IGC on Gaming: June 4, 2017

Informed Access

The July, 2017 issue of Game Informer magazine has a special feature on gaming accessibility. I was interviewed for the piece by the very generous Javy Gwaltney. Mega thanks to him and Game Informer (and my good friend Ian Hamilton for recommending me to GI for the piece) for the opportunity. I was given an advanced copy of the feature and was very happy how it came out.

My stance on accessibility often surprises people. Being a gamer with epilepsy is tough, and sometimes missing out on a game because it’s a risk for my condition can be demoralizing. But, I’ve always strongly advocated that a developer’s creative vision has to come before anyone’s accessibility needs. Once that vision has been met, accessibility options can then be added in a way that doesn’t compromise it. A lot of times people don’t understand why that’s important. Isn’t playing any version of the game enough?

No. It’s really not.

I have the perfect analogy to prove this. When I was twelve years old, long before I developed epilepsy, I had the rare privilege of riding Space Mountain at Disneyland with the lights on and the special effects turned off. For those that don’t know, Space Mountain is an indoor roller coaster with the gimmick being that you can’t see the track in front of you. The actual ride itself is fairly tame as far as rollercoasters go. Relatively slow. No inversions. It’s sort of neat to see how well-used the space the coaster is set in is, but otherwise it’s kinda boring. The thrill of Space Mountain is entirely dependent on the darkness and the special effects.

The sense of speed with the lights on is almost non-existent. It leaves one of the most thrilling experiences in the park a toothless bore. For some games, the types of accessibility features needed for specific medical conditions can completely alter the intent of the developer. I’ve often wondered why some disabled gamers would want to play a stripped-down version of a game that doesn’t remotely reflect the developer’s vision.

I have epilepsy now. I’ll probably never be able to ride Space Mountain again (insert Ric Flair joke here). Disneyland actually does accommodate multiple disabilities. They can help people in wheelchairs or other mobility-related conditions to have access to most of the rides in the park. Some rides have features for the hearing-impaired. But, when it comes to Space Mountain, Disney can do nothing for my specific condition, epilepsy, except make the ride experience worse. Now here’s my question: wouldn’t I just be making more problems than I need to for the people at Disney to say “I still want to ride it” when I can just ride something else? Some people say that it’s up to game developers to include accessibility features, or else. Or else.. what? If you have a disability that prevents you from playing a game, and that game can’t possibly be tooled to suit your specific needs, well I’m sorry but not everything is accessible to everyone.

Despite what haters might believe, I’ve been a diehard Golden State Warriors fan my entire life. I never in my wildest dreams imagined we would play in three straight NBA Finals. How much does it suck for me that I can’t ever attend a game, see Steph Curry and Kevin Durant in person, because indoor sporting events are like epilepsy dirty-bombs with all the flashbulbs and strobey team introductions? It sucks quite badly. But the Warriors can’t ban flash photography for the other 20,000+ fans in attendance so that people like me would be able to attend. If you would even think to ask that, I’d actually consider you a bit of an asshole, ya know?

My mascot Sweetie has her game-face on.

I advocate for developers to include accessibility options. But that’s not always possible or viable. Sometimes those options would add significant time to the development cycle, which costs money. For something like survival-horror games themed around bright, flashing lights, the options I would need would completely remove the game’s atmosphere. And ultimately, even if they cover my specific triggers, which are the most common in the world, they’ve only lessened the risk for about 25% of the photosensitive-epileptic population. Nobody can possibly include features for everyone’s specific disability. If you get pissy at a developer for that, I’m sorry but you’re the asshole, not them. Ask for accessibility OPTIONS, but if they can’t be included in a way that retains the developer’s intended experience, find something else to play. Having epilepsy does not entitle me to play any game, nor does anyone who has any disability have any entitlement to demand anything of any game developer. In the immortal words of Frank Underwood, you are entitled to nothing.

Questions and Answers

I love doing these.

My amigo David Jagneaux asks: What are some of the most common, but easily avoidable, mistakes or mishandlings you see in modern indie game development?

Poorly handled difficult curves. I’ve editorialized on this before but it’s been a while.

Indie developers often forget they’re the best players at their own games. They play their own stuff over and over, get really good at it, forget that they’re making a game for everyone, and ramp up the difficulty to challenge themselves. This phenomena isn’t exclusive to indies. I was contacted by someone involved in the production of the original NES Battletoads who told me that game’s notorious difficulty spike was a result of that very issue.

The solution is simple: do whatever you need to do to get third-party testers. Do NOT offer them help playing your game. Just sit down, shut up, and watch. Offering them solutions defeats the point unless you plan on including a clone of yourself with every copy you sell at retail.

