Extra Life Lessons: Game Over

This was brought to my attention by a Usability & Accessibility Consultant, and quite interesting. It’s basically… well, a game as an example and a teaching tool, reminding me that someone doing an Understanding-Comics-esque thing – Understanding Games – would be a noble project. It’s called Game Over and each of its 21 levels – plus the actual intro screen – is designed to show an actual lesson about accessibility in games which developers can overlook. I admit, a lot aren’t really that interesting, but it shows itself best when highlighting things which developers actually often overlook (e.g. Colour Blindness). You can get it from here.

19 Comments

  1. Railick says:

    You can get color blindness from that website?

  2. MedO says:

    Why not learn from that fine example and make your text links bold again? Thin dark red lines are actually hard to distinguish from black for some people.

    Just suggestin’ :D

  3. Persus-9 says:

    This thing turned me into a full on angry internet man for a while but I think I’ve calmed down enough to allow myself to post now.

    The problem with these guidelines are that they’re not the “design wisdom” they suggest on their website because the level of accessibility they’re demanding is not even close to a universally good thing. Even their own game gives evidence of this. Think about it, that game wasn’t any fun sure but why wasn’t it any fun? I’d suggest that the reasons were actually almost never to do with the problems they were outlining, in fact in some cases the “problems” almost made the game fun, the “problems” almost made up for the fact the actual game is a piece of shit. The thing is that they spent a long time worrying about accessibility, in this case how to avoid it, and no time on what makes a game a worthwhile experience or not and so they ended up with core experience that isn’t worthwhile which they occasionally almost saved with a lack of accessibility.

    If anyone actually took their guidelines seriously then they’d end up with a completely accessible game that absolutely no one would ever want to play. The task of achieving accessibility is so damn near impossible that it cannot be the focus of your design if you want to achieve anything more than basic functionality. If the product your designing is entirely utilitarian then you can just about get away with this although even then you’ll be bound to end up with an awful kludge that is far from ideal for just about everyone. You’ll end up with things like those talking lifts that seem to be everywhere these days, accessible to more people sure but at the end of the day a deeply rubbish design for pretty much everyone. If you’re designing something as complex as an entertaining computer game then you simply can’t aim to include this kind of accessibility form the start and expect to produce anything worthwhile because designing worthwhile entertainment is hard enough already. I’m in fact deeply sceptical of the possibility of any enjoyable gaming experience which will obey all of these guidelines. I think they define a lack of good entertainment. This is also leaving games just at the level of very basic shallow entertainment but most good games are so much more than that.

    They simply don’t take into account that games are complex creative works that simply can’t be easily altered to make them completely accessible without ruining them. Games are not simple universal amusements that can be made available to everyone and it’s foolish to demand that they should be. Some games can be accessible but most good games simply can’t and we shouldn’t ask them to be. They’re the most complex creative medium of them all so trying to make every aspect accessible is all different types of people is impossible without huge compromises that just shouldn’t be made. It would be quite wrong to ask that a painter should change his medium so that all his works are accessible to the partially sighted so we shouldn’t suggest imposing a similar creative restriction on games designers. It would be quite wrong to ask that pianos be simplified so that they don’t require the player to press more than one key are a time or so that any chosen piece can be played by repeatedly tapping the same key so we shouldn’t make such demands of games designers.

    Let me point at a few of the guidelines that seem particularly off to me and the things that I think will be lost by following the guidelines.

    Avoid simultaneous button pressing. Games are often simply tests of dexterity. Tests of dexterity are fun for people who can pass them and there’s no reason why we should all be denied these joys simply because for whatever reason some people can’t enjoy them. Just because a normal piano requires a certain level of dexterity to enjoy playing doesn’t mean they’re inferior to autopianos that don’t. The test of dexterity inherent in playing is part of the piano experience and the exact same is true of games.

    Allow play with a smaller number of controls, even with a single button (switch) No. Don’t make the controls needlessly complex but if you can’t create a fun experience with fewer than 10 buttons then for goodness sake don’t feel you have to. For whatever reason Bayonetta has been designed with a setting to be playable with a single button and you know what, it looks crap. Okay it looks crap with a full controller as well so perhaps not the best example but the point is it looked even less fun when you’re just repeatedly pressing one button. People have patronisingly suggested that this is a really good feature for people who can only control one button but to be honest I’m not buying into that. If I had one finger then I know I wouldn’t play Bayonetta on single button simply mode because it doesn’t look any fun! If I only had control over one finger I’m pretty sure I’d play a more ‘Canabalt’ because that’s a non-rubbish game that was designed from the ground up for single button control. I’d also probably be a film buff rather than a computer games buff because most games simply can’t be simplified down to series of single button presses and this is not a fault with the games. Counter-factually if all games could be controlled with a single button press then I’d suggest that games designers really wouldn’t be doing their job in exploring the complexities of the medium.

