How Producers can make games more accessible
Advice from Accessibility Unlocked
Though we may not have our hands directly on the tools, as producers we’re empowered to influence and facilitate discussions about what gets prioritised in developing our games.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss how production people can facilitate their teams to make more inclusive decisions when planning, designing and developing with Accessibility Unlocked.
Below is their advice, and it’s chock-full of insights and practical actions producers can take to put the spotlight on accessibility during development.
What are “Accessibility Features”?
Often when we talk about accessibility features, the things that come to mind for game devs are pretty limited - subtitle options, key remapping, colourblind mode etc. - how would you define “accessibility features”?
More than you might think:
We’d define accessibility features as any feature or option added to a game that allows a player to customise the experience to their needs. A lot of people don’t realise that features that seem ‘common’ are ultimately accessibility features - the ability to turn volume up and down, or to even manage sound separately from music - these are things that can be hugely beneficial to people with sensory issues, but aren’t seen as an ‘accessibility feature’.
Think in terms of barriers:
The best accessibility features often come out of viewing your game clearly, actively, and understanding each mechanic as you encounter it to think about how it might create a barrier for a player. Having a slowdown feature in a game that has absolutely no time constraints may not be relevant or useful, and just dev time for the sake of dev time - but a slowdown feature in a game like Celeste can make a world of difference.
Accessibility is not only about toggles:
When people talk of accessibility features, they are usually talking about settings that change how a game plays to make it more accessible. It doesn’t need to be something that is actively enabled and disabled though, accessibility can be baked into the game’s design. For example, if there is a puzzle that involves different coloured tiles, if you add clearly visible symbols on those tiles then this reduces the need of colourblind settings for that puzzle.
When should your team start discussing Accessibility?
When in the process of game dev do you think it is MOST impactful to consider accessibility?
Pre-production is one of the best times to consider accessibility. When you’re exploring your core design and nailing down exactly what mechanics you’ll have, platforms you’ll release on, features you have available - these are great opportunities to examine your teams capability and ability to create options or alternate playstyles.
Considering things early means that you can also clearly decide what is and isn’t relevant to you - for example, you may need extra design time to translate a keyboard and mouse experience to a controller - it’s not just implementation, but time to consider, discuss, and create. Sometimes designing for different controls can mean subtle redesigns of entire features, so be generous with estimations.
Assign a Champion
However, the best thing you can do is have a champion for accessibility on your team who can raise issues in each conversation as they come - by doing this, you ensure things don’t get left behind or forgotten. Especially with how iterative game design is, a big change to a mechanic or feature might solve a whole lot of design problems, but introduce accessibility issues, and someone needs to be there to catch them.
It’s Never Too Late - A partial solution is better than nothing at all
If you’re deep into production, is it too late to consider accessibility?
It’s never too late to consider accessibility. A lot of options can be placed into a game experience even after release. However, the later you attempt to implement changes, the more challenges you face in terms of navigating around decisions you’ve made as a team that can no longer be iterated on.
Similarly, as you get deeper into production and closer to a release, a lot of development time pivots to polish and the distractions and difficulties of release. It’s very difficult to pull developers away from key final tasks to focus on accessibility, unless it’s been part of your development fabric along the way.
If you’re tackling accessibility after the fact - say, you release and a lot of people are upset because they can’t engage with your game in an obvious way - it’s a lot harder to regain trust with that audience if they feel you haven’t considered them before.
If accessibility has been left too late and implementing a full solution to a problem has become too expensive and/or time consuming, a partial solution is better than doing nothing. If increasing text size to a good size results in the dialogue system breaking and it is not feasible to fix at that stage of development, increasing size a little bit is still better than leaving the text size as it is.
How to Influence Towards Accessibility
If a Producer is in a dev team that is not meaningfully considering accessibility in their development, how would you advise them to help change their team’s mindset?
Recognise the Value of Options
Reframing accessibility features as player options. If people genuinely don’t care about catering to a wider audience, or feel it’s too expensive/not worthwhile, structuring it as a discussion around enabling multiple playstyles and solving difficult problems, rather than under the umbrella of ‘accessibility options’ can sometimes be a great motivator for developers to engage.
