The very first episode of Access-Ability, back before this was a weekly recurring segment with its own series name, was published three years ago, in January of 2020, and since then a lot has changed for the better with regards to accessibility in the video game industry.
While there’s still a lot of progress our industry could, and should, be making to improve gaming accessibility for disabled players, as I sit here at the start of 2023, it is clear that we have seen a LOT of improvements to the quality, and quantity, of accessibility seen in the average big budget AAA video games releasing from most major publishers.
While certain aspects of accessible video game design are still exciting and experimental new frontiers being explored by creatively ambitious developers, other aspects of accessible design are at this point either becoming fairly commonplace, or are being done at a consistent level of quality by those developers taking the time to implement them in their games.
So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to be discussing the accessibility features that I think we need to see video game developers and publishers pushing to make standards in the video game industry.
Now, to be clear, when I say that the following video game accessibility settings should be standards going forward, I am not suggesting that every game developer down to the smallest indie dev should be forced to implement every one of these features starting today if they want to be allowed to release a video game. I am also not saying that any accessibility feature I leave off this list isn’t important, or should not become a commonplace part of the video game industry eventually as the medium changes and grows. Some accessibility features that I think are really exciting for our industry, such as sign language interpreter support and audio descriptions, are still in their infancy in the gaming space, and are far from ready for the spotlight. Some accessibility settings come with time, technical resource, or financial constraints to implement that will not be feasible for every single developer. What I do believe, however, is that the below list of features should be considered achievable best practices to strive for, and that if every big budget AAA video game developer was expected to do their best to implement them, this medium would be much more reliably opened up to a whole host of disabled players.
If a game developer or publisher is able to afford millions of dollars in marketing spending, they should probably be expected to hit the standards discussed in this video.
Subtitle and Text Standards
Starting off simple, addressing a complaint I have seen for years within the video game industry from disabled and non-disabled players alike, the video game industry should be standardising minimum text sizes in video games, with customisation options for both in game text and subtitle text, to ensure that all in game text is legible on a first boot of a game, and can be set to a large enough size to be easily legible for partially sighted blind players.
With regards to subtitles themselves, video game developers should be ensuring that their subtitles are not only able to be set to reasonably large sizes, but should also feature support for opaque backgrounds for contrast, in non-stylised fonts, with support for alternative dyslexia friendly fonts such as OpenDyslexic, with options available for including speaker names, customising text colour per character, and ideally including directional indicators for where speakers are in a scene.
In a perfect world, developers should also be offering closed captions, rather than simply dialogue subtitles, ensuring that non dialogue information is conveyed to deaf players. This includes ensuring that music that is important to tone is described, and that licensed music is at the very least mentioned by name, even if limitations prevent the licensed song’s lyrics being shown in subtitle files.
Subtitles should also be timed to appear on screen in line with when the corresponding line of verbal dialogue is being spoken, so that players with cognitive processing disabilities, who use subtitles as supplemental to spoken audio, are able to follow both at the same time.
Accessibility Previews in Menus
This next accessibility standard is pretty simple, and requires minimal explanation. Settings options in game menus should be presented ideally alongside an in menu preview of the setting in action, so that players can see at a glance if a new subtitle size for example is going to suit their needs, without needing to go into the game to check, then back to the menu to tweak it again.
Multiplatform Accessibility Controller Support
Toward the end of 2022, we talked the fact that former Nintendo of America CEO Reggie Fils Amie revealed in an interview that Nintendo had, at one point in time, been working on a multiplatform accessibility controller, inspired by the Xbox Adaptive Controller, that would have functioned on all of the major video game consoles available today.
As much as I love the Xbox Adaptive Controller, it is only officially supported for use on Xbox and PC. The Switch has the Hori Flex accessibility controller, but at the time of recording, Sony has not released an accessibility controller of their own.
