In late 2011 IGDA-GASIG partnered with Film Victoria in Australia, to help them produce accessibility guidance for their games industry funding programme. The guidelines have now been in place for over a year, long enough for games produced under them to start making it out into the marketplace.
At the recent Disability Meets Digital event in the UK, Brad Giblin of Film Victoria presented a talk giving insight into the process behind the guidelines. He also covered what accessibility means in the games industry compared to other industries, and success stories from over the past year – including how the guidelines have influenced national government funding, providing a template for games funding in other countries and indeed any kind of digital media funding.
May 9th marks Global Accessibility Awareness day. To mark it we’d like to share the talk, both the video of the session itself and the full transcript, including the Q&A session that followed.
I’m Brad, I run the games investment fund for Film Victoria, which is a state film and TV and games funding body funded by government. We’re slightly aside from the government in that we’re a statutory authority, we have own own board but use public funds to support film, TV and games. I run all the games investment programmes as well as having run a bunch of games, skills and professional development programmes in the past.
So I guess what I’m here to talk about is how we incorporated accessibility into our game development guidelines. We have been funding games for about 15 years, and late 2011 saw the introduction of accessibility requirements into these guidelines and we think it was possibly the first [time something like this had been done] in the world.
Film Victoria’s interest in accessibility
This all came about because we have an assessment panel who is in charge of basically assessing the projects and choosing which projects to fund. That assessment panel is industry based, which is really critical to the whole process.
There are four people on that panel and at some point in time somebody said “why aren’t we doing accessibility? We’re seeing accessibility in film, we require subtitles for film, TV and DVD and why aren’t we considering anything when it comes to games?”
The answer to that was that we had never considered it, we never looked into it or and we weren’t even sure what was going on in that space.
So initially it was driven by a couple of industry people and then it was really myself internally who took it from there. We couldn’t have done it without having industry resources, which we found in the International Game Developers Association Game Accessibility Special Interest Group, which is a huge title, but some incredible people that have been working in this area for many years and have some fantastic credits and titles under their belts.
They had a bunch of resources that we were able to to point people to to use, they provided us with heaps of input into the process and it was really really good for us to be able to say as a Government agency that the industry was demanding this change, and that the industry were also the ones being able to provide this resource.
So we weren’t saying ‘you must do this, this is how we think you should do it’. We were saying that the industry pretty much has required this or requested this and here is how the industry thinks you should do it.
That’s a little bit hard these days as there’s no real standards when it comes to video games. Video games are very much a newer platform and a newer medium than most others which – I might touch on in that a second – sometimes very much helped our process of introducing it but on the other side there’s few standards in place when it comes to subtitles, subtitle colours, colour blindness and a whole bunch of other stuff, there was no default.
Producing the guidelines
So for us, the path to getting this stuff in place was very much… when you work in Government, I am not sure how many of you guys do, there’s this kind of approach where if you don’t think it is going to work, you basically ask for forgiveness at the end, which is easier than asking for permission in the first place.
So we just kind of did it. We wrote up the guidelines, we talked to the IGDA SIG, we got the stuff we needed in place and by the time we got it to senior level it was almost too good to turn down. By that point in time, no-one is going to argue with it because it is there, it is robust, it has the right ideas behind it, and as we all know it’s kind of the the morally right thing to do so nobody wants to shut it down by that point. So that was kind of cheeky on our behalf but it worked pretty well.
The way in which we implemented the guidelines was again a little bit cheeky. We didn’t say that accessibility for games was required, we said that it would be looked favourably upon when we were giving out funding.
So we weren’t saying that you absolutely have to do everything you can accessibility-wise, we were saying look, you really should do what you can, what is within the scope of the game, and at a point in time we’ll assess it and make a judgement call, on whether it’s appropriate, whether you can go further, whether you are doing the right kind of things, and that’s enough.
Rolling out the guidelines
For us, I guess one of they initial goals was really to get people that have this kind of idea of accessibility in the design phase. As we all know it is so much easier to include accessibility when thinking about it up-front, and the same goes with games or any kind of digital media project.
If you’re looking at accessibility while you are designing the game, the two things go hand in hand. There’s no retrofitting, there are no expensive changes that need to be made.
There are really simple things, like being aware of various kinds of colour blindness – that’s a decision that you need to make at the start of the game. If you get half-way through production [before thinking about it] that is going to cost so much money, but just being aware of it, doesn’t cost any money and avoids spending money later on.
So for us as long as we get people at the very start thinking about colour blindness, thinking about accessible menus, user interfaces, accessible documentation, remappable control schemes… we actually had a list of about ten things, all of which came from the IGDA special interest group, and we just enable people to think about that up front, which hopefully makes better games.