    Support alternative input techniques. Support alternative controllers. Okay these are reasonable enough but only if you can do so without compromising the general game design. You feature X absolutely requires the use of controller Y and wouldn’t work any other way then as long as you can expect your general user to be able to use controller Y then go with it. It is not a fault that the recent spate of plastic guitar games require plastic guitars, it is just part of how they work and if for whatever reason you can’t use a plastic guitar be it through disability or simply a crippling fear of looking like twit then these games aren’t for you. This isn’t a fault with these games and you’d have to be crazy to suggest that they should all be redesigned to remove this constraint when the result of doing so would be a product that would not deliver a worthwhile experience.

    Allow adjusting difficulty levels. If accessibility is the goal then surely this is inferior to building games that dynamically adjust to challenge but not defeat the player? But leaving that asside it seems to me that some games are meant to be accessible and some games are meant to be extremely hard and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the later, they simply aren’t for everyone. Lots of people have been beating this drum lately so I’ll leave it at that.

    Provide control over game speed. Why? They completely lost me here. Surely you should just design games to run at the right speed to start with. Speed controls have their place sure, like in many RTS games where they allow you to skip the boring bits but that clearly isn’t what they’re talking about here. This seems crazy to me, so much will be lost by allowing the player control over this. You wouldn’t demand the ability to play back a DVD at 80% of the speed the director intended, why should you demand the such a thing from a game? Is this simply a difficult problem again? If so surely there are more elegant solutions to the difficult problem than allowing players the ability to play in slow motion, giving them permanent bullet time. Surely that can’t be the best the solution?

    Allow adjusting control sensitivity. Okay that seems fairly reasonable as long as the sensitivity of the controls isn’t an important part of the design but sometimes it is some things are meant to be sluggish you know. Would Fatale have been improved if you’d been able to control the sensitivity of the controls? No, clearly not it would have been much much worse. Whatever you think of the game Tale of Tales were clearly using the sluggish controls they choose to add to the feel of the game.

    Use simple language and provide easy to understand instructions. This certainly isn’t always a good idea. Games are often meant to confuse us. Some of the very best games are those that leave us scratching our heads wondering what the heck is going on. The best example of using complex instructions to generate a certain feel that I can think of is Vangers. Vangers provided large portions of its instructions in its own invented vocabulary and this added greatly to the feeling it was trying to give you that you were in an alien world where you didn’t have a clue what the heck was going on. If Vangers had clear instructions then it would have been just a completely rubbish top down driving game rather than something really rather special.

    Allow adjusting brightness, contrast and colours. This shouldn’t always be possible. Some games are meant to be dark and hard to see. The levels of this “game” where I could barely see the fight places where by far the most entertaining. Allowing this to be easily adjusted is just removing one more tool from the designer and putting it into the hands of the player and I don’t see why the designer should be hamstrung in this fashion. You wouldn’t demand that Caravaggio’s paintings should be reproduced with a more accessible brightness level so why should it be demanded of games designers?

    Provide separate volume controls for music, speech and sound effects. Maybe if the designers don’t consider it an important part of the design but they should feel free to balance the audio levels during the design process for the effect they want to convey and set them in stone. You wouldn’t demand you be allowed to mess with the sound options on a song or film so why is a game any different? Sound editing is an art form and one that should be allowed to blossom as fully in games as it has done in films. It shouldn’t always be a collaboration with the players preferences.

    Provide meaningful and timely spoken information. Again this may sometimes be appropriate but to be honest quite rarely these days. Remember how annoying it was in Fable when the guildmasters constantly moaned at you to take a health potion? That was meaningful and timely spoken information and one of the worst design decisions in the whole damn game because after a few hours it just annoyed the heck out of the player.

  4. TeeJay says:

    Utter rubbish. Each level supposedly illustrates a “guideline breach”, eg.

    Level 1. Learning to Die
    Gameplay: This is a tutorial level, but for the enemy spaceships, not the player, since they can’t be destroyed, but the player can.
    Guideline: Provide a tutorial mode.

    The actual principle breached here is “Don’t make the game impossible”. Level 1 does actually provide a chance to use the controls (left / right / fire).

    And so it goes on – this is moronic. Neither an “example” nor a “teaching tool”. It is so shit that I can’t even be bothered to ‘analyse’ the rest of the five or so levels I played before rage quitting.

  5. KH says:

    Ugh. What a ghastly little alien. What horrible music. That was just awful.

