Game Accessibility is Happening

The feeling going into the first ever Game Accessibility Conference was a positive one, yet I can honestly say that I still wasn’t completely sure what to expect. How was this going to go? Would people really listen? Would they care? Those are harsh questions, but given the difficulty of making our wish for accessibility known in the past, they were legitimate ones. After all, I was once sent a form letter by THQ in response to some requests I made about their Smackdown wrestling games. The letter thanked me for my appreciation of their stunning graphics. Yeah, seriously.

This conference, though, was not that. It was so much more. For my general readership, keep in mind that this conference was about gaming with all types of disabilities. Blindness, deafness, those who require one-switch controls, even discussions about using VR while in a wheelchair. And the best part is, the conference was full of those who not only listened, not only cared, but kept an open mind, and looked to be inspired. I feel that everyone there wanted to know exactly how they could help make this work, and those who already knew were more than willing to impart that knowledge. I cannot describe how that made me feel.

The world is beginning to change. Accessibility is now understood to a far greater extent, and disabled communities all over the world are beginning to be recognized as gamers, just like everyone else. Of course, there are those who have advocated for disabled gamers for years, such as the Ablegamers foundation, but this conference represents a whole new level of recognition, acceptance, and willingness to find solutions, in my opinion.

I’m happy to report that my speech, which centered of course on video gaming from a blind gamer’s perspective, was extremely well-received, and that I was approached by many, many people afterward to talk about the possibility of blind accessibility for them. That, ladies and gentlemen, felt great. Even when I was at GDC in 2014, even though I was pretty well received there, and even though I got a lot of compliments, I also got quite a bit of negativity when I began approaching developers about accessibility. Few attempts were made to actually discuss solutions, and I was often just turned down, with the assumption that it was not possible. Not the case at all with this conference, not once.

I am writing this blog with a very specific purpose in mind. I do not want to repeat what I said in my presentation, as that will be available for all to watch. Instead, I am writing this as a followup to the conference, and as reassurance to all of my readers that all of this is real, things are really happening, and people do want to help make those things happen. It is not going to be instantaneous, but we are further along than we’ve ever been, and based on discussions I have now had, I know that we are going to keep moving forward. Games should really be for everybody, and I’ve never believed more strongly that they will be. And furthermore, I want to assure all those who read this that I will always do whatever I can to help this process along. This conference has only increased my passion for games, and I look forward to similar events in the coming years.

PS4: First Impressions

Update: The audio visual thumbnails I have mentioned several times are present in the PS4. However, when this blog was originally written, dynamic menus were not working on PS4, as it had just launched. Now that they do, I can confirm that the games that have these audio visual thumbnails will play them when you highlight the game and press down to access their dynamic menus. Another easy to use and helpful feature. I’ll leave the rest of the blog intact as I wrote it, but this is a worthwhile update, as it does improve accessibility.

I have now spent about 2 days with the PlayStation 4, and I want to take some time to let you all know what I’ve found so far in terms of accessibility of the console. I’ll put as much here as I can, but I’ll also probably forget something, so I encourage you to send me questions via twitter @superblindman, or email me at superblindman01@gmail.com. I’ll be happy to answer anything I didn’t answer here if I know it, or if I can find it out. For now, here we go.

First, and for some most important, menus do not wrap. This appears to be true in all cases. Every settings menu, the row of apps and games, everything. This makes navigation nearly a breeze for us blind folks. Just the menu memorization we’ve already grown used to, and we’re done.

The apps and games area of the PS4 is indeed organized as I thought it was, with one slight change from what I thought before. It is basically 2 rows, the bottom starting row being your apps and games, and the row above that essentially being the system management. However, if you’re downloading a game at the time, that game will actually be the first game in the list regardless of whether you’ve played it or not. (Remember, the play while downloading feature). Also, your games and apps do not start on the extreme left side of that list. The What’s New option is always the leftmost option, and that’s something that to my knowledge we never actually need to use.

An additional note here, yes and no dialogs that occasionally pop up also do not wrap, however unconventionally, yes is on the right and no is on the left. In all the cases I’ve found, you actually start on yes, and will be on no if you move to the left. Definitely important as there are situations where you do have to answer a question.

