Ever since its release last November, Playground Games' Forza Horizon 5 has been shining for its accessibility.
Prior to that announcement, creative director Mike Brown and senior level designer Aaron McAree sat down with the GamesIndustry.biz Academy to discuss how to do accessibility right in games.
Make accessibility a key pillar of your game
Playground started planning Forza Horizon 5's accessibility from its concept phase -- even before the game's Mexico setting was formally agreed on, McAree recalls -- and made it a key pillar throughout its entire development.
"Things like the shared world, the expeditions, are these huge, really massive features that support the entire game -- we made accessibility one of those," says Brown. "That signals to the team that this is a really, really important thing to us, to the leadership group, and it protects it, it ring-fences it. And you can't cut an initiative. We've declared it as a key part of the game."
"When I'm discussing a particular feature, it's my responsibility to try and look at it through an accessibility lens"Aaron McAree, Playground
By making accessibility such a core component to your game, you can make sure that it's discussed every step of the way the same way other features are.
"When I'm in a meeting about something and we're discussing a particular feature or particular area, then it's my responsibility to try and look at it through an accessibility lens," McAree adds. "And if there's anything that crops up, then start a conversation on, 'Okay, this is something we want to do, but maybe there's a question mark about that. How do we view it through an accessibility lens, and then make any changes, if at all, that are required?'"
Bring in experts
Playground brought in what it calls "subject matter experts" from the start, in this case members of the accessibility community, to guide them through the process. This prevents assumptions being made, for instance that some solutions would work for all when that might not be the case.
"It's a lived experience that people have, and you need to have that in order to become an expert of what those challenges might be and how they can be improved," Brown continues. "You have to enter into these things with real humility. Assume that you probably don't know exactly what people's challenges are and what they need to solve them.
"Assume that you probably don't know exactly what people's challenges are and what they need to solve them"Mike Brown, Playground
"Don't assume to know, because as it turns out, there are many people within the gaming community who are really happy to talk to you about these things, and if only asked, they will tell about their experiences, the things that they really enjoy, the things that they really value, the challenges that they face. And by speaking to them and engaging with people like that directly, then you can get real insight that allows you to make changes to the game that'll actually have a real impact for people."
A studio's relationship with its accessibility experts doesn't (and shouldn't) end when the core needs have been understood or when the game is out. It needs to be an open-ended discussion.
"That's an ongoing conversation with the accessibility community, because as much as we've got a host of options to begin with, I'm sure there'll be other things," says McAree. "You've got these things ticked off, so the next load of stuff are the more important things after that. So, it's just trying to balance that in the same way that you have a budget for how many assets you have in a certain area, and so on and so forth."
Brown says it's not different from planning for more races in the game: "We have many more ideas for races than we have time in order to make them. You just rank them, you think which ones are going to give you the best benefit to the game, and you make as much of it as you can."
Be mindful of providing options for each feature
Accessibility is never a one-size-fits all solution, so make sure you provide variations of the features you're offering where necessary. For example, Forza Horizon 5's colour blind option can be enabled just for the UI or across the entire game.
"In the last game, it was a colour blind filter that affected the entire image" Brown says. "The reason we made the change is because, again, from speaking to subject matter experts, when a colour blind person walks along the street or drives their car in real life, a tree looks like a tree to them. There is no filter applied to a real-life organic tree in the real world. That just all looks like real life.
"And so, when we're recreating a version of Mexico that's supposed to look as close to real life as possible, they would -- they did -- tell us that you don't need to change the colour of the environment. That can all just look real.
"But where we have done design where colour is telling them information, or being used to make it easier to read the information on a screen, that's somewhere where they're losing out by being colour blind, because there's information there that they're unable to parse. So, by making that separate, we still had the functionality that we had in the last game, if that is useful to people, but also made it so that whenever we've designed in colour language in the UI, then they can specifically just apply it to that, but have the game still look [like] the real world, or as close as we can."
A desire to provide such variations is also what motivated Playground to introduce sign language in Forza Horizon 5, having discussed it with an accessibility expert.
"Our script is something like 120,000 words overall. It's a big game where people do talk quite a lot, so it was a pretty large undertaking," Brown says. "The genesis of it was when the subject matter experts came to visit us, and one of them was a person who had difficulty hearing. And it was in that moment that he told us that, hey, for a deaf person, their mother tongue is sign language. They don't have an internal monologue in English, because they've actually never heard English spoken.
"And so, when I read subtitles, I just read that and I'm hearing out those words in my head, but for somebody that has never been able to hear those words, there's actually a cognitive translation they have to do to turn those English words into their actual mother tongue, which is sign language. There is a challenge of processing that while trying to absorb the rest of the cutscene. And that's why sign language interpreters are important, and that's why they appear in TV."
Implementing sign language in the game wasn't an easy feat, as it's a time consuming task and there wasn't a go-to company Playground could call that specialises in games-related content as it had never been done before.
"To get somebody into a recording booth to record some dialogue is pretty quick, we can usually get stuff picked up at quite short notice, whereas this requires a full camera suite," Brown continues. "They need hair and makeup. We have to dress them appropriately. There's a whole shooting element to it. And then obviously, we have to capture it all.
"All of that has to happen after we've done all of the writing and recording for the main game, and that's how come we pushed it outside of our ship window, just because we were still tweaking some of the dialogue in the game until really quite late, I think as is probably the case for every game and movie that's ever existed. But we needed to have all that locked before we engaged those interpreters, and like I say, went through all that work to get them in front of a camera."
Refer to the Xbox accessibility guidelines
Brown acknowledges that Playground has the resources it needs to make its accessibility ambitions a reality -- something that most studios might not have access to.
But there are guidelines publicly available that might be helpful (and the GamesIndustry.biz Academy previously discussed the topic and asked accessibility experts how it should be approached as well).
"I can't really speak for other studios and what they may or may not be able to do, but I do think there is an element to being a reasonably high-budget, first-party studio that allows us to say that we're going to do this, and get backed for it," Brown says. "Because the reality is, -- and this is probably what a lot of developers face -- when you're looking at the things in your game, you are going to look at your feature set and go, 'How many people is this going to appeal to?'
"And invariably with accessibility settings, you might tell yourself that it's not going to affect that many players if you didn't do it. And that is the trap that people can fall into which leads them to not making the investment in accessibility, because they feel like, 'Well, not that many people are colour blind.' And developers can end up convincing themselves that other things are worth their investment. Being, like I say, a large first-party studio, we're able to get the other things we want and accessibility, and not perhaps have to make those difficult choices that might face other developers."
McAree points to the Xbox accessibility guidelines that are up on Microsoft's website for all developers to use and refer to.
"If I were to put myself in the shoes of somebody, maybe one person working on it, they might want to add options to their game but honestly don't know where to start," he says. "That's a great resource that they can use. And a lot of the guesswork or questions in terms of how to go around in terms of, maybe how to make subtitles more effective, that's just up on Microsoft's [website], and it's there for everybody to use. So, hopefully more people start to leverage that."
Concluding the discussion, Brown echoes McAree's sentiment on hoping for more developers to begin their accessibility journey.
"​​I think it would be great if there were a world where all games had all of the accessibility features, and all of the games had been designed with all of that in mind. I don't think that's a thing that you could force, though. I think it's a thing that instead you need to inspire people to want to do, to inspire people to make those calls, make those decisions, and invest in their tech."
Interview by James Batchelor.