Last weekend Johnny Richardson and I hit the PAX East floor in search of game accessibility in the upcoming titles for this year. We had some good times looking at the various games, teaching developers and trying to yell loud enough to be heard over the 85,000 gamers at the annual Boston event.
Some of the game is simply didn't measure up. One developer from a game called Mark of the Ninja even candidly said “quite honestly we failed” when asked about game accessibility. But failure is okay and the first step to learning how to do better. We hope our time with the developers at PAX helped at least a few games become just a little bit more accessible.
Orcs Must Die! 2
In the sequel to last year's smash hit Orcs Must Die, Robot Entertainment is on track to repeat their success with another edition to the orc killing dynasty. This time around you’re fighting with the villain from the last game on your side. If you're a fan of the first game, there's not much to tell you about the upcoming sequel because it's mostly just a continuation of the same exciting orc killing fun.
In order to move your character you'll need to use WASD, but everything will be completely remappable. They are working on including subtitles and colorblind options. We also made some suggestions to enable the game to be played with only the mouse. Based on how they received our previous feedback and implemented as much as they could, we are hopeful that they will have time and incentive to include some of our more detailed suggestions.
Max Payne 3
Rockstar is set to continue its streak of blockbuster games with the next installation of the Max Payne series. The third game promises to be the most exciting yet where Max is still haunted by the ghosts of his past while fighting the demons of his future.
We were given a personal tour by developer Rich Rosado who walked us through the entire demo. Several features such as automatically picking up pain suppressants, simplified controls and auto aim allow the title to be heralded as a leap forward in accessibility for the Max Payne series. Other options such as subtitles and multiple controller configurations for the Xbox will give Max one of his highest ratings on our scale. And we look forward to giving Max Payne 4 the game of the year when it has all, not just some, of the accessibility features disabled gamers are looking for.
I'm not traditionally a fan of Facebook games, but there are a couple of reasons I felt like we needed to call out this particular game as worth your time. First, Night Owl Games is a great company that puts out a lot of these games, yet is still small enough that they not only stopped by our booth at PAX to see firsthand what we were talking about on the Expo floor, but also agreed to implementing changes that can include more gamers with just a few simple additions to the game.
Second, and maybe more importantly, Dungeon Overlords is “heavily inspired from” Dungeon Keeper/Evil Genius genre. If you don't know what those two games are, you're definitely missing out. In these types of games you created your layer by carving out the underside of a cave somewhere and launch your evil empire.
Using only the mouse, you'll send out hordes of monsters to attack other overlords and enemies in the area proving once and for all you are the baddest of the bad. The overall game itself pulls much of its style from Evony in the way tasks, resources and attacks are handled, but the hands-on dungeon creation is what makes this game interesting to me.
Borderlands 2, Gearbox Software’s follow-up to 2009’s critical hit, certainly retains the FPS-meets-RPG gameplay, but seems to place more emphasis on character customization and cooperative play. This may end up having several advantages, namely that one may pick and choose attributes that will benefit their needs and play style. Moreover, by joining up with other players, challenges that might otherwise be insurmountable may be mitigated. While I was playing, I fought alongside some CPU-controlled bots, all of which seemed fairly intelligent and helpful.
On the gameplay side itself, battles were fast and furious. This may present a challenge for some with certain impairments, though character respawns were fast and seemed to have no adverse consequences. It was also quite difficult for me to die on Easy mode, and once an enemy had been razed, it did not reappear after death. Such allowances, alongside a decent set of game settings (along with gamepad support and sensitivity adjustment was the ability to enlarge the HUD) mean that players with certain disabilities will be able to enjoy the title.
This whimsical puzzle-esque game, which I got to try out on an iPad for a few minutes, is from Owlchemy Labs, the same indie folks (based here in Boston) behind the well-received Snuggle/Smuggle Truck. The basic premise, communicated through some genuinely funny animations, is that you play as Jack, a lumberjack who seems to detest trees of all sorts.
