These Games Were Nominated for Excellence in Accessibility. Here’s What Makes Them Great

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Welcome to Press Play, POPSUGAR Australia’s first-ever gaming initiative focused on accessibility. Our aim is to shed light on the experiences of people with disability who play games, while helping to identify the features needed within games to make them truly accessible to all players.

The initiative includes interviews with key figures in the gaming space as well as first person pieces produced by writers with disability who can speak from experience about these features. Press Play is supported by our newly launched text-to-voice feature. You can find all the pieces here.

What makes a video game’s accessibility features excellent? To find out, we spoke to three incredible game developers who have put their hearts into incorporating accessibility features into their games, making it easier for everyone to enjoy them. Their games were nominated for the Excellence in Accessibility award at the 2021 Australian Game Developer Awards, a national event celebrating outstanding games and achievements by Australian game developers.

Wren Brier of Witch Beam Games is the co-creator of Unpacking, a zen puzzle game that tells your character’s story through the objects you unpack and fit into their new home. Brier explains its three main accessibility features: “Firstly, there are no penalties for making mistakes. Secondly, the text is minimal, so you don’t need to read to play.” Finally, the option to ‘Allow items anywhere’ provides players the option to place the items in any room. “This was requested by a special education teacher who raised that his students may struggle and get frustrated with having to put items in the correct room.”

It was this kind of feedback Brier used to mould her game into one that won the Excellence in Accessibility award. Ceri Hutton, director of operations and projects at the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association (IGEA) was involved in establishing the judging criteria for the awards and gave insight into why features like this informed the judge’s decision. “What helped Unpacking win was that it nailed a range of options such as adjustable icons, a colourblind mode and no reliance on audio.”

Brier consulted the accessibility guidelines but mainly tested the game on friends. One of them was having trouble seeing some items as his eyesight isn’t good. Brier told him to zoom in. “It turns out the buttons were too small for him to see. So I provided the option to make the buttons bigger in the first place. We also had feedback from demo users. We have an animation where you slide between rooms and someone said ‘It makes me feel motion sick,’ so we allowed for disabling of that option.”

“Mobility features include the option to use touch and gyro controls which is like tilt control. People have said ‘I really appreciate I can play with one hand, or that I can switch between hands, because both wrists are injured.’ Many features are innate such as the simple control of using just two mouse buttons. No actions require clicking and dragging or pressing more than one button at a time. It’s how we designed the game to begin with.”

It seems that consideration at the outset is a huge factor in overcoming any barriers to developing a game with accessibility features. Hutton says, “The features are a barrier and may add significant costs only if added in the middle or end of production.” He also confirmed one of the main reasons Unpacking stood out was that the accessibility aspect was baked into the design from the beginning. “One of the most difficult accessibility design elements to nail down is punishments. Many games are built on this idea but Unpacking was designed to have none of it.”

Ed Orman from Uppercut Games was another nominee for the award. He developed the game Submerged with beautiful scenery settings, designed to look like “an every city” —  a blend of different real life cities, a nice world you can explore and take a break in. There’s no combat in Submerged, meaning it’s a relaxing puzzle game. “I feel like the game suits it well as it’s non-combat. There are no failure states, no twitch reactions. We have controller and keyboard flash mouse remapping, which lets you do a lot of things including reassigning keys. There’s a one-handed version and the option for people who have different sensitivity in their hands to control what they want the joysticks to do. We have subtitles and all dialogue is spoken.”

The third game nominated for the Accessibility award, Eastern Market Murder, also includes subtitles and is fully voice acted. It’s an augmented reality game developed by True Crime Games, based on a true crime in 1899, which can be played in Melbourne’s city centre at the actual crime scenes.

Emma Ramsay and Andy Yong are the creators behind the game. “In terms of accessibility, we’re a bit different from your standard sit down game, because ours revolves around the real world setting and needing to accommodate things like roadworks. We had to ensure laneways were wheelchair accessible. We also purposely didn’t require any interactions higher than head height in a wheelchair. We talked to and observed a broad range of players.”

The game accessibility guidelines are an amazing resource for developers when they’re creating accessibility features, and they also helped establish the judging criteria for the Australian Game Developer Awards.

Hutton says, “We had an accessibility specialist talk to the entire process of designing the award criteria. We started with those guidelines and then discussed with the specialist about how to best represent multiple disabilities with a small number of criteria, as it was very important to him that we weren’t favouring any form of disability.

“If you follow those guidelines, you’ll be quite ahead of the industry in terms of where accessibility is now,” Hutton says, “If you design a game with a large audience in mind and offer multiple options for them to engage, I think you end up making a better game and that’s kind of proven with Unpacking because on top of winning Excellence in Accessibility they also won Game of the Year.”

“Accessibility in design is becoming more prevalent. Rather than a nicety, it’s sort of taking over as a standard, but we’re not quite there yet. Bigger developers are making leaps and bounds in terms of what they can offer in accessibility. I think it allows for smaller companies to treat it as more of a standard practice.”

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