Accessible design and focusing on the gaps
HyperDot dev Charles McGregor explains how he stumbled into accessibility after an experiment with eye-tracking
When HyperDot debuted late last month, it did so with a suite of accessibility features, including high contrast and color-blind modes and support for a wide variety of control inputs, including the Xbox Adaptive Controller, a stylus, eye-trackers, tilt, and touchscreens.
But as is so often the case in game development, the game HyperDot developer Charles McGregor wound up with was not exactly the one he originally thought he was making.
"I really started the project without accessibility at its core," McGregor tells GamesIndustry.biz. "I originally started the project as a research topic in school for a class that had nothing to do with tech and video games."
HyperDot's first steps toward accessibility were actually prompted by a friend's suggestion. McGregor said a friend had won a Tobii eye-tracking device in a giveaway at the Game Developers Conference and they thought it would be interesting to see how it worked with HyperDot, a minimalist arcade-style action game. McGregor had already created the framework of the game with the idea of people using different controllers in mind, so incorporating eye-tracking was easier than one might expect. He started work on it one day, spent about three hours getting it up and running in HyperDot, and used it that night at a playtest event his publisher had arranged.
McGregor said the results were interesting, particularly in how they impacted a fundamental way the game is played.
"When you're typically playing with a traditional controller, you're looking at all the different enemies and saying, 'I should not go in that direction because that's where an enemy is,'" McGregor says. "But with eye-tracking, you're doing the opposite because if you did look at an enemy, then you'd be like, 'Oh that's an enem--' and then you'd run into the enemy because you looked at it. So you're using your peripheral vision. You're looking at negative space, all the gaps."
"It feels really terrible to have someone physically not be able to play the game whether or not it's a difficulty curve thing"
The resulting experience is clearly different, and while McGregor acknowledges he's not as proficient with eye-tracking as he is with the controllers he's used since he was a child, he's still able to literally look past some really challenging levels. In playtesting, he's also heard some people express a preference for using inputs like eye-tracking, or even a 3dRudder foot controller hooked up through the Xbox Adaptive Controller. And even if players don't need such inputs, many have expressed an interest in trying them out alternative control methods for fun.
Once he saw the reaction to that test with the eye-tracker, McGregor started making a more concerted push for accessibility in HyperDot.
"One of the biggest problems I've faced is that it doesn't feel good when I exclude somebody from the game because of how the game's set up," he says. "It feels really terrible to have someone physically not be able to play the game whether or not it's a difficulty curve thing."
As an example, he recalls a streamer with low vision who was playing HyperDot. When he got to the games' "dark mode" levels, he couldn't see what was going on and was effectively prevented from progressing. While dark mode levels for low-vision players are not exactly a solved problem in HyperDot, McGregor did incorporate a workaround of sorts. Levels in the game unlock in sets of five, and players only need to beat four of them to unlock the next set. McGregor calls it "a built-in skip function without calling it a skip function," so the problem could be addressed in part by not stacking multiple dark mode levels in a single group of unlocked levels.
"A lot of accessibility design will also benefit those who aren't necessarily in need of that"
"It's not the most elegant solution. It's a solution we had to do because of time constraints," McGregor concedes, "but we have been trying to figure out how to make it so it's easier for players with low vision to be able to play dark levels in particular."
The work that went into HyperDot's accessibility is likely justified for McGregor by reducing that feeling of having people unable to play the game, but there have been other benefits to it as well. When he told Tobii about the game, the company provided him a complementary eye-tracker so he wouldn't have to use his friend's for development. Given Microsoft's public push for accessibility in recent years, it's not surprising that the company also pitched in, featuring HyperDot at its E3 showcase last year as part of the Adaptive Controller display. That display also featured 3dRudder controllers provided for by the manufacturer so people could test them out using the game. (It was also Microsoft's PR team that approached us to suggest this interview.)
However the game impacts McGregor's finances, it's clearly made an impact on his development processes going forward. In addition to widening the number of control inputs supported, he's also considering methods to help with players who might suffer from cognitive overload with too much going on. Ideally, he wants to create generic tools that allow him to support various features to the point that he can put basic implementation of them into a project in a time frame that would work for a game jam.
"Being more accessible means more people can play your game, which means more people can enjoy the things you're making and working on," McGregor says. "But the other thing is a lot of accessibility design will also benefit those who aren't necessarily in need of that... I do want to stress that I did not start out with accessibility in mind. I just so happened to stumble into it, but ever since then, it's really brought a smile to my face just being able to provide a way for people to play the game who would probably not be able to play it otherwise."