When we talk about video game accessibility, most accessibility support can be categorised into game specific, or system level support. While most of the accessibility steps forward we see taken in the short term are game specific, individual developers introducing new features to specific games, system level support is less common, but has more board applications. If your console gets an accessibility feature like a screen magnifier, that helps every game on that console become more accessible with minimal player input.
Recently, Microsoft’s Head of Xbox Phil Spencer published a 45 minute long Xbox accessibility presentation online, and in it detailed a bunch of really interesting new system level accessibility features coming to Xbox consoles, many of which are not features we’ve seen introduced on consoles in the past.
So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to talk about the new system level accessibility changes coming to Xbox Consoles in October. We’re going to talk about what makes them interesting, what questions we have remaining about their implementation, and why we should be pushing Sony and Nintendo to adopt many of these themselves too.
First up, and perhaps most interestingly, as part of an update available now to Xbox Insiders, and coming to a full release in the near future, Xbox gamers will soon be able to see before purchase if a game they are looking at has any of a selection of common accessibility features, before making a purchase.
Here’s how this works. Microsoft has at present created a list of 20 common accessibility features that are important to disabled gamers, across gameplay, audio, visual, and input categories. These include things like narrated menus, full keyboard support, subtitle options, input remapping, single stick gameplay, no button holds, speech to text and text to speech communication with online players, and more.
Developers can select these options if featured in their game, and have their presence listed on the Xbox store, so that players can pick up those games with confidence they will be able to play them, without having to first do external research. Additionally, developers can choose to link to an external website from within the store page with more accessibility information not covered by these common tags.
In order to have these tags listed on a game on the storefront, there are apparently Microsoft certification requirements in place to ensure that the included feature meets a certain level of quality. One example given is that to receive the Input Remapping tag a game can’t simply allow for button remapping, but has to go as far as including X and Y axis remapping on control sticks.
One example not detailed by Microsoft, but easy to imagine, is that a game that wants to include a Subtitle Options tag probably can’t simply feature basic low quality subtitles, but likely needs to support size alteration, options for dark backgrounds, legible font options, or similar commonly held subtitle standards.
Over time Microsoft is going to add more tags to this list of 20, as well as the ability to search the main store by filtering lists to only show games with certain features tagged as available. At launch, the main way to find games with specific accessibility tags is to go to the new accessibility menu in the Xbox Store, and search by feature in there.
There are a couple of questions about this feature Microsoft has not yet answered, or made clear on a player side. It has not been made clear if, going forward, developers will be required to tag their game’s accessibility features or if this will be an entirely voluntary feature on the developer end. I would love to see it become a mandatory part of certification to properly tag accessibility features, but much of the can language in the video presentation suggests it will be a purely opt-in system in the short term.
In other changes coming this month, the Ease of Access system menu on Xbox is now renamed Accessibility, to make it easier to understand at a glance what options are held within it.
A new system level night mode feature allows players to customise the level of brightness, and blue light, presented when playing Xbox. You can lower your brightness, shift tones toward orange and away from blue, and set this to turn on and off either on a timer, or manually.
You can also dim controller lights, and the console’s power light, if you experience light sensitivity.
Also added to the renamed accessibility menu is a new system level color blindness filter. Featuring support for multiple common types of colour blindness, players can now set their Xbox to automatically detect problem shades of colour, both on system menus and in games or apps, and colour correct them to try and be more visible. You can select the level of colour correction required, to ensure things are visible as possible for you.
This is never going to be as perfect as a hand crafted colour blindness mode made specifically for a single game, but it does mean games with no colour blindness support on Xbox consoles now have at least an automated solution, which should make a large amount of the console’s library more accessible, as well as providing support for things like movies watched on the system.
Lastly, in the next iteration of the Xbox Game Development Kit, a series of resources for game developers focused on accessibility will be consolidated, and more prominently positioned. Devs will be more actively encouraged to take advantage of Xbox’s Accessibility Testing Service, where they will be told if their game meet’s Xbox’s internal accessibility standards, and if not how they can get there, as well as being pointed toward a new online course designed to teach, and test knowledge of, accessibility standards and support options.
While I would like to see Xbox eventually make their new accessibility tagging system mandatory for certification on consoles, if it’s not already, I am incredibly glad to see one of the three console manufacturers stepping up and making this information more easily identifiable for disabled gamers. So much of my job these Access-Ability videos is about trying to highlight games with good accessibility features because that information is often poorly communicated to players, something that needed to change.
I hope we see this particular feature expand over time, not just on Xbox, but being picked up by Sony and Microsoft. If gamers can some day simply check their online storefront and find out what accessibility features a game has, that’ll be a step forward for everyone.
Night mode support on Xbox is a really neat feature addition, colourblind filters are going to make a bunch of games a bit more accessible without additional developer input, and improved prominence and quality of accessibility resources for developers is only a positive. Xbox is making some really nice improvements to accessibility today, and it’s wonderful to see.