Recent tweets

Accessibility: Realistic games and me

I'm an avid gamer. Nintendo brought me the first experience of gaming fun. I'm sure this is the fact for many other people aswell. Mario taught me what arcade fun was, Zelda taught me to love adventure gaming and puzzle solving, F-zero introduced me to high tech racing and believe it or not, it's actually a game like Axelay which lead me to space invaders :). Metroid kickstarted my RPG/action /perks/upgrade adventure love.

On PC, I grew up with doom, Rise of the triad, Blake Stone and Descent. This launched my love for the "high tech shooter story" genre. Trough the years I just liked to shoot my way trough games like Max payne, Unreal, FEAR, Far cry, and many more. I've always been able to manage to play these games reasonably well but with the blockbusters of the last 3 years it has become increasingly difficult.

Before we head on, I want to clarify that I'm talking about accessibility as in "accessibility for visually impaired persons like myself". NOT  "accessibility in games for people with a physical handicap". This is a whole other dicipline/challenge. It's something I can't really talk about because I can control games just fine. So here, i'm talking about the experience I have when I run up against limits in video games because of my own impaired vision.

I have an eye disease called Nystagmus. It means that my optic nerve is affected by "malfunctioning contact". It also really behaves like that because my eyes are constantly twitching slightly and this reduces clear vision on top of the aforementioned problem. Basicly it's a constant motion blur that I got accustomed to. I am also blind in one eye and my eye sight from the "good" eye is limited in several ways. Difficulties tracking fast moving objects, trouble to quickly focus, and it's hard to adapt from light to dark situations.

If you would like to test how this looks like, try to look trough a toilet paper cylinder and stick a dirty piece of transparent plastic on it, then you have an idea.

For the last years, A trend that has been getting increasinly problematic for me personally, is that games became "too realistic". You might ask if I find that a bad thing. In my case the answer is often yes. The "high contrast" properties of games from the past are gradually replaced by "pale" color palettes, just like the real world. Also the geometric relationships are becoming more realistic too which not only means that a distant enemy has a very thin hitbox and generally moves very fast, The outfits of enemies look more "gray" and blends into the dense background of folliage or monochromous cityscapes. That makes it hard. Enemies often look like a needle in a haystack. I sometimes say that I'm hunting for needle heads when playing gritty games like Battlefield 3 or modern warfare series.

Not only are the nights becoming more realistic, the "blinding lights" effect are being a reason of losing focus for me as well because they actually have the "desired effect" to me just like in the real world. I totally am blindsided and loose focus on anything that happens surrounding that light if it happens.

Lucky that the word "follow" hovers above my friend, otherwise i'd think it's an enemy creeping from the dark in this game, they all look the same to me, have no quickly noticable distinction cause the suits are almost he same. The only way to notice the difference is when they are shooting at me :P

So as game companies seem to go out of their way to let the enemies blend into the environment on purpose, while introducing increasingly more difficult "hide and shoot AI", that combination becomes devastating for me. Without visual aids like left 4 dead's team glow, I just need at least 5 seconds to spot 1 enemy while they shoot all my health off.

Enemies behave more realistic, they do things like hiding behind everything and only pop up their heads occasionally or rush from one cover to another. So if you have a visual impairment like me, those are the definite factors to make it almost "not fun".

On the positive side, there seems to be alot of effort made by developers to reach deaf and color blind players. I can understand the dilemma they have to deal with by making these features. Should they spend time making extreme accessibility features for the visually impaired (like me), or should they work on the core game ? More often than not they shall receive the wrath of many users who don't want to have a pamper-UI or overlay that babysit them and I understand that. And if you make stuff easy to see/control for disabled people, you could end up making them super easy for average or good players. And is there a big enough gamer demographic to warrant this ? Is the blind-o-sphere big enough ? All I can say at this point is that I'm happy when a developer chooses on their own to make a colorful game with high contrast people shooting high contrast bullets at me and not complain too much.

In shooting games in particular, tight hand/eye coordination is a must but if the eye won't follow it's more becomming like a gamble fest to see what's happening on screen, doing alot of pray & spray and usually being too late because you're being spammed with gunfire. For people who have severe issues with re-focus on things quickly, pale backgrounds with hide and shoot AI is just downright destroying the fun, especially when the difficulty is requiring you to act quickly.

In max Payne 3 for example, EASY is actually very hardcore for me because I don't get the time to pick where the enemies all are shooting from, and in 4 shots I'm dead. If I would put this on forums, players and devs aren't going to care. I will usually get the silent treatment because of this. Which makes me think that devs have a creed that say: "Near blind people playing shooter games you say ? We can't waste recourses/time/money to that."

