Originally released back in early 2016, Street Fighter V is the most recent core entry in Capcom’s 1V1 fighting game series. Players fight by selecting a single character each, being dropped into a 2D environment, then try to pull off combos and special moves to knock out their opponents.
While Street Fighter V is now more than five years old, the game is still getting ongoing updates adding new characters, changing the balance of the game, and adding additional content. However, a recent February update changed the game in a subtle way, that broke support for blind and partially sighted fighting game players.
So, this week on Access-Ability, we’re going to talk about how blind and partially sighted players play Street Fighter V, we’re going to talk about what changed in a recent update that broke support for those players, and how this could have gone unnoticed by the development team.
So, before we go any further into this video, I want to credit BlindWarriorSven, a blind Street Fighter V player whose videos on how he plays the game, as well as his tweets about this story, were integral to me being able to talk about this topic. You can find a link to his tweets and videos in the video description.
So, when it comes to playing a game like Street Fighter V as a sightless player, there are two main things that are important. Players typically use screen reader software on PC in order to have on screen text read to them until they have memorised the locations of menu options, and then use stereo audio to know their position relative to an enemy player during a match.
With stereo audio in a game played on a 2D plane, without any visual inputs, it is possible to hear a character’s location on screen, as audio is panned from left to right, getting louder in one ear and quieter in the other. As a result, if a sightless player is attacking from the right, towards the left, and hears the enemy player move from left to right, they know they need to turn around and switch up the direction they are attacking from. But it’s not just a matter of knowing the direction they need to face, blind Street Fighter V players like BlindWarriorSven can with practice accurately assess the distance away a character is based on stereo sound and character footstep volume, allowing for very precise play.
I would highly recommend checking out some videos of Sven playing Street Fighter V after this video and subscribing to his channel, he’s a really superb fighting game player, and watching him fight gives me a much greater appreciation for this game’s sound design quality.
So, how did Street Fighter V break for blind and sightless players? Well, on February 22nd an update to the game was released which added returning fighter Dan Hibiki to the game’s roster. However, one change was made to the game which was not detailed in the patch notes. The update changed the game’s audio to mono.
Understandably, this was a problem. For blind players like BlindWarriorSven, stereo audio is vital, as without it enemy direction and distance become impossible to gauge. When a game uses mono audio, all sounds are fed equally to all speakers or headphones, stopping that audio from panning. So, let’s talk about how this could have happened, when Capcom plans to fix this, and how we can avoid this happening to other games in the future.
So, I think it’s important to note that this change to Street Fighter V was most likely not a deliberate change, but something accidentally broken during patch development and not noticed by the development team. While there are some groups of disabled players who benefit from the use of mono audio, such as those who can only hear audio through one of their ears and wish to still hear all audio, there is software that can be used to turn Stereo game audio to mono on the fly. The Xbox Series X for example features a system setting to turn all stereo audio mono. A lot of games have this as a selectable option in their settings menus. But, if you’ve already gone to the effort as a developer of giving your game stereo audio, it is inconceivable that you would five years later decide to push out a patch deliberately flattening that audio, as there’s no way for the player to then turn it back to stereo on their end.
On February 25th Capcom responded to tweets about this issue, announcing that Patch 3.05, which is due to release during the first week of March, would fix this issue, and return the game’s audio mix to stereo. I record this show on Monday, and publish it on a Friday, so hopefully that patch will be live by the time this episode airs.
The fact that Capcom are fixing the audio mix issue does lend credence to the idea this was not an intentional change to the game. However, it was still pushed live, and it still made the game unplayable for a portion of the playerbase. So, how could this be avoided, and what can other game developers learn from this incident?
I think a key part of avoiding issues like this when updating video games is ultimately just being aware of what aspects of your game are important to disabled players, and checking those aspects before pushing out new patches. In the case of Street Fighter V for example, checking that a new patch doesn’t somehow break screen reader support, and that stereo audio is working as intended, would ensure that new patches were accessible to disabled players. While these features might not come up in a typical Quality Assurance pass for a patch, if you know they are important, and make an effort to check them before publishing patches, you can avoid situations like this.
Basically, find out how disabled players typically play your games. Pay attention to those segments of your playerbase. See which aspects of the game are important to them, and check they have not been altered or broken before you push a patch. Make the things that are important to them part of your testing for patches.
In the case of Street Fighter V, it seems like blind and sightless players should be able to get back to playing by the time this video is live. However, the fact there will have been a few weeks where the game was unplayable for those players is far from ideal, and is something we really want to avoid in future.
For game developers at large, be aware of the importance of stereo and 3D audio. Be aware that adding support for those can make your game more accessible, and that if it’s ever unavailable, some of your players may have to stop playing.
Be aware of the settings and features that disabled players use to play through your game, and make sure to check those are in place before any update rolls out. Mono audio might not be a big issue for you, but it is for some really talented players in your community.