I've been tempted to get a blog for this sort of thing, but what's the point in this? I want to get thoughts like these out to a large body of people, and I can't imagine that I'd do that with a blog.
What is accessibility?
Accessibility is providing ways for a game to be played by people whom otherwise would not be able to. Limited control mapping, or visual configuration, or lack of prompts can lead to great difficulty for people playing games. Here are the ideal elements which would result in a perfect game:
- A configurable UI, where elements can be scaled up as is necessary. Having a UI with a built in zoom feature is a good start, so that if an element contains a tiny font, it can be expanded when a game is still in full screen mode, without needing to use a resource-hungry magnification tool. (Which would also require the game to be run windowed.) Either that or simply having UI size options for separate UI elements would work.
- To expand on the above, a UI should have a colourblind mode. This would have indicators via icons which would replace colours. Do you have a red bar next to a green bar, where the colours are meant to indicate something? A colourblind UI would make the bars one colour and put icons next to them to signify their purpose at a glance.
- Audio and visual prompts is a good thing to have, too. If you're low on health then having the screen occasionally pulse red with a sound affect accompanying it can aid those with accessibility needs. This can be toggled off for typical people with no health issues, but it's good to have it there for those that it actually helps. Whilst this may be a bane for some people, it's an enabler for others.
- Closed captions for everything - including all sound effects in the game. Valve are great at this, wonderful in fact. If you look at a game like Portal 2, you actually have closed captions subtitles in the options. This is very helpful to people who have hearing difficulties as they are then able to see what's happening even if they can't hear it. Often, sight acuity increases to cope with a lack of hearing, so closed captions are more important and helpful than you may realise.
- Prompts for difficult to see things. Okay, we've seen this in Portal 2 and many of you have hated it. You don't get why it's there, and that's okay. I'll explain it. See, in some games certain things may be incredibly difficult to see, because they're small and they blend in, so having a prompt that points a visually disabled person toward their target objective can help. It can be an enabler. It doesn't solve the game for them, as it didn't in Portal 2, but it helps them find stuff that they might otherwise overlook. Another example of this is holding space or a similar key in adventure games to highlight all points of interaction.
- Keybind for everything. If you have everything setup so that it can be keybound, then people can do incredible things, even if they're partially paralysed, they can still set things up so that they can play a game even with their chin alone. We've seen this. But this becomes less possible with the more restricted games are. Sometimes people play games on the PC because they're disabled. Developers need to keep this in mind, especially when porting from consoles.
Those are the basic tenets of accessibility.
Some of you may have found accessibility elements in games and complained about them, but that's because people generally have a hard time seeing outside the box that is their own life. That's fine. I'm not going to chastise anyone for that because I don't expect them to be omniscient. I can't expect that of anyone. This is why raising awareness is important.
When you complain about a UI and font sizes being too big? Well, there are people who're quietly seeing that as a blessing in disguise. When you 'win a battle' against a developer to get them to redesign a UI to be filled with tiny fonts, tiny icons, and no way to return it to its original UI? Well, that's as good as telling disabled people that you hate them, and that's very easy to resent.
This is why raising awareness about accessibility is important. If gamers were to demand an option for a better UI, whilst keeping the larger one in place for accessibility purposes, then everyone would win. But often with the elitist sentiment surrounding the PC community, developers tend to fall into a 'just for PC gamers' version. Games like these are then retrofitted to have tiny fonts, a tiny UI, and really you'd need a magnifying glass to discern a tenth of it. Not everyone has eagle vision.
But, if we can get people being empathic about accessibility needs, this can change. If everyone could champion accessibility then we could do even more to spread the word of the PC as an open platform, because it makes the lives of people with accessibility needs all the more easy. By removing accessibility from games, you're essentially driving gamers to consoles, and they may never come back.
People have accessibility needs. It's as simple as that.
But do consider that every time you complain about prompts and large UIs, you're saying in the same breath that people with accessibility needs just "aren't good enough" to play the games that you do, that your games are only meant for perfect people. This does nothing but build upon the view of the world of PC gamers being elitist jerks, far more so than hipsters could ever want to be. You don't want that. None of us should.