In an ideal world where devs makes game for visually impaired people: Rockstar would make bullet time a permanent/unlimited use feature.  Either that or make easy mode so easy that you can be shot for 20 seconds while being able to take the time to see where the enemies are :) Even Serious Sam 3's normal mode is easier in that aspect. Although it's being marketed as a heavy twitch fps game in harder difficulties the thing that makes it "easier" than MP3 is because of 2 differences:

Enemies arn't hiding from you and the world itself is visible, big and are in high contrast. In Max payne 3, the enemies are skinny and because of the "hide & shoot AI", they are much less visible and tracable.

The high contrast of max payne 3's club scene with no cross hair and a hiding AI, in stark contrast with the high contrast with an equally high contrast world of Serious Sam 3 where enemies go out of their way to be seen! It's a nuance that matters to visually impaired people.

You would think this is equally hard for me on easy as max payne but I explained in the alt text of the previous enemy what the problem is with one game to another.

It's easy to just stay in the stereotype zone and say: well, the only games that visually impaired people like to play are chess and racing games. I know that companies (like valve for example) strive to have some accessibility in the form of colorblind/deaf modes and player glows in left 4 dead.

It looks like this game was just the first to be considered as a style guide of "accessibility" options. In the future, we could take hide and shoot ai and give them some "glow" ?

Left 4 Dead is ideal for me as the things that matter glow on screen (team mates, important items and teammembers in trouble get a red or yellow outline)

In single player modes, I believe that it's safe to do these kind of things. Because SP doesn't affect how different people of differently skil levels play together and if you do it with configurable options it doesn't really affect somebody else right ?

For example, what they could do is to give enemies in games such as Crysis 2 and the upcoming far cry 3 some high contrast outline glow (like in left 4 dead) but NOT when they hide behind a wall but when they become visible, and make it a feature that you could toggle on/off in the graphics settings.

In multiplayer I can clearly see the problem. if these options are too plenty, it could turn game into a boring affair for many good players. The problem there are visual aids like this are going to be abused by the same people that are using bad hearing mode in left 4 dead versus to (for example) verify what they hear is a boomer, a smoker or a hunter spawning. The Irony is that the group of people that really NEED it. Especially in multiplayer, are going to be "owned" by the people that NOT need it but will use it. And the people who genuinely want to play without aids are gonna feel too much "handheld".

In the department of ingame matchmaking for "visually impaired people", I found inspiration in a solution that Rockstar games provided for cheaters. Everyone who cheats is side tracked into a special pool of servers that will only match "cheaters". In much the same way, maybe a "visual accessible" ladder could be made for the most popular shooters. Matchmaking system would only match players that are in this same mode. Although I could understand that not every single game company could spend resources on every single game out there.

I can understand that developers are scared of this though. Unfortunately the need of the many seem to outweigh the need of the few. There are "many" people with an eagle's view who play games. I guess developers opt to make their games as neutral as possible and level the plainfield between exploit sensitive, and consequent gameplay which is suitable for the largest possible of playerbase.

Players with good vision will feast on far cry 3 and how the environment "stimulates" constant pixel hunting for hiding enemies between all these trees and leaves. For them, "Hard" means " a challenge". But "Hard" for a visually impaired person in my particular case means downright "trololo hard". Without a super easy mode or "high contrast enemies glow mode" for the visually impaired, Far Cry games are downright unplayable for people like me.

Camouflaged enemies that blend in the trees like this would shoot half my health down before I spot them. You might think that their "camouflage" is the whole point, but games focusing on bullets don'tusually focus on adding rich sounds that tells you there's someone moving or breaking a branch in the distance.

The other 2 elements that are consistent in destroying my personal game experiencesre, are the combination of darkness and muzzle flashes. They are in almost all the shooter games and -for realism sake - these very stroboscopic flashes happen, whenever you shoot an automatic weapon. This litterally blinds me and in a game like L4D, when a boomer and a smoker or a hunter attack me at once in versus mode of L4D, I purely go on sound and hope that I melee in the right direction after I took the first one out with an automatic rifle. There are mods for all sorts of things but whne a mapping buddy of mine and me tried to figure out how to disable it we found no easy way to do so. So it's is one of the reasons why I usually play with a shotgun (for crouwning witches for example) but also with a hunting rifle because the flashes are not so rapidly following up on each other and don't do a terrible job of blinding all my vision and putting me all out of focus, because of constant enemy spawns in hidden places for example.

