Killer Instinct is a fighting game that requires expert timing and split second reactions to succeed online. Oh and sight. You need to see what's going on on your screen to win. Right?
"Sightless Kombat" is a completely blind gamer who in January hit the "Killer" rank in the Xbox One - and now PC - fighting game. That means he battled his way to the top bracket of Killer Instinct's online ranked play without the benefit of sight. But how?
When I first heard about Sightless Kombat's exploits I struggled to understand how someone could even play a fighting game without sight, let alone dominate online. I find ranked play in the likes of Street Fighter 5 hard enough and I can see.
In the video, below, Sightless Kombat explains how he uses Killer Instinct's audio settings - audio settings he encouraged developer Iron Galaxy to improve - to make the game easier to play. But I thought it worth speaking with Sightless Kombat to find out not just how he plays Killer Instinct, but how he wins.
First off, tell me a bit about yourself.
Sightless Kombat: I'm Ben, a gamer in my twenties from south-east England. I go by SightlessKombat, Sightless, Kombat, or sometimes even SK if people choose to abbreviate it to that great an extent. I've been a gamer for about as long as I can remember in different capacities. I also have my own website where I review products for accessibility, as well as working on tips/guides with members of the fighting game community (FGC).
Tell us about your disability.
Sightless Kombat: I have never had any sight whatsoever. It's interesting to see the reactions of people who are unfamiliar with the idea of those without sight playing video games in any format, mainstream or otherwise. There are games intended for those with visual impairments or a complete lack of sight, but when I say to people that I play mainstream games against people with sight (and win), their surprise is normally pretty noticeable.
Once I go through how I work with games that rely heavily on visuals, they begin to see that my blindness, whilst it can be problematic in certain scenarios, doesn't mean I can't compete with sighted players on a similar level (even factoring in the inherent barriers that come with not being able to see animations for fighting games for example).
Tell us about the process of learning to play video games while completely blind. How did you start?
Sightless Kombat: I started back in the days of the PSone, with games such as Street Fighter Ex Plus Alpha, Tekken 3 and Ready to Rumble Boxing. This was before the days of YouTube, where you could watch people play the games and try to gain an understanding of what moves looked like so that when you managed them yourself you could figure out how they linked together. I had to learn with sighted help, but the trouble was a lot of the games had such complex notation that the people around me didn't understand how to translate it into physical button combinations.
Learning how to play games is partially a battle of finding information on the game's mechanics (particularly for fighting games like Killer Instinct), or finding a guide that is readable to assistive technology such as screen readers (that convert on screen content into audio and speech output). These guides or walkthroughs, normally found on sites like GameFAQs, are mostly necessary for 3D action games such as Halo, Ninja Gaiden and Heavenly Sword, though since they weren't created with accessibility in mind they don't often list any hints that would necessarily be helpful for totally blind players.
If a game doesn't have much information, is new or hasn't been played by any other blind gamers, it just becomes a process of trial and error in terms of both playability and accessibility. A large number of totally blind and visually impaired gamers, myself included, have given up on games, sometimes permanently, when they are found to be too frustrating.
Which games have you played over the years?
Sightless Kombat: I've played too many games over the years to definitively count or list, with various degrees of success. In terms of systems I've played games on the PSone, PS2 and PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Arcade, Wii, Game Boy Colour and Advance... the list goes on. The vast majority are fighting games including Mortal Kombat X, Street Fighter, Tekken, Soulcalibur and Killer Instinct to name but a few, as well as rhythm titles such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero. I've also recently started experimenting with Halo (The Master Chief Collection and Halo 5) and I will try other games if they look like they might be accessible.
What kind of gaming set-up do you have at home?
Sightless Kombat: I get asked this question a fair amount - people sometimes think that just because I'm blind I'd need to have the sound up to 11 and have an expensive surround sound set-up. However, all I currently use is a stereo headset (at the time of publication the PDP Afterglow AG9 true wireless headset). Just turn on the bass boost mode and you're good to go as long as your game and chat audio are balanced to your preference.
In terms of the games themselves, there are sometimes specific ways of setting your audio options to benefit players with a lack of sight (turning the music down to varying degrees, for example). Most of this is actually down to personal preference, however.
How did you get involved with Killer Instinct? What is it about the game that appealed to you?
Sightless Kombat: I didn't get to play Killer Instinct until just before Mortal Kombat X's release. However, around the time of the first MKX trailer, I'd been looking into what console to switch to when the time came. Since I knew Killer Instinct was an Xbox One exclusive (at the time at least), I knew that there was no way to play it other than buying an Xbox One.
I started watching YouTube videos in earnest, examining the intricacies of the game like counter breakers, shadow counters, how various characters played and their controls. In terms of what appealed to me, the music and sound design as well as how they are interwoven instantly struck me as innovative and well constructed compared to other competitors. The music in Mortal Kombat X (and even fighters that have come after it to some extent) seemed generic and almost bland in comparison to the dynamic engine that Killer Instinct uses, in addition to the latter's pace regardless of which characters among the varied roster are fighting it out. Even when I was watching videos from the prototype builds shown off at E3, the game still looked very much unlike most fighters in terms of the detail put into the sound design, as partially shown in the Sounds of Season 2 video released by Iron Galaxy.