Since recording this video 48 hours ago, Sony has announced they have their own proprietary accessibility controller in development for PS5, codenamed Project Leonardo. It will support the same 3.5mm switches as its competitors, but features a split design, and built in large analogue stick replacements. The controller features several large buttons, arranged in a circle, which can be customised in layout, and function, including assigning macro functions to a single input.
While it is great that we’ve got confirmation of an official accessibility controller coming to PS5, this news does unfortunately suggest that we won’t be seeing a standardised multiplatform controller any time soon, and players will be expected to purchase different accessibility controllers for each console they own. Thankfully, 3.5mm peripherals will be able to be shared between them.
While charities such as Special Effect exist, and do great work creating custom controllers, right now we have a video game industry where accessibility focused video game controllers are, while more affordable and accessible than they used to be, still a pricey additional expense for disabled players, that cannot be used across consoles.
Whether we see a third party like Hori create a controller with a switch for different console connection modes, or one of the major console manufacturers negotiates letting players use an existing controller across all three major systems, cross platform accessibility controller support for a singular modular controller base is a step the industry feels overdue on taking.
High Contrast Mode
Originally introduced to mainstream audiences in The Last of Us: Part 2, High Contrast Mode is a wonderful feature that’s hugely impactful for partially sighted blind players, as well as those with conditions such as ADHD or Autism who lose track of details within visual clutter.
While previously the near exclusive domain of PlayStation first party titles, 2022 saw the release of the rebooted Saints Row, which featured its own custom implementation of the feature.
Sony doesn’t own the concept of High contrast modes in video games, and the sooner we see every major video game developer and publisher start adopting the technology, the better. This is one of the best accessibility features available to disabled gamers today, and deserves to be placed on any list of future industry standards.
In a similar vein to High Contrast Mode, Co-Pilot Mode is a system level Xbox feature where two controllers can be registered as a single user, allowing for both to control the same character. This allows for controls to be split into more comfortable positions, an accessibility controller to be used in conjunction with a regular controller, or for a second player to assist with in-game actions that would otherwise be a barrier to progression.
2022 saw Co-Pilot mode implemented outside of Xbox, with the mode appearing in PlayStation exclusive Horizon: Forbidden West, showing that Xbox doesn’t exclusively own the feature.
While Sony’s Project Leonardo announcement press release suggests that players will be able to use multiple accessibility controllers in conjunction with a dualsense as a single “virtual controller”, similar to copilot mode on Xbox, it’s currently unclear if they also plan to support using two dualsenses this way on a system level, for players not purchasing the new accessibility controller itself.
It does seem like, to some degree, Horizon: Forbidden West was a test case for Co-Pilot mode on PS5, and demonstrates the console is capable of supporting use of two Dualsense controllers as a single virtual controller, so hopefully we will see this functionality confirmed soon.
I really want to see PlayStation and Nintendo catch up with Xbox in this regard and implement the feature on a system level on their own consoles, as it’s an incredibly useful option across the board.
Standardised Accessibility Store Tags
Sticking with Xbox for a moment, one of the most important yet under discussed accessibility updates this console generation is Xbox’s implementation of Accessibility Tags on the Xbox Store, allowing disabled players to, at a glance, find out which accessibility settings options a game has, without having to leave their console dashboard.
What makes Xbox’s accessibility store tags system so impressive, however, is the way it functions. Microsoft has quality requirements to receive a tag on the Xbox store, and that requirement of reaching a quality bar to receive an accessibility tag allows for a degree of consistency and reliability for disabled players.
A game on the Xbox store won’t, for example, get the subtitles tag simply for having subtitle support if those subtitles are small, inaccurate, and unable to be customised. It’s not enough to have subtitles, you need to have good subtitles to get the tag.
This system of requiring games to reach a set level of accessibility quality to receive these accessibility tags, as well as the presence of the tags themselves on the store pages for the games, allow Xbox players to find out if a game is going to be likely to be playable for them before purchase, without having to go onto Google and look for an accessibility review that hopefully mentions the piece of information being searched for.
