The accessibility wave has begun, it is just a matter of the console companies continuing to ride it. The wave started with Nintendo; it will continue to be driven by Nintendo and the other companies will ride in their shadow to the finish.
When most people talk about accessibility, they seem to conjure up images of simplified or dumbed down gameplay. What they don’t really understand is that accessibility is about making something approachable by someone not familiar with it while still leaving the ability for aficionados to master it.
Take the game of Chess. The rules are pretty simple. Every type of piece moves in its own way and the goal is to position the opposing player’s king in such a way that they cannot make a move without leaving their king vulnerable. Simple enough that a kid can learn to play it. Yet, at the same time entire clubs of aficionados have risen up and we have world wide Chess championships.
This is an example of accessibility in game design that we can currently fulfill but is not the focus of my arguments.
What I would like to focus on is accessibility of technology, for the disabled and as a means to expand the audience.
Nintendo is the primary driver of accessibility in controls. Did they reduce the number of buttons on the controller? No. The Game Cube had 3 shoulder buttons, four face buttons, two analog sticks and a D-pad. The Wii has 3 shoulder buttons, five face buttons, one analog stick, one D-pad, an IR sensor and two motion controllers. If they didn’t reduce the number of buttons, how is it more accessible? Two main reasons. One, the form factor was designed to allow those familiar with a normal tv remote control to pick the Wii controller up and hold it. Two, the motion controls allows for controls that mimic real life movements depicted in the game. This advance in accessibility was so effective at expanding the market for video games that the Wii is the best selling console ever. As a result, Sony copied the controls, and Microsoft took it to the next level.
Nintendo also made 3d technology accessible to the masses with the 3DS. Sony is trying to push 3D on their PS3, but it requires the player to buy a special TV and wear the stupid glasses. But the 3DS requires none of that. You buy the system and boom you have 3D. That is accessibility.
So what advances will be made to make gaming more accessible in the future? I guess we could look at what is currently happening in the games industry. Apple has made digital distribution accessible and expected by the masses. Apple and Google have made touch controls so accessible and ubiquitous in the mobile industry that Sony’s NGP will have touch screens and the 3DS continues to use the DS touch screen.
We can further look toward the future of accessibility by looking at Nintendo’s Wii U. This console keeps the wildly successful Wii Remote and adds an additional controller that has a touch screen built in. This controller while adding an additional level of complexity to gameplay, is still accessible to those familiar with tablets. This is an example of the advances that have been made currently coming to new hardware in the future. It is only a matter of time before other consoles and gaming hardware follow suit.
Accessibility for the Disabled
Face it. There are a good number of disabled gamers out there. The variety of disabilities is great, but they all have one thing in common, the disability makes gaming more difficult.
Let’s start with a relatively simple one, color blindness. For the most part, color blind people have a difficult time telling certain colors apart. One that most people have heard of is red-green color blindness. This has a very major impact on multiplayer gaming.
If you look at some multiplayer games, what colors are used to signify your allies and opponents? Typically it is green for your allies and red for your opponents. Do you see where a red-green color blind person would have a problem?
A simple solution to this issue would be for the game designer to allow the gamer to adjust the colors that are used to signify allies and opponents. However, many game developers don’t do this.
Another issue is with people who require specialized controls in order to play the games. Often a simple mapping interface would allow these gamers to play the game, but some games don’t allow for remapping of controls.
There have been a number of clever gamers who have created their own controllers so that they can play the game the way their body allows. This effort can be made much easier if the game allows them to remap the controls.
While not a disability, many left handed gamers have expressed frustration at not being able to remap controls, especially when there is a single analog stick. They have trouble using their weaker hand for the primary controls and would like to swap the controls to their dominant hand.
None of these issues require any difficult process for the game developer, yet for some reason they don’t seem to want to address them on a regular basis. Some developers do a great job at it, while other fail miserably.
So let’s let them know. If the game isn’t playable with your specific disability, let the developer know. They may release a patch, or at the least make the changes in their next game. These changes will not happen on their own. If we as gamers sit idly by, the world of gaming will pass us by.
Accessibility To Expand The Audience
I have already spoke about how Nintendo and Apple have made changes that have brought more gamers into the fold. They did this by making hardware and distribution more approachable and convenient. However, there is another way game developers are making games more approachable from a design stand point.
What they are doing is bringing games to where the users are. We see this on social networks like Facebook, on Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android. These developers are making games that the millions of people who have never played games on consoles enjoy and come back to on a regular basis.
I want to avoid the whole “casual vs hardcore” debate and rather focus on what is happening with these games.
What these developers have done is make games approachable to new gamers by first bringing the games to the players and second designing a game that is easy to play and difficult (at times anyway) to master.
While many of these games seem simple on the surface, they often hold a lot of time and resource management levels to them that should appeal to more expert gamers.
However, these game developers are realizing that the gamers they have brought in are not completely satisfied with the experience they are given and are seeking out more and deeper content. We can see the results of this by watching some of the major players in social network games such as Zynga and Playdom.
Zynga, for example, started out with the simple click farming games. Players came in, clicked around to gain money and experience until they ran out of energy and then left. Now its latest games have more traditional modes of gameplay.
We also see a number of major game developers and publishers like EA and SquareEnix bringing more traditional games to social networks. This really shows the power of bringing games to the players.
As more developers create games and bring them to the players, the quality as well as the quantity of games will increase and gamers of all stripes will benefit from it.
So don’t go off and complain about the games made for these platforms. These developers and the gamers who play the games they make are pioneers in the accessibility of gaming.