Commentary: The Most Undocumented Accessibility Feature

Continuing the sports theme from my previous blog about MLB, today I want to talk about commentary. These days it is a standard part of any sports game, and has been since the N64 era, but today we’re going to talk about what it is in the context of blind gaming. That’s right, kids, it’s an accessibility feature. “What?” the sighted readers gasp. “It is? But… But how? It wasn’t made just for the blind!” True, but it serves that purpose for us. Let’s discuss.

One of the primary themes I use when discussing the challenge of blind accessibility with game developers is information. In most cases, blind accessibility involves figuring out what information we don’t have, and then figuring out how we’re going to get it. That is a simplistic explanation, but I think the principle holds up pretty well most times. While, to the sighted player, commetary is just a part of the presentation that makes their sports game more immersive, to us it is a source of information. Think of all the things commetary tells you these days. In Football and Baseball, it gives you a real understanding of how a play is going. Yes, that’s what play-by-play commentary is supposed to do, but the point is just that it does so, and it is a feature that can be turned off.

Play-by-play aside, commentary in newer sports titles takes it a step further, giving us access to information we simply didn’t have in the old days, like player and team stats. How cool is it to get an audio rundown of how a player is doing so far this year, or how they did last year, or find out what the team’s schedule is for the next week? Trust me, if you can’t see it, it’s pretty freaking cool.

Unfortunately, not all commentary is good commentary. The WWE2K series, for example, has managed to do something truly amazing. They have actually managed to make their commentary worse with every passing year. Do you know which game has better, more helpful commentary than, let’s say, WWE2K18? I’ll tell you. WWF Warzone for the Nintendo 64 and Playstation 1 has better commentary. It’s completely true.

The problem here is that 2K chose to focus the commentary on the side banter that sometimes happens during a wrestling match rather than the actual wrestling. What comments are made about the match are simplistic and unhelpful, like “Oh that was a great strike there.” If I’m not the one playing, or if I’m involved in a match with several wrestlers in the ring at once, I have no idea who threw this great strike, or who just did that incredible reversal… Sometimes I don’t even know who performed a finishing move, because they only say something like, “And there it is!” There it is indeed.

The banter itself is not necessarily the issue. I don’t actually dislike the banter, as it really is a part of wrestling’s presentation. The commentary is so focused on that, though, that there is no discussion of the actual moves, or of the wrestlers’ progress beyond the existence of rivalries, or their most recent win or loss.

The reason that Warzone, or its sequel Attitude have better commentary is because it is focused inward on the match currently taking place. They talk about the moves, they talk when someone is out on their feet, they have loads of responses to in-match events. These are games from 1997 or so, but I’d take their commentary any day.

The thing is, it’s appalling that the WWE2K series has such bad commentary. Last year, 2K went on and on about the auditory overhaul the game was getting. They also said the game would now be using the commentary engine from the NBA2K series. There is exactly 0 evidence that this was actually done. If you’re reading this, and are unfamiliar with either of these game franchises, do me a favor. Take a second and look for a gameplay video of NBA2K18. Listen to that commentary. Listen to how it flows in almost a natural way, and how sometimes small audio files are combined to form whole sentences. When listing some stats, for instance, they’ll have a basic sentence structure, filled in with the correct numbers for that player’s actual stats. All of this flows seamlessly as if it were one. You actually have to be listening for the breaks, or you won’t even notice them. Listen to that. Then find a gameplay video of WWE2K18, and listen to that mess. If you’ve done that, please comment and tell me if you believe WWE2K is using the same backend commentary system, because I sure don’t.

Ultimately, this article is not about wrestling games, though I think they served very well to demonstrate the point. This article is about commentary in general, and why it is so important to us blind gamers. Good commentary is so often overlooked by critics. Almost every sports game review I’ve watched just criticizes the commentary of any sports game, even the ones with amazing commentary, saying it’s repetitive. Of course it’s repetitive. The announcers who did the voiceover work to create the commentary for these games only spent a finite number of hours recording that commentary, and thus could only create a finite number of total responses. Game critics seem to think that commentary should be done live by the real announcers in realtime for every single game that is being played by a human being. It’s a ridiculous argument.

It doesn’t matter that we occasionally hear the same messages over and over again. In a game with good commentary, (MLB: The Show is another example of this), the important thing is that the messages are there in the first place. They give us much of the information we need, and thus, by the very existence of commentary, sports games become more accessible. As always, feel free to comment here or on Twitter or Facebook with any feedback you have, and thanks for reading. Continue to be awesome!

