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.

The Platinum Wireless Headset and 3D Audio: My Uncharted Adventure

When I first heard that the Playstation 4 Platinum Wireless Headset would support not only 7.1 surround sound, but true 3D audio, I knew I had to check it out. The potential for 3D audio in video games, especially for the blind, is staggering, and I wanted to see if playstation could make it a reality. What follows is a general review of the headset itself, along with my experience with its 3D audio feature in Uncharted 4.

I liked the feel of the headset as soon as I pulled it from its padded box. It’s not too heavy, with large ear cups to ensure the best sound possible, and even before you actually wear it, the feel of the padding lets you know it’ll be comfortable. This impression was proven accurate when I put it on for the first time. It is comfortable, and light enough while on your head that you don’t feel weighed down by a bulky piece of equipment. I was already looking forward to this.

The controls turned out to be surprisingly easy to locate, and to use. Though each control is the same shape, they are all well-separated from one another, and each is tactily different. The mute button for the microphone, for instance, is a little more inset than the rest of the buttons. The The power switch, which doubles as your switch for presets, has a couple of obvious bumps on it. And all of the controls, except for the switch that activates or deactivates virtual surround, are on the left side, making it even less confusing.

In case you manage to acquire one of these headsets, and you’re one of my primary audience, let’s go through what you’ll find starting from the bottom of the left earpiece. Nearest the bottom is a 3.5 MM jack, used with the supplied patch cable to plug the headset into any standard headphone jack. Next to that, the USB Mini port, used to charge it. Then, in order, heading to the top, we have the master volume buttons, the mute button, the power/presets switch, and the game audio/chat audio balance buttons. Down tilts the balance toward chat audio, up tilts it toward game audio. And as mentioned, the only thing you’ve got on the right is the switch for virtual surround. Up is on, down is off, though you’ll hardly need me to tell you that once you hear it.

And speaking of the sound, it’s fantastic. Sure, the first game I played was Mortal Kombat X, as anyone who follows my Youtube channel can probably guess, and that game doesn’t represent the height of surround sound, but still, it sounded great. Every hit sounded more impactful because of the bass that headset pumps out, and the surround sound did lend itself a little to the 2D fighting environment. When I tossed my opponent across the screen, I felt like I had done so. That game has great audio, and the Platinum headset made it sound even better.

And still on the topic of sound, I should mention for the visually impaired that the headset does possess some identifiable beeps and boops when you interact with it. Mute the mic and you get one beep, unmute it and you get a lower tone beep. More beeps when you press the volume and balance buttons, and some helpful power and connected tones when you flip the switch. The whole thing is very easy to use, just gotta make sure that dongle’s plugged in, and you’re off.

Now, the big moment you’ve all been waiting for. It’s time for my take on the 3D audio supported by the Platinum Headset. As of this writing, the only game that supports the headset’s 3D audio feature is Uncharted 4. Well, I haven’t yet gotten a chance to listen to someone play the other Uncharted games, (and unfortunately they aren’t accessible to the blind), but I still had to try it. So, with the help of my fantastic fiance to enable some of Uncharted 4’s famous accessibility features, (not actually intended for the blind but helpful nonetheless), I fired it up.

Let’s get the big statement out of the way first. The 3D audio works. You really can hear things above and below you, and all around you. Even in 7.1 surround, sounds tend to emanate from specific places. The 3D audio seems to really put sound all around you, which is awesome.

However, I have to say that, as awesome as it is, and as helpful as I believe it will be in games, it isn’t perfect. Initially, we had the aim setting set to toggle, which is an accessibility option that allows you to press a button once to activate aiming mode, and press it again to turn it off. While set to this mode, I attempted to locate my enemies after having presumably toggled the aiming mode on, and could not do so, even when audio told me they had to be right in front of me. I am not sure why this is, and it could even be that, as a blind gamer, there are fundamentals of shooting in a game that I don’t understand. Regardless, aiming worked a thousand times better when we switched it back to Hold, where you hold a button to aim instead. The aim assist snapped to each target for me, and I was able to take them out.

Stepping back in time a bit, though, I want to talk a bit more about the 3D audio, and how it did help me. In the beginning, you have to swim a little to locate your companion, who is working on your damaged boat. Because he calls to you at first, I was able to orient on his position. Then, by listening for the sounds of his work, I was able to find him. This in itself says a lot for the potential for 3D audio. In a truly immersive environment, and it seems with perhaps just a little in-game help, who knows what we’ll be able to do? I’ll tell ya this, even being blind, the sound of our enemies’ boat approaching from the far left, and stopping right in front of us as our companion frantically works behind us was appropriately ominous.