  6. Chobes says:

    I'm on the "this was absolute shit" boat. I think a more interesting extension of the concept (that would save a lot of work, subsequently) would be to just mod an existing game into presenting these bad scenarios. To see a game that has been established by most counts to be good near ruined by small design overlooks would send a much more concise point.

  7. RobF says:

    To be fair, I don't think Game Over itself is the best possible illustration of each of these concepts. It's incredibly worthy (and not in that sort of handwavey bad way) but for communicating its message, not quite as successful as it could be. But then, aside from pointing at lots of games whilst jumping up and down screaming "they're busterised!" I'm not sure if you could successfully illustrate what it's trying to achieve without something like the Understanding Comics thingymabob linked to.
    That said, the descriptions for each level are solid gold and every developer really should try and take as many, if not all, into account. Not one is difficult to implement, not one of them takes much time to implement and not one of them won't make a difference to someone, somewhere. The most important part, not one of them will take away from the game – they'll add to the game and make it playable for more people. I'm at a loss as to why folks *still* find this an issue.
    Persus-9, I'm not going to individually refute each of your points because it'll be a bit tiresome for both of us but I'll ask you this. Have you tried to implement these things successfully into a game? I have. I've organised 3 or 4 competitions to see if others could too. The results? Across many genres from shooters, to adventure games and beyond it's come back a resounding yes, they can be done without breaking a game. No, they don't take as much time as folks sometimes like to throw around as a reason not to and yes, they make a bloody big difference.
    To be blunt, you couldn't be more wrong when you say "They simply don’t take into account that games are complex creative works that simply can’t be easily altered to make them completely accessible without ruining them.". It's not true. They do take that into account and yes, yes, yes, games can be altered to make them accessible. There isn't one game out there that can't be made more accessible and done in a way that will absolutely not ever break it.
    I'm kinda sad that you think otherwise.

    I’m lost without an inside pocket.

    • RobF says:

      Argh, apologies for the text mung. I edited my post on the forum and it annihilated any formating.

    • Persus-9 says:

      Okay to answer your question, no I haven’t because I’m not a games designer. So yeah I’m ranting about something I’m perhaps in an inferior position to you in understanding but nevertheless I think you’re wrong.

      I admit I was wrong to suggest that no good game can obey all these rules. I’ll concede that since I’ve since realised you could quite easily modify Peggle to obey all these rules without making and significant changes.

      However that was a side point, my main point was that each of these guidelines rules out a specific way of making a game fun and applied to certain games they simply ruin them. My second more philosophical point was that I can’t see why games designers should make accessible games when doing so would in some cases clearly compromise their vision for the game. You simply can’t give clear instructions in Vangers or make Jilloff (the little S&M themed platform game) easy or make Serious Sam’s speed adjustable or make SingStar controller neutral without losing something essential to what makes those games what they are and so why should you? I claim the answer is you shouldn’t in each of those cases these guidelines should be broken.

      What’s more all the examples I’ve been giving have been in the single player realm, if you step into multiplayer things become even harder. How could you make a competitive online FPS that is single button controllable, controller neutral with adjustable speed and difficulty levels? How could you fit CS into this mold? I don’t believe you could without radically altering it as a game and so these guidelines suggest that it shouldn’t have been made as it is and that is simply false because whilst it doesn’t work for everyone it was still clearly a worthwhile production.

    • RobF says:

      The thing is, man, you’re theoretically designing/arguing around your own abilities and wants and accessibility isn’t really about you. It’s about everyone *including* you. It’s not about including one group and excluding another although it’s only natural that you can’t cover every single ability level.

      With games, accessibility is really nothing more than a design issue. If you accommodate it into your plans from the off, it’s a breeze. If you try and wedge it in as an afterthought, it’s like, I dunno, trying to get a vacuum cleaner to be an oven. It’s possible, of course, but it’ll take a lot more work.

      Where it gets interesting is that people will mod controllers or mod games to make them accessible because there’s people who -need- that assistance. When I was putting SYNSO2 together, I deliberately avoided coding up a one switch mode (although it’s in the 360 version) and included 4Noah, a keyboard simulator so that people could see the lengths folks have to go to to make something playable.

      To go back briefly to your example over game speed because it’s the perfect example. If my mobility isn’t as good as yours then something as simple as a reduction in speed enables me to play the game at the same level as you. If a developer won’t include that option (and most don’t) then I’d be forced to use CPU killer to bring it down to an acceptable level for me to play at. Why not just cut that part out? You still get to play at full speed and I would get to play it at what to (a theoretical, admittedly, fingers crossed my mobility is and will remain fine) me would be full speed. No-one loses a thing.

