In March, Ubisoft Montreal invited Brandon Cole, an accessible-gaming advocate and consultant, to its studio to give a presentation and lead a series of workshops with developers. Cole’s visit was part of Ubisoft’s ongoing efforts to make games more accessible to all players, and the teams came away with a number of ideas for ways to help legally blind and sightless players play Ubisoft games.
For Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we spoke with David Tisserand, senior manager of Ubisoft’s accessibility team, to find out more about what those teams learned. As the person in charge of coordinating the team’s accessibility (or A11Y) efforts – which have so far included making subtitles and control remapping standard across Ubisoft’s games – Tisserand works to ensure that every step of a disabled player’s experience, from the first time they hear about a game until they finish the last of its DLC, is as accessible to them as possible.
Blind players seem like a very underserved audience, given that videogames are historically a visual medium. What are some of the advances that can help us bring the experience of games to a blind audience?
David Tisserand: When we talk about blind accessibility, there are two types: being legally blind could mean that you still have residual vision, or it could mean that you are sightless. So in terms of blind accessibility at large, we've been making strides like increasing the contrast in our menus or in our games, or having outlines around enemies, or around important information like interactive elements. We can increase the size of our menu UI elements as well – like in The Division 2, for example – or turn on high contrast to make sure that it's clearly visible to players with low vision. These are things that we've been pushing for since the beginning.
Now, in terms of sightless accessibility: our games, I would say organically, have always been trying to convey information in a multi-modal way. So in Assassin's Creed Odyssey, if we’re displaying feedback that you've been spotted, there's going to be a sound linked to it, right? This is helping everyone to use the modality that they prefer in order to be aware of what's happening – but this is clearly helping sightless players, because without the sound there would be no way for them to know that there is a call to action there. This is something that has happened naturally.
Above: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
Now, we are making sure that this is not just something that happens organically, but that we are actually conveying to developers that this is something we really need to do. And in order to achieve that, we have a lot of processes internally to support dev teams in developing accessible games. One of them, and probably the most visible one we've done recently, was to invite Brandon Cole, a sightless player, to Montreal to talk with all the development teams based in Montreal, Quebec, and Toronto.
What was what was the biggest takeaway from Cole’s visit, in terms of things that you could implement in the near future?
DT: The first one is to narrate our menus. There is no way a sightless player is going to be able to navigate our menus. So it's clearly important. The second thing that Brandon made very clear is that in most of our games, particularly our big open-world games, knowing where to go and navigating the world is something that requires our attention. If you can't see the waypoints, or can't know that you have a wall in front of you, that's going to be very tricky, right? We discussed different ways we could do that, from auto-drive features or those kinds of assists, to not automatizing everything, but (instead finding new ways to give) the information required. Having different footstep noises if you're against a wall versus if you're not, or having waypoints make noise in order to help sightless players orient themselves, to know where the waypoint is.
The third one depends on whatever the actual gameplay is. Is it combat? Is it shooting, is it puzzles? Depending on what that is, there are different things we can do. Brandon, for example, shared how we could transform a platforming game into a sound-based game, with pitch for the height of the jump, and how far you are from the next platform. For shooting games, you could also have another kind of sound-based game, like orienting yourself toward the enemy based on the sound of the enemy, and locking the vertical axis, because this is the most difficult for blind players to re-orient. Basically, there are tons of things we could do. It highly depends on the game. That's why we invited Brandon, just to make sure that we are thinking about ways we could have a tailored approach to accessibility in our games.
“By making an audio-described trailer, we are clearly showing that we want everyone to be part of the conversation. We want everyone to be hyped about our games.”
Do all of these solutions need to be baked in during the development process, or could existing games be retrofitted with any of these features?
DT: One thing we clearly know from the last three years is that retrofitting is definitely not the way to go. It’s so much more expensive, and sometimes even impossible, as opposed to baking it in from the beginning. If you think about accessibility at the beginning, you’re just designing with accessibility in mind. For example, when I told you about sounds that we could use for a platform game – if you design this game with the right sounds, and with the audio team working on it, you’re just designing it that way. It's not an accessibility option anymore, it's not something different; it's the same game, but with the audio attached to it and thought about during the design process.
One of the most immediate things to come out of Cole’s visit was the audio descriptive trailer for Assassin's Creed Valhalla. How did that come together?
DT: We really want to be as inclusive as we can; we realize that our games are slowly but surely becoming more accessible. There is still a lot of work to do, particularly for sightless players, but we’re moving towards that. Part of making the end-to-end user experience accessible is allowing people to enjoy our trailers, and particularly being part of the discussion around it. Disabled players have historically not been invited into the conversation.
