“Instead, the team approached it from a gameplay perspective to see what situations or controls would benefit from a shortcut,” Zorrilla says. “Some situations could be addressed by offering toggles (like opening the Weapon Wheel or aiming), but successive presses like jumping and slamming your weapon or holds like gliding were good candidates to offer as a single press.”
Aside from the challenge of implementing toggling versus holding on specific actions, developers were faced with the task of meeting each disabled individual’s specific needs. While more studios are adopting accessibility practices, features and settings can only accommodate so much. Each disability is unique, and people with the same disability may have big differences in strength, vision, or hearing. As a result, Insomniac Games devised a new feature specific to Ratchet & Clank that could help alleviate physical and cognitive exhaustion.
“We were initially discussing how to handle each individual situation, which eventually turned into a global Game Speed option that could be used in any situation, and shortcuts seemed like the best way to allow for player control over speed and timing,” Zorrilla says. “This created a new challenge, as adding three different game speeds meant they all had to be tested, and both our Development Support team and PlayStation Studios QA were instrumental in making this happen.”
These initiatives in accessibility are not exclusive to PlayStation. Both Microsoft and Nintendo have hardware, software, or documentation to help foster inclusivity amongst internal studios. For example, in 2020, Xbox launched the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines (XAGs) to encourage consistency across all platforms. While not necessarily a rigid checklist that must be strictly followed, this list allows developers to continuously track the accessibility performance of a game through each stage of development, ensuring that their games do not lack crucial features. For PlayStation, studios and developers have their own iteration of the guidelines, with the first version created in 2015. Mark Friend, lead user researcher at SIE, acknowledges that guidelines such as these not only raise awareness but allow for consistent accessibility.
“The original document was an important moment, as it helped to put accessibility in front of people at a time when it was a much less common topic of conversation in game development, and it provided a great resource for developers who wanted to know more about the subject,” Friend says. “It’s also been important for us to work with developers across PlayStation Studios to inform newer iterations of the accessibility guidelines, to make sure that what we outline is achievable.”
And with Ratchet & Clank as proof, accessibility features can be incredibly unique to a specific game, despite coming from the same studio.
“There’s more to accessibility in game development than just following suggested guidelines,” says Friend. “While there are general best practices that can carry over between games, every game released by PlayStation Studios is different, so our goal is always to ensure that we tailor our support to our studios and their games. Our suggested guidelines provide a great baseline of knowledge, but we also want to ensure that our studios are free to explore new and innovative ways of making their games more accessible.”
The addition of accessibility features within a game does not require a AAA studio with hundreds of employees. And regardless of development size, accessibility is best tackled at the beginning of projects. Friend also advises developers to include disabled players as testers, to ensure that those features and options work for them.
Aside from the logistical aspect of designing a game, the inclusion of accessibility features and options comes from a commitment to letting everybody play. No one should be excluded because of their abilities, and as Sam Thompson argues, hearing directly from disabled people how beneficial and important accessibility can be is not only rewarding but assuring as a developer.
“Empathy is the most powerful tool in your arsenal. With it you can accomplish more than you ever thought possible. It’s absolutely astonishing how effective and motivating it can be when members of the A11Y community drop by the studio to share their perspectives and inspire your team to see things differently. You’ll be surprised at just how impactful this will be for your team.”
More Great WIRED Stories