This is the light effect which plays in front of your gun and is repeated for 5-10 times a second when you shoot a gun in left 4 dead, it's very distracting and blinding in dark areas. I asked valve several times for a feature to turn this off but never got a response. Friends who tried material hacking it also have a hard time removing it for me

There's another thing in games I want to talk about is maybe not really relating to the things above, but are equally disconcerting. I hate action replay scenes. They are usually too quick, the gui effects which accompany the symbols that you have to press during such a scene are highly distracting and in a game like star wars the force unleashed 2 it all comes together as highly inaccessible for people like me.

There, you have this scene with a colossal boss monster being chained and you need to press all kinds of keys to make some action scene happen. The problem there is that the symbols aren't even highly contrasted towards the on screen screen action setting taking place, the symbols disappear too soon (in less than 1 second) and they appear in various corners of the screen where - when you have tunnel vision like me - you can't respond in an adequate way before they dissapear and you screw up the action replay sequence. This made me stop playing an otherwise enjoyable game altogether. I sometimes get angry behind my screens and I'm thinking:  Really guys ? are you showing me a hazy image of a key that I have to press in the corner of my eye for 0.5 seconds ? Eduard Khill will turn in his grave because he would never do SO MUCH trolling"

If they could just make it flash while making it last a bit longer that would already be a huge help. In the extreme they could add an audio description ssaying which key to press but I know that's stretching it a bit.

On widescreen, barely visible action replay buttons will appear left, right and oncenter for 0.5 seconds and with tunnel vision you can already guess how that's going. This caused me to stop playing the game.

Anyways, I'm not trying to be a pessimist, and trying ONLY to look at bad things in a game, but it's these bad things that I have been talking about which generally prevents me from progress or a "relaxing" time with my game.

I've done 2 major purchases the last year that turned useless for me, where I had to stop playing after the 3d chapter because I tried 20 times for weeks to pass a certain difficult point. I get torn because I know the game has a quality to it especially if it has a cool story. but because there's way too much of what I described above. COD:MW3 and Max Payne 3 are games that are instant classics yet the way the world looks and gameplay is, prevents me personally from fully realizing that because of these constant flashes, screen distortions and sometimes the "comic" real time art style is confusing as well because it constantly puts you in instant new perspectives of view, and not gradually.

A game that is supposed to be juicy at best for the normal eye becomes an intense ADHD mayhem to me, which prevents me from fully enjoying the masterpiece-ness that he game is. 

Another reason for the huge disadvantage I have in Max Payne is that enemies in that game are usually much "smaller" on screen than characters in games like F.E.A.R. or left 4 dead. And not only are they smaller, the fact that they constantly hide (the same difficulty i have in MW3) makes it that much more difficult to track and spot them.

In max payne 3, all these colors of the nightclub scene for example, they distract me from spotting many small details like enemy heads. On top of that, you can't change the crosshair and it sometimes dissapears during certain "ingame cinematics" doesn't help cause I always have to refocus, while the perspective of view totally changes from me towards the enemies, and THEN find that little white dot on the screen again. You might wonder, "first you are saying you need colors, now there are colors and it's again no good"? Well it's the ENEMIES that need to be high contrast against the environment, not the other way around :P

So in the end, Max Payne 3 is only enjoyable to me with cheats so that I can spend 15-20 seconds to see who's shooting at me without instantly dying even on easy mode. I know they do all these things (like disappearing crosshairs) to make the game more immersive while seeing an ingame cutscene. But for me it makes the game less accessible. You can't hide from "hide and shoot" AI weapons fire while you aim and see the crosshair. That makes for a serious conundrum of choises for me.

On the other side: the way they did the mood, creature behavior and color palette in Dead Space is very good. There you have another application of dealing with player HUDs, namely to place as much of the hud inside the "game world". But there the "crosshair" is always available and very visible because of the guiding lasers of all these mining tools that you use to cut enemies in half with. It is a constant and fixed point of reference, something that I don't have to refocus to all the time. As the enemies are already tough enough, I really don't need any situation where I also have to refocus to the crosshair itself. But the situation there is perfect. Everything you need is high contrast against the dark world. Enemies are lunging add you and only a few "hide" and they make a huge sound while doing so. THAT's why Dead Space is a good game.

Even in a dark situation, Dead Space does a great job in lighting up everything that matters for you to have a nice focus on enemies even if they come from the dark, you can also hear it very well, and it helps that 95% of the enemies don't shoot stuff at you or are blatantly obvious in doing so.

