A game development conference is an unlikely setting for an epiphany.
During Emilia Schatz’s 2016 panel on engine accessibility features at developer Naughty Dog Uncharted 4Blind gamer Brandon Cole had a question about the studio’s next game, the highly anticipated sequel to 2013’s. The last of us.
“Would you ever be able to see characteristics for people like me?” Cole asked. “Could I ever play the last of us 2? I am blind and I would love to be able to play these games.”
Schatz and his co-lead designer, Matthew Gallant, didn’t set out to make a triple-A action game that a blind person could play from start to finish. They weren’t even sure it could be done.
“I had never really thought about it before because it seemed a bit impossible,” says Schatz. Reverse. But she was riding high on Uncharted 4Successful launch. “I was in a mood of, like, we can not do anything.”
After the panel, Cole told Schatz about a variety of games with “unintended” accessibility features that made it easier for blind players to progress. For example, after entering and exiting the inventory menu in Resident Evil 6, the game reorients the camera towards the “golden path”, a developer term for the optimal direction a player is supposed to follow at any given time. Along with ambient audio cues, this menu trick helped Cole navigate resident Evil 6 more easily.
Following this meeting, Naughty Dog recruited Cole as a consultant and game tester throughout the development process of the last of us part 2. His feedback, along with that of other disabled game testers, proved invaluable to the game’s breakthrough innovations in audio, visual, and motor accessibility.
“Watch Brandon play resident Evil 6 blew my mind. It was amazing. Not only that he could do it, but also how little he needed,” says Gallant. Reverse. “One of the reasons I was drawn to this idea of making a game accessible to a blind player is that it made it look so easy.”
It turns out that making a triple-A game completely accessible to a blind player was much more difficult than it seemed.
“We want to eliminate barriersbut we don’t want to delete fun.”
But thinking about accessibility from the beginning helped the project tremendously. Adding game-spanning features late in development can be prohibitively complicated and expensive. Thankfully, the last of us part 2 it was only in pre-production when Schatz and Gallant began hatching a team-wide plan to make the sequel accessible to as many gamers as possible.
“A big plus for us is that it started early in the project, which means the story hadn’t been figured out. We didn’t know what levels we were going to do. We were just making a bunch of prototypes,” says Schatz. “That gave us the bandwidth to talk about features throughout the game. They don’t necessarily need a story; we can make progress on accessibility without those things.”
However, even the most careful and deliberate planning did not allow the team to avoid the collateral consequences of seemingly small decisions.
“A game is an incredibly complex system. Every time you want to add a new feature, you’ll always be amazed at the ripple effects,” says Schatz. “When you make the subtitles bigger, does that mean you don’t fit as many words on the screen? Just ‘making it bigger’ and not planning for it from the beginning means you’re probably going to break something.”
A quick rundown of some of the various subtitle customization options in the last of us part 2.
Throughout development, the Naughty Dog team had to balance simplifying certain mechanics with maintaining excitement and enjoyment for all players. An optional feature, which allowed players to become invulnerable to enemies while in a prone position, was criticized by disabled testers for minimizing the challenge. So the team tweaked the feature by adding a time limit.
“It’s not just about making it easy, or just doing something that the player can beat. We want players to really enjoy the experience,” says Schatz. “We approach all of these features from that kind of perspective. We want to remove the barriers, but we don’t want to remove the fun.”
Adding robust accessibility options to the last of us part 2 was based on the desire to make the game welcoming to a broader audience: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionapproximately one in four adults in the United States lives with some type of disability.
“These are features that can help any.”
The team also sought to appeal to gamers who might be less fluent with the action and stealth genres. There are countless ways to approach a given scenario in the last of us part 2, and help is always available if you need it. If you get lost in a maze of corridors in an abandoned hospital, a simple button press will indicate your objective. If you’re having trouble taking down a challenging boss, you can adjust the amount of damage your character can take or turn on slow-mo mode to make sure your aim is true. These options make it less likely that players will leave the game because they got stuck in the middle. At any given moment, there is a substantial challenge if you want it, and an avoidable one if you don’t.
“We’ve seen tons of evidence that gamers without disabilities are using these features to adjust the game to their preferences and eliminate frustration,” says Gallant. “Accessible design is good universal design. The work that was done here served everyone who played the last of us part 2 and made it a better game.”
“Accessibility features aren’t just for people you think need accessibility features,” adds Schatz. “These are features that can help anyone.”
The Naughty Dog team addressed accessibility in the last of us part 2 as an investment in the future of the studio. There was no fixed goal in mind: the team added additional features bit by bit if they were useful to testers. Since most of the studio’s games are based on the action-adventure genre, many of these features can be reused or improved upon in future titles.
“Technology and features from one game are often very easy to transfer to another game,” says Schatz. “So some of our most important tasks, like text to speech – we have done it now. So that investment in our future is now paying off in that way. We can put those features in the last of us part i”
The new top-down version of the last of us part i, coming to PlayStation 5 on September 9, will include all 60+ accessibility features from the 2020 sequel, as well as a few new additions, including full audio descriptions for cut-scenes. The team had the help of Descriptive video works — the same team that Netflix uses — instead of trying to master the fine art themselves.
“Audio descriptions are very difficult to understand; it takes a lot of experience,” says Gallant. “It’s not an effort to be made by amateurs.”
the last of us part 2 changed the minimum expectations between developers and gamers for accessibility options in games. Both Schatz and Gallant see innovations in the space as a new frontier of game design for years to come.
“It was like a completely blank canvas when we were thinking about approaching a level as a blind player. It’s been comparable to the move to 3D with PlayStation 1 and Nintendo 64 when designers had to figure out how to let players control the camera. That’s the industry standard,” says Gallant. “Accessibility feels like a comparable frontier. Everyone is trying something new. There is such a wide space to try new things, experiment and prototype. Level two conversation is: How do we make this even better?”
Looking ahead to future games, the Naughty Dog team is thinking of ways to scale the complexity by offering options for more streamlined interactions. Gallant points out that while a blind player can clear the last of us part 2they still need to be comfortable using a complex input device.
“Even if you play with all our options, you still have to use all the buttons on the controller,” he says. “It’s not like I could tell someone who’s never used a dual-stick controller before to just pick it up and play.”
“What do we get from a minimalist experience?”
But developers are beginning to move away from the urge to use every button. Gallant takes aim at Playground Games’ racing game horizon Force 5, allowing a player to control the throttle with a single button while automating other inputs such as turning, braking, and camera position. He also cites the next Capcom brawler. street Fighter 6, which offers a simplified control scheme that removes the need to input quick combos, as an example of a broader trend towards more inclusive game design.
In Schatz and Gallant’s view, the most innovative games in the next five to 10 years will likely take a less-is-more approach, refining a more personalized approach to interaction rather than focusing on flashy visuals or superfluous embellishments.
“We’ve reached a point in game design where everything is maxed out. I think there is a lot of innovation in the future to reduce that,” says Schatz. “Do we really need to use all these controls? What do we get from a minimalist experience, where we only push one thing? I’m really looking forward to evolving into more intentional design in all sorts of ways.”
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