      And so on for each and every point on the list Game Over details. You don’t lose your “full fat” game and other people get a game they can play at their ability levels for what more often than not is little more than a few flags here and there saying “turn this bit on, turn this bit off”.

      You’re right that this won’t work for the current crop of online games, it’s not a reason to not work towards finding a solution for the future crop. But then, even having something as daft and simple as headtracker support (without someone having to hack up an app) built in makes it more accessible and that’s perfectly doable within the current model. See also the addition of proper closed captioning in recent Valve titles (and you can have a lot of fun with CC by bunging it in a dumb game too)

      There’s such a wide variety of solutions and things you can do, it’s sorta why I get a bit antsy around the word “shouldn’t”. Of course we should. It makes people able to play games and that’s good. (and if you see the work folks like SpecialEffect and OneSwitch do and the smiles it can bring to a kids face, there’s your REALLY big reason to do it)

      Funny you should mention Jill Off though, Anna has made a more accessible version of it in the shape of Jill Off With One Hand. It might not cover all the bases but even in covering just one that’s a larger player base for the game. It’s a win!

  8. Richyrich says:

    Speaking as someone who doesn’t have specific accessibility needs, I still agree with at least two of their assertions and disagree with Persus-9. Brightness and contrast are things that I always want to have at least some control over. I’ve played plenty of games that are just too damn dark unless I play them in a near pitch black room. Halo 2 and its bloody torch that’ll only stay on if the game has been told “this room is dark”. Doom 3 and its horribly contrived “it’s the future, we’ve colonised mars, but we haven’t thought of suit, helmet or gun mounted lights”. Even while that bloody place was an operating science facility the lighting was crap (HSA violation there chaps). Next, why shouldn’t I be allowed to alter the volume for different sound channels; voice, music, SFX etc? Yes I do expect that for music and movies. It’s called an equaliser. I like to be able to boost the voice over the rest, if for whatever reason I’m forced to keep the overall volume down e.g. if the Mrs doesn’t want to be disturbed by the sound of angry Combine soldiers meeting their end, but I’d like to be able to hear the interesting things the lovely Ms Vance has to say.

    This is rather like the discussion a while back, on should we be allowed to skip levels and content if it’s too hard. If I’m paying £30 (soon to be more like £60) on a game, I should be able to enjoy it as I see fit. I’ve played at least one game that wouldn’t let me remap the keys. Who the hell thinks that’s a good idea?

    Incoherent rant over.

  9. Dylan Sale says:

    There is an attempt at creating a game to understand games… its actually called Understanding Games
    link to kongregate.com

    • Bhazor says:

      Damn, someone beat me to it.

      But yes Understanding Games is a much better game/series than this thing.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Dylan: I did know about it actually, so I’m not sure why I didn’t link to it. I suspect it may be because I wanted a single really big fucking thing.

      KG

  10. cowthief skank says:

    I thought it was ironic that the screen was bodged playing on 1920×1200 – there was a huge black line across the bottom, so anything scrolling up from the bottom disappeared momentarily before reappearing.

  11. Persus-9 says:

    "The thing is, man, you’re theoretically designing/arguing around your own abilities and wants and accessibility isn’t really about you." I'm not, I'm really not. These aren't all things I don't want or don't need, they're things that should only be included if they don't lessen the experience. I actually have a minor disability and in the past there have been games that I've been unable to play because of it. Does that mean those games should have been altered so I could play them? No, it doesn't because the very reason I couldn't enjoy them was a vital part of what made them great and it would have lessened them if they'd been altered to make them accessible to me. It also has nothing to do with the minority or majority. If someone makes a game that is say only intelligible if you understand BSL and that is a vital part of the game, even if it's just for dramatic effect, then that's fine and only people who understand BSL will be able to play it and it'll be a relatively very inaccessible game. If adding in a spoken translation or subtitles would lessen the game then it shouldn't be done. No game should be compromised simply for the sake of widening it's potential audience.

    Here's a relatively mainstream example, Portal: Prelude, at least as release it was so damn hard that for normal players like myself it might as well have actually been impossible. People complained about this and basically told the designers they should have made it easier. The designers turned round and told them they hadn't made it for them. I can't see anything wrong with that, it was their prerogative.

    I'm not saying that designers shouldn't try to follow these guidelines, I'm not saying games should be arbitrarily inaccessible, I'm simply point out that these guidelines are not always appropriate and that needs to be recognised. The game and the website both seem to be very much chastising designers for breaking their guidelines and thus making games inaccessible which to my mind unjustly places a great restriction on the creative freedom of the designers.

