Community Soapbox – Alex Paschall

For our latest Community Soapbox, I decided to shift focus a bit and talk with game developer and professor, Alex Paschall (@UnrealAlexander). After seeing far too many conversations on Twitter go a little off the rails with non devs insisting they know the intent of game devs when it comes to accessibility, I thought it might be time for an actual game developer to weigh in on accessibility. And so, here’s Alex.

So often, making games accessible seems like a big, scary thing, especially for solo or indie devs because many misunderstand it as making a game catering to everyone, or they don’t know where to begin. As a professor of game dev, is this something you’ve been able to make more approachable, or is there a very basic way you’d say a developer should think of game accessibility?

When I teach students game mechanics, I talk a lot about “standard” mechanics and what people often expect when experiencing a game (ex. “Players expect to interact with the object in the center of the screen when they hit ‘E’” ). They are also taught to try to think of how the player will interact with the game early off. It’s encouraging to see that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel thanks to all the tools that are available now. It’s also much easier to look up online how other developers are accomplishing better UX in their games. Overall, games and game development have never been more accessible.

However, designing a game that is 100% accessible to every person is something we know is basically impossible. That doesn’t mean that a game developer doesn’t want 100% of the population to play it, it’s just a realistic limitation of what we’re currently capable of. Either because of physical, financial or other reasons, it’s just not going to happen. So we have to make our best effort to make our games reach as wide of an audience as we can and to retain them for as long as possible. This is also balanced against what we can and can’t do without accidentally creating game-breaking changes.

All that said, when an indie or student game developer is thinking “Is my game accessible enough”? They just need to ask themselves if they’re reaching as big of an audience as they can reasonably accommodate with the resources they have. Also, they should consider that if they plan features earlier, it takes less time and effort than to try and cram it in later.

As for “Where do I start?” a settings menu, for one. Work your way up from there and check out all the amazing #a11y articles that come out on websites like this to see what people are doing in their games that works.

You got into game dev because you learned to make mods for Morrowind. Has modding a game after it’s been released given you perspective on the importance of considering accessibility from the start, as opposed to trying to fix issues after release?

Yeah, I started with modding. I think modding is the most common way I’ve seen people make the leap from playing games to making games. When you’re modding you learn a lot about limitations and what is the expected “workflow” in game development tools. So let’s say you’re making a Morrowind mod and you want to add a new book, easy right? Well now you have to learn their asset creation pipeline where you learn exactly what the mod tool thinks a “book” is and you are not allow to go out of bounds very far on that. Your book cannot include an audio file, so you can’t have a narrator’s voice reading it out loud. You realize that if you or Bethesda wanted that, then someone would have to go into the engine’s code and program in a new feature, test it and push it out to the editor. So when you’ve used editors before and then start working on your own games, you have a perspective on how other developers have done it. I would recommend modding to anyone who thinks they understand games just from playing them.

A lot of game #a11y work seems to happen on Twitter. Any advice for the #a11y community on how to have better dialogue and the important conversations surrounding game accessibility with developers, when conversations can become negative so easily?

It’s important to keep in mind on social media that it’s a grab-bag of random people. You’ll see a lot of conversations get derailed by someone who has no experience on a topic who just so happens to have a loud opinion. Developers want to have real and meaningful conversations, even if they end with us admitting that we’re not going to be able to help. It’s also important to not take it as an attack when a developer gets something terribly wrong that seems obvious to the accessibility community. We barely understand our own games sometimes, so when we find out we used a bad color combination for UI or missed remappings, it’s often a surprise to us. If developers wanted to make their games maliciously inaccessible on purpose, trust me, it would be easy. Developers crave feedback from players. So please be patient with us when we trip up and ignore people who don’t make games.

What’s been the biggest personal or professional benefit from being a member of the #a11y community?

There are a lot of mechanic and art design concepts I had never considered that are big parts of not just making games more accessible, but also improving the “feel”. When game developers talk about making “quality of life” updates to their games, they are usually just making the game more accessible. I started following a lot of people in the #a11y community not long after making my Twitter account and it was amazing how many game design elements I never noticed were actually helping expand audiences.

I remember specifically how VATs in the new Fallout games was being discussed as a major accessibility feature. That was something I never thought about. There was this whole audience of people who wanted desperately to play survival games with fast-paced combat, but couldn’t for whatever reason. Suddenly they have VATs to help open up a whole new game and world to them that otherwise they would have had to pass up on.

Last but not least, time to get on your soapbox (i.e. what is your essential talking point concerning game accessibility?)

I think the main misunderstanding around the topic of players asking to make a game more accessible is the belief from some people that developers would want to limit their audience on purpose. The idea that developers in general would care who you are or where you’re coming from is absurd. The issue for the developers is never “I just don’t want those people to play my game.” As if we’re planning out exactly whose money we’re going to take and whose money we’ll deem too tainted to touch without gloves. I’ve never personally seen that kind of gatekeeping ever in my career.

I would also like to end this rant by adding that I have not been sent nearly enough random cat pictures from strangers.

Alex Paschall

Please send him cat pictures.

Really. Send them.

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Co-founder and EIC of Can I Play That?, captioner of many things, occasional writer of fiction. Any pronouns. courtney@caniplaythat.com

Courtney Craven

Co-founder and EIC of Can I Play That?, captioner of many things, occasional writer of fiction. Any pronouns. courtney@caniplaythat.com