Sign language support is now available in Forza Horizon 5.
As reported last year, the feature has been in development for some time. From today, American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL) support for in-game cinematics is added in a free update.
Sign language has been added to 150 in-game cinematics shown in between driving across Mexico.
Accessibility has been a key feature for studio Playground Games since the start of development, committing to gaining feedback from deaf and hard of hearing individuals.
Tara Voelker, who leads accessibility for Xbox Game Studios, led an inclusive workshop at Playground Games, which "set the tone for the entire product going forward," she said.
The developers learned from people within the disability community about their experience in games.
"We got to talk to them and understand what it is that they struggled with in-game," said Tarnya Smith, a producer at Playground Games for Forza Horizon 5. "For me it was quite an eye opener. We learned that although we think subtitles are great and help everyone, they actually aren't that helpful for people who are deaf or hard of hearing who rely on signing. It was a big wake up call for us."
"And we realised that there's an opportunity to help people enjoy our games more by adding this feature," said Mike Brown, creative director of Forza Horizon 5. "These are the key parts of the game that need to be preserved and protected.
"Games demand things of you in order to experience them. And when you do that, then there are going to be players who find different things, different levels of challenge.
"I think we are going to keep pushing and keep solving those problems for people for a very, very long time. The complexity the games have, which is their strength, is also bringing with it a whole load of challenges that we as creators need to find a way to solve."
A blog post from Microsoft details the process of adding sign language support, as well as the thoughts of several Microsoft employees.
Microsoft's chief accessibility officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie said she's not sorry she's deaf, she's sorry people can't sign. Having actors signing in the game means she no longer needs to ask family what she's missed.
"There are so many people with disabilities and people who are deaf. And, there are a lot of closed doors every day. And what I mean by that is that we are consistently and constantly dealing with inequities that exist. The fact that I can just be on the same level playing field as them means I'm not focused on a closed door. I'm not trying to solve for an inequity. I'm being present with my family and there's nothing that's more important to me than that," she said.
"It's communicating to me as a deaf individual. Play is an important aspect of everyone's lives, now more than ever as many will continue to be socially isolated given the pandemic."
As Cameron Akitt, an accessibility consultant on Forza Horizon 5 explains, for many deaf and hard of hearing players sign language is their first language. That includes friends of his for whom reading captions can cause fatigue.
"For them, it's a really tiring experience, not being able to access your first language," he said. "We should be able to access the same story beats and narrative components. Otherwise, we're only getting half the picture and not getting the full experience. Including sign language is about enabling more deaf and hard of hearing people to have ownership over their gaming experience."
With sign language support in Forza Horizon 5, Playground Games is setting a precedent for the rest of the industry. Yet Brown said commitment to accessibility is ongoing.
"I think it's easy to come through the development of a game like this and start to think that maybe you're an expert in the field of accessibility," he said. "I think that we have to have real humility and the ability to keep going, asking questions and trying to be better."