SpecialEffect - Levelling the playing field for disabled gamers

SpecialEffect - Levelling the playing field for disabled gamers

By Joey Relton

July 5th 2017 at 3:00PM

Accessibility options aren’t yet an industry standard, but can make a world of difference for disabled gamers. Aardvark Swift’s Marketing Executive Joey Relton and Programming Consultant Andy Jenkinson talked to SpecialEffect’s Projects Manager Bill Donegan about some simple solutions studios can implement to allow everyone to play their games.

When Mario Kart 8 Deluxe launched on the Nintendo Switch, no one expected the addition of a new Smart Steering feature to have quite as much impact as it did. While a handful of players claimed the mode gave an unfair advantage to those who used it, stories of children with physically disabilities who could now enjoy games on a level playing field with their friends began popping up.

Common gameplay mechanics that revolve around masterful hand-eye coordination in response to audio and / or visual cues can create enjoyable challenges in games. Yet, what isn’t talked about nearly often enough is the outcast effect that this reliance has on those of us who aren’t as physically abled, or have as good hearing and sight, as the average gamer.

The smart steering mode introduced by Nintendo has since been praised as an innovative move towards better accessibility. The work isn’t too dissimilar to that of SpecialEffect, a charity who have continuously been at the cutting edge of inclusion with their range of modified games controllers and eye-control technology.

“When talking with studios, we get really positive responses about accessibility and how it can be improved in their games,” says Bill Donegan of SpecialEffect. “Many of the studios we’ve spoken to want to make their games more accessible. It’s knowing what they need to do to their game to achieve this which we have found can be the challenge.”

The problem rises from the range of issues gamers can face. It’s rare that two people’s needs will be exactly the same, and even then, different responses are needed for different genres and different games within any given genre. However, there are simple software solutions that developers can implement to make their games more accessible.

Uncharted 4 is one title that put a lot of effort into their accessibility considerations and is a game that Bill works with often when adapting games for disabled gamers. “One option we’ve found particularly useful is their alternative to button mashing. You can choose an option to hold a button rather than tap it repeatedly. This offers vastly improved access for some players when lifting doors or during fight sequences.”

“Creative approaches to simplifying controls can open up games to players who ordinarily may have trouble competing, or even just taking part, when playing a game”

The greater the number of options and ability to personalise a players experience, the better. The ability to remap controls, often seen as a simple preference to some gamers, can be the defining feature between a game being comfortably enjoyable or completely unplayable for others.

A big part of the work that SpecialEffect does involves customising existing hardware, or in some cases, creating entirely bespoke equipment. “Many of the modifications we do are to make the analogue sticks on controllers more sensitive so that less resistance is required to move them. This involves opening the controller, removing the analogue stick, removing the associated springs and then replacing them with different springs before putting it all back together.”

This is incredibly skilled and time-consuming work but it’s something that could easily be addressed on a wide-scale through software. “Offering a wide range of choice for sensitivity for both gamepad and mouse controls can enable those with very little movement, or conversely without fine motor control skills, to have more control.”

“For many of the very severely physically disabled people we work with, we will always need to use customised controllers and technology to help them access games. Having accessibility features built directly into the games themselves could mean that less hardware and software is required, with many gamers able to play more games as well as compete at a higher level.”

When physical input is not always possible, SpecialEffect often makes use of voice control technology. “By using special software which runs on a PC linked to a console, we can create personalised voice commands for whichever inputs are need to play. For example, someone can say ‘forwards’ and we will map this to emulate pushing up on the left analogue stick on their Xbox until they say ‘stop’.”

Currently, voice control is rarely used in games, and any work that SpecialEffect does to implement the feature tends to be on a case by case basis. It’s a versatile solution to a lot of accessibility issues, but not one that many studios implement in their games. Despite this, studios could standardise voice controls and make the option more widely available with relatively ease when compared to the complex work that goes into third party support for just a handful of gamers.

One studio that is leading the way in accessibility according to Bill is Aardvark Swift client and Grads in Games partner, Playground Games. “The work SpecialEffect does is amazing and Playground looks to support the charity not only financially, but also through the games we develop,” said CEO Gavin Raeburn, “In addition to obvious disability features like granular difficulty settings and subtitle support we have implemented ‘auto-brake’, ‘auto-steer’, one-handed control schemes and ensured our UI is optimised for colour-blind gamers.”

What’s more, Playground Games have also taken an active approach in listening to their playerbase, further modifying and customising control schemes post-launch in response feedback from their disabled fans.

Nintendo raised the issue of accessibility with Mario Kart and it’s now imperative that this is followed up on to make a real move to normalising accessibility in games. Playground Games are a prime reminder that accessibility is achievable and not some out of reach goal that requires large amounts of resources. To find out more about developing inclusive games, Includification and Game Accessibility Guidelines are a good source of information, along with the SpecialEffect website itself.

SpecialEffect are also always happy to talk to developers about accessibility relating to a specific game they are working on, and can be contacted at info@specialeffect.org.uk.