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Friday, April 19, 2024

How Indie Studios Are Pioneering Accessible Game Design

In recent years, it hasn’t been uncommon to find an array of accessible features and design practices inside the newest game releases. In 2022 alone, the industry celebrated God of War Ragnarök’s approximate 70 accessibility options, The Last of Us Part I’s revolutionary audio descriptive cutscenes, and Forza Horizon 5’s American and British sign language interpreters. Accessibility is becoming the norm, but not just for AAA studios. Game developers in the indie space are also striving to create entertaining and accessible experiences for disabled players.

While some developers complain about the cost and time that accessibility features require, smaller teams are already proving that even without AAA-studio resources, accessibility can and should be an integral aspect for every title.

Publisher and developer Whitethorn Games is an old hand at building accessible games and working with other studios to build accessibility into their titles. Britt Dye, usability and accessibility specialist at Whitethorn, understands the complexities of doing just that. Despite lacking the size and funding of major studios, Dye utilizes resources freely available to aspiring developers and small teams alike. The Game Accessibility GuidelinesXbox Accessibility Guidelines, talks from the Game Accessibility Conference, and even testimonies from disabled players themselves are all key when making games. And these tools, as Dye notes, are used throughout the development process.

“On the publisher side, we work with a lot of developers who have varying team sizes and knowledge or experience with accessibility,” Dye says. “Many of these devs are working on accessibility from the design phase, but accessibility is multifaceted. Sometimes, their experience is with some barriers, but not much experience with others. This means that making games accessible in those areas comes later in development, usually after much of the base frameworks have been developed, sometimes even later. I don’t always get the chance to work with devs from the beginning, but luckily, we work with many devs who were already considering accessibility, so it’s something they want to incorporate.”

Accessibility may seem daunting, but by listening to experts in the field and the lived experiences of players, it affords disabled individuals the opportunity to play some of this year’s best games, and by proxy, makes games better for everyone. In March, developer Andrew Shouldice launched Tunic, a game about an adorable little fox trying to solve a grand mystery. With exploration and puzzle mechanics harkening back to the original Legend of Zelda, mixed with Soulslike combat, Tunic offered quite the challenge, more so for those with disabilities. But rather than expect and force people to overcome potentially inaccessible barriers, Shouldice wanted everyone to play his game.

“It’s true that challenging combat is a core part of Tunic. However, including options like No Fail Mode does not ‘compromise the integrity’ of the game or anything like that,” Shouldice says. “Really early on, I thought it would be a challenge to incorporate that sort of setting into a game that uses difficulty to gate progress, but in the end, it was a very straightforward decision. The truth is that people who enjoy the combat challenges are just not going to use the option, and those who don’t want to engage with the combat will. In the end, the core of Tunic isn’t about exclusion based on whether you can press the buttons at the right time. It’s about being curious and willing to explore a world you don’t understand. Adding some options to let more people experience that part of the game was absolutely worth it.”

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The creation of No Fail Mode did not detract from a central mechanic of Tunic: exploration. Players are actively encouraged to seek out the unknown and regularly return to visited areas with new items. Discovering alternate pathways and searching every nook and cranny of zones is what makes Tunic so enticing to play. Despite the success of No Fail Mode, the feature still needed fine tuning, and proved that accessibility is a continuous process, one that does not stop when a game is released.

“A few months before launch we set up a Discord for press folks to collaborate on puzzles prelaunch,” Shouldice says. “One reviewer got to the credits, having defeated the final boss using No Fail Mode. It didn’t take long for them to realize that they missed out on a big part of the game—you’re supposed to fail that fight in order to unlock the game’s next act. As a result, we added a special case, where even if you’re using No Fail Mode, you can die in that fight. Our rationale was that if someone turned on that option because they preferred the puzzlier aspects of the game, it made no sense to penalize them and lock off some of Tunic more intriguing late-game riddles.”

Player feedback is crucial when developing accessibility features and inclusive design practices. Without input from actual users, developers may struggle to adjust options or even miss bugs and errors like No Fail Mode hard-locking story progress in Tunic. For Coromon, a monster tamer with puzzle sequences akin to titles like Golden Sun, public tests were necessary, especially when creating accessible options. CEOs of TRAGsoft, Marcel van der Made and Jochem Pouwels, discuss the importance of directly involving disabled individuals when designing games, despite the size of the development team.

“Being a small team working on a huge game, we first focused on getting the game out there for people to try as a demo,” they say. “We figured player feedback would be very valuable and efficient in finding out which ways people would have trouble using our mechanics. We never regretted this decision because it enabled us to find way more accessibility issues than we could come up with ourselves.”

The results of that decision are evident in Coromon’s settings and design. Regardless of your preferred platform, players can activate features that reduce flashes and use colorblind modes to make their experience more accessible. But beyond just learning what disabled individuals need, testing affords developers several opportunities to refine potentially complicated options.

“The hardest accessibility feature for us was not enforcing the player to use any specific control scheme,” Van der Made and Pouwels say. “We wanted our game to be playable with touchscreen, keyboard, mouse, or controller, or a combination of those. This way players always have an alternative way of playing if they have difficulty with a certain type of control. The reason why this is so difficult is because all of the menus have to be usable and feel fluent with any one of the control methods. We had a ton of iterations & brainstorms on each screen to make them perfect.”

Even at larger indie studios, like Rebellion Developments Limited, understanding the importance of accessible design is an ongoing process. Senior accessibility designer Cari Watterton explains the necessity for guidelines and community input. While these are important for studios across the industry, they are also key for teams that develop games with their own specific engine.

“Toolswise, at Rebellion we have our own engine, so we need to build all our tools from scratch,” Watterton says. “When I joined there were things we could use that happened to have been implemented in an easy-to-access way—for example, our colorblind settings. We already had exposed parameters for those colors and there was minimal coding involved to create a few presets. Areas that are more specialized, like controller remapping or narration, need to be built from the ground up by our in-house engine team. These tools and resources grow with us. The team lets me know where they need support to fill the gaps in their knowledge and as we plan future features with the engine team. We try to implement accessibility features with the idea that they can be carried on to new games—so we have access to what we’ve done before.”

Without official resources or disabled users guiding teams, indie studios may feel overwhelmed when asked to make their games accessible. The job of creating options to allow as many people as possible to play can seem daunting when considering the fact that there are an array of disabilities, coupled with the unique nature of the disabled experience. However, as Watterton and others state, accessible features as well as design practices create brand-new experiences for disabled audiences—and it’s everyone’s goal to let as many people play as possible.

“Accessibility can be intimidating, especially if you’re a dev who doesn’t have a disability,” Watterton says. “When I first started, I was scared because I was worried about designing a feature that didn’t help people. Through user testing I found I had done exactly that. It wasn’t scary or embarrassing. It was a learning opportunity.”

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