I think, by making an audio-described trailer, we are clearly showing that we want everyone to be part of the conversation. We want everyone to be hyped about our games. Although to be very, very clear, we manage expectations by saying that yes, we are making strides, but we are not promising that Assassin’s Creed Valhalla will be fully accessible to sightless players. But it's part of the culture we want to promote at Ubisoft, that everyone should be part of the conversation – and together, collaborating with the community, we will get there.
What can the games industry as a whole do to better serve sightless players?
DT: There are some considerations, like audio description, that are very important. Just making those trailers is a statement for the industry itself. The more our partners in this industry show that they care, and that they want to involve as many players as possible, the more it’s going to normalize the discussion.
You said yourself that you didn't know there were blind players; if you release an Assassin’s Creed trailer with audio description, everyone will know. Just by doing that, you are informing the community, the players, and also the rest of the industry that this is something that is important, and this is something that you should focus on.
Obviously, there are several reasons for incorporating accessibility, and one of them is that it's our responsibility. We are the biggest entertainment business on this planet. We are the way people entertain themselves today. It's our responsibility to include as many people as possible, or at least to not exclude anyone from this phenomenon. It’s a social phenomenon, now. Your kids are going to talk about their games in a couple of months in the classroom, right? So we don't want to exclude anyone from being part of this conversation.
Combat seems like a place where implementing accessibility might face its biggest challenges, because everything happens so quickly, and it seems difficult to rapidly convey all the information a sightless player might need. In a series like Assassin’s Creed, for example, with close battles against multiple opponents, would the gameplay itself need to be adapted?
DT: I'm no designer, but let's think about what exists on the market at the moment. There are 2D fighting games, like Killer Instinct, Mortal Kombat, etc. Those games are perfectly playable by blind players. They are very good at it, and they would kick my ass at any of those games, no questions asked. It’s actually already happened (laughs). The sound design in those games is so helpful; every action has a specific sound, and the stereoscopic sound helps players know if they’re left, right, far, close, etc. So it's just a sound-design effort. Now, if you put that in a 3D world, (you could) maybe think about your set-pieces in a way that they're going to be playable just with sound.
“It's part of the culture we want to promote at Ubisoft, that everyone should be part of the conversation – and together, collaborating with the community, we will get there.”
One thing is clear: Currently, sightless players cannot play open-world games. Brandon made that very clear in our interviews with him. Talking about combat, playing Assassin's Creed is not only about combat; it's about the story, it's about visiting the world. It’s about visiting Egypt, visiting Greece, revisiting Viking history. For disabled players, being able to be part of this adventure, hearing the story, immersing themselves in the world – just that is already a big achievement for the gaming industry.
The next step is making the gameplay perfectly accessible, but in the meantime, if that means something like ensuring we have an auto-lock option so you’re always facing the nearest enemy and just having to press the buttons to fight them, there are plenty of ways we could tackle it. We need to take baby steps, to at least make sure that players can complete the game without sighted assistance. Then, as a next step, we would add (more features), with the goal of eventually having our games be fully accessible.
What are some of the biggest hurdles or challenges in making a game completely accessible, even to a sightless player?
DT: The way we're going to be able to make fully accessible games – even though this is a big goal that's going to take time – is by changing our company’s DNA altogether. Think about it this way: the Accessibility Initiative started as a ninja initiative. We’re only at the beginning, we have made a lot of progress over the past two years in making accessibility part of the DNA at Ubisoft. If we continue to educate the development teams about thinking about it very early – as soon as you have a mandate, as soon as you start doing design workshops with your design team, even recruiting programmers, designers, and artists with an interest in accessibility – by doing those things from the get-go and involving everyone, then I think we can achieve greater accessibility than what we see right now.
In the meantime, I have to say that I'm very proud of our dev teams. Yes, we’re still far away from being fully accessible. We recognize that. But it's amazing that in a couple of years, we’ve gone from a few sporadic efforts here and there to having some basics across our portfolio: good subtitles, more and more having full control remapping on all platforms – it didn't exist two years ago. It's amazing now, it's across the board.
It's a long process. It requires everyone’s involvement. But we clearly see that this is happening; the future is accessible for sure. It’s just a question of time, but this is ongoing. This is not going to stop.
For more news from inside Ubisoft, including its ongoing accessibility efforts, check out our previous coverage.