As realism and flashy effects progress, game stuio's should really consider adding further "accessibility" options, rather than the ones for deaf and colorblind people. They don't even have to stigmatize the options into an "accessibility for the visually impaired" corner, if only Max Payne 3 had a "turn off "post processing distortions" and "drunken max flashes" off switch", that would help allot!

A nice example of what I mean is in the game Dishonored by arkane studios. There, you have the option of disabling or enabling lots of the visual cues that help you track secrets or mission objectives. It's even consolidated into an ingame heart that whispers clues to you. As a player you can choose to either use all these elements or not, to make it harder for you. I wish more games would be like this.

I hear some developers on twitter say "games hold your hand too much these days". Well I can say to them if games are more and more realisticly made and clues are more obtuse, glows and audio hints are at least a nice aid for people like me.

This game menu presents you with the ability to make the game's objectives harder or easier to find.

I'd like to say that there's infinite possibilities ahead to experience gaming in the future. Systems with huge memory enable graphics/game engines that allow for many visual, gameplay and sound design treats to make the game believable, immersive and fun. But let's hope that visualization of gameplay in realistic game gets an option to not be swamped in all that realism for those with a visual impairment.

You could say: Dude, with all the complaints you have how do you still play them ? Well you haven't heard me complain about how my love for Nintendo took a dip when they released the Wii, but I'll keep that for another "rant of a visually impaired gamer guy: the Nintendo Edition" post for when the WII-U is released and if I can rejoice my Nintendo Fandom again and tell what the real problem is with nintendo these days, that make them inaccessible, at least concerning their main console. I'm not talking about handheld.

For the rest, playing games like Firefall, Trackmania, Mario, Sonic, Diablo and the likes are all going very well for me. They are very colorful and high contrast and everything is clear to look at and these games don't give me the idea that I'm having sunglasses on.I just hope it's clear where the problematic game behaviors and game visualizing traits are situated for me personally. I just had to get that off my chest and I hope when I write these things on game forums I'm not going to get too much troll reactions and people can constructively discuss these things.

In Firefall, everything is high contrast! Easy to see enemies, easy to anticipate gunfire etc...

This is my own perspective on things. People don't have to start seeing it as a "guide" for game companies or something, but they could at least get insight into the world of "visually impaired gamers". It's also going to be different for everyone else. But from experience I notice that very little developer people responds on posts that I make concerning these issues in their forums.

When I point these things out on forums though, usually what happens - apart from a few "under the belt" remarks from users- is not really a whole lot. I'm not going to get a response from Blizzard if I post something regarding this on their forum. For example the problem I have with the Diablo's 1.0.4 patch's legendary fireboots trail. It is the same color than the affix that elites use which can sometimes confuse me and I don't know where to run into and where not, because my allie will cast the spell and it's the same color. It sometimes would be nice if devs would give me a pointer of recognition on that sort of problems.

Left 4 Dead was just a lucky streak for me. The fact that valve wanted to market it as the first team focused coop game made them add these nice glows (and have a special pro mode in left 4 dead 2 that shuts it all down). But that the game is so cool for me personally is just a nice unintentional side effect. I Often feeli like I am constantly living in a dilemma. I feel bad that I have to be spamming the request to have an option to disable muzzle flash 2 or 3 times only to get no response from developers. On the other hand it's really understandable why they don't change this for one complaining guy. But still I don't think that it's me only who has this problem. Yet Game companies need to devote themself to those milions of players wanting "realism" in games. Juxtaposition.

The "fire" affix from legendary boots in Diablo 3 looks exactly the same than the affix of the same spell for Elites, which makes me confused sometimes

I really hope I could make everything a bit more clear from my point of view for whoever has reached this far. I changed some bits and pieces in the article since its original rollout and I got a site you might be interested in. In dialog with Mark Kern, Founder of Red 5 studios and creator of Firefall, an openworld beautifully colored MMO game that I'm beta testing, Ian Hamilton responded to us with this site containing some guidelines that could be held in the back office of game developers. I immediately thought these kinds of standards could become siblings to a ruleset for accessibility for the blind as a standard method of approaching webdesign. Roel Van Gils (also a school buddy of mine) pioneered these. If more and more game companies would uphold a standard ruleset in dealing with accessibility in games too , some of those games like CoD, Crysis, Battlefield etc: would greatly benefit in the end I think.

As you can read in this article I think that some games already are more on their way than others. But the arbitrary nature (in terms of needing a special kind of UI to introduce a new kind of coop to the audiene) is making it much inpredictible whether a game will have it or not. But there's hoping!