In terms of the role the tag system plays in informing disabled players about settings they’ll have access to, and encouraging quality of execution from third party developers, I think that the system is nothing but a positive, and should really be adopted sooner rather than later by PlayStation and Nintendo on their own storefronts.
Accessibility Setting Announcements
On a similar topic, while we have seen increasing numbers of games released by companies such as Sony detailing their accessibility settings ahead of a game’s release date, and providing early review copies to accessibility focused critics for pre-release reviews, accessibility settings reveals are still often treated by the major video game studios and publishers the same as other hype building marketing reveals, doled out by PR close to release, long after they have been locked in by the development teams.
Accessibility settings support is not the same as other gameplay features, and should not be held back by PR in the same way. Knowing what accessibility settings a game contains determines whether a disabled player is going to be able to play certain video games, and the earlier that information is known, the sooner a disabled player knows if they should get excited to play the game too, or be aware that a game is not going to be playable by them.
The video game industry needs to standardise announcing accessibility settings ahead of release, and not holding that information back until the last moment before a game is out.
Another quick and simple one, one of the best things about receiving the Xbox Series X for review a few years back, for me, was seeing the steps Xbox had taken toward making the console’s packaging more accessible to more people. From large stickers on the box featuring an unsealed edge tab for more easy gripping, to a minimising of things like twist ties used inside the box, thoughtfulness in packaging design went a long way to making the new generation Xbox console more approachable.
This kind of accessibility thoughtful design is important, and should really be an industry standard.
I talked about this three years ago in my very first accessibility focused video, but it bears repeating. We know that there are a handful of common types of colourblindness. It’s not that hard to check whether your game is accessible to players who are colourblind, and either tweak your core visual design, or create a settings option that applies different colours to certain elements, and check if the new design is friendly to colourblind users.
Another quick and overdue suggestion, every video game should at this point be allowing players to customise their controls, and remap which buttons control which functions in a game. We are thankfully in an age where most video game consoles have system level button remapping, but per game remapping options are still important for cases where a singular game requires its own unique remap to be accessible, or for players whose remapping needs vary on a per game basis. This should really be a standard by now.
Accessibility on First Boot
Another aspect of game design I have talked about a lot on this show, that is thankfully becoming more common, we should in a perfect world be expecting video games to make their accessibility settings options easily available to players on the first boot up of a game.
The best recent example of this done right was God of War: Ragnarok, which allowed players to either go through a guided accessibility settings walkthrough on first boot, or skip past it to the game’s main menu. Then, there was a settings menu, and accessibility menu, on the main menu screen, before getting into any gameplay.
Titles where gameplay starts before you have had a chance to set up your settings are thankfully becoming few and far between, but this should be an expected standard by this point, and something we expect to become consistent across the industry.
Continuing to discuss God of War: Ragnarok for a moment, another thing that game did amazingly was its implementation of degrees of preset for accessibility settings, tailored to a selection of common categories of disability. Players could easily set some, or all, available settings that were in the game, and likely helpful for their category of disability, to be active with a few button clicks, avoiding a lot of digging through menus manually.
This kind of thoughtful grouping of settings into degrees of useful presets is the kind of streamlined onboarding the gaming industry should aspire to, and something I hope becomes a standard in the near future.
While this list of accessibility settings standards is far from exhaustive, I think that it covers many of the settings right now that would make the most immediate impact if made into industry standards, while focusing on settings that seem to either be heading toward natural standardisation already, or that I suspect will explode in popularity as developers have time to implement them in projects that started development after their well received debuts in other recent titles.
The video game industry, while constantly becoming more accessible year by year, is inconsistent, and even games from the same publisher or development studio cannot be relied on to be consistent. I think that the next major step for our industry in terms of accessibility will be standardisation, and that it is a needed step for this industry to grow and mature.
Disabled gamers deserve to be able to pick up a video game, confident that it will meet a baseline level of accessibility, and I think many of the ideas discussed in this video are promising candidates for that eventual standardised future.