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A beginner's guide to making your game accessible

Rebellion's Cari Watterton offered Develop:Brighton attendees advice on getting started with accessibility and user testing

At Develop:Brighton last week, Rebellion's Cari Watterton and Lowtek's Alastair Low shared a talk on the topic of accessibility.

Watterton, who joined the Sniper Elite developer as senior designer of accessibility this March, gave a crash course in making games more accessible, while Low -- founder and director of indie dev Lowtek -- focused on sharing advice about designing for dyslexic players.

In this article we'll cover Watterton's portion of the talk, but stay tuned for more from Alastair Low and designing with dyslexia in mind in the coming weeks.

So what is accessibility and why does it matter? That's the first question Watterton sought to answer in her talk.

"Games are for everyone, or at least they should be for everyone"

"Accessibility is all about barriers; and barriers stop people from being able to play your game or experience it in the way that you intended," she said. "For example, a blind player can't operate the menu [if] there is no menu narration, [they] would just essentially be experiencing a blank screen and not even know how to launch your game to start playing it.

"So why does it matter? Games are for everyone, or at least they should be for everyone. According to statistics from Game Accessibility Guidelines, about 20% of gamers experience disabilities. The WHO says there's over one billion people that live with a disability."

But Watterton highlighted that "accessibility doesn't just mean disability," as there's a whole spectrum of impairments that need to be taken in consideration as well. Among others, she mentioned colour blindness, which affects one in 12 men, or low reading levels -- roughly one in seven adults has the reading level of an 11-years-old.

"There is no one size fits all. Disability and impairments are a spectrum and what helps one player may hinder another"

"Anyone can experience a temporary impairment or develop something in the future," she added. "As my mentor likes to say: we are all actually temporarily able bodied, because as we get older we are probably going to start losing things like our sight or mobility. Accessibility benefits everybody because of the range of people it can help.

"If you want a cold, hard business analogy, if more people can play your game then more people can buy your game. But because it's so helpful for so many different people, it means that there is no one size fits all. Disability and impairments are a spectrum and what helps one player may hinder another. The best way to make something that is accessible is to give players options, so that the game can adapt to fit the capabilities of that player."

But the wealth of possible features to make your game more accessible can be overwhelming, Watterton admitted. Which is why she put together a kickstart guide to accessibility.

1. Getting started

The first step of your accessibility journey should be to identify what barriers currently exist in your project, Watterton started.

"You want to try and find out the things that are stopping people from being able to play and experience your game," she explained.

She recommended devs to start by going through the Game accessibility guidelines, which has a list split into three tiers:

Rebellion's senior designer of accessibility Cari Watterton

"If you're starting out, I recommend that you just go look at the basic tier because these are wide reaching [guidelines], applicable to a lot of different people," Watterton said. "Look through them and see what things apply to your game, and make a list. And don't be afraid to copy/paste it -- work smarter, not harder."

Once you have your list, think about how you're going to approach and prioritise these accessibility features.

"What you have to do there is think about the impact versus the cost," Watterton said. "Impact is things like: what barrier does it remove from your game? To what extent does it remove that barrier? How many people is it going to help? Cost is things like how many changes or how much new content is required, and how many people, time and testing are needed."

If you're lacking time and/or budget, Watterton highlighted what she calls "the big four," which are impactful accessibility features that should be prioritised:

  • Subtitles
  • Text scaling
  • Colour blindness
  • Control remapping

"If you want four more impactful features from my own personal list, [think about] things like menu and HUD narration, closed captions, high contrast, and assistance for precision mechanics," she continued. "As a general rule, I like to think: can someone who's just using digital inputs interact with this game entirely?"

2. Competition analysis

She added that looking at what your competitors are doing is also a good way to think about accessibility. Competitor analysis is something that all studios go through (or should go through) when getting started on a new project, so it's worth looking at these competitors from accessibility standpoints as well, Watterton explained.

"Can I Play That and Games Accessibility Nexus are both sites that are made by gamers who experience disabilities, and have those accessibility reviews on there, and you can go and see what [your] competitors have done well that [you] should be doing, what haven't they done well that [you] could do to make it better, and learn from the mistakes that they have made."

3. Getting specific

Once you've got your list of barriers and know what you want to prioritise, then you can get specific, with Watterton saying that "you need to think about what exactly you're going to need for each feature," and put together some specs. To do so, she recommended looking through the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines.

