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Monday, May 20, 2024

'Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart' Ups the Ante on Accessibility

During a recent PlayStation State of Play broadcast, Insomniac Games’ Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart took center stage, showcasing approximately 16 minutes of gameplay. While the presentation had the standard hallmarks of a game demo, highlighting graphical improvements, new mechanics, and a synopsis of the latest story, we also unexpectedly got a brief display of menus featuring a variety of accessibility options. That acknowledgment of those who will benefit from accessible features indicates that the industry is continuing to listen to disabled voices.

Insomniac Games’ latest title is not the studio’s first foray into the field of game accessibility. In fact, numerous developers owned by Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE) have dabbled in creating inclusive virtual environments for disabled players. As Sam Thompson, manager and senior producer at SIE notes, once development studios start the task of implementing accessibility into their games, future titles can focus on improving shortcomings.

“Take Naughty Dog for example: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End was the studio’s first title that contained formal accessibility features,” Thompson says. “The game shipped with 37 accessibility options in total, including a host of new features like a dedicated accessibility menu. If you fast-forward to The Last of Us Part II, Naughty Dog increased that to over 60.”

Uncharted 4, released in 2016, provided Naughty Dog with several years of experience to hone its skills in developing accessibility features. Rather than restart the arduous task of creating an accessible game, PlayStation studios continuously update portfolios with options that are proven to work. Not only does this create a relatively smooth transition between titles, it also ensures an ever growing list of development tools when mistakes inevitably happen.

“There will always be challenges, and with each new product comes a host of new and unique bespoke features or gameplay elements that will require all-new accessibility features to support them. But this approach means we can focus on innovation rather than retreading old ground working with problems that we already solved,” Thompson says.

For Ratchet & Clank, Insomniac Games utilized techniques and tools found in Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales as a starting point to create features that could benefit disabled individuals. One of the accessibility features in Spider-Man lets players reduce the number of button inputs required for specific moves. However, the latest Ratchet & Clank does not feature as many buttons as other titles within the studio’s catalog. Michelle Zorrilla, advanced senior user experience researcher at Insomniac Games, explains that the groundwork for accessibility was already there, but new features needed to be fine-tuned to fit this specific game.

“Instead, the team approached it from a gameplay perspective to see what situations or controls would benefit from a shortcut,” Zorrilla says. “Some situations could be addressed by offering toggles (like opening the Weapon Wheel or aiming), but successive presses like jumping and slamming your weapon or holds like gliding were good candidates to offer as a single press.”

Aside from the challenge of implementing toggling versus holding on specific actions, developers were faced with the task of meeting each disabled individual’s specific needs. While more studios are adopting accessibility practices, features and settings can only accommodate so much. Each disability is unique, and people with the same disability may have big differences in strength, vision, or hearing. As a result, Insomniac Games devised a new feature specific to Ratchet & Clank that could help alleviate physical and cognitive exhaustion.

“We were initially discussing how to handle each individual situation, which eventually turned into a global Game Speed option that could be used in any situation, and shortcuts seemed like the best way to allow for player control over speed and timing,” Zorrilla says. “This created a new challenge, as adding three different game speeds meant they all had to be tested, and both our Development Support team and PlayStation Studios QA were instrumental in making this happen.”

These initiatives in accessibility are not exclusive to PlayStation. Both Microsoft and Nintendo have hardware, software, or documentation to help foster inclusivity amongst internal studios. For example, in 2020, Xbox launched the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines (XAGs) to encourage consistency across all platforms. While not necessarily a rigid checklist that must be strictly followed, this list allows developers to continuously track the accessibility performance of a game through each stage of development, ensuring that their games do not lack crucial features. For PlayStation, studios and developers have their own iteration of the guidelines, with the first version created in 2015. Mark Friend, lead user researcher at SIE, acknowledges that guidelines such as these not only raise awareness but allow for consistent accessibility.

“The original document was an important moment, as it helped to put accessibility in front of people at a time when it was a much less common topic of conversation in game development, and it provided a great resource for developers who wanted to know more about the subject,” Friend says. “It’s also been important for us to work with developers across PlayStation Studios to inform newer iterations of the accessibility guidelines, to make sure that what we outline is achievable.”

And with Ratchet & Clank as proof, accessibility features can be incredibly unique to a specific game, despite coming from the same studio.

“There’s more to accessibility in game development than just following suggested guidelines,” says Friend. “While there are general best practices that can carry over between games, every game released by PlayStation Studios is different, so our goal is always to ensure that we tailor our support to our studios and their games. Our suggested guidelines provide a great baseline of knowledge, but we also want to ensure that our studios are free to explore new and innovative ways of making their games more accessible.”

The addition of accessibility features within a game does not require a AAA studio with hundreds of employees. And regardless of development size, accessibility is best tackled at the beginning of projects. Friend also advises developers to include disabled players as testers, to ensure that those features and options work for them.

Aside from the logistical aspect of designing a game, the inclusion of accessibility features and options comes from a commitment to letting everybody play. No one should be excluded because of their abilities, and as Sam Thompson argues, hearing directly from disabled people how beneficial and important accessibility can be is not only rewarding but assuring as a developer.

“Empathy is the most powerful tool in your arsenal. With it you can accomplish more than you ever thought possible. It’s absolutely astonishing how effective and motivating it can be when members of the A11Y community drop by the studio to share their perspectives and inspire your team to see things differently. You’ll be surprised at just how impactful this will be for your team.”

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