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Hearthstone Access: the story of the modder opening up Blizzard's game for more players

“We and our community are certainly thankful…”

Accessibility in video games has been a topic of growing popularity over the past few years. With both indie developers and mainstream companies bringing new standards of accessibility to the forefront of the gaming industry, there is steady change towards a more inclusive environment for all kinds of players. However, one group that has often been neglected is the blind and visually impaired gaming community.

Creating games that are accessible to blind players often requires developers to work their way from the ground up, as with The Last of Us Part 2, or build upon what they have already created, in the way that Sea of Thieves handled its accessibility options.

Sometimes, however, players take matters into their own hands. This is the story of Hearthstone Access, the community around it and how it was brought into existence by the work of just one individual, known only as GuideDev.

Back in her childhood, one of the first games that captivated Leigh was Duck Hunt, an arcade classic involving shooting ducks that appear on your television screen. Leigh was fully sighted (a term used to indicate functional vision) for most of her life, but over the past decade, things have been very different. She came down with an illness that affected her optic nerves, leaving her completely blind.

With remarkable stubbornness, she refused to give up her love for video games. "You don't want to know how many mobile word games or mobile versions of basic card games we've gotten over the years," says Leigh. "Though I appreciated the effort put into it, none of these games were things my sighted friends and family would want to play with me. I think it's a huge thing that the blind gaming community has been missing – having a game that sighted friends and family may actually want to play."

Enter Hearthstone Access. A custom mod that makes Blizzard's collectible card game accessible for visually impaired players by employing keyboard navigation controls and screen reading software to display game data. Hearthstone Access brings one of the most popular digital card games to a demographic of players that never expected it to ever be accessible to them.

"In primary school, I got a computer at home and learned to play audio games online." says Fawaz, who was born with low vision in one eye and complete loss of vision in the other, making it difficult to enjoy most games. He talks about his passion for video games and how he came across QuentinC's Playroom, an online platform which introduced him to classic games made accessible for the visually impaired. "I still go there every single day. It's like a community where people can chat and play games with people."

State of the Game Hearthstone - lots of on-screen carnage in-game
Hearthstone's a very busy game at times.

When asked about how he started playing Hearthstone, he mentions that he had a sighted friend who talked about the game and described to him what it was like. "I got home and downloaded the game but it was not accessible at all, like zero percent. Not even the menus," says Fawaz. Three months later Hearthstone Access was released.

"What the mod does, it's quite perfect. It's very well integrated into the game. If you didn't know it was a mod, you would think it was built into the game," says Otto, another player from the Hearthstone Access community. "I have very little vision. Colours have to be contrasted properly, visuals can't be too complex and text would have to be very large. Many NES games could only be enjoyed with cheats like Game Genie. We talk a lot about accessibility now, but back then, cheats were my accessibility option."

He recently tried Hearthstone Access and was surprised at how it felt almost native to the game. "If Blizzard could bring the development of this in-house, it would open up a lot more of the game to us," says Otto. "Modes like Arena and Mercenaries would be playable and we could avoid the most terrible situation of waiting for the mod to update every time a new Hearthstone update comes out. GuideDev has done an amazing job with this and Blizzard should continue his work if possible."

It is a sentiment that is echoed widely in the blind and visually impaired community that has been built around Hearthstone Access. Since the mod's release in August 2021, GuideDev has been working to continuously add new features while keeping up with the game's updates. A recent patch update for Hearthstone had players waiting for almost two weeks while GuideDev had to rework a lot of what he built the Hearthstone Access patch on in order to make the game playable again.

GuideDev started developing Hearthstone Access in 2020 after a traffic accident forced him to take leave from his work. "I don't really like to stay still," he says, "so I thought I would try to do something that would help someone. I was always aware of accessibility issues, but sometimes you need a closer touch with those things to really delve into the world and try to help." Due to his accident, GuideDev's vision was affected temporarily, and he ended up spending time with others who struggled even more than he did, which made him all the more aware of these issues.

When asked why he chose Hearthstone, GuideDev highlights the need for entertainment that visually impaired players can enjoy the same way as sighted people. "I started searching for games that visually impaired people had access to and I learned that most are just mods or bunches of script that people create to try and get things done. But it doesn't exactly feel like a game built for visually impaired players," says GuideDev.

Again: for a game like Hearthstone, GuideDev has to fix his accessibility patch every time the game updates. The day a new Blizzard patch comes out, GuideDev gets home from work, updates the client and decompiles that version of the game. "I have a test suite that is able to run all the accessibility features I made while playing cards, disenchanting them, crafting cards," he says. "It does everything from top to bottom and tells me when anything is broken. It makes sure the code from the previous version works with the new update but it's pretty rare to see it work all the time."