MLB: Road Away from the Show

Regarded as perhaps the best baseball simulation ever created, MLB the Show is held up high every year for its continued improvements on what is already a fantastic product. That is, unless you’re a blind gamer. If you are, you may think just about the opposite these days. The reason I want to discuss MLB: The Show, though, is because it’s an interesting case. The games in the franchise used to be very, very accessible, but seemingly year over year, their accessibility for blind gamers has steadily decreased. Let’s discuss.

Basically, what it ultimately comes down to is that MLB: The Show has perfectly simulated itself right out of blind accessibility. It’s very, very difficult to fault the game for becoming less accessible over the years, because the major reason for that is that it has become more realistic. The sounds of an incoming pitch, formerly a tremendous help, are now much quieter, because they would be in real life. There are new mechanics for bat positioning to get the perfect swing, and with those come insane amounts of math the game does when you swing the bat to determine just how the ball is hit and what happens as a result. This of course means that you should try to use these precise swinging mechanics, which of course means you must know exactly how the ball is coming at you… I think you get the idea.

Certain other features, like the guess pitch feature, have been toned down, at least where audio is concerned. The indication we had guessed correctly used to be much more apparent than it has recently become. Pitch speed, again realistically, has become a lot more variable. Back in the days of MLB2006, we could just time the speed of just about any pitch and be right most of the time. Now speeds vary drastically depending on pitch and pitcher both, which lead us to use the guess pitch feature and always guess fastball. This way if you were right, you would know to swing quickly. Now even that workaround works less often.

Don’t get me wrong, though. There are still helpful features. I admit the last MLB the show game I played was MLB2016, but I believe the Autofielding feature is still there. The absence of this feature would make the game all but unplayable without major accessibility changes. Basically this meant that if the ball was hit, your players would automatically go chasing after it and make the catch if they could. This didn’t function as an automatic win, because player stats could affect their success, but it is a wonderful help to the blind. The commentary of MLB The Show, as well, has always been spectacular.

What I’m saying, I suppose, is that I get it. I understand completely that MLB: The Show continues to be a wonderful franchise year after year, with every game garnering ridiculous amounts of critical success for its realism and attention to detail. The loss of the things that made the game playable make sense, as they were never specifically features designed for us. I will also say that I sincerely appreciate the fact that the MLB team has worked hard on accessibility for other types of disabilities. It is my understanding that people with motor impairments can play MLB: The Show with just 1 button. That is a wonderful, awesome thing, for which they deserve the praise they’ve received.

Still, I can’t help but wish I could get back into playing MLB: The Show again. I still love the sport of Baseball. I would love to pick up the latest edition and discover that its playability had actually increased. Perhaps someday, as I continue to pursue the dream of helping to make games accessible to the blind, I will be able to convince our friends at Sony San Diego to give it a shot. If that ever happens, I’ll gladly take a brand new ride on the road to the Show.

Thanks for reading. As always, your feedback and support are appreciated. I’m not just writing these things for myself. Keep smiling, and continue to be awesome!

Blind Accessibility: Past and Present

Anyone who is a gamer knows how much video games have changed over the years, and not just the games themselves, but the perception of them. This applies to the blind as well, as our perception of game accessibility, what is playable and what isn’t, has also changed. I’d just like to take a moment to reflect and discuss those differences with you now. Let’s see what you think.

Accessibility in video games has become, as the years have gone on, both more complicated, and yet more simple as well. More complicated because the complexity of games is much, much greater than it used to be, and the implementation of accessibility features would involve the writing and/or rewriting of a whole lot more code. At the same time, though, it has become more simplistic because the possibilities of what can be implemented have expanded. Game companies have drastically increased in size, and games are now developed by teams that can go from small groups to well over a hundred people.

And that’s not all. The fact is, accessibility in retro games simply wasn’t a thing that was considered. Not just for blindness, but for anyone. If there was a game you couldn’t play, that was the end of it. There were no patches or fixes you could hope for. The release of a game was the final product, and that was that.

It’s interesting to think back on how all of these things have changed. In the case of blindness, for instance, we knew to accept that there were things we could play, and things we couldn’t, and nothing could be done about the ones we couldn’t. We had dreams, we had frustration, but we also had acceptance. For this reason, some of what I’ve mentioned above didn’t actually matter to us, because that was the way things were.