And speaking of such situations, here’s one. If you play a game on the PS4, then hit the home playstation button to exit it, that game is still open. You can return to it immediately by simply selecting it in the menu again, or using the “back to game” voice command. However, what I’m getting at here is this. If you want to launch a new game, the PS4 will display an alert, letting you know that doing so will close the previous game, and asking if you wish to proceed. So this is an example of one of these yes and no dialogs. You’re automatically on yes, so if you want to play that second game, just hit X again and it’ll launch. However, if you reconsider, go let to no.

Another thing to note. As I’ve said, games can be booted and played even while they’re installing from disc or downloading. There is actually a way we can play these games as soon as they are playable. As soon as the disc begins to install, or the download begins to, uh, download, the game becomes available in your games menu as the first game. So remember, that’s actually one to the right. If you click on it, the screen says “installing application.” However if you just stay on that screen, the game will launch as soon as it is able to. Some games appear to have a small secondary installation which is very short, so the music will fade as if the game was launching, then a few seconds later it will come back. Just select the game again, and this time it’ll work.

Now regarding voice commands. They do indeed work, but they can be a little wonky. First of all, the option to allow them is enabled by default, which is good. However, something I didn’t find out for most of my first day, you actually have to press the left trigger once before you can start speaking. The thing is, though, there are a couple of problems. First, whatever engine powers the voice commands can go faulty on you, causing you to be unable to use voice commands until you reboot the consoee. I suspect this will be fixed in a patch, but hey these are my first impressions, so there ya go. Second, though, there are some games for which voice commands don’t seem to work at all. I can’t tell you how many times I was trying to tell my PS4 to ptart Injustice with no result. It was hearing me, (there’s an audible tone to indicate this), but it just didn’t seem to understand Injustice, or Injustice: Gods Among Us, or any variant of the game’s name I could think of. I’m unsure whether or not this can, or will be fixed, as it might just be some weird omission from the PS4’s dictionary of words or something. Fortunately, as I’ve said, the menu structure is easy enough that I could figure it out. Still, voice commands are a quick and easy way to navigate the UI when they’re working.

One final, and unfortunate thing. The audio visual thumbnails the PS3 had don’t appear to exist in the way I thought they did. It seems that in truth, only some games have them, and you will only ever hear them when that game is open. Each game does have its own menu which you get if you press the options button on that game, but nothing plays unless the game is open, and it actually supports these things. This is unfortunate, but not a total loss, given how easy overall navigation appears to be.

And I think that’s it. Again, if I forgot something I won’t be supprised, and I’m perfectly open to questions. But I will say this. From an accessibility standpoint, the PS4 is awesome. The menu strutture actually makes it easier to navigate than the PS3, which was still pretty easy. Voice commands, which will probably be fixed and will work better soon, are a speedy way to jump to where you want to be, even if you’re not sure where it is in the menu. And with our access to the PlayStation Store and the accessibility of the PlayStation app, the entire console’s accessibility potential is quite high. It may even increase as features are added to the console and the app. Only time will tell. For now, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these first impressions, and I hope a few more games blind folks can play come out for the PS4, so you guys will start considering buying one. I need more friends! Signing off for now, but I’ll see you guys next week sometime when I shall be blogging about the Xbox One!

On the Verge:PS4 Edition

We are just hours away, ladies and gentlemen. The next generation is truly almost here, and we kick it off with the Playstation 4. Here, I offer you all a blog, once again from a blind gamer’s perspective, on what we know so far regarding the accessibility of the console, and what I cannot wait to confirm in less than 1 day.

Firstly, the PS4 does indeed support voice commands, and you actually don’t need the Playstation camera to use that feature. The mono headset the PS4 is packaged with will do just fine. I think this is great. I sort of see this as all the great things about the Kinect that blind people like, without the Kinect. Now, to be fair, the voice commands will be limited at launch, but the essentials are there for now. Launching apps and games is already possible, and turning the playstation off when you’re done can also be achieved with your voice. Sony has said that voice functionality will be expanding in the future. Sounds pretty sweet to me.