The gameplay is quite simple and reminded me immediately of Fruit Ninja. Essentially, the player watches as several tree logs are tossed onto the screen, and is tasked with slicing through as many as possible before they fall away. A major issue with this sort of gameplay for me has been that my hand soon tires too much to be able to make any real progress (as Cerebral Palsy results in limited fine motor function). Owlchemy has smartly designed the input so that once you begin dragging and swiping through logs, time slows down, which certainly helped me a lot. The problem however, was that as difficulty increased, this feature quickly lost its value. Once I was inundated with 10+ logs, some of which required they be swiped through in a particular manner, it was too hard to keep up. Luckily, I never really “failed” out, per say, and it was possible to progress.
All in all, Owlchemy has made some really smart choices in making the game highly approachable, though the difficulty spike needs some tuning. The game is still some months away, so there’s still plenty of time for this, and my real hope is that an option for increasing the game’s slow-down while swiping is added. Without such a setting, I can see where the game could be very enjoyable for players with mental challenges, but the mobility impaired may be frustrated.
Ghostbusters: Paranormal Blast
This augmented reality mobile game, from Canada’s XMG Studio, has to be unlike anything I’ve yet seen on a mobile device. When you start a level, at first all you see is the image coming through from the device’s camera. In a few seconds, however, arrows start flashing on one of the screen’s 4 sides, hinting for you to move in one or more directions. In doing so, your goal is to hit a “Slimer” ghost with your Proton ray for long enough to trap it. It took me a try or two to figure out that you really have to move pretty fast as directed, in order to catch up to the Slimer.
I’ll be honest; spinning in circles like an idiot was fun, especially for the crowd surrounding me. But the AbleGamers crew and I immediately noted that the speed with which the player must move will render the game close to impossible for any player with a mobility impairment. For someone with CP, I’m relatively wily, and even I had trouble keeping up. The game gets a lot of points from me for trying something new, though, and I see no technical reason why XMG can’t add settings that change the game’s speed.
Tanks for the Memories
This mobile game from Minicore Games has one of the strangest/funniest concepts I have heard in ages: you are a psychologist who helps patients by entering their minds and annihilating their “demons” with tanks. Such a plot is hardly surprising given that the studio’s other in-development title, Laika Believes, imagines a world where the only animal to orbit Earth returns as a super cyberdog. The game has an interesting and unusual, very storybook-like aesthetic, and the cutscenes and animations I saw looked great. The visuals I saw were vibrant and diverse enough where I’m not too concerned that playing will be tough for color-impaired or blind users, though level designs are still early on.
The controls are reminiscent of many of the top-down 2D adventures and RPGs you’ve played before, wherein you control a tank throughout a somewhat open, yet maze-like environ. I was immediately impressed with the fact that players may either “drag” the tank through a level, or simply tap on an intended location or enemy and watch as it follows a logical path or fires. Particularly on the iPad, this is going to give one-handed gamers, or otherwise players who simply need more time to make decisions, a fair shake at playing the game as intended. The members of Minicore’s team we spoke with – Peter, Patrick, and Michelle – seemed interested in adding more options for controlling the game if feedback warrants it. Overall, thankfully, the game has a low barrier to entry to many disabled gamers regardless of input customization. Its deliberate pacing, which felt to me almost like a turn-based RPG with more fluid action, is befitting to both the target platforms and a very wide audience.
Critiquing FPS games in terms of accessibility is always a tricky dance simply because of the nature of the genre. Tuning the frenetic action, pixel-precision control, and complex input for ablegamers is tall order, no doubt. This new free-to-play entry in the long-running Tribes franchise is no different. In fact, it’s perhaps only exacerbated by the fact that the series’ rocket boosting mechanics – allowing the player to lurch into the air or ski across terrain – are in full form, and their use is really required to play well. If you’ve ever played previous Tribes titles as I have, very little has changed for this entry. Class-based loadouts are present and the game’s (current) modes are the usual suspects: Deathmatch, CTF, Capture and Hold, etc.
There’s not a ton to say as far as the game’s attempts for accessibility. A multiplayer FPS obviously isn’t my first recommendation to disabled players. One thing to commend, however, is the title’s exhaustive keyboard/mouse remapping and sensitivity options. If you’re using adaptive hardware on your PC, using it with Tribes: Ascend ought to be simple. We weren’t able to try the game using a gamepad, since this option wasn’t available at Hi-Rez’s booth (sort of surprising, since players are generally given a choice at PAX demos), but we’ve been told the game fully supports peripherals.