So we were very much a light touch, we didn’t want to push people too hard, which was great, because feedback from industry was “look, this is fantastic” which is pretty strange, to put a requirement on industry and for them to say “yep, we completely understand, and we like where you guys are going, we like the fact it works this way and it’s not a huge burden on us, just ‘do your best’ basically”. So it was kind of a trust exercise.
The one thing that helped also is we got quite a good bit of feedback from the press. We were potentially the first guys to do it that we’re aware of, and it was a hugely beneficial thing for us to go out and say that we’re doing this stuff. All the press picked up on it and it makes it easier to roll it out further and in some ways it just makes it a given.
So, for us, the press were quite good, they opened up a lot of opportunities for us. I mean, this is one of them.
Accessibility in game development compared to other industries
One interesting thing that I really wanted to touch on was that I really think the games industry themselves were really instrumental in making this happen. The games industry, unlike a lot of how would you say, traditional industries or traditional arts or media industries, they don’t have many expectations. Funding for games has only been around in our case for about 15 years in Australia but in a serious way, maybe 5 years globally. So with games there are different expectations, nobody expects to get money from Government. Nobody lives or dies on that bit of Government funding if they could get it so nobody has this kind of preconceived notion of how they need to spend the money or how much money they need to stay alive.
So it is a very different experience for games guys to come in, asking for funding, regardless of the requirements that are put on it. People are generally happy to receive the funding so the games industry, because they have not had that extensive bureaucracy, not exposed to all that policy and don’t have that reliance on funding, it was a very very good audience to roll it out with and I would expect it would be the same with media funding.
The other thing that is interesting about the games industry is that the games industry know that the audience is everything. For them it really is about trying to reach their audience and they have incredibly platforms to do it these days, so through Apple, through Google, they are open platforms where you can target everybody, huge amounts of the world, for essentially free, the cost of the license which is $99, so it is crazy. So audiences are important. We found there was an understanding that games should be accessible by default, because that, in some ways, it was a business case and we used that a little bit through integration of the policy and the communication, that accessibility really is a business case for these guys.
If you are talking about, I think the US stats point to about 20 to 25% of people having some kind of visual or auditory or movement impairment, things like that, then you are talking a really significant chunk of the marketplace. Now all the best people in the the games space, like Valve who are an incredible games company, address that populace by default, they go to such extreme lengths to make accessible games. Why smaller games companies wouldn’t do the same thing is beyond us. So hopefully that was kind of a really strong incentive for people to get involved.
One of the huge results from this is that the federal Government in Australia has just released a new programme, kind of the same as ours, but a lot bigger. The comments from industry when they were proposing the guidelines for this were very much “you should look at accessibility and do it exactly the way Film Victoria is doing it”. So it raises the bar in time for anybody who rolls out programmes like this, be it digital art or games or any digital media or even wider media funding. You can’t really slide backwards as there’s an expectation that public money will be used for access in general.
The second one was that we had a Global Game Jam in Melbourne recently, and Melbourne had pretty much the top of the world or near the top of the the world in terms of the amount of games submitted for the inclusive category. Global Game Jam has an accessibility section, ‘inclusiveness’ was what that category was called this year and I think 11 out of the 27 games pro-actively considered accessibility, they designed games with an accessible nature despite the fact that there were only 48 hours of constant crunch time… it was huge.
More than anything we know that there are game designers out there who just consider accessibility when they design games, they do it up-front so they don’t need to come to a funding body like myself, like Screen Australia, and then have to retrofit something, they just do it kind of by default.
To the point where one of our games was actually on the Google app store last week, it was a global feature world-wide so a really really big game. It is a fantastic game by the way, you should all play it, it’s called Puzzle Retreat. Their game is accessible, they very much designed it in an accessible fashion, and they [The Voxel Agents] just said “we don’t really see any difference between accessible game design and good game design. They are the same thing. We want a big audience, we want people to be able to use our games, it is just good design.” Which is a pretty fantastic outcome, it is now part of their process, and we’re pretty pleased to have been part of the path that’s helped make that happen for those guys and for pretty much the wider Victorian industry.
So that’s pretty much all I have got. Or at least that’s our process. There’s time for questions and answers but I would point out I am on the policy side of things, so if anybody needs any assistance or any more information about this process that we went through or other people we talked to or how a deal with particularly challenging stakeholders in the process, I’m more than happy to answer those questions and catch up with people afterwards as well. .
Questions & answers
JONATHAN HASSELL: I’m Jonathan Hassell, I used to be at the BBC, where we actually did great stuff with the IGDA special interest group back in 2005 on accessible games, they were a great bunch of people.
Just for the benefit of the audience really, there are some disabled audiences that are really easy to make games accessible for. There are others that are really kind of challenges to make games accessible for. Can you just say what are maybe the first things people can do if they have only got, say, a day to think about things in the right way? What should they start with? What is the low hanging fruit?
