Today, Electronic Arts has announced it will share five patents for its previously protected technology, making them freely available to all developers and publishers.
The initiative, dubbed the Accessibility First Patent Pledge, involves five solutions the company's own developers have invented to make its games more accessible to those with disabilities or medical issues, including anyone with various vision, hearing, speaking or cognitive issues.
The shared patents include:
- Contextually Aware Communications Systems in Video Games (Patent No. US 11,097,189), which includes Apex Legends' widely praised Ping System.
- Systems and Methods for Automated Image Processing for Images with Similar Luminosities (Patent No. US 10,118,097 and CN 107694092), which helps address colour vision deficiencies.
- Contrast Ratio Detection and Rendering System (Patent No. US 10,878,540), which covers a system that automatically detects and updates subpart contrast rations -- again, helping with visibility.
- Personalised Real-Time Audio Generation Based on User Physiological Response (Patent No. US 10,790,919), which covers technology that plays personalised music based on a user's hearing issues. While patented, this has not yet been developed by EA.
The company has said additional patents may be added to the pledge at a later date.
It has also released the source code for a separate technical solution that addresses colour blindness, brightness and contrast issues in digital content on GitHub.
EA's executive vice president of Positive Play, commercial and marketing Chris Bruzzo told GamesIndustry.biz the benefit of patents is that other developers will be able to access "a lot of great detail around how the technology works, why it works the way it does, what it means to incorporate it in a way so that it works effectively in your games."
He also hopes it will "create a collective" among games developers, urging other studios to share their own technologies in a similar way.
"We want to encourage this, we want to be bringing others along," he says. "It's like 'Here's some technology that we've invented, and has value in the world -- what have you got?' Let's contribute and licence these innovations to each other to the greater good of players everywhere."
While he uses the word 'licence,' it's crucial to emphasize these patents are freely available. There are no licence fees for using them in other games, nor do any royalties have to be paid to EA.
The publisher has even promised not to file lawsuits against anyone making use of these patents.
It's a rare move, but one that Bruzzo believes is important to advancing the technology used to make video games more accessible to players of all abilities.
"Yes, patents do create ownership, they create protection and they ensure the inventors' ideas are actually kept whole," he says. "In some software environments, that involves licensing fees... [But] our approach as it relates to accessibility is to make this technology available to everyone."
"Here's some technology that we've invented, and has value in the world -- what have you got? Let's contribute innovations to each other to the greater good of players everywhere"
It's an unusual initiative, especially in an industry that is historically guarded about the tech and innovations behind its games. Warner Bros, for example, spent the best part of a decade trying to protect Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis system, finally succeeding earlier this year.
EA still has plenty of patents to its name, and will no doubt continue to seek this form of protection of its ideas -- that's all part of keeping a business running, says Bruzzo. But when it comes to accessibility, the publisher is keen to see more solutions shared for the benefit of the industry.
"Why do game companies protect their technology, their intellectual property, brands that they've created? It's so they can continue to benefit, collect revenue, and benefit from what they've invented, what they've created so they can make more of it, so they can pay their game developers," Bruzz acknowledges.
"Honestly, I don't know if this is more or less competitive [than other industries]. In healthcare, things are pretty tightly held. In terms of secrets, inventions, breakthroughs and patents... Frankly in the case of software in general, companies are very protective of the investments they make in R&D in order to continue to benefit from them. I don't know that the video games sector is particularly competitive when compared to other industries."
Accessibility has become an increasingly prominent discussion in games over the past few years. From the efforts of studios such as Uncharted and The Last of Us developer Naughty Dog or Marvel's Spider-Man studio Insomniac, to the Xbox Adaptive Controller launched by Microsoft, big companies are finding new ways to bring down barriers for players around the world.
It's also worth remembering that, as of two years ago, game-specific waivers in the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act expired, meaning all video games available in the US must meet the FCC's accessibility guidelines.
But the conversation goes beyond just those who have recognised disabilities. Even non-disabled players will have issues of their own when it comes to playing games, so even the slightest change to, for example, text size and UI, can open titles up to more people.
"I don't think our work will ever be done as an industry in [accessibility]"
"It's reported that 15% of the global population has some disability that would impair their ability to play our games the way others can," says Bruzzo. "So it's a pretty big and important area for us to consider.
"But then you get to the next level of accessibility which is 'Well, what about everyone else who maybe doesn't have as direct a disability or something that's holding them back, but in general are feeling that games aren't accessible?
"I think that's the biggest question, and to be honest I don't think our work will ever be done as an industry in that, but there are some very important things that are happening now."
Bruzzo points to Apex Legends' Ping System as a prime example. The game assigns contextual text and audio commands to a wheel that's accessed via the D-pad, which allows players to convey vital in-game information without the need for verbal communication.
"That makes things accessible and exciting for everybody, including people who would have a hard time being able to communicate with others," says Bruzzo. "But what it also does is it removes a lot of toxicity. Suddenly you can communicate, you can have a communal experience... devoid of sexism or hate speech. It's not there, because the Ping system really is designed to encourage collaboration and enhance play.
"And you might say 'Well, that's pretty limiting, what about the concept of free speech and being able to express yourself in any way you want?' Actually, who says that's a requirement? Why is that a requirement in video games? If I'm playing with two other people in Apex Legends, why is it a requirement for me to be able to express myself in any way -- especially if it means I'm infringing on your ability to have fun playing. That's not an obligation we have, we're not obligated to give you that freedom. What we're trying to do is create environments where everyone can enjoy the experience to the fullest."
"That's why we created Positive Play... We're trying to make games more accessible because honestly right now women in general when you survey them don't feel particularly welcome in multiplayer games. Especially if their gender is being disclosed in some way or another. They don't feel very welcome."
We'll have more from Bruzzo on Positive Play and other topics in our full interview later this week. You can find out more about the EA Accessibility First Patent Pledge here.