In partnership with Captain Morgan
NME is partnering with Captain Morgan to tear down the walls between gaming and the real world, making TV favourite Sam Thompson’s dreams come true by turning him into the star of his own game — and putting him under the control of virtual ‘gamer’ Teddy Soares. You can follow that story on Captain Morgan’s Instagram. Gaming truly has crossed over into the mainstream in recent years, and part of its growing acceptance is down to the ways game developers are making games friendlier. Even the most action-packed and violent game is typically full of content that supports widespread accessibility and makes playing the game intuitive and welcoming. How did this happen, and what’s next?
Improving gamers’ quality of life
“I think developers now are aware that everyone plays games, and that includes people with limited time, visual impairments, physical disabilities and different preferences when it comes to difficulty and the kind of experience they’re looking for,” says Keza MacDonald, video games editor at The Guardian. “Where possible, many games are now designed to accommodate these differences rather than force the player to play a particular way.”
This kind of game design can be broken down into a few concepts. The first of these are ‘quality of life’ elements that do pretty much what the name suggests: they improve the user’s quality of life while they play it. One of the biggest breakthroughs in this area for driving games, for example, was when Codemasters added a “Flashback” rewind feature to Race Driver Grid in 2008, something that has since been borrowed by many other titles, notably the Forza Motorsport and Horizon games from Turn 10 Studios and Playground Games respectively, and Codemasters’ own F1 titles. At a stroke, racing game fans had a way of quickly expunging mistakes, rather than having to restart entire races.
Less dramatic examples might include annual sports titles that reorganise menus for new versions based on the way that users prefer to engage with the game. For example, the creators of the FIFA series recently added shortcuts to the popular ‘Squad Building Challenges’ on the FIFA Ultimate Team homepage rather than burying them in the options. Sometimes a good quality-of-life change is as simple as removing an obstacle rather than adding features.
Then there is accessibility, which has become a very obvious front in the battle to make games more inclusive in recent years. Thanks to the advocacy of charities like AbleGamers and SpecialEffect, and consultancy from disabled gamers, modern games are full of ways to tailor the experience based on the player’s needs. This is vitally important, and putting it up front makes a big difference, says Jon McKellan, founder of BAFTA-winning studio No Code and writer/director on games including Observation and Stories Untold.
“Burying accessibility options in menus that come way after you’ve been through big intros, cold opens, that kind of thing [is a common mistake],” he tells NME. “There’s no harm in front-loading subtitle options, audio, and accessibility before you start a new game. As far as user experience flow goes, I’d much rather spend 30 seconds letting the player get comfortable with options, rather than pause the first exciting opening cutscene halfway through (if it lets you!) to turn subtitles on. Let the user strap in and get comfortable before you start the rollercoaster!”
Accessibility options aren’t just there for disabled players, of course, and not every player may realise they want or need assistance until they start tinkering with these options. How many times have you found yourself changing the colour of an aiming reticle so it’s easier to see, for example? “Every options menu now contains a bunch of ways to change the colour and size of icons,” MacDonald notes. “You can choose what you want to see on your screen, and how much help you want.”
In No Code’s sci-fi adventure Observation, players control Sam, the artificial intelligence in charge of an imperilled space station, who is trying to help one of the crew to survive, and a design tweak intended to make that experience more convincing ended up making the game more accessible, as McKellan explains.
“We added a ‘live teletext’ style of subtitles that draw on screen word by word, roughly in time with them being said,” says McKellan. “We did it for two reasons: one was that we imagined it’s how an AI would parse human speech, and it felt visually appropriate to the scenario as if Sam was using some sort of machine learning to understand what Emma was saying, like an Alexa etc — fully diegetic subtitles! The other reason though was that many playtesters said it was easier for them to read along, and for those hard of hearing, could also give some indication of pacing in the dialogue they wouldn’t have otherwise. It meant words would land in sync with the action on screen, instead of ‘spoiling’ what’s about to happen if you’re reading a sentence faster than the audio that’s playing.”
The will to make games more appealing and inclusive is everywhere you look, and the science of doing so is definitely catching up. Think about the difference between tutorials in games you might have grown up with, which treated the player like a barely functioning idiot who needed to be spoon-fed basic concepts, and the almost invisible mentoring provided by the best modern blockbusters.
“Games have learned how to teach better,” MacDonald notes. “In place of the rigid tutorials of the past, or instead of leaving players to figure things out entirely by themselves, the best-designed games have gentle slopes that introduce (or reintroduce) you to a game’s workings without being too overbearing.”
McKellan agrees. “As our games are typically puzzle-focused, onboarding and quality of life is hugely important. The entire first 20 minutes of Observation is pretty much a disguised tutorial for how the whole game works and was the first thing we worked on before the game was even signed.”
This kind of thing might sound unimportant to the layman — why can’t people just read an instruction booklet, like in the old days, and the developers can spend more time making levels? But mass appeal is no joke to the people signing the cheques. Just look at the huge amount of expensive consolidation going on in games in 2022, with multiple companies being hoovered up for billions of dollars. When Xbox pays £5.5bn for Bethesda and £50bn for Activision, it doesn’t do so because it wants to sell a few million consoles; it’s because it wants billions of people to have an Xbox account and subscription to Game Pass. Getting there involves breaking down old barriers.
Work still to do
That’s not to say that games are now shining beacons of accessibility, pristine onboarding and immaculate quality-of-life features. Let’s face it, most games still feature a fallen tree within the first few minutes so you can be told to press B to crouch.
“I also think as our demographic skews older — as many folks growing up with games simply don’t stop! — we’ll hopefully see more priority going into pausing of games and cutscenes too,” says McKellan. “Literally every gamer with children will curse games without a pause state. It doesn’t need to break game design, just freeze things. Losing your blood echoes in Bloodborne because your kid just rugby-tackled the dog is never fun! Accessibility isn’t just about disability, but accommodating different lifestyles too.”
MacDonald concurs. “Games often assume that you’ve not spent much time away since you last played, but I often take a week or two’s break from a game and have completely forgotten, like, how to holster my gun, or what was going on in the previous chapter. It’s amazing when games give you the option of a wee refresher, especially narrative-driven ones, or just an easily-accessible map of the controls. Also, some games still ship without options for the colourblind, or for remapping controls or changing the size of text, which is just an easy win. No game should be released without them.”
In the future, both developer McKellan and journalist MacDonald see the industry embracing and better integrating these concepts in order to expand its appeal.
“I think we’re heading for more and more accessibility options to become standardised, and hopefully even integrated with the OS,” says McKellan. “It would be great to set ‘colourblind mode on’ in the system OS and have it automatically set that as default in whatever game you are playing that supports it.”
“For me it’s all about options,” says MacDonald. “Let the player choose how much challenge they want and how they want to play, as much as possible. It’s usually possible to do this without totally undermining the story that the game is telling, or how a game works. And when it’s not, well, developers just have to be aware that this will limit the audience.”
Developers are still learning, of course, sharing knowledge as they go, and receiving regular support from charities that understand the challenges. Just recently, UK-based SpecialEffect launched the SpecialEffect DevKit, offering over 40 videos packed with accessibility principles, best-practice suggestions, and examples of the work developers have already done in this space, drawing on the charity’s decades of practical experience working with physically disabled players.
Given how far we’ve come from just a few years ago, when brutal and impregnable games were a badge of honour, it’s hard to imagine the next decade and beyond won’t see games spread their wings even further.
This feature is brought to you thanks to our partnership with Captain Morgan. Join us all this week to see how NME and Captain Morgan are taking gaming from URL to IRL.