"It's a true frontier of game design": How Naughty Dog and Insomniac Games think about accessibility

"Challenge and accessibility can coexist in harmony with the right design choices."

As part of our ongoing series looking at accessibility in games, we got in touch with some people working in the field for two of Sony's big first-party teams and asked them to tell us a bit about their work. From Insomniac Games, whose teams have done brilliant work with Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, and Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales, we heard from director of experience, Brian Allgeier, and advanced senior user experience researcher, Michele Zorrilla. From Naughty Dog, who picked up the award for innovation in accessibility at the Game Awards in 2020, lead systems designer Matthew Gallant was kind enough to answer a few questions.

Possibly a hard question to answer to start with: what is the biggest thing about accessibility design in games that a lot of people don't understand or aren't aware of?

Matthew Gallant: Accessibility is orthogonal to difficulty. Providing a "very light" difficulty option may remove barriers for some players, but others want to play on "grounded" or with permadeath enabled. (Shout out to SightlessKombat!) Challenge and accessibility can coexist in harmony with the right design choices.

To give an anecdote from development on The Last of Us Part 2: to adapt stealth gameplay for blind players, we prototyped an "invisible while prone" option. In our first accessibility playtest, we asked consultant Brandon Cole to try it out and give us feedback. We cheered as we watched him get his first stealth kill while using it, and overall his impressions were positive. However, he had one feature request: unlimited invisibility felt too generous, could we add an optional time limit?

The Last of Us Part 2 on PS5

What is the cornerstone of accessibility in games at the moment? Is there a set of features that you always build out from, or does it change from game to game?

Brian Allgeier: We first started developing accessibility features for Marvel's Spider-Man and at that time were only able to do a short list. This meant we had to prioritize the ones that would have the biggest impact. To address the widest audience with accessibility needs, we focused on large subtitles, speaker notation, and providing an option to change QTE button taps to holds. Those later were carried over to Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales where we added 28 more features like high contrast mode, controller remapping, and chase assist. For Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, we were able to build off of Miles and expand our accessibility feature list to 53. While not every feature can be used from one game to the next, we continue to build a library of features that provide a foundation for all future games.

Matthew Gallant: Accessibility is fundamentally about good design. Games typically have their own unique needs and challenges in terms of accessibility features and implementation, but those choices are guided by universal design principles.

The Access Design Patterns framework breaks this down really well. A few that were particularly relevant for us were:

"Second Channel": any information provided through one channel (e.g. visual) should also be available through other channels (e.g. audio, haptics).

"Same Controls But Different": allow players to remap their control schemes, and provide alternatives for button holds, mashes, and chords.

"Clear Text": allow players to increase text size, colour, and contrast to improve legibility.

We're fortunate at Naughty Dog in that we own and develop our own game engine. This means that any functionality we develop for one game is a permanent investment in our technology, and can be carried on to future projects.

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart review

How much do you work with the wider community of players with disabilities? What does this work look like? I am assuming there is overlap with the team as a matter of course!

Brian Allgeier: Collaborating with players with disabilities is truly the best way to understand how to make our games more accessible. We've been fortunate to work closely with Josh Straub of Apex Access who has consulted with us on many titles including Marvel's Spider-Man and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. We also receive feedback from Insomniacs and PlayStation Studios employees with disabilities. This includes Jason Bolte who is a senior designer at Insomniac and is someone with low vision. Jason offered not only his perspective as a player -where low vision players might struggle - but provided his design expertise as well. As we broaden our features and continue to expand our audience, our goal is to involve more consultants and players with disabilities who can offer new insights.

Matthew Gallant: While we work with a range of accessibility consultants, we also get informal feedback from various sources. For instance, we have several developers with disabilities on our team who used and evaluated the features as they were being prototyped and implemented. This included our motion sickness options, mono audio mode, and our one-handed control scheme presets.

We also get letters and emails from fans with feedback and functionality requests. For example, in 2018 we received a letter from a fan requesting the "camera sway" and "camera shake" adjustments from God of War. They were excited for The Last of Us Part 2, but were concerned that it would be unplayable for them without these options. Serendipitously we already had these options in our debug menu, it had just never occurred to us to expose them to players.

Does accessibility cross traditional lines of competition in the games industry? I mean by that: is this something that the whole industry works together on? Is there that feeling of working on it all together?

Michele Zorrilla: Absolutely! Whenever a game releases or gets an update with accessibility features, it's exciting and inspiring for us. There's the feeling of friendly competition, but it inspires the team to do more and do better. It also gives us examples to show folks in the studio and get more people onboard. One new game with accessibility features is one more game that more people can play, and it makes for a more inclusive industry as a whole.