Flashing forward again, once we got aiming working, I was able to take out our enemies. Then, through some rather typical blind person trial and error gameplay, I was able to start the boat we leave on, (I believe it’s actually the opposition’s boat though I could be wrong), and drive away. The 3D audio didn’t really take part here, I just tried to turn regularly in hopes of avoiding objects. Left a little, then right a little, and so on. Then, something happens, (no spoilers here), that moves you to the next part of the game. Unfortunately, this is where my journey ended.

The next part of the game involves a significant amount of platforming, which even 3D audio could not help with in the slightest. After all, regular platforms, rooftops in this case I believe, don’t make noise. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m incredibly stubborn. I tried. I tried a lot. But it was not to be.

Not wanting to be done testing the awesome 3D audio feature, I got a little help through that bit, and moved onto the next, which involved stealth. This didn’t work out much better, as it took a bunch of questions for me to figure out what I was supposed to do here. I finally figured out how to take cover against a wall that is next to you the whole time, (more on that later), and got through the first section of that. After that, though, I could progress no further without being seen. The audio just was not enough. That was the true end of my 3D audio expedition, though for the sake of playing the game blind, it really ended when I reached the platforming bit.

So let’s go back to that wall, and talk about the things the Platinum Headset’s 3D audio feature doesn’t do. As I said, it’s not perfect. Distance seems to be an issue, as although it can project certain sounds to what seems to be very far away, it seems as though there’s some kind of threshold there. If something is very far in front of you, the 3D audio may project it to sound like it’s very, very far in front of you. However, once it reaches a certain point nearer you, the sound puts it seemingly right in front. I suspect this was part of my aiming problem, though again that’s difficult to verify. My evidence for this is that the call from my companion in the beginning just seemed to be in the virtual surround field, but the agonized call of someone who saw me accidentally plunge to my death off a rooftop seemed remarkably far away.

The other thing it doesn’t do, though it makes sense as technology just isn’t quite there yet, is echo properly. There is a term that, to my knowledge, was coined by Stevie Wonder. That term is sound shadows. It is a name for the way you can hear how sound reflects off of objects around you if you listen, and it’s something a blind person uses all the time. Ever see a blind person round a corner without having touched the wall with hand or cane, and wondered how they did it? That’s how. We have trained ourselves to hear sound reflect off of the wall next to us. When that disappears, we know that wall has ended. We can use this same technique to gauge a person’s height, as obviously surrounding sound reflects off of people too. But in 3D game audio, this does not exist.

Don’t misunderstand, I don’t find this to be surprising. A system like the one that would be required to create this effect would be massive. Every single object, person, and wall would have to have their own pocket of sound-blocking that follows them around. Nevertheless, it needs to be mentioned, as true, binaural 3D recorded audio actually DOES simulate sound shadows. Listen to the 3D audio dramatization of Stephen King’s The Mist, and if you know what to listen for, you’ll know what I mean.

Because of these things, though, I was unable to tell both how far away I was from the wall I had to take cover against, let alone that there was a wall there to begin with. Had I been able to hear the sound shadows of objects around me, or the way my own jumps echoed off of those objects, I may have been able to intuit where my next platform was. I could still be wrong, and that might not always be enough as you could be jumping a great distance sometimes, but I think all this needs to be said. And hey, as difficult as I understand this would be, it’s never a bad idea to give audio designers something to strive for in the future.

In short, “it’ll sound like you’re really there” is very difficult to sell to a blind person, but again, please please don’t misunderstand, this was still a pretty great experience. I strongly believe that 3D audio could be one of the keys to blind accessibility of video games, and this was still enough to encourage that belief. In other words, it’s a great start, and I’m OK with that… For now.

Now, this is also a review of the Platinum Headset itself, and I think I’ve covered its many positives, so before I go, I must mention the one and only negative I have found. This negative technically isn’t about the physical headset. Rather, it’s about the Headset Companion app for PS4. This app, most unfortunately indeed, is completely inaccessible to the blind. Though the PS4 now possesses text to speech capability, and though that ability extends to 1 of their built-in apps as of this writing, (TV and Video if you’re curious), it does not work in the Headset Companion. Why does this matter? It matters because developers have programmed presets for their games, which can only be downloaded with this app, and those presets change the way those games sound to exactly what the developers wanted them to sound like. To a blind person who cares very, very much about game audio, this is a huge deal, and a huge disappointment that we cannot use it.

