility team join our team halfway through God of War Ragnarök development to help introduce new features that would align us with the core accessibility goals of the project.”
Ragnarök marks a new milestone for Santa Monica Studio. They’ve never incorporated this level of accessibility for one of their games. And while it may seem like a daunting task, having assistance from disabled players, accessibility consultants, and accessibility experts from other PlayStation teams was crucial to proposing solutions for perplexing issues. Yet, Pavlin understands that Ragnarök isn’t the end of the accessibility journey, but rather a continuation of the ever-evolving understanding of the needs of disabled individuals.
“Our goal is to push the bounds of accessibility in gaming and improve with each project,” she says. “We will aim to continuously gather feedback on God of War Ragnarök’s feature set after release and bring those learnings into our development processes. One of the biggest takeaways from our work in the accessibility space is that early planning and implementation in partnership with the community is key to success.”