With minor patches that only involve card balance changes, Hearthstone Access doesn't need as much work. But whenever a new expansion comes out, GuideDev often takes hours late into the night to make sure everything is functional. (Due to a recent personal break, the mod has been out of commission since the last Hearthstone update, leaving the Hearthstone Access community waiting patiently for the next update so they can continue to play the game.)

A common criticism that comes up when people see the features Hearthstone Access brings to the game is aimed towards Blizzard, asking why they haven't done it themselves. "I saw some people online pinning things on Blizzard, saying that this guy could make this mod by himself, so Blizzard should be able to," says GuideDev. "But it's not Blizzard's fault I chose their game. I just chose their game because I thought it was the perfect game for this. I don't think it's right to yell at Blizzard to do this."

Brandon, a prominent member of the Hearthstone Access community and blind accessibility consultant on The Last of Us 2, has been streaming Hearthstone with the mod ever since its release in August 2021. His first reaction on stream was one of shock, surprise and intrigue. "I'm not even joking, I got at least two people from Blizzard that said they were crying. It was an incredible moment where I was playing the tutorial of this game that I've wanted to play for years since it launched," says Brandon. "The way that the mod is built to enfold the tutorial for the mod into the existing tutorial for the game is so well done, it feels like it's part of the game."

Cover image for YouTube video4-year Streamoversary and Hearthstone Access Celebration Stream Archive second t (Part 1/2)
Brandon streaming Hearthstone Access.

The mod includes a fully accessible tutorial that teaches the player how to play, and features the standard game, solo adventures, practice mode and, recently, the Battlegrounds mode which is now technically the first fully blind accessible autobattler game.

When asked about how he felt being able to directly interact with such a large gaming community like Hearthstone and taking part in launch events, Brandon admits that it really is a novel experience. "One of things about the mod, because of how good it is, the people we face online don't know we're blind unless we mention it," he says. "It doesn't mean we want to hide that because we are who we are. I'm not going to pretend I'm sighted but the reactions I've gotten in the Hearthstone community have been universally positive and it's really something special."

In most other games, Brandon is hesitant to play multiplayer due to the toxicity online towards blind players. It's different for Hearthstone though. "A lot of them don't even know. If they're mad at me, it's because I'm playing an overpowered deck and not because I'm blind. It's a great feeling and I don't know if it's possible to convey to sighted people," says Brandon. "Imagine going from being judged for your disability for whatever reason to being judged for the same reason everyone else is, your deck choices. It's a huge difference."

Brandon was invited to the theory crafting event that Blizzard hosts to mark the launch of a new Hearthstone expansion. "I understand that me being invited to the theory crafting event is somewhat of a PR thing. But that's okay because it's a big deal for the blind community who are fighting for accessibility in all games. It gets visibility on Hearthstone Access, this incredible effort that was done by one guy to make the game accessible."

Activision Blizzard as a company has been surrounded by controversy for years now over numerous important subjects. But the care the Hearthstone developers have for their game and the players who enjoy it is clear. The latest expansion, Murder at Castle Nathria, released with an audio description trailer. This follows in the footsteps of the previous expansion, Voyage to the Sunken City, which had introduced this kind of trailer for the first time in the game's history, heralding a level of support that this community of players had never experienced before.

Cover image for YouTube video#AudioDescription Murder at Castle Nathria Cinematic Trailer
Audio Description allows more people to enjoy trailers like this, for Murder at Castle Nathria.

"This was a collaborative effort between our cinematics, user research and publishing teams." says Chadd Nervig, Senior Game Designer and Features Design Lead for Hearthstone at Activision Blizzard. "We're really glad that we were able to support it for this trailer, which is so atmospheric and where the music's lyrics are not outright telling the audience what the story and theme are."

When asked if the team keeps track of Hearthstone Access, Chadd talks about how they reached out to GuideDev and stayed in touch with him for current and future updates. "GuideDev did amazing work building this tool and providing accessibility solutions. We and our community are certainly thankful for his work."

One of the questions that everyone has on their mind is whether native accessibility will be a part of Hearthstone at some point in the future, given the positive reception towards Hearthstone Access. Chadd agreed that improving the accessibility of the game is a goal that the team is actively working on. "It's a long road, but we're aiming to make steady progress on it over time."

Hearthstone Access is a testament to the desire for more accessibility features in video games as well as the possibilities that exist for game developers who want to cater to a wider audience. The most important aspect that it brings to visually impaired players is the feeling of being able to connect to the game the same way as everyone else, without much compromise. This is one of the core issues when we talk of accessibility in video games. Adding in more accessibility features doesn't take away from the regular experience of the game and players shouldn't need to be forced to use workarounds to play their favourite games.