Secondly on my list of stuf blind people will want to know about, one of the features advertised at E3, the feature that allows you to share your controller with another of your friends online if you’re stuck in a game, will not be available at launch, but will be released in a future update. This isn’t especially critical, but there is potential for this feature to be helpful to us blind folks in certain instances, and will be a nice addition once it’s released.

Thirdly, in my previous ramblings about the PS4’s controller, I mentioned that I had heard it might have a speaker. Well, it’s confirmed that it does, and that speaker is used for exactly the sorts of things I hoped it would be. Killzone Shadowfall, for instance, uses the controller’s speaker while playing audio logs you find throughout the course of the game. Look, I know it’s a sort of gimicky thing, and I know that it’s not necessarily going to help us play any better, but dag nabbit I love it. Increases the emersion in a game if you ask me.

Alright, now let’s talk a little bit about the UI. There are 2 very important things that I want to mention here, both of which I just recently learned, and one of which I cannot wait to confirm for myself. Firstly, from what I’ve read and heard, it appears that as soon as you boot the system, you’re dropped right into the menu that contains all your games and apps. This is an immediate plus, as it means all our stuff will literally be right at our fingertips.

Now for the part that could cause some confusion. If what I heard is correct, games and apps will automatically be reorganized in this menu depending on use. Now we don’t know yet if menus are going to wrap on the PS4, but if they don’t, this may not be all that big an issue. You’ll just know that if you play a certain game a lot, it’ll be at the start of this menu always and that’ll be great. However, if menus do wrap, this may present a small problem. Of course, there’s always voice control to fall back on, and this next tidbit I picked up.

OK folks, here we go. This one could be big. This is what I was so hyped about not too long ago, and what I said I would only share here, in this blog. Some of you have heard me talk about what I like to call the Audio Visual Thumbnails on PS3 games. Well, folks, unless I am extremely mistaken, those are alive and well, and have been taken to the next level. Oh yes.

I listened to a little bit of Gamespot’s presentation on the PS4 UI. Each game now is going to have its own menu. These menus will of course allow you to start the game, but they’ll also have other game-specific things. Battlefield 4 for instance has a link to sign up for Battlefield premium in its menu. But what I’m getting at here is this. It’s when you’re in these game specific menus that the audio visual aspect seems to be present. Unlike the PS3, the PS4’s UI has its own background music. However, when the Gamespot presenter dropped down into Battlefield 4’s menu, that faded, and was replaced by what sounded like the background of a war torn area. Wind blowing, possibly distant gunfire… It was difficult to hear over all the talking, but if this is true, that whole organization thing may actually not be a problem at all. Quick check of the game’s menu, yep, that’s what I want. Start, and done.

I guess what I’m ultimately saying is that the PS4 looks like it’s gonna be a pretty accessible console. Even the Playstation companion app, available on IOS and Android, seems accessible enough for use by us with very few problems. And actually, clicking on the store link from within that app just opens Safari to a mobile version of the store, so we already know that’s accessible. This will of course require further testing once I can connect it to an actual PS4, but guys, the implications of the app are pretty huge. We’ll be able to receive notifications, messages, and invites and actually know for certain who’s sending them, and theoretically we’ll be able to accept all those things right from within the app. Remember, nothing on that confirmed yet, but it’s another layer of possible accessibility to consider, and is ultimately better than what we can do with Smartglass if it’s all true.

So as you can see, this hasn’t been what you might call a regular blog post. I’m focusing in on whether us blind people will or won’t be able to use this system. There is other information out there, but I think this is the most relevant to those who may read this. The most important thing is this. Right now, I’d say it looks like a pretty solid “will.” Check back post-launch for more, and if you can, prepare yourself as I intend to actually live stream my first experiences starting right from the PS4’s arrival. It’ll be an opportunity to ask questions of me while I’m actually working with the system itself, assuming I can get the old stream back up and running. Be assured that you will be notified if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

And that’s it for this post, folks. If you’re a blind person reading this, I hope it has given you some real hope that the PS4 may just be the most useable console yet. And if you’re sighted and reading this, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little peak into what us blind folk must consider when evaluating gaming systems like these. Like I said, stay tuned for more, but Brandon Cole signs off for now!

