At Microsoft's E3 2018 floor event at the Microsoft Theater, it was impossible for the Xbox Adaptive Controller's glowing showcase station not to catch the eye.
Microsoft had brought the controller unit itself, along with a healthy smattering of colorful peripherals, and displayed them proudly with an attendant happy to answer questions and discuss the controller with everyone who showed interest. The whole setup was bright, obvious, and attention-grabbing - exactly as one would expect for any new controller, and apropos for such an incredible new piece of technology.
Microsoft's Xbox Adaptive Controller team is the most obvious choice to be honored among GamesIndustry.biz's People of the Year for 2018. Throughout the year, the team has been rightfully lauded for creating a piece of quality equipment for accessible gaming at a price point that, for the most part, anyone who can afford a non-accessible controller can also manage.
"Whether or not we have a personal need for it, we have all heard of and likely admired the Xbox Adaptive Controller this year"
It's impossible to overstate the fact that the work they did in creating a device accessible to just about anyone deserves the acclaim it has received. But there is a particular aspect worth praising here alongside the controller's creation. It's that Microsoft has touted its creation so loudly and proudly as for the controller's excellence to be on the forefront of the industry's minds in the first place. That is, whether or not we have a personal need for it, we have all heard of and likely admired the Xbox Adaptive Controller this year.
Microsoft is not the first to develop controllers, peripherals, or other devices to allow those who struggle to use standard controllers the ability to play the games they love. That work has been done for years expensively and quietly (though probably not intentionally so), spearheaded by the people for whom the issue is a necessary one: either the work is done, or they can't play games.
Groups like SpecialEffect (one of our People of the Year honorees last year) and AbleGamers have been on the frontlines for years, laying the groundwork for the Xbox Adaptive Controller to exist. But for far too long, their work has been too costly or too niche in the eyes of the broader industry to become mainstream, supported, common, or expected.
But the Xbox Adaptive Controller team had the resources and clout to do this work loudly, using its status as part of one of the biggest gaming companies in existence to shout the importance of accessible gaming to its massive audience. In the controller's lead-up and launch, Microsoft celebrated it as a unique and groundbreaking achievement for accessibility and gaming. The company also placed this device alongside its standard controllers at events, made it reasonably affordable, and normalized its existence just as it would any other piece of hardware it intended to sell to its audience at large.
That attention and elevation has extended to everything surrounding the controller as well. First, there was the testing, for which Microsoft worked with those aforementioned groups who have been creating and using any number of accessible devices for years and know well the broad range of needs for which the controller must account.
In fact, the importance of Microsoft's mainstreaming of the controller was something SpecialEffect's Dr. Mick Donegan mentioned to GamesIndustry.biz on our podcast back in May:
"There have been third-party developers and suppliers who have been doing a good job providing alternatives, and I think that's what happened is Microsoft has realized, 'This is something where we can actually step in and do something ourselves to help out,'" he said. "I honestly think this is a milestone, and hopefully...other console developers will try to develop similar products.
"The team committed not just to making accessibility a special, one-time thing. They focused on normalizing it"
There's a shift. And if we played any part in raising awareness of how fun it is and what the potential numbers of people are globally who could join in with the rest of us, I think we'd be very proud."
Then there's the packaging, which was designed specifically to be easy to open for people who struggled to open industry-typical packaging. Like the controller itself, the packaging was designed with input from nonprofit groups and individuals with disabilities who knew where these sticking points were. And again, the team committed not just to making accessibility a special, one-time thing. They focused on normalizing it.
"With this product in particular, we felt a heightened responsibility," said Kevin Marshall, creative director of Microsoft's Packaging Design Studio. "We wanted to create a package that was clearly designed with the end user in mind, and we wanted it to feel like it was just part of our ecosystem. We wanted it to be empowering, but we didn't want it to stand apart from any package we create."
Another key element has been the marketing of the controller. In addition to its prominent display at industry events this year and no shyness about press coverage, Microsoft recently released a holiday ad showcasing the power of the controller to tear down barriers that had previously made it difficult for gamers with disabilities to play alongside those without.
And finally, there's the future. Though the team has been light on specifics so far, Microsoft says it intends to use the philosophies and lessons it learned in designing the Xbox Adaptive Controller on future products and future accessibility endeavors. Phil Spencer hinted at this back in May when he first introduced the controller, saying that it was "only one step on our journey to inclusive design." The company followed up shortly after by holding an idea drive for Global Accessibility Awareness Day.
And Microsoft gaming and disability community lead Tara Voelker also confirmed that accessibility remains in Microsoft's future in July when she spoke to GamesIndustry.biz ahead of Develop:Brighton.
"Microsoft has issued both an implicit and explicit challenge to the rest of the industry to join it in developing for accessibility"
"[The Xbox Adaptive Controller is] the first product from end to end that fully embodied our Inclusive Design process - right down to the packaging," she said."We learned a lot. Now we need to apply these lessons to everything else we're working on."
With the Xbox Adaptive Controller, Microsoft has issued both an implicit and explicit challenge to the rest of the industry to join it in developing for accessibility. Phil Spencer spelled that challenge out at the device's reveal event in May (as reported by Ars Technica).
"I will never turn this into a Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft [competitive] thing," Spencer said. "Anybody, literally anybody who wants to learn from the work we've done here - or even try to do more than that with the work we've done here - I'm completely open to that. it doesn't have to have an Xbox logo on it. Let's just allow more people to play."
Despite Spencer's offer, both Sony and Nintendo have been frustratingly silent on the issue this year, with Nintendo even garnering criticism for how it has handled motion controls on the Nintendo Switch in games such as Pokemon Let's Go.
And yet, the Xbox Adaptive Controller team has shown that it is possible for a major industry player to prioritize accessibility, place it at the forefront, put time and money into it, and listen to the needs of the community that will use it. The end result has been an unmistakable success, and if Microsoft makes good on its promise to continue accessible development, the remainder of the industry will begin to appear more and more foolish for ignoring this essential task.
The people we honor when we celebrate the Xbox Adaptive Controller team are a large and diverse group of individuals, representing not only those who worked directly on the development of the controller, but also those who laid the foundations, provided feedback, and continued raising issues of accessibility to made the device possible. We celebrate the developers and designers, the testers and the marketers, the groups who offered advice and assistance, the people who designed the packaging and the peripherals, and everyone in between who rightly believed that we can and should all be able to play together.