After all, it’s difficult to argue the fact that the accessibility threshold was a bit lower, at least for the blind. For instance, most very old games didn’t even have a menu. Old consoles didn’t even have an interface of their own. You pop in the cartridge, you turn on your console, you begin playing. If there was a menu option, it was almost always 1 player or 2. That alone eliminates some of the accessibility problems we face today. No menu memorization, no concern over whether a console has text to speech or how good it is, no store to purchase DLC from… It was a simpler time.

Games themselves were more limited in scope back then as well. This is interesting because it meant that a game was usually completely playable by a blind person, or completely not playable. A fighting game, for instance, didn’t even have an in-game move list back then, and although fighters today almost always fall under the playable category, we still don’t have access to those features in most of them. Back in the old days, though, we had just as much access to a fighter as anyone, as a sighted person couldn’t look things up easily either.

There is also an interesting difference in what we had to learn in order to play a game versus what we have to learn now. In older games, there weren’t as many sound effects used. This was good in that it took us a shorter time to learn what each sound meant, but it was also bad. Less sound effects meant fewer indicators for events. This was made worse in games that used the same sound for multiple things. Older fighters, for instance, used the same voice audio for all male characters, and only used a different one if there was a female character. We had to use other things, such as the sounds of certain moves, to determine which fighter was actually present.

Now, there is so much sound in games. This, too, is a good and bad thing. More sound means more work learning each individual one and what it means. This usually takes much longer now as there are so many sounds in the game that it is possible not to notice a particularly helpful one right away. For example, it took me some time to realize that, in Kingdom Hearts, Saura’s footsteps change depending on what keyblade he’s wielding, but once I figured that out, it was immensely helpful.

The fact that the footstep sound difference I just mentioned even exists, though, is a great example of why more sound is a good thing. As long as we can figure things out, there is loads of information available via our ears, some of which the sighted community doesn’t even notice. This is why today’s audio designers love us. We tend to catch the little details that exist, even though there are so many of them.

Today’s sound goes beyond sounds themselves, though. These days, with technologies like surround sound and even 3D audio, we get even more information. We can tell where something or someone is based on the positioning of its sound in our headphones or speakers. Most older games played all their sound from a single speaker until around the mid 90’s.

I’m not really trying to make a point with this blog. This struck me as an interesting topic because of how different things were than they are now, and I thought it would be fun for you guys to think about it too as we move forward into a new age of accessibility. Yes, accessibility takes a lot more work these days than it might have if we had accessibility features back then, but it’s still happening. Developers are starting to communicate with the disabled community, and they’re starting to listen. It’s a wonderful, magical time, but the past, the way things were in the NES and SNES days, had a sort of magic all its own as well. I hope all of this made sense, and I hope as well that it got you thinking. As always, feel free to comment, and check out the support heading for ways in which you can, well, support this content. Thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!

Resident Evil 6: Surviving Blind

Resident Evil 6 is an interesting beast. It is an example I have used in multiple conversations when discussing the phenomenon I call accidental accessibility. The reason for this is that its accessibility is very clearly so accidental as to almost be hilarious. In fact, in presentations, I have even made jokes about it. Still, the fact that it’s there is awesome, and since this blog exclusively covers awesome things, we’re going to talk about it.

First up, I should mention its menus. While they will require memorization or a menu guide, they do not wrap. Or more accurately, they do wrap, but in the perfect way for a blind person. I equate them to the menus of the Xbox360, which don’t wrap if you’re holding the arrow key up or down and reach the top or bottom, but do wrap if you then release the arrow and press it again. This is the perfect way to do something like this, because it means that we can always locate the top or bottom of a menu, but can still get to an option we know is in the opposite area quickly if we need to. It’s a nice touch.

Second, we need to cover an option in the game’s settings, which causes the game to automatically perform some of the mor simplistic Quicktime events automatically. There are keywords here, those being some, and simplistic. This means that there are a plethora of the game’s quicktime sequences that are not covered here. Those will have to be learned, and in some cases struggled through, but this helps.

Now we get to the game itself. This is where things get crazy. The primary reason Resident Evil 6 is accessible is an interesting design choice the developers made. There is a button you can press to bring up a view of the area map, with an arrow pointing you toward your objective. That in itself doesn’t sound very useful. The thing is, as the arrow points toward your objective, it also snaps the camera in that direction. And as it turns out, movement in this game is dependent on where the camera is pointing. Therefore, if you hold down the map button, and press the thumbstick forward, you will casually saunter toward your objective.