E3 Day 4 Stuff

Well folks, it’s over. The final day of E3 has concluded, and I’m surprised to say I have a bit more to say this time than last. As before I’ll address the biggest thing first.

It was mentioned briefly, almost in passing, at the Xbox One reveal that achievements would now change, tailoring themselves to the player. That left everyone with a lot of questions, but Microsoft revealed some information about their new achievement system, and I can honestly say… It’s not at all like what they said at the reveal. Here are some details.

First, Microsoft wants all Xbox One achievements to provide an additional reward besides gamer score. It’ll provide that too, of course, but you’ll also get something else to go with it, be that digital art, a map, an unlockable character, things like that. It’s unclear whether they’re trying to suggest that DLC items, or to put it more accurately, items not already found on the game disc could or would be given out with your achievements, but I have to admit it’d be kinda awesome if that was the case.

The next thing to note is that there are now 2 types of achievements. Standard achievements provide game score and the reward I previously mentioned, but then there are what Microsoft is calling Challenges. Challenges are limited time, realtime achievements completely controlled by the developer. They’re cloud-based, and in this context that means that you don’t have to undergo an update to the game for more challenges to be added. These challenges also do not give you gamer score, which actually makes sense, as Microsoft wants to give everyone the same chance at having a high gamer score. Thus, if challenges gave you major points, those who don’t often play, and therefore miss challenge opportunities, would never be able to have those same chances. Challenges do, however, appear as unlocked achievements in your list of achievements for that game, have their own associated special icons, and can provide you with the same additional rewards, (art, maps, characters and so on), that achievements can. To provide perfect examples of what these challenges might be, just look at Rockband. Of course, Rockband isn’t an Xbox One game, but if it was, all those solo and community challenges could potentially unlock achievements or other things for their completion.

And yes, that is another thing as well. There are 2 types of challenges, too. Challenges for a single player, and for the entire community. The example the article gave was related to Fable. Some of you may know that you can, for some reason, kick chickens in that game. This became a popular thing to do, apparently. Well, if the developer noticed people were doing this, or talking about this, they could just say “Alright then, folks. Community challenge. We’ll call it Chicken Kicker 2013. A million chickens must be kicked by the end of the week, and anyone who participates gets the achievement, and this super awesome sword of everlasting doom…” Or something. Pretty neat.

Furthermore, (and I think this applies more to single player achievements and challenges than it does to community ones), the Xbox One will automatically save a Game DVR clip of you earning achievements when you get them. Just another way to show all your friends that you’re awesome, and they may or may not be so. I quite like this, if nothing else because it seems to imply that the amount of clips you can save is unlimited.

Now, there is a third type of achievement as well, but one I find a little less compelling. Ladies and gentlemen, there will also be achievements for nongame-related stuff. The video services will have them, the music services will have them, and so on. Nongaming achievements will also not give you any gamer score, as once again, to do so would be unfair, as it might force someone to listen to a certain song, or watch a certain video they don’t want to watch. The rewards for these achievements might be early access to some videos or music, sneak peaks, or otherwise unavailable bonus content related to them. Things of that nature. Neat, but not as neat as the game-related ones if you ask me. And yes, this is me admitting I’ve found something I like about the Xbox One. Has it changed my overall opinion of the system? No, but I can still recognize something cool when I hear about it.

OK, now a couple of other quick things. First, I talked a little bit about the Division, more in my audioboo than this blog, but I mentioned its pop in, pop out mechanics. I now have a little bit more information on the specific scenario they showed at E3. The person who joined in the game at that time was actually joining from a tablet. He was piloting a drone that flew into the area, and he used it to mark a difficult-to-spot enemy for them. It has also been suggested these drones have other functions as well, and this is not the limit of the ways in which people could have joined. That could have just as easily been another one, or several console players. This does, though, explain the sound effects I mentioned hearing around this part of the demo, and adds a cool little flare to that game I wasn’t previously aware it had.