How, exactly, do you use audio to play Killer Instinct? Can you give us any specific examples of how you use the audio to defeat your opponents?
Sightless Kombat: In terms of KI, a large amount of the work was already done before I actually got my hands on the game. The sound designers have done well to give the individual characters their own personalities, even just with small sounds such as footsteps.
In terms of how I play Killer Instinct with no sight though, there is one key option in the audio menu that is often overlooked: the HUD volume slider. This slider, when turned up, allows for additional audio cues that I'd say are crucial to playing the game without sight. These include cues for the KV (knockdown value) meter (showing roughly how much damage you can do before the combo automatically drops / blows out) and for receiving a bar of shadow meter.
Cues were also added for when Cinder, a character composed of plasma energy combined with alien DNA, uses a "burnout ender" (that sets the opposing character's limbs on fire), with specific sounds for whether it's the opposing character's arms or legs that are aflame. All these cues as well as the sound for when you obtain Instinct help with playing the game and keeping track of what's happening. Admittedly, it takes time, but those who I've played blindfold matches with have seemed to enjoy the experience and learning how the audio can help their game plan.
Do mirror matches pose a bigger challenge because the character sounds are the same? Do you do anything differently as a result?
Sightless Kombat: Mirror matches can be tricky for anyone, regardless of how much sight they have. In terms of when I play mirror matches, I just have to concentrate as to which of the characters is on the offensive and which is on the defensive. However, it can get confusing at times, especially if you're hitting the same buttons as the moves that the other player is completing (which is more likely than you might think at times). I don't really think I do anything too differently when I fight a mirror match though, at least not as a conscious effort.
How, exactly, do you use Killer Instinct's HUD volume slider to win?
Sightless Kombat: The HUD volume slider, as explained above, is extremely important when you don't have sight, if you want to make your combos count that is. When I first started playing online, I realised that I wasn't that experienced at the game really. That, and that I was dropping combos left right and centre. I realised this was simply because I couldn't see the KV Meter.
I signed up to the official Killer Instinct forums at Ultra Combo and voiced my concerns in more of what might be considered as a rant. I suggested ways to improve the game for those with no vision whatsoever and several members of the community agreed with me. What I didn't expect was for the developers to implement the audio cues (regardless of the fact they didn't have a toggle at the initial launch and the backlash that resulted from the unexpected new sounds).
In spite of this, the features were left in and tweaked into the state they are now. These accessibility suggestions, when included, evened up the playfield a large amount as then I could actually tell when I was about to drop a combo and when to end it, elements of the game that were previously impossible without guesswork.
How long have you spent practising Killer Instinct? Do you have a training regime?
Sightless Kombat: I don't really have a training regime, but I do end up playing with members of the community regularly, which I guess you could consider as training. I do revisit the streams for information sometimes as there can be things you've missed or forgotten about with certain characters or even the game's mechanics.
You've achieved the Killer rank in Killer Instinct, which is extremely impressive. How long did it take you? What was the hardest thing about achieving Killer status?
Sightless Kombat: It took me from August until the following January to achieve the rank of Killer in KI. Arguably the hardest part of getting promoted to this level is keeping yourself motivated, especially as I can't see the rankings of the opponent's I face, how many points I have earned and how many I lose or gain from each fight. All of these factors, as well as my number of wins / losses are what people sometimes seem to use to keep themselves motivated.
Moreover, if I'd have known that I was going to be promoted to Killer if I won the next match, I'd have recorded it live instead of recording it via fight archive (the replay system in the game). At least I can say that I got the "Natural Born" achievement before Season 3 came along and if they reset the ranks. The achievement will remain.
Could video games do more to make them easier to play for the visually impaired? How could they be improved?
Sightless Kombat: The short answer is that video games could definitely do more to be playable by the visually impaired. I started playing Halo: The Master Chief Collection and I was informed by a fellow player that there is an auto-centering feature that repositions your gun back to centre when you walk forward. This, along with several other accessibility suggestions I can think of for the series, could make Halo the most accessibility-oriented mainstream shooter franchise.
In terms of non-specific examples of how video games could better themselves for those with limited sight, developers should be willing to engage with the visually impaired gamers who play mainstream titles and are willing to provide constructive criticism. This includes in user testing / research (where potentially invaluable input could be provided for audio cues / feedback), marketing / reviewing (where a unique / different perspective on why the game is entertaining could be provided) and even in the base level of development (where building a game with accessibility in mind from day one could theoretically make for a more streamlined experience in general, not just for players who specifically need it to play the game).
What's next for you? Do you intend to enter tournaments?
Sightless Kombat: I'm not sure what's next for me other than playing Season 3 and seeing what other KI content comes along. As for tournaments, as much as I'd like to enter, there aren't enough (or really any) tournaments that are easy for me to attend in my local area in terms of accessibility and the UK FGC doesn't publicise enough as far as I've seen. Hopefully that will change in the future though.
I still intend to keep playing online regardless as the game, running at 90fps (as stated by the developers), has probably the best console netcode in any fighting game to date on the Xbox One. It remains to be seen how well the game runs on PC, but with the influx of new players, there'll be time enough to see whether the port will be as well-received as we hope.