Runner-up is spongy enemies or busy-work design. Don’t mistake sponginess for difficulty. There’s no reason why a first boss in a platformer should take 20+ hits to kill. It’s padding. Inadequate checkpoint systems, lack of saving, forcing players to start full stages over, etc. There’s more to a game’s pace than level-design, and stuff like I mentioned kills the flow of a game.

Guacamelee! is probably the worst offender I’ve played in terms of busy-work combat. It could have, SHOULD HAVE, been one of the best indies I’ve played. Good level-layout, inventive story, fun upgrades. It’s everything you want in a Metroidvania. But the combat is a spongy, cheap, aggravating chore. It turned what should have been an all-time indie great into a frustrating slog.

Gorkon666 asks “All time favorite horror game?

Horror games are sort of a tricky thing with me. I was one of those kids whose parents didn’t allow her to play M rated games as a kid, afraid that they would turn me into a foul-mouthed, blood-thirsty psychopath. The results speak for themselves. By time I was old enough to play such games, I had epilepsy, which is about as compatible with horror as Pixy Stix are for a diabetic.

If Resident Evil 4 counts as horror, that would be it. If not, Eternal Darkness. I haven’t gotten to play stuff like Five Nights at Freddy’s or the Fatal Frame games and probably never will get to.

@DJ_Link asks “Can you name one or more things that games try to borrow from older games as nostalgia/homage but doesn’t suit well nowadays?

Lives systems are kind of pointless, and always have been for home video games. They make sense for games that cost a quarter-per-play at the arcades. At home, they’re busy-work sinks at best.

Rabite890 asks “What series (any company or system) is the most abused and which is the most neglected?

Most Abused: Sonic The Hedgehog, obviously. Hell, I’ve done my share of it myself with my Sonic CD and Sonic 4 reviews. I didn’t grow up in the Sonic era, when the games were revolutionary and 2D platformers ruled the day, so I can’t play them in the same context they were cherished under. If I had grown up when Genesis was new, I’m sure I would have enjoyed Sonic. I know this is probably true because ten-year-old me liked Sonic Adventure and 12-year-old me liked Sonic Advance. 20+ year old me? Not so much. Sonic’s last gasp of relevance was when he was announced as a tackling dummy in Smash Bros. Brawl, but really, has there been a consistently worse 3D platform series than Sonic’s games? Maybe the character’s speed-gimmick doesn’t lend itself to good 3D platforming, but actually I think the second stage of Sonic Adventure shows there is something resembling potential there. Sega really ought to pull a Tomb Raider and give the franchise’s 3D reins to someone with an inspired idea, and the 2D reins to an indie developer like Image & Form that knows what the fuck they’re doing.

Probably doesn’t help that they keep remaking the same game over and over. Nintendo does that too but at least the games they remake were good to begin with.

Most Neglected: I have never played a Punch-Out game I didn’t love. So why the fuck are there only three? Now granted, Punch-Out is a series based entirely around punching ethnic stereotypes in the face. We now live in an era where college students scream profanities at their professors for suggesting that Pocahontas Halloween costumes aren’t necessarily racist. Shit like Great Tiger or Piston Honda is not going to fly in 2017.

If only there was a solution. I mean, in theory Nintendo could remove all the possibly offensive ethnic caricatures and replace them with their iconic franchise mascots (the most famous of which is a possibly offensive ethnic caricature but hey, I’m going somewhere with this). This would actually make the Punch-Out!! concept much more desirable if Little Mac was facing Link or Kirby in a boxing match instead of Disco Kid or Mr. Sandman. But Nintendo obviously isn’t going to release a game based around their cash cows beating the living shit out of each other so that idea is a non-starter.

I Can’t See the Berries – Gaming with Color Blindness

Last year, I wrote about my experiences with epilepsy and gaming. The response from the gaming community was great, and it’s had an impact. Since I started Indie Gamer Chick, many Xbox Live Indie Games and assorted PC titles have started to include “effects switches” in games. And recently, Towerfall on PlayStation 4 became the first PlayStation Network title with “the switch.” I’ve had a lot of fun and done a lot of cool things through Indie Gamer Chick. Spreading awareness of gaming and epilepsy? That has probably been the most rewarding bonus. Something I never expected to influence.

Here’s the thing though: epilepsy is relatively rare. In developed nations, there’s between 4 to 10 cases for every 1,000 people. That’s not all that much. And of those people with epilepsy, only between 1 to 3 for every 100 have what’s called photosensitive epilepsy, also known as the kind that sucks if you’re a gamer. It’s also more commonly seen in girls than in guys. But it’s the thing I live with, so it’s kind of my pet cause.