    Actually 'Jill off with one hand' is just a completely different game. My point was that if Annie had actually obeyed these guidelines than Jill off would never have existed because by its very nature the guidelines rule it out and that point still stands. If anything the fact she felt she had to change the game so radically in order to produce a one switch version just gives further evidence of the destructive effect these guidelines could have. It would have been a bad thing if the original Jill off had never existed if Annie had felt she shouldn't make an inaccessible game because while it's far from my favourite game it certainly has artistic merit. My conclusion is that Annie shouldn't have, and thankfully didn't, obeyed these guidelines. That to my mind makes them poor guidelines. They are not the "design wisdom" that the makes of this game claim, they are perhaps good things for designers to bare in mind so as to avoid making games arbitrarily inaccessible but they should never have more import than making the game you set out to make to the best of your abilities because if taken too seriously they will destroy wonderful things.

    • RobF says:

      As I said about sandwiching things in afterwards, it’s more work than most people want to expend, especially if other folks code looks as bad as mine does after two days away ;)

      Personal examples.

      I wrote War Twat, flashy colours, explosions ahoy, noise galore – my intent was to fuck with the player a bit and have a laugh into the bargain. Most people don’t even last 30 seconds out on it. I switched shit round for a colour blindness version at the request of a fellow dev, reducing the multi-colour flashes with a near photocopied style (I also at one point put out a more kiddy friendly named version which I appear to have lost now). It breaks the game for me a bit but for someone who simply couldn’t play the original version at all – it has the same effect as the full colour version.

      Now, I could stand there saying I shouldn’t have to do that, I shouldn’t feel obliged to do that but here’s the thing. I want people to play my games and if ten minutes work is all it takes to enable that, I’ll put the time in and not piss and whinge about it *and* I’ll do it to the best of my abilities. Why? Because it’s no skin off my nose and my original design still remains intact so why should I care about it? I’ve just got a ruck more people to play a small slice of mental in ten minutes. I’ve lost nothing from my game but I’ve gained a bigger audience. Woohoo!

      You don’t have to play the colour blindness version. Folks who need the colour blindness version don’t have to play the full colour brainfuckfest. Sorted. Two camps happy for little work and nothing has been lost bar ten minutes.

      Including autofire and a selectable god mode in SYNSO 1&2 hasn’t stopped people twatting the fire button and playing with death on. Most people do, too. Yet those who just want to watch some fire works get to do so. I still get to be a selfish bastard and write the game I wanted to make, I’m not giving into anyone or dumbing it down, I’m not removing anything from or ruining the main game as I wanted it to be – I’m giving people the chance to play it at the same level as everyone else or if they choose to play it at their own level. Again, each and every time, the main game remains intact. No-one loses anything here. That’s the bit you can’t seem to grasp. It’s *adding* to the game, perhaps not for you but for someone else.

      None of these rules if applied properly *have* to take anything away from what you’ve got or want or what the designer wanted – they’re supplemental. Not one of them can’t be used as a menu option. That’s the point behind them and why they exist and why they’re pretty smart rules to consider and take as standard. They take, for the most part, next to no time to include and they can all be implemented in a way that doesn’t take away from the main game*. Not one is limiting unless you make it so and well, that’s not a problem with other people or the rules in that case, that’s the designers misunderstanding/laziness/stupidity/doing it wrong.

      Consider the access stuff like subtitles on yer tele. You might never need to use them but they’re always there as a choice for those who do. You’re not going to see a scriptwriter complain that someone watched ArtHouseFilmX or whatever with 888 on because “the dialogue was meant to be quiet then, the bastards, just being able to read it like that”. See also “I don’t care if you can’t get up those steps, they’re designed to be steep and square” and so on.

      *aforementioned online issues excepted, obv.

  12. God at play says:

    Wow…excellent points Persus-9. You debate really well. I guess I can see both sides, but I certainly agree that a designer should err on the side of not compromising the vision.

    I do agree that it’s a good idea to allow people to adjust the sound EQ and brightness/contrast. When it comes to brightness, some environments or some people will see the game in a way that’s specifically NOT intended by the designer and directly hurts the experience. But giving control over it, you allow people to change the setting to match with the designer did in fact intend. Sound is the same way.

    However, there’s the risk that other people will ruin the experience for themselves by changing the setting when they don’t need to. I guess in a perfect world (or a more advanced one) the settings would change automatically to match each player perfectly, but that’s pretty impossible today.

    Maybe in the end you should find out how many players need to change the settings to match what the designer intended vs. how many players ruin the experience by changing the settings when they don’t need to. Choose the route with the fewest players in that category.