One of the things that really leaps out at me about accessibility design is that it must be a really fascinating form of problem solving: you have these things you need to translate for a wide variety of players and you have to work out how to do them. Is that right or have I romanticised it hopelessly?

Michele Zorrilla: That's really the heart of it - what barriers do players face and how can we remove them so they can experience our game? Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart has a huge variety of weapons, hectic combat encounters, and quick traversal areas - it's big and colorful and awesome! But players can feel overwhelmed in these situations. Initially, the team was trying to think of ways to handle each individual section, but that wasn't feasible. In one of our accessibility reviews, Mike Daly (game director) suggested game speed - we already slowed the game down for tutorials, so why not use it elsewhere? It was a breakthrough for us! It couldn't solve everything, but it put control in players' hands of when to use it and how much it slowed down, and it was useful in so many places across the game.

Matthew Gallant: Accessibility is indeed a tremendously exciting design space. A lot of great ideas emerge in conversation with our consultants during playtests. To give a few examples:

While discussing functionality that would be useful for players with low vision, our consultant James Rath pulled out his iPhone to show us the various features he uses on a daily basis. He was demonstrating using a gesture to zoom on the phone screen, when it occurred to us that the DualShock 4 also has a touchscreen built-in. This led to the creation of our "Screen Magnifier" feature. Watching Steve Saylor's joyful reaction to the feature in a later playtest was a big development highlight!

The Last of Us Part 2's screen magnifier feature

We had another breakthrough while playtesting with fine motor accessibility consultant Paul Lane. He was having difficulty lining up a series of jumps through a tricky traversal sequence. Ironically, we had designed a feature to help players to align their jumps, but it was bundled with audio cues and intended as a vision accessibility feature. Paul loved the assistance, but rightly did not want the unnecessary accompanying audio. This taught us two valuable lessons. Firstly, don't make assumptions about who will be using your accessibility features. Secondly, make accessibility options granular so players can tweak them to suit their needs.

Another design breakthrough happened in conversation with Brandon Cole. We had designed two features to help blind players navigate. "Navigation Assistance" points the player towards the critical progression path by pressing L3. Enhanced Listen Mode allows players to scan the environment for items and enemies, causing them to emit a spatial audio cue when pinged. Brandon had the brilliant idea of uniting these two features, allowing players to set their navigation goal to the item or enemy they had just scanned for. The combination of these two features greatly enhanced the gameplay experience for blind players.

One of the great things about the latest Ratchet was not just the accessibility features, which were absolutely stellar, but the steps in representation in terms of a central character with a prosthesis. When you're thinking about accessibility in games are you also thinking about representation? This is something Sony has always been a bit of a leader on, it seems, thinking back to stuff like Sly Cooper.

Brian Allgeier: It's important for us to create worlds that feel inclusive with relatable characters that players can identify and connect with. A part of how we're able to achieve that is through the incredible performances of our actors bringing these characters to life and by partnering with expert consultants who advise us throughout our process. On Miles Morales, we introduced Hailey Cooper, a deaf street artist that lives in Miles' neighborhood, portrayed by Natasha Ofili who is also deaf. We had the help of an on-set ASL consultant as it was extremely important to us that the sign language being used was an accurate representation.

For Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, we consulted with RespectAbility.org to understand how to best portray two of our main characters with disabilities. This included Clank, who loses his arm and the use of his legs at the start of the game, and Rivet, who has had a prosthetic arm before the story begins. The RespectAbility.org consultants helped us identify areas of the story where the characters' disabilities could be perceived negatively and they suggested opportunities to show them as being resourceful, multi-faceted, and heroic. It's been amazing to see the outpouring of love for these characters, especially from the disabled community. We're excited about continuing to create worlds that represent characters from a wide range of backgrounds and we hope it continues to resonate with our fans.

What would you like to see happen in accessibility in the next ten years? What are the big challenges and the big opportunities?

Matthew Gallant: The big challenge for accessibility is that there is no silver bullet. Every game has unique accessibility design challenges, and must be evaluated and playtested individually. However, games that advance the cutting edge of accessibility benefit the entire industry. Future games can replicate proven functionality at much lower risk and cost.

The big opportunity for accessibility is that it's a true frontier of game design. We had almost zero precedents to work from while designing complex action/shooter game features for blind players. However, this gave us a completely blank canvas to try anything we could imagine. In some ways it feels like the early days of 3D controls in the PS1 era, when designers were grappling with fundamental questions like "how do you move the camera"?

Over the next (hopefully less than) 10 years, I would like to see accessibility features become the norm for all video games, something that seems noteworthy and deficient when absent. I believe that this demand will emerge organically from players who become accustomed to the universal benefits of good accessible design.

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