I say that you casually saunter because of the drawback of playing the game this way. This is the part that makes it clear the fact that this works is an accident. You see, visually on screen when you press the map button, the character looks down at their PDA as if the map were located there. While they are doing this, they cannot move quickly. You the player are not meant to hold the button constantly. You are meant to take a look at where the arrow and camera are pointing, and move on. Not us blind gamers, though. Also, there is no actual pathfinding in place for movement like this, so we tend to get stuck on tables and stairs and protruding objects of any kind, but a quick back up, move off to the side, try again tactic usually fixes this.

Now here’s an accidental accessibility feature that’s kind of going to suck if you don’t have access to a handy sighted person. The game is a bit more fast-paced if you are doing co-op with a sighted individual, and here’s why. During the game, whether or not you’re playing Co-op, pressing the circle or B button orients the camera, and thus you, onto your co-op partner. When playing alone, the partner doesn’t do anything without you, so they’ll never be ahead of where you are. But if you bring in a sighted friend to lead the charge, you can hold circle as you would hold the map button, and your character will follow theirs step for step. It’s pretty awesome.

Now as I’m sure you know, Resident Evil is about zombies. Resident Evil 6 in particular, having strayed from the franchise’s survival horror roots, is more about killing them in all sorts of fun ways. The good news here, though, is that shooting zombies in this game is not only possible for the blind, but very, very fun. Firstly, the surround sound in RE6 is good enough that, if you’re wearing a surround sound headset or have a good system, you can orient pretty well on zombies nearby, and take them out. Even if you don’t have a setup like that, though, every character has a move called a quickshot, which is an autoaimed shot at your nearest target. It does take some of your stamina meter to use, but it’s a good way to start when a hoard is coming at you.

Even executing awesome melee attacks is possible. You can use surround sound to orient and then charge your enemies, dealing some quick damage with a melee combo, and you can even execute counter attacks if you’re fast enough. Every enemy has a well-defined attack sound, which includes a setup for their swing at you. Some are quicker than others of course, but they’ve all got one, and if you can press the melee button just as the attack is coming, you’ll execute an awesome counter. If you become amazing at this, it will actually serve you if you try out the game’s mercenaries mode, which adds 5 seconds to your remaining time for every counter you execute.

Now let’s be clear on this. There are still accessibility issues with this game. Some of the quicktime events not covered by that feature I mentioned earlier are quite tough, relying on precisely pressing a button when a meter is full, or a cursor is in the right spot. No items in the game make any kind of ambient noise, so while we might be able to get to our objective, we miss a million things along the way, including ammo which is of course quite valuable. Finally, there are entire sequences in that game that are nearly impossible if you’re blind, such as a moment where you have to shoot churchbells which of course don’t make a noise until you shoot them, or a moment where you have to line up your gun’s laser site with a reflective disc so the beam reflects the correct way. These are obvious problems which you will likely need assistance to pass, but in spite of them I still have to recommend this game. The playable parts of it outweigh the nonplayable ones, it’s fun and fast-paced at times even though you’re stuck walking slow, and at least on the PS4, you can recruit any willing sighted individual that also has a PS4 to help, as they can take control with Shareplay.

Resident Evil 6 remains a prime example of accidental accessibility. It was not loved by critics, it was not loved by classic Resident Evil fans, but I can honestly say that it remains one of my favorite console games today. If you can look past its deviation from traditional Resident Evil, it has a solid story, excellent voice acting and production values, amazing audio design, and yes, we can basically play it. As always, feel free to contact me with any additional questions you might have after reading this, and thanks for being awesome!

Diablo 3: An Accessible Little Devil

Diablo 3, as you may or may not know, has been out for a long time. I mean a long, long time. Many, many years. Its PS4 release is more recent, but even that has existed for several years now. Nevertheless, for most of its existence, I never once tried to play it. Usually I am willing to try anything once, but I made the foolish mistake of dismissing it as an impossibility. “There’s nothing here that will help us,” I thought. “There’s no way we could get through this game. It’s all about the gear, and improving the gear, and leveling up, and the grind, there’s just no way.” I’m ultimately very happy to say that I was wrong.

