Back at Gamescom in August 2023 I spent some time talking to the Xbox Hardware Team about the current state of Xbox hardware accessibility, and a wide variety of aspects of the current Xbox ecosystem tha people would like to see change over time.
While everything that I discussed with the team was speculative at the time on my end, one discussion point that I raised was the pros and cons of Xbox controllers down the line integrating motion sensing controls such as gyroscopes and accelerometers, bringing them more functionally in line with Nintendo and PlayStation’s current controller lineup.
That discussion is now a little less hypothetical than it was back in late August due to a leak of internal Xbox documents in late September which were uploaded, unredacted, to the FTC’s official website. The leak contained information about a new upcoming Xbox controller, due to release in the summer of 2024 at the time of the leaked file’s creation, which reportedly contains an accelerometer as part of its updated featureset.
The presence of an accelerometer isn’t guaranteed confirmation of this new Xbox controller, codenamed Sebile, supporting motion control functionality in games. The accelerometer could potentially just be there to support the controller’s new “Lift to Wake” function, but its inclusion under the “Immersion” heading on the spec sheet leads me to believe it’ll likely be used for in-game motion sensing functions.
So, let’s talk a little bit about the pros, and cons, of Xbox’s next controller potentially featuring motion sensing capabilities, both in the short term and looking ahead to the next generation of Xbox hardware.
Let’s start with the accessibility positives of motion control support, as these are easier to discuss with fewer caveats.
For many gamers with disabilities impacting fine motor control, motion functionality in controllers can offer an alternative input method which might be more comfortable, or able to be interacted with more accurately. I fall into this particular camp myself, often using motion controls when available to augment analogue stick aiming in games like Splatoon. I can use my thumbs to make grand sweeping movements in game, then use motion controls to fine tune my aiming at targets. I’m still not great at shooting in games, but it undoubtedly helps.
As an optional additional tool available to players, motion controls can be a really positive addition to any gaming controller. The negatives to their inclusion are a bit more complicated, and require taking a slightly more big picture look at game design, default hardware capabilities, and accessibility focused input devices.
Motion Controls mostly present an accessibility barrier when implemented as mandatory parts of a game’s design. A game like Splatoon 3 offering players the option to use motion controls to aim, but not preventing a player from aiming using analogue sticks instead, is generally likely to improve accessibility without introducing new barriers that prevent to play. A game like Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee on the other hand, which insists on making motion control Pokéball throwing mandatory in docked mode, shuts out players who cannot engage with motion controls.
Currently, two of the main console manufacturers feature motion controls in their default shipped controllers. Both PlayStation and Nintendo ship controllers that come with motion sensing functionality as default, and have consoles that by the end of this year will officially support accessibility focused controllers. The Hori Flex on Nintendo Switch does not offer any support for motion controls to be emulated via non-motion methods, meaning it cannot be used with motion mandatory software. While the PS5 Access Controller has not yet been released, there’s currently no indication it will support motion control alternate inputs either, or support to emulate functions such as touch pad swipes.
I bring these examples up because, right now, the Xbox Adaptive Controller is the only one of the three main console accessibility controllers that can be used to play every game being released for its target console without exception. The Xbox Adaptive Controller can emulate every function of a current Xbox controller, and that’s a degree of reliability that its two main competitors don’t seem to be able to match.
If the Xbox Sebile Controller does release in the summer of 2024, and does ship with motion sensing capabilities that games are able to capitalise on, I don’t foresee it creating an accessibility problem right away. During this console generation it would likely only be supported as an optional addition to games rather than a requirement, because millions of Xbox Series consoles have already shipped without motion sensing controllers bundled with them. During this hardware generation it would likely lead to optional functionality only, and Xbox Adaptive Controller users would still have options to interact with game releases, even if certain options are not supported.
The problem comes in 2028.
As part of the Xbox FTC leaks we also learned that, if plans go unchanged, Xbox plans to release their 10th Generation console, the next-gen successor to the Xbox Series S and Series X, in 2028. If that next generation console ships with motion sensing controllers as default, that’s where this accessibility issue might start to come more to the surface.
If the 2028 Xbox ships with motion controls in its controller out of the box, there will be developers who wish to create software for which motion controls are mandatory. If allowed to do so, there will be Xbox software which cannot be played using a current Xbox Adaptive Controller.
So, what could be done about this? Well, I see two main paths forward for a 2028 Xbox to remain accessible if it ships with Sebile’s motion capabilities as standard. They can either mandate how motion is used in games that want certification, or innovate on their hardware offerings.
The first option would be simple, but agressive. Xbox could dictate that for a game to be certified on console, it would need to ensure that motion controls are not mandatory. A game can support motion, but it must also support a non-motion alternative control scheme. This option would place the burden on developers to ensure that they remain accessible, and could help push multiplatform titles releasing on competing consoles to also offer non-motion control options that they may not otherwise have been pushed toward offering.
The alternative option would be for Xbox’s hardware team to use the next five years developing accessories for the Xbox Adaptive Controller to emulate motion controls via more traditional inputs. Perhaps that looks like a series of buttons for motion directions, or analogue sticks to emulate motion on specific axis’, or something more experimental entirely. Currently, none of the major console manufacturers have attempted to tackle motion emulation on more traditional inputs, and Xbox could decide to use their upcoming half-decade to try and be the first developers to get over this current accessibility hurdle with a standardised solution.
If they achieve it, this could be a really big fix for other companies in this space.
Motion sensing controllers definitely can make consoles more accessible for certain gamers, myself included, but their inclusion in a controller cannot come at the expense of other players’ accessibility needs.
If Sebile does release next summer with motion sensing controls available for game developers, I don’t think it’ll be an accessibility issue instantly. I do think that the Xbox Adaptive Controller working with every Xbox game currently is one of its greatest strengths, and one that it would be a really big shame to lose out on over time.
I don’t think the release of Sebile with motion controls would be a problem straight away, but if it does come to pass as expected there will in my opinion be a countdown clock for Xbox to decide how they want to proceed, in order to prevent Xbox games releasing that Adaptive Controller users cannot play without assistance.