Often, if you’re a disabled gamer looking to pick up a game, buying a copy on release day can be a bit of a gamble. While game features and settings are mostly locked in place months before a game releases, and we learn about a lot of them via preview coverage and trailers, accessibility settings and features are often not public knowledge until a game has already been released.
While the state of accessibility in the video game industry has been trending upwards over the past few years, one aspect that has been lagging behind is developer willingness to discuss accessibility settings ahead of release. There are obviously outliers, like The Last of Us 2 which went out of its way to detail its accessibility settings before release, but for the most part accessibility settings are a mystery until very close to release.
So, this week on Access-Ability, we’re going to talk about how inaccessible video game accessibility information tends to be. We’re going to highlight some companies that have made positive steps forward on accessibility transparency, as well as highlighting the steps developers should be taking to ensure disabled gamers know whether or not to get excited about their games.
In terms of making accessibility information about your game accessible to players before launch, there’s a few different points in development where you can make that information available to disabled players. For today’s video, we’re going to start with the options that start closest to a game’s launch, and work backwards to options that give disabled players more information at an earlier point in time.
In terms of making disabled gamers aware of your accessibility settings, we’re going to start today with the bare minimum we should expect of developers, providing advance review codes to disabled gamers who produce accessibility focused reviews. As a bare minimum, our industry should expect game developers to make an effort to, at the same time as they are sending review copies of games to more established traditional reviews outlets, to also send copies to a variety of disabled gamers, who cover accessibility from a variety of perspectives, with differing accessibility needs.
Basically, the latest a disabled gamer should be able to find out if a video game will be playable by them is whatever date the wider review embargo lifts. If all their friends are excitedly reading positive reviews of your game, and deciding to pick it up and play it together, a disabled player should be able to check reviews and found out if the game will be playable for them, so they know if they can also get excited and decide whether to make that purchase.
Accessibility focused reviews may not get the most views in the world, or be from the biggest names at the most high profile gaming outlets, but you as a game developer should still make the effort to ensure this step happens. Those reviews might not be for as wide an audience, but the people who rely on those reviews to make purchasing decisions find them invaluable. If you care about making your games accessible, you need to make players know if they can play your game on launch day or not.
A good example of this handled right was last year’s release of the Xbox Series X. Following a lot of creators in the accessibility reviews space, basically every disabled game reviewer I know, be they large or small, was sent console review hardware by Microsoft, multiple weeks ahead of the console’s release, ensuring both plenty of time to create coverage, as well as a strong variety of accessibility coverage about the console being available at launch.
Moving a little further back from launch, in a perfect world, accessibility focused game critics should also be invited to check out preview builds of games during early hands-on demo events. When you’ve got a playable version of your game ready for the press to try out, and want to get audiences excited about what the game is like to play, involve disabled critics in that early conversation.
Courtney Craven over on Can I Play That? recently did a fantastic accessibility focused preview of upcoming PS5 exclusive Returnal, and reading that review was a big part of the catalyst for me working on this video. Disabled creators doing early preview coverage of a game from an accessibility perspective shouldn’t be a rare occurrence, but I struggle to think of the last time I saw an explicitly Accessibility focused preview of a game ahead of reviews for the game dropping.
Lastly, and this is perhaps most important, make sure to talk about your planned accessibility features once they’re in your game, and you know they’re likely to be part of the final release. Don’t treat accessibility as a secret to be used as marketing buzz down the line, strategically doled out when most beneficial to the PR team. If you know what accessibility features your game is going to have, simply talk openly about them.
The Last of Us 2 was a great example of this; developer Naughty Dog ahead of release published a full, comprehensive list of accessibility features in the game, including disability presets, and explanations of specific features.
By contrast, in the lead up to the release of the PS5 last year, Sony kept its hand incredibly close to its chest about accessibility features until very close to launch. Basic questions, such as if the console’s adaptive triggers could be turned off completely were left unanswered officially until a couple of days before release, months after the window to preorder the console had come and gone. For disabled players, that information needed to be much sooner, ideally before preorders for the console first went live. Learning that disabled players could turn that feature off at a point where they were all sold out, and would be for months, doesn’t really do them much good.
If you’re a game developer or publisher, and you want to see disabled people purchasing your game, you need to make the effort to make sure they know as early as possible if they’ll be able to play. All those carefully laid out months of hype building mean nothing to a player who doesn’t know if they’ll be able to turn down the game’s difficulty, or highlight enemies in more visible colours. If you want disabled players riding that hype train and getting excited for your games, you need to give them something to get excited about, and transparency around accessibility is exciting to see.
Don’t leave disabled gamers in the dark until a game is already out, to work out if they can play too, make an effort to let them know. Let them read reviews from disabled players, previews from disabled players, and release that information in an official capacity.
Don’t just make your game accessible, make information on accessibility more accessible too.