But, as most accessibility disappointments do, this only makes me want to strive harder for accessibility, so I will. I will focus on all the positives for now, (the headset is truly great, and hey, I got past the bit with the boat in Uncharted 4), and I will do what I can to make those negatives go away. I’m not going to give this thing a review score, as it’s also a bit of a blog post, but no matter what you came here for, I hope you got something out of it. Thanks very much for reading, game on, and continue to be awesome!

E3 2016: Discussion, concerns, VR

Greetings folks!
I have been away from the blog thing for way too long. I know it, and if you’ve read my other blogs, you probably know it too. However, the 2 major E3 press conferences of 2016 are taking place today, and so I thought I would discuss my thoughts and concerns about this year. Don’t worry though, there are positives here as well.
First, VR. It’s the hip thing right now, especially with Sony’s upcoming Playstation VR device. Given the timing, though, and the fact that the Playstation VR is due out in October, I’m worried that Sony’s press conference will be utterly dominated by VR games, which on the surface doesn’t sound like something the blind community, (which I represent with this blog in case you’re a new reader), would really be able to take advantage of.
Now, though, I offer a potential positive. Sony has made a bold claim regarding the Playstation VR. Supposedly, it will incorporate 3D audio. Now, I say this is a bold statement because many individual games have claimed they used 3D audio in the past, and that hasn’t exactly been true. The original Baldur’s Gate 2 had a setting for 3D audio, and all it actually does is add additional environmental effects and such. Unreal Tournament 3 had a similar setting if i remember correctly, and it was just meant for surround systems. So the implication here is that many, if not most people, don’t actually understand what true 3D audio is. If, however, the Playstation VR does use real, true 3D audio, there may be a reason for the blind to at least try it out. I’m not saying it’ll magically make every game accessible, but it could increase accessibility, definitely. Knowing exactly where your enemies are, which real, true 3D audio would allow, would be amazing. Distance, height, everything.
Still, even if that distant hope turns out to be true, we won’t know it watching Sony’s conference. So I worry, but I also hope that Sony delivers something for both VR and standard players. I know VR is going to be a part of it, I just hope it’s not all of it.
Second, new hardware. No real positive here. I am not really pleased by the rumors of the Playstation Neo, and the Xbox 2, or the Xbox One Slim, or whatever they want to call it. I know it’s been 3 years now, but I just do not feel like purchasing all new hardware. I cannot imagine how either Microsoft or Sony would sell me on a new PS4, or Xbox One, at this current moment when I’m perfectly happy with the systems I got. Slimmer isn’t going to do it for me. Even if they say something like, “It’ll load faster and stuff!” That won’t do it for me either. That’s just not enough reason for me to spend money on essentially a new console.
Now, if they offer some kind of direct trade in program, I would accept that, but that’s extremely doubtful. And yes, I know if I don’t want it, I can just not buy it, but I’m trying to speak for the general public right now, I suppose. Is this what we really need right now? I’m just saying i don’t think it is.
That’s about it for now. There may be more posts later today, depending on what actually happens. I am going to base that on whether or not I have anything to say about it. The press conferences that have already taken place, EA and Bethesda, were interesting, but don’t have much to offer us. More Fallout, more Doom, more Quake, more Madden, a few new games we likely cannot play, and so on. So here’s hoping for the best Microsoft and Sony conferences we can possibly get. Truly, I want them to be great. So impress me, guys.