So where do we go from here?
The next time you see a game which has something that may annoy you, stop and ask yourself if it's there for accessibility reasons and keep that in mind. Praise the developer for thinking of things like this, but ask them for the option to turn these things off, don't demand that they remove them completely because they're somehow an affront to us, because that only hurts the people who need them. Just stop and think about it, and realise that it might be helpful to someone.
The next time you attack a console port for having a giant UI, think that that might actually be helpful to someone, and instead ask for a smaller UI as an option, making a case for accessibility as to why they should keep the bigger UI around too, or ask for UI modding to be in as a thing. Generally, just help to make developers aware that there are people out there with special needs. People who would give them money if not for this.
So, here's my dirty little secret: I gave up on the Witcher 2 because it was so inaccessible. It hated me ofr not being a perfect person, so I stopped bothering. I just couldn't cope with its lack of accessibility concerns. Instead, I just went and watched a video of the rest of the game, and read about the choices within. I love what the Witcher 2 did, and I loved what the Witcher did. But both of these games are notorious for playing up to the elite PC idea of making everything so tiny that you need perfect vision or amazing spectacles to see it.
And with the 'PCification' (I didn't just write that, let's pretend I didn't and you just know what I mean, here, okay?) of ongoing titles, it only makes things harder for accessibility needs, and it plays up to this... idea that there's some kind of undercurrent of horrible elitism, that PC gamers just don't want people who aren't "good enough" for them. That only console audiences are welcoming enough to people with special needs. We don't need that noise.
This is important because I'm not a typical person, I have accessibility needs. I'm not perfect, and yet I like playing games. I don't want to feel punished because I'm not a perfect person.
Here, let me give you another example.
Champions Online was originally a console title, and because of that it was very accessible to me. Console titles seem to be built with accessibility in mind, for some reason. And more than that, it had a global UI scale that made everything easier for me to read and perceive. But the UI was 'too big' for the people who played it, there were people who felt it was 'un-PC,' so it's been changing.
The problem there is that things have been getting tinier and tinier, and not obeying the UI scale. So a game I once enjoyed playing I've had to stop due to that. I've poked the developers about it, and they might listen, but then they might not because they might feel that people with accessibility needs are in the minority.
But contrary to that, I feel that people with accessibility needs are a silent majority. I think that there are a lot of people out there who have problems but are afraid to speak up about it, and they just find other things to do when they can't cope with something that's inaccessible. But games developers would suddenly have many more customers if they all valued accessibility in the way that Valve does. And yes, Valve I put up on a pedestal because they obey pretty much every single point I noted at the beginning of this manifesto. They accounted for every possible accessibility need.
I don't want to sound like a Valve fanboy, here (even though I am). But I want to point mainstream developers, for the PC and other platforms, and say... well, look at what Valve is doing. There are disabled people who appreciate this. Be more like that.
Wrapping this all up.
At the end of this, hopefully I've broadened your perspectives, and perhaps some of you will think twice before badgering a developer to force a change toward a tiny UI upon all the players of a game they've made. Perhaps you'll think twice about all the things in games that may have seemed annoying to you, but were so helpful to other people. That's what this is about. It's getting you to see things from a different angle.
If I've even managed that with a few of you, and at least got the notions here to percolate in the heads of tens more, then I've succeeded. I've hopefully planted a seed of wisdom.
There are customers out there who want to buy games, but often developers will tell those customers that they don't want their money or their custom because they're not fit enough to play their games.
With a few simple adjustments and a month's extra development, they could increase their sales by thousands.
Right, I'm done.
Maybe RPS could run an article on this? That'd be wonderful. I really want to get this message out there to both players and developers, mainstream and indie. It doesn't matter who you are. But realise that if I can't actually read the text in your game, or if I can't make out the UI, or if I feel I'm being punished for not being as well equipped as the next person, then I'm not going to buy your game. It's a niche, and that's fine, but would it hurt for more developers to account for accessibility?
I'll say once again though that this doesn't apply to all developers. Some are beginning to think about this and I appreciate that. Just keep it in mind.