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!

The Pain of Inaccessibility

This article isn’t for my blind readers, unless they are looking for something to relate to. This article is more for those game developers out there, or folks in the industry, and is meant to bring home a point that cannot be driven home enough. It’s a point I have personally made in many speeches, and even conversations with other developers. We are gamers, and we want to game. I am not writing this seeking sympathy, as it may appear I am. I am only writing it in an attempt to bring understanding to those who may not yet see why we keep fighting for accessibility. Please keep these things in mind as you read.

At midnight on May 25, 2018, I heard a cheerful little chime through my headset. It was a notification sound that told me Detroit, Become Human was ready to start. At this, I was filled with unmistakable delight. It was here! After 5 years, Detroit was finally here! Here at last was a game I have anticipated more and more with each passing year, following all the news and the hype because I had a great deal of respect for its developer thanks to their previous games. And now, it was ready to play! With one press of a button, I could… But that’s where my excitement ends.

Moments in your mind are speedy little things. So much can be contained within them, and yet they pass in no time at all. Just as I soared with happiness at the arrival of this game I had been long-awaiting, I then drowned in frustration immediately afterward. The thing is, I knew I couldn’t play this game. I knew already that it was inaccessible to the blind.

I knew this for several reasons. First, I had done my homework. I learned that, mechanically, it functioned like Quantech Dream’s other games, meaning you moved with the left stick, and used the right stick to perform most actions. There are also moments a blind person cannot anticipate where the method of performing an action unexpectedly changes. A moment in Heavy Rain has you brushing the teeth of one of the main characters, and this is done by shaking the controller back and forth instead of using a thumbstick. There is, of course, no audio indication that we must do this.

The second reason I knew the game was inaccessible is that I tried the demo that came out the previous week. Though I did manage to get through the scene that you play out, I got what I believe is the worst possible ending. The fact is, I didn’t know what choices I was making, and didn’t know where interactable objects were. It was an investigation in which I found absolutely 0 clues. That complete disconnection from a game can hardly be called playing it, in my humble opinion. But you see, none of this is the point. This is, if you can believe it, not a rant about Detroit’s inaccessibility.

The next question you should be asking is this. If I knew the game was totally inaccessible to the blind, if I knew I couldn’t possibly play it in a million years, why did I wait up for that little notification chime? Why did I experience that rush of delight? The answer is quite simple, and yet quite complex as well. It is because I am a gamer, and because I LOVE games. I love developers who have consistently demonstrated the ability to enthrall their players with an amazing story. I LOVE great sound design. I LOVE great voice acting. I LOVE a great musical score. I loved the premis of this game when I first heard of it. I loved the commitment by Quantech Dream to go back to their roots, and make a game where the choices once again really mattered. I loved how this game sprung up from something that was just a tech demo many, many years ago. In short, I already loved everything about this game. My love of games is independent of whether or not they are accessible. That is the point.

“OK then,” you say with a small nod. “Why not just watch a playthrough? Why spend your time blogging about your frustrations when thousands of people have probably uploaded millions of videos of this game to Youtube?” You are right. I could absolutely do that. In some cases, I have. I deeply respect Let’s Players, especially those who know their audience. The problem with a Let’s Play, though, is that it will always be someone else’s experience. A game like Detroit, in my opinion, should not be experienced that way first. A game that relies as heavily on player choice as Detroit should be experienced on an individual level if possible, and in an interactive sort of way if not. And that’s where my fiance comes in.

For those who do not know her, which is some, but not all of my readership, my fiance is a wonderful but very busy woman. She’s a concert photographer, which means that when she isn’t out taking incredible shots of rock bands, she’s here editing those photos and sending them on their way. I do not begrudge her for the time this takes, and I support her every endeavor. And yet, to be perfectly, brutally honest, there is a part of me that would like to tear her away from her work and somehow force her to play Detroit. If she did, I know that she would allow me to make many of the game’s choices, thus making the experience partially mine as well as hers. This, while not ideal, (of course I’d still love to be able to play the game myself), would be acceptable.

That, however, would be a selfish act, and I am not by nature a selfish person. And so, I am left aching. I ache for a game I love but cannot play myself. I hope my fiance finds some freetime during which we both can enjoy the game. I’ve said this before, but it is sometimes nearly a physical ache. Yet, it changes nothing. I still love games, and I always will. I will love this game even if, for some crazy reason, I never get to play through it. Games are in my blood.

I’m going to reiterate again that I am not seeking pitty. Many of us blind gamers can relate to this experience, and some do not have the option of a fallback sighted person to do a playthrough with their involvement. It would be harder still for those people. As I’ve said, this article is primarily for everyone else, and is meant to illustrate the ultimate truth of the fight for accessibility. We love games, and we want to play them too.

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.

Playstation Not Now, Blind Folks

Great news, guys! I had a positive experience with PlayStation Now! You know, Sony’s game streaming service that just about everyone else on the internet says is horrible, and awful, and all sorts of other things? Yeah, that service. I’m happy to report that I tried the open beta on PS4, played a game, specifically Dynasty Warriors 7, and experienced, totally not kidding here, little to no latency at all. There were a few stutters and skips here and there, but it was all perfectly tolerable, and in my opinion, it was a fun 4 hours.
However, you may have noticed that the title of this article isn’t exactly a positive one. The fun I had playing that game streamed from the cloud came with a bit of a cost. I couldn’t have done it alone. While I think PlayStation Now is a great concept and is going to be, in time, a great service, it is not the most user friendly one.
The way it currently works is like this. You rent games for varying amounts of time from the PlayStation Now section of the PSN store. Currently there is no option to buy, and rumor has it there may be a subscription option later. Now you may be thinking, “But wait! You can access the store from the web site, and it’s totally accessible and great and grand and wonderful, so ha!” Well, the web version of the store does not contain the PlayStation Now section. At present it can only be accessed from the PlayStation Store on the PS4 itself. This is a huge issue, as the store basically remains inaccessible to the blind via the console. We have no way of telling which game we’re choosing, and in this case how much our rental will cost, as prices vary from game to game.
There is a small positive right now, though. Once a game is actually rented and played once, it does appear in your list of games on the PS4 home screen. Remember how I talked about everything being in a straight line from left to right in the PS4 article? Yeah, it’ll show up there. So once someone basically rents a game for us, we do have access to it from that point forward, but really that’s not the point here. The point is that it’s impossible for us to use the service independently as it currently stands. I believe this would be fixable if Sony added the PlayStation Now section to the web store, but would they be able to interface enough between web store and console to add it to our home screen as well? That I’m not sure about.
A nonaccessibility-related side note in case you’re wondering. When you play a PlayStation Now game, you’re basically playing on a virtual PS3 somewhere else. You do have saved games, and they are stored for you in the cloud. Your saves do persist across rentals, so you can rent again at another time and keep going. Furthermore, since you really are basically playing a PS3, you can play online games with people who own the disc-based version of the game you rented. It is a bit annoying that the cloud for PlayStation Now is diferent than the cloud you can upload saves to from an actual PS3, because it means that if you own a PS3, rent a game on PlayStation Now, like it, and buy the disc-based version, you can’t bring your save to that version. Still, I mention all these things to demonstrate that the service itself is, overall, a pretty good one. It’s just a little sad that for us blind people, as of right now, it’s PlayStation NOt Now.

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!