The very last thing I want to discuss is Super Giant Games’s new game, Transistor. I said before that trailer revealed nothing to me, well now I’ve listened to the demo, and it is intriguing. It’s about a woman who survives an attempt on her life, then finds the weapon that was used to try and kill her, which is a sword called the Transistor. Furthermore, there is actually a person somehow inside it that talks to her, and guides her around, though she cannot talk back. She, for some reason, has no voice, but it is implied that she used to have one. Making this more intriguing, the person within the Transistor doesn’t really seem to know what’s going on, or what’s in the protagonist’s head, which is a huge contrast to Bastian’s omniscient narrator. And that’s not all.

The Transistor, of course, has special configurations that can be accessed as you play, all of which give it, and you, special abilities. One of the neatest ones allows you to stop time completely, and for as long as you want, to lay out a series of planned motions and attacks to accomplish an objective or quickly eliminate enemies, which will then actually take place once you resume time. But the most intriguing thing I heard was this. Transistor is going to be PS4 exclusive, and because of that they’ve been looking into finding unique ways to use the controller. They’ve already gotten the PS4 controller’s light bar, which is most of the time used for games that support the camera, to flash in rhythm with the speech of the man inside the Transistor sword, but what they said right after that got me, as to my knowledge this hasn’t been discussed at all. They said they were also playing around with the idea of having his voice come through the speaker. This seems to imply there’s a speaker on the controller, which again I don’t recall anyone mentioning. If that’s true, I find that extremely intriguing, at least if this speaker produces audio of a decently high quality, because if there’s one thing I really like about the Wii You, and playing games like Arkham City on the Wii You, it’s that. The voices coming through Batman’s radio actually coming through the Gamepad speakers really adds a new element. So we’ll see if that guy didn’t just weirdly misspeak, or if maybe this is yet another awesome facet of the PS4.

And that’s it. Really, it is. I hope I’ve given you a decent amount of news during the course of E3. I know it wasn’t half as much as some of the bigger gaming media outlets have provided, but hopefully the way I consolidated some of the interesting stuff served you well this week. It really was a great E3 this year, and the proof of that is how much I can’t wait for these games. I can’t wait for the next generation to begin!

E3 Day 3 Stuff

Alright, folks, there isn’t as much news today, but a couple interesting things I found out, and one correction as well. Let’s see what we’ve got.

First, the correction. This was just a misinterpretation, really. I said before that Sony announced they had 40 exclusives launching for the PS4 within its first year. This was incorrect. According to a Gametrailers interview with Jack Trenton, Sony has 20 first party exclusives, (still more than the Xbox One’s 15), and on top of that, 40 multiplatform games contain exclusive content just for the PS4. Pretty sweet deal if you ask me, and in some ways better than I originally thought.

Now, a couple quick interesting notes. First, Batman: Arkham Origins does not in fact retain the original voice actors for its characters, most specifically Batman and the Joker. As it is a prequel, they wanted to find younger sounding actors to fit those roles. The most intriguing of these, for anyone who follows voice acting in video games, is the Joker, who is now played by one Troy Baker, a very prevalent actor whose career only seems to be picking up. So hey, if you are going to replace Mark Hamil, he’s a good choice for a replacement at least.

The second bit of news is kind of a fun fact. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Borderlands, but it’s basically a shooter/RPG kind of game with a focus on its own sense of humor. There’s some DLC coming out for it later this month which is basically a parody of Dungeons and Dragons. This content’s main character, named Tiny Tina, is one of the best characters in the game if not the whole series, and now I know why. Today, I have learned that the voice actress, one Ashley Burch, is the sister of the writer who created Tiny Tina, Anthony Burch. Tina herself is based on a combination of Ashley, and a friend of the family. Guess there’s a lot to be said for good, old-fashioned family chemistry.

That was really about it. Uh, some folks said they like the PS4 controller, lots of folks just continue to like the PS4 all around, but nothing really major besides that first big one. Yes, I watched more game footage than that, but remember i’m not trying to talk about and cover every game, I’m just trying to bring up interesting news about games people tend to follow. Oh wait, there is one more thing I could mention, though there was little elaboration on this. Final Fantasy XV’s combat is not at all turn-based. It’s realtime, which is almost, though not completely, unique to the FF series. There, now that’s it. Heheh. Tune in for more tomorrow, when I expect we may find out about the next WWE game from 2K, and hey, if you’re me, that’s a big deal.