But, most of my readers are guys. When I started to talk more often about the epilepsy thing, I had a lot of male readers say they know what having a health-imposed limitation is like. They have color blindness. Now granted, their condition is not actively trying to kill them (at least when they’re not at a four-way stop), but I was shocked by how common I heard it. I would venture a guess that, oh, 1 in 12 of my male readers have it. That’s probably because 1 in 12 men have some form of color blindness. I had no idea it was that common. That’s 8% of the male population. That’s a hell of a lot of people who struggle with this condition. And by the way, it’s a myth that girls can’t be colorblind. Around 1 in 200 are. Thankfully it seems to be the one medical problem I currently am not dealing with.

1 in 12.

Wow.

I can’t even imagine what it’s like. Thankfully, I don’t have to. I found someone to describe it to me. His name is Gordon Little, a network administrator from Newfoundland and a father of three. This is his story.

Oh, and please forgive his use of the Queen’s English. In America, we dropped the “u” from “color” thus making us 16% more efficient.

I Can’t See the Berries

by Gordon Little

During my childhood my mother would take myself and my twin brother out berry picking. Raspberries to be specific. Big red juicy things hanging out among the green leaves and stems. We each had a bucket and after an hour Mom would check our progress. Her bucket was full. My brother’s bucket was halfway full and his face told the story of berries that never made it into the bucket. My bucket though… my bucket was lucky to have 2 or 3 berries in it. “I can’t see the berries,” I would tell her. She’d point at a berry on the bush and like magic it would POOF into existence. She thought I was just lazy. I was a kid and I didn’t know what to think, except I hated berry picking.

For people like Gordon, you can forget about using radar in Crysis 2.

For people like Gordon, you can forget about using radar in Crysis 2.

Years later, myself and my brother had to get eyeglasses. One year the optometrist said “Have you ever been checked for colour blindness?” Nope. So he opens a flip book of strange coloured dots. “What do you see here?” Nothing. “And here?” A squiggly line. “Here?” Nothing again. “Are you sure you don’t see the number 13?” Nope. Nada. Zilch. The 13 was a berry and I couldn’t see it. It was unobtainable. “You have red-green colour deficiency.” My brother, you might ask, he did not. His colour vision was fine.

Red-green colour deficiency never really impacted my childhood. I had a NES, then a SNES, then a PC and video game life was good. When video game resolution and the ability to display colour increased, then the problems began. I could tell the difference between bright reds and greens, but it was more subtle shades and hues that caused problems.

The first time I played a game that I actually couldn’t play was a gem matching title like Bejeweled. All the gems were the same shape, just different colours. Ok. I can do this. Why won’t they join? Oh, two are green, one is yellow.

Real Time Strategy games can be great. Except when the units look 90% identical on both sides expect one has green shoulder pads and the other red. And the mini map doesn’t help either. It’s just a giant orgy of coloured dots and I can’t tell which are mine.

Turn Based Strategy and RPG games can be great. Except when the tiles change colour to indicate different things. Green means you can move here. Red means you’ll get attacked. Yellow means you MIGHT get attacked. All of that info is useless when you can’t tell which tile is which colour.

Like most of us, Gordon can't tell what's going on in Grotesque Tactics. Unlike the rest of us, he has an actual medical excuse.

Like most of us, Gordon can’t tell what’s going on in Grotesque Tactics. Unlike the rest of us, he has an actual medical excuse.

First Person Shooters are usually okay.  Except when part of the screen flashes red to indicate you were hit… somewhere… from behind?  The side?  Sometimes I don’t even notice it’s happening.

So what are some suggestions to developers to assist colour blind gamers? The number one suggestion is never (EVER) make colour the sole source of information for the player. There are lots of gem matching games out there, and most of them now have different shapes and symbols inside them to indicate which ones are which. You could take the colour out and still be able to play. For turn based / tactical / RPG don’t colour code the tiles on the ground, or if you do, put hit percentage numbers in the tiles for the player to see.

Every time a game uses colour as the sole provider of information you risk it being the berry in the bush. And I can’t see the berries.

Visit Gordon’s site.

There are several great developer tools available to simulate color blindness. Unreal Engine 4 has an excellent built-in color blindness simulator, under general/appearance/color. Photoshop has a more limited color blindness simulator, only covering the most common type, under view/proofing modes. Last is Color Oracle, a free piece of software for Mac / PC/ Linux that runs a single frame simulation on whatever is currently on your screen. Available from colororacle.org. For more information on how to design in a colorblind-friendly way, visit Game Accessibility Guidelines’ color-blindness page.

Indie Gamer Chick supports Game Accessibility Guidelines, a not-for-profit that provides free information for game developers on how to make their games more accessible to people with epilepsy, color blindness, and various other conditions. Support it. Use it. Live it.

UPDATE: Within two minutes of this being published, gamers and developers living with color blindness started to sound off. Here is ArcadeCraft’s developer:

Colorblind 3

 

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