Learning to Design Games for Blind Players
In March, Ubisoft Montreal invited Brandon Cole, an accessible-gaming advocate and consultant, to its studio to give a presentation and lead a series of workshops with developers. Cole’s visit was part of Ubisoft’s ongoing efforts to make games more accessible to all players, and the teams came away with a number of ideas for ways to help legally blind and sightless players play Ubisoft games.
For Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we spoke with David Tisserand, senior manager of Ubisoft’s accessibility team, to find out more about what those teams learned.
Blind players seem like a very underserved audience, given that videogames are historically a visual medium. What are some of the advances that can help us bring the experience of games to a blind audience?
David Tisserand: When we talk about blind accessibility, there are two types: being legally blind could mean that you still have residual vision, or it could mean that you are sightless. So in terms of blind accessibility at large, we've been making strides like increasing the contrast in our menus or in our games, or having outlines around enemies, or around important information like interactive elements. We can increase the size of our menu UI elements as well – like in The Division 2, for example – or turn on high contrast to make sure that it's clearly visible to players with low vision.
Now, in terms of sightless accessibility: our games, I would say organically, have always been trying to convey information in a multi-modal way. This is helping everyone to use the modality that they prefer in order to be aware of what's happening – but this is clearly helping sightless players, because without the sound there would be no way for them to know that there is a call to action there.
What was what was the biggest takeaway from Cole’s visit, in terms of things that you could implement in the near future?
There is no way a sightless player is going to be able to navigate our menus. The second thing that Brandon made very clear is that in most of our games, particularly our big open-world games, knowing where to go and navigating the world is something that requires our attention. Having different footstep noises if you're against a wall versus if you're not, or having waypoints make noise in order to help sightless players orient themselves, to know where the waypoint is.
Depending on what that is, there are different things we can do. For shooting games, you could also have another kind of sound-based game, like orienting yourself toward the enemy based on the sound of the enemy, and locking the vertical axis, because this is the most difficult for blind players to re-orient. It highly depends on the game.
Do all of these solutions need to be baked in during the development process, or could existing games be retrofitted with any of these features? If you think about accessibility at the beginning, you’re just designing with accessibility in mind. For example, when I told you about sounds that we could use for a platform game – if you design this game with the right sounds, and with the audio team working on it, you’re just designing it that way. It's not an accessibility option anymore, it's not something different; it's the same game, but with the audio attached to it and thought about during the design process.
One of the most immediate things to come out of Cole’s visit was the audio descriptive trailer for Assassin's Creed Valhalla. How did that come together? There is still a lot of work to do, particularly for sightless players, but we’re moving towards that. Part of making the end-to-end user experience accessible is allowing people to enjoy our trailers, and particularly being part of the discussion around it.
What can the games industry as a whole do to better serve sightless players?
The more our partners in this industry show that they care, and that they want to involve as many players as possible, the more it’s going to normalize the discussion.
You said yourself that you didn't know there were blind players; if you release an Assassin’s Creed trailer with audio description, everyone will know. Just by doing that, you are informing the community, the players, and also the rest of the industry that this is something that is important, and this is something that you should focus on.
Combat seems like a place where implementing accessibility might face its biggest challenges, because everything happens so quickly, and it seems difficult to rapidly convey all the information a sightless player might need. In a series like Assassin’s Creed, for example, with close battles against multiple opponents, would the gameplay itself need to be adapted?
Those games are perfectly playable by blind players. The sound design in those games is so helpful; every action has a specific sound, and the stereoscopic sound helps players know if they’re left, right, far, close, etc. Now, if you put that in a 3D world, (you could) maybe think about your set-pieces in a way that they're going to be playable just with sound.
One thing is clear: Currently, sightless players cannot play open-world games. For disabled players, being able to be part of this adventure, hearing the story, immersing themselves in the world – just that is already a big achievement for the gaming industry.
May 22, 2020 at 09:14