Up until a couple of weeks ago, if you were to check the highest rated section in any VR game storefront, VRChat would have appeared very near the top of your search results.
The game, which is more a series of social spaces than a traditional video game, allows players to watch movies together, socialise, and interact with other VR headset users all around the world, in real time.
VRChat, however, saw a HUGE number of negative reviews a few weeks ago when, seemingly out of nowhere, the game’s developers announced that they would be introducing new anti-cheat software to the game, removing the ability to use user created mods in the process, in order to attempt to lessen the moderation burden the game presented.
For anyone unaware, much of the appeal of VRChat for the average player was the game’s robust mod support, which enabled everything from custom avatars and game worlds, through to user generated accessibility mods.
Many disabled VRChat players in particular were devastated by this news that mod support would be going away, as the game’s developers had historically been very hesitant to prioritise accessibility updates for the game when asked, meaning that accessibility mods were vital for disabled players being able to enjoy the game.
So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to be talking about the saga surrounding mods being banned in VRChat. We’re going to talk about some of the accessibility mods for the game that no longer work, why disabled gamers had such little faith in VRChat’s developers to introduce official accessibility support, and what changes are coming down the line to improve the game for disabled players in terms of official updates.
To start off, let’s discuss an example of the kind of accessibility mods that existed for VRChat, prior to the new update banning mod support for all players.
One widely discussed accessibility mod in the wake of this update was the VRC-CC mod, a free and open source mod that allowed deaf and hard of hearing players to watch movies with their friends in movie viewing worlds with automatic closed captions shown on screen.
This mod was a vital aspect of many people’s shared movie watching experience, which the anti-cheat update to VRChat prevented working going forward.
So, why were disabled gamers, such as those who used VRC-CC, so sceptical of the idea that official accessibility support might come from the game’s developers? Well, because disabled gamers have for years been raising accessibility concerns to the developers of the game on official forums, but these requested accessibility updates have always taken a backseat on the developer’s roadmap, being pushed back in favour of updates aimed at the wider playerbase.
When initially announcing the Anti-Cheat update, the developers of the game did acknowledge that the update would impact disabled users accessibility mods, and named a couple of upcoming official updates they wanted to implement, including support for allowing the main game menu to be accessed while lying down, but did not at the time give any firm sense of how big a priority this would be, or if any other changes were coming.
A few weeks later, on August 1st 2022, the game’s developers did eventually announce that they will be prioritising improving the game’s accessibility after the pushback they received, as well as detailing some of the planned changes that they had in the works, some of which were already implemented and some of which were planned to be coming soon.
The list of upcoming updates promised to allow players to adjust their in game horizon so that the game would be fully playable lying down and appear as if the player was stood up, it would also allow the player to move the game menu to be in any accessible location for them, experience improved inverted look to move functions so that lying down players don’t accidentally trigger looking behind their character when they look up, portal prompt additions so that players don’t accidently walk through poorly placed portals unintentionally, an ability to look at your controller to see your character’s currently active gesture, the ability to limit the number of particles shown on screen at any one time, an update to reduce the amount of lag shown when taking a screenshot to reduce disorientation, and more.
Many of these updates are already live for players right now, which is a reassuring sign that any that are not live yet should hopefully be very soon. It does seem like the game’s developers were sincere when they said that they were bumping up the priority of these fixes.
In addition, they detailed a series of other future accessibility updates they hope to implement down the line. While there is no direct replacement planned for an app like VRC-CC at this time, there are plans to implement text to speech support, as well as in-game text speech bubble support.
While it is reassuring to see that the developers of VRChat have decided to prioritise improving accessibility within the game following the shutting down of mod support, it is important that the developers recognise this needs to be an ongoing project and, until they have recreated all the accessibility support options that were created by modders, their work undoing the damage done by shutting out mods isn’t complete.
Until deaf and hard of hearing players, for example, can return to movie worlds and watch films with their friends with automated closed captions, disabled players are going to be at a disadvantage playing compared to when mods were available.
I am obviously glad that the developers of VRChat are moving quickly to make accessibility improvements to the game, but we can’t let the current handful of changes be where things end. If they’re going to shut players away from community accessibility mods, it’s their responsibility as developers to help ensure those players can get back access to the tools that they needed to socialise with their friends.