BRAD GIBLIN: There are fantastic resources that point out a top ten, basically one is the IDGA Game Accessibility Special Interest Group. The other is gameaccessibilityguidelines.com, a fantastic resource that probably one of your colleagues put together – Ian Hamilton. There’s a list of ten things, which are very simple. If you are at design stage factoring those things in really has almost no cost or resource overhead. So I mean, the most obvious is colour blindness, it is easy to talk about as it skews toward people’s perception of the the gaming audience, colour blindness affects males more and there an assumption that more males play video games, so colour blindness can be addressed in two seconds, choose another colour, more contrast. There are free apps that enable to you look at different types of colour blindness and make sure there’s adequate contrast.
Alot of accessibility measures are difficult and some impossible. If you have a mobile game, a touch game there’s not a lot you can do to create remappable controls outside of that. There’s certain things you can do but the game developers always have to make that cost benefit analysis and say, well we want to make this available to everybody but there’s obviously going to be some things we can’t do.
We have really pushed for a common sense middle ground which generally includes things like subtitles, things like having audio sound effects and music on different sliders so if somebody is hard of hearing you can actually Focus more on the sound effects on less on the things are the are not so important. Making sure any cues in the game are both visual and audio so if someone has an impairment of either one of those, you still understand what the game is telling you, what’s required and basic ones like changing difficulty level so people who have learning difficulties are able to enjoy the games.
That means the game has to respond and react and take users that are not progressing through games as quickly, take them through the game at their own pace. So there’s a lot of stuff you can do, most of which is common sense and most of which is actually beneficial to the games as a whole.
FROM THE FLOOR: Deborah, just a simple question are your guidelines available on line at all or would we have to contact you.
BRAD GIBLIN: They are available on line. They are not particularly accessible, neither is the Film Victoria site, which we’re aware of. But they are available on the Film Victoria site.
ALISON SMITH: I have one quick question. You mentioned earlier the economics and the business case for making games accessible, have they been quantify that in any way. When in the short time since the guidelines were rolled out?
BRAD GIBLIN: Not particularly. I mean, I would imagine like in the example I gave before with puzzle retreat, I would imagine we’re approaching a point of time where Google and Apple are at least considering, if they aren’t already, accessibility features within games because their audiences are huge and everybody uses their phones differently. The spectrum of the audience is such that you need to have a very wide learning curves and it would be in your interest to make the entire game accessible.
So I imagine the accessibility of Puzzle Retreat probably helped it get featured by Google, so there’s your business case right there. They have done incredible units, incredible sales this past week.
Furthermore, I would say if the figure of roughly 20% in terms of the general populace having some kind of impairment is somewhat accurate, then you would have to assume that that probably translates into roughly 20% of sales and furthermore there’s a good deal of good press to be had when a developer spends time and effort understanding their audience and reaching that audience and making games accessible so there’s extra up take when people go the extra mile.
SUZIE JONES: I am Suzie Jones from DeafComm and I have a particular interest in making things accessible for deaf blindpeople – are you are following me, Brad?
BRAD GIBLIN: So there was a question about making things accessible for deafblind people? Yes.
SUZIE JONES: And what I am saying here is we have an ageing population, lots of people becoming deaf as they get older and at the same time losing some sight. So I was interested in your colour blindness technology, because I think you should perhaps incorporate deafblindness into that argument and make the subtitles so that you can adjust them for colour font size and stuff like that. It is not really a question, it is just adding to your repertoire.
BRAD GIBLIN: I guess there’s a few things that are going on at the moment. One is there’s a really interesting push towards these kind of one aspect games, including audio only games, which is very interesting for people that don’t have any vision whatsoever or degenerating vision. Viewed in one way, it is a market, viewed in another way it is a really interesting form of entertainment and connection with people in that situation.
That’s true of audio games and people with audio impairments, and visual games. We’re really struggling at the moment with having solid tools to be able to create games that really do address quite significant impairments. For example, I mean even if you want to create or change the colour of subtitles, because of various kinds of colour blindness, that doesn’t really exist. There are no tools in the game engines that really standardise subtitles, shadows of subtitles, colours of subtitles, and really considering how advanced the industry is, we do a lot of incredible stuff but we can’t allow users to change basic grammar of the games like that.
So there’s a question of our technology. We have had a couple of people in Melbourne looking at how to create subtitling engines that are standardised and are good for the bulk of the population and it would be fantastic if that technology could be expanded to again be customisable where it can deal with interesting scenarios or cases.
ALISON SMITH: Brad thank you very much for your time. Really really appreciate it.
BRAD GIBLIN: My pleasure.