Even taking an hour or two to have a workshop where everyone has to bring in a game option that particularly affected their experience, or made it easier or more exciting for them to play, can help to get people to recognise the value of options rather than viewing it as a “thing they have to do”.
A lot of people talk about the financial benefits of accessing a wider audience, and while this might move the needle for executives, it won’t necessarily for particularly stubborn developers. Realistically, someone needs to take on the challenge of pushing accessibility internally as a key and important factor of development - this can be the producer, directors - anyone with any kind of authority over the development process. This isn’t easy, but sometimes it’s less about changing mindset and more about creating small change over time, by keeping it is part of the discussion.
Affordable Resources for Indies
For small indie teams who may not be able to afford specialised consultancy fees, how would you recommend they approach making their games accessible?
There are a huge number of resources out there for making your games accessible. We have a plethora of resources on our website as a starting point, but you’ve got organizations like AbleGamers who have design patterns available for free that help you to create more accessible designs as you go.
Websites like CanIPlayThat are super valuable for developers - by reading an article about games with similar mechanics to you and how it impacted disabled players, you can get a better understanding of the similar challenges you might be facing and how they may be solved.
Following disabled gamers and streamers who frequently have discussions around this is a great way to find more information, as well as YouTubers.
Pay attention to the conversation! There are more articles, discussions, and conference talks around accessibility than ever before. Many of these are free! Attending these kinds of events (like GA Conf, for example) or signing up to key mailing lists can be a great way to be across accessibility and what’s new in design.
If you have a specific problem you’re struggling with - ask for help! Tweet out the design area you’re stuck with, or reach out directly to organizations or developers who might have a resource they can point you to, or at least some advice.
Combating Accessibility Blockers
There are a few common schools of thought that may get in the way of dev teams accessibility considerations. I’d love to know how you might deal with the following ideas.
“Really good accessibility is too expensive to implement.”
Too expensive: if you created every accessibility feature possible, and applied them all to your game then this might be a correct response. The reality is, there are often one or two really important options you can give an audience that make a huge difference to their experience. You don’t have to do everything - doing good accessibility is just as important as really good! Everything is an improvement on doing nothing.
Accessibility being really expensive is usually a consequence of leaving it too late so resolving an accessibility issue requires major changes and creative solutions. If accessibility is considered throughout development and when implementing features in the first place, it becomes significantly less expensive
“Investing in accessibility is noble, but doesn’t impact the bottom line.”
Doesn’t impact the bottom line: One billion people, or 15% of the world's population, experience some form of disability. This often doesn’t even include neurodiversity and other chronic health issues - or even temporary situations, like broken bones, new parents playing with one hand while they soothe a baby in their arms - the list goes on! One sale may not make a big difference, but these sales add up.
Beyond this, even if you sell only one more game, if you’ve created an experience that allows that person to play and enjoy themselves when they otherwise would have been unable to do so, you likely create a champion for your studio in that person, who will continue to support future endeavours from your studio. Investing in accessibility is valuable.
“Making our game accessible compromises on our vision for the experience.”
Compromises on our vision: We make our games for the players. Your vision is valuable, but if we made games purely to please ourselves, we’d be hobbyists, and we wouldn’t work in teams, and we wouldn’t iterate to find better ideas. When you hand any game over to a player, it becomes their experience. No one player will have the same experience or want the same things from a game, so why not enable your players to have the experience they want and need? If your player is important to you, accessibility should be important to you. Many of the options you can implement won’t impact on your game vision even slightly, but they will impact on player experience.
Thank you to the Accessibility Unlocked team for sharing their insights for the newsletter! You can read more from them on their website: accessunlocked.games
Further games accessibility resources from the Accessibility Unlocked website:
Game Accessibility Guidelines - A set of guidelines on how to design for disabled people ranging from basic to more niche features
Accessible Games - A set of resources on games accessibility from AbleGamers
Demystifying CVAA - An explanation of the CVAA, an accessibility legislation in the United States relating to games and other media
Accessible Player Experiences - A resource for design patterns that can be used to make games more accessible
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