"You want to try and find out the things that are stopping people from being able to play and experience your game"

"Now it is very overwhelming, there is a lot of text, but it is very comprehensive. You'll be able to go through and look at something and say, 'What are the industry standards that we can hit for this feature?'

"For something like text clarity, you can look at the different sizes that need to be displayed on different consoles or platforms, using a clear font, avoiding italics, all caps and underlines, and using colours with good contrast."

When you've broken down exactly what you need to be doing, you can get to the implementation stage.

"If you've got that far, well done," Watterton said. "Then you have to test it. You can do this two ways."

4. Internal testing

Using internal testing, you can check what you implemented against criteria from your specs. You can also compare what you have to the Xbox Store accessibility tags; it's a good way to see whether people can play your game or not.

"Those are extensions of the [Xbox] accessibility guidelines," Watterton said. "They have specific feature tags [and] if you hit all the criteria, then you get a little label on your game on the Microsoft Store. And it's awesome because it just tells your players what features you have available and gives them more insight into whether or not they can play the game."

She continued: "Another thing that you can do [internally] is perform accessibility test cases, [which] could be things like: can the game be played with one hand? Can the game be played without audio? Can it be played without full colour vision? Those things are quite easy for someone to simulate."

5. External testing

Finally, external testing was highly recommended by Watterton, as you need to make sure that you're testing with the players that actually use and need those features.

"You might put in a feature that you think is great and then someone plays and goes, 'This has not helped me at all', and you need to fix it. Doing that testing and incorporating it into your workflow is going to make sure that you catch those before it gets shipped. It helps you to identify unintuitive barriers as well [and] just makes sure that the features that you're designing are meeting the needs of your players."

"[Testing] makes sure that the features that you're designing are meeting the needs of your players"

Watterton recommended using observation interviews, either with a range of players of varying capabilities, or a range of players with similar impairments if you're testing a specific feature. She suggested to structure the session as follows:

  • Intro (15 minutes)
  • Gameplay (45 minutes)
  • Interview (60 minutes)

"The interview afterwards has never actually been 60 minutes long, but it's just to have that time so that people can really just talk to you about the feedback," she explained. "So allow two hours but bear in mind that different people may have different capabilities and may not be able to stick to those time limits. You might have to do this over several sessions. Just be mindful of people's capabilities when you're recruiting."

To learn more about user testing and how to ask questions the right way, Watterton recommended the book "Games User Research" by Anders Drachen, Pejman Mirza-Babaei, and Lennart Nacke, and anything written by veteran user researcher Steve Bromley, whom we interviewed last year about what user research entails.

"You must pay your participants. Always pay your participants!"

To put it into a nutshell: "Keep it simple, let the player experience it and give you their own interpretation of what they have experienced," she said.

If you're a bit lost, she recommended to partner with experts, for instance US-based charity Able Gamers, which has its own program for user testing.

"You can recruit up to ten players at a time for free. But you must pay your participants. Always pay your participants! It's recommended at least £20/$25 an hour. Also consider rewarding these testers by listing them and Able Gamers in the credits of your game or by giving them a free copy of the game when it releases."

Concluding her talk, Watterton said that once you've gotten used to this process, you can push things a bit further, looking into things like inclusive design, where accessibility is interwoven with development.

Remember to take the time to educate your team as well, and create an inclusive mindset at your studio, which you can do by bringing in subject matter experts, creating learning spaces and having people go on training, or running an accessibility champs program.

"Accessibility isn't scary"

"Accessibility isn't scary," she concluded. "I know it may seem intimidating, especially when you're just starting out, but realistically, you are doing a good thing by trying to just make sure that more people can play games. That's really what all of this is about, making sure that you can share those experiences with as many people as possible. Educate your team. Only players with disabilities can validate your features and it is never too late to start."

To read more on the topic, Cari Watterton has put together an Accessibility resource pack.

More Academy guides to Making Games

Our guides to making games cover various aspects of the development process, whether you're a young game developer about to start a new project or an industry veteran:

Marie Dealessandri avatar
Marie Dealessandri: Marie joined in 2019 to head its Academy section. A journalist since 2012, she started in games in 2016. She can be found (rarely) tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate and the Dead Cells soundtrack. GI resident Moomins expert.
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