A Weekend with PS4: My Thoughts on the PS4’s new Text to Speech Feature

It’s so easy for the sighted to completely overlook. It’s just one option, one setting, sitting there amongst the rest. Yet, for the blind, it represents the biggest change in video game console accessibility of all time. It’s something we’ve always wanted, but were never really confident we’d have. Now, at last, it’s here, and we can’t stop talking about it.
As has been pretty widely advertised at this point, the Playstation 4 has gained an accessibility menu. In amongst features for enhanced zoom, and button mapping, is the surprising inclusion into the accessibility lineup, text to speech. For the very first time, the totally blind have access to some parts of their video game console that, before, we would have simply ignored. Still, my opinion on this feature developed over time. Over a weekend, in fact. So now, I want to take you along with me on that journey. A journey of discovery, and of appreciation. Then, I want to try and express just how monumentally huge and important this is. Let’s see if I can do both.
When I first activated the Text to Speech feature, which I did with the help of my sighted fiance Misty, my initial reaction was disappointment. Immediately upon activation, there was no voice informing me that it was on, or ready, or anything of that sort. I hopped around the settings menu for a few seconds, and still nothing. “Really?” I thought. “Not even settings?”
So I backed out to the home screen of the PS4, hoping that maybe the TTS was just set up in such a way that the setting didn’t apply until you exited the settings menu, and that now it would begin speaking. Still no luck. I moved around the home screen, desperately hoping it would say that name of one of the games there. I went to the upper menu, hoping that something would be spoken as I moved over its options. Settings, friends, still nothing.
Finally, I managed to locate both the messages, and party options, and pressed X on them. At last, speech. Still, the feeling of disappointment didn’t quite go away. After all, I had heard that TTS would be included in the latest update, and I had hoped, hoped to the point of despiration, that it would cover everything. The home screen, the store, Playstation Now, all of it. It was a bit of a blow to see this was not the case.
I didn’t have too much time to experiment that night, but I still mulled it over. I realized quickly that the TTS being present at all was nothing short of incredible. So what if it doesn’t read everything? It’s there. It has never been there before. So my disappointment became a mere blip on my radar of awesomeness.
Then, over the weekend, I got a chance to experiment fully with what the TTS did support, and I was amazed. I had a fantastic time startnig a party, inviting my friends to it, chatting with them there, and even starting a Shareplay session so I could be spectated. A couple times, I even handed over the controller, (both first and second player), to play with those who were also in my party. I sent both text and voice messages back and forth, and marveled at the ease of use of the on screen keyboard. I learned the shortcuts for the keyboard, which I had no cause to do before now. I did all this using TTS. I could do none of this before TTS was added to the PS4. It was an incredible weekend, and it rekindled my love for that system.
That was my journey, and half the reason I needed to write this blog. The other half is this. I want to make it known to as many people as I can how amazing, and important a step this is in the accessibility of video games. This is a doorway, folks. It’s not the only one, but it is another one, and it’s cracked open. If Sony fills out this feature, it will crack open even wider. Blind people all over the place will purchase PS4’s if they know they can use every single aspect of it. Some are doing it now, and this is only the first iteration of TTS. Then, thinking bigger here, if Sony establishes some sort of hook into the TTS, even game developers can use it, and make their own games more accessible, perhaps even playable with the addition of spoken text.
Thinking bigger than that, if we fling the door all the way open, what about the competition? If this feature gets enough attention, then why wouldn’t Sony’s competitors, like Microsoft, jump on the opportunity to make their own version of this? And if they do, well, competition breeds quality. At least it should. The winners here are us, the gamers, specifically the blind gamers. This truly is huge, and however far that door opens, I for one cannot wait.

E3 Fallout: WWE2K15: I was Right

Ladies and gentlemen, it makes me feel great that I was right about one particular video game. That game, as the title of this blog says, is WWE2K15. I said last year to anyone who would listen that, as good as WWE2K14 surely would be, and was, it was not the game you should really look forward to. I said that with the emerging next-gen, now current-gen consoles, along with the likelihood that 2K would help with the game’s development, WWE2K15 was the one to wait for. I was right.
It was recently announced that 2K is indeed helping with development, and that this help is changing things for the better in every aspect of the game. Character models are now being built with NBA2K14 tech, and that game, as I have been told, has some of the best-looking character models ever seen. The final lockdown period for content has also been pushed forward several months, so WWE characters and stories will actually be close to current events in the WWE, rather than giant leaps behind. And third, most important of all to myself and other blind people, but probably pretty important to everyone else who has played the WWE2K series, 2K is helping to completely overhaul the commentary! The announcers will finally record all their lines together, like you know, actual sports announcers do, and each announcer will be recording over 30 hours of commentary! Now, I don’t know how many of you have heard the commentary in NBA2K14, but it’s good. It’s really good. And well, if you’ve heard commentary from the previous 2K games, you know it’s needed improvement for a very long time. It’s being done, and it’s being done right. I for one cannot wait until WWE2K15 hits shelves. Is it what you might call truly next gen? No, as it will likely be available on previous gen platforms. However, it is one giant step in that direction, and one that this fan longs to take.