It was my fiance’s idea, actually. She’s the one who suggested, after having played the game quite a lot herself, that I give Diablo 3 a try. We’ve lived together for some time, and she’s gotten used to my talk about accessibility, why certain games are and are not accessible to us, and what kinds of things we blind gamers are looking for. She was convinced that she had spotted things which definitely made Diablo 3 accessible. I was skeptical, but I gave it a shot, and boy was I surprised.

She had picked out a number of things. First, the movement was simplistic. You never have to jump in Diablo 3. There is 0 platforming. That’s actually an important issue. When we blind gamers are trying to figure out where to go, where and when we have to jump can really hinder our efforts. Keep in mind that we can’t actually see any platforms if they are there, so if one is required to progress, we may be stuck there until the end of time. Not so with Diablo 3.

Secondly, when you are walking along and run into a wall, the footstep sounds cease. This is also important, as many games keep that animation playing even as the character runs into a wall. We may not be able to see obstacles, but using this method, we know when we encounter one and thus need to change direction.

Third, monsters mean progress. Monsters in Diablo 3 don’t automatically respawn unless you reload the game. When they’re dead, they stay dead. So for the most part, if you’re encountering enemies, you’re probably going the right way.

Fourth, positional audio. Not only do the monsters themselves make noise in the appropriate surround sound channels, but so do dropped objects. If an item drops nearby, it actually isn’t too difficult to track the area where it dropped, and go pick it up. There can be some confusion when many, many items drop at once, which happens when you slay a rift guardian, but overall these things are extremely helpful to us.

Fifth, exits. This is something I noticed myself when I listened to her play the game, but didn’t think it was enough. Alone, it wouldn’t be, but with all these other things, the fact that entrances and exits to different areas make noise when you approach them is just another helpful addition. When you hear that hissing sound, you know that pressing X will take you somewhere else.

With these basic discoveries, I began playing Diablo 3 for PS4. Once I did, I made even more discoveries. For instance, certain world objects and items make their own ambient noise. This I found very strange, as I couldn’t really see a reason for it from a sighted gamer’s perspective. That’s not a complaint by any means, it just struck me as strange because I know Blizard didn’t consider the blind when making the game. There is a crafting component called Death’s Breath which, after it is dropped, has an ambient sound, making it easy for us to collect. The waypoint markers in each area also make a sound. If a demon Hunter class drops a century turret, that makes a sound too while it’s active, even when it’s not shooting at anything. These are really interesting sound design choices that, while nonessential for sighted gamers, are actually wonderful for us.

Next, shortcuts. Diablo 3’s story mode does an interesting thing. For context, you can use waypoints to teleport to different major map areas. In adventure mode, you have to specifically select a waypoint to teleport to once you are in the appropriate menu. Not in story mode, however. In story mode, the correct waypoint you need to proceed is automatically highlighted when you access the waypoint menu. Now that is convenience, and accessibility for us.

It goes further, though. I mentioned before that waypoints do make noise, but we figured out that you don’t actually need to find them. Like, ever. If you go to the map screen, which you can do by pressing Down on the directional pad, then press R1, you get an act map view, which is actually what the waypoint menu is. It gives you a map of the current act of the story you’re in. Once you’ve done this, if you’re playing story mode, the automatic highlighting shortcut works just as if you had clicked on the waypoint. That makes it super easy for us to progress to the next area, no matter where we are.

There are more things that I haven’t mentioned here, but I think I’ve gotten the overall point across. Diablo 3’s accessibility is not a simple thing, like Resident Evil 6’s is. It still requires lots of patience, and it requires you to pay attention. It is, however, workable if you combine all these things together. Gear and skills are still a problem at times, but if you’re really, really patient, you can actually use a free screen reader called NVDA to perform OCR, (optical character recognition), on the game with PS4 remote play. The results are generally good enough to figure out what gear you’re looking at, though sometimes the stat numbers don’t read very well. However, it works just fine if you’re trying to build a particular set, as reading the names of gear generally isn’t an issue.

There is a lot of information here, but at the same time there is a lot of room for discussion. While I’m personally happy to answer the questions of anyone who contacts me, I would also like to point you at my Youtube channel, where you can find videos of me actually demonstrating this stuff. Check out http://www.youtube.com/superblindman for that if you so desire. For now I will say that Diablo 3 is a fun, addictive game, even if you are blind. You may need or want a little help along the way, (I don’t blame you for asking a sighted person to help with gear rather than suffering through using Remote Play for instance), but I do not regret my many Diablo 3 adventures. My Paragon level 661 wizard can attest to that. Thanks for reading, everyone, and continue to be awesome!