When I joined EA back in 2013 as a Madden NFL graphics developer, every Raiders fan was eager to get their hands on the next game in the franchise. Everyone except my friend who was legally blind. He told me that he couldn’t play Madden NFL anymore. The switch to 1080p high-definition graphics meant that all in-game icons were too small for his eyes to follow the game. I promised him then that I would try fix the problem.
I saw my chance when the game studio had an internal game jam in 2014, where I submitted a “Madden Game Accessibility” entry. I included optional icon enlargement, brightness and contrast controls, and colorblind support. My peers voted for me to pitch my ideas to executives, who were dumbfounded that we weren’t already providing these features. And Madden NFL 17 gained its first set of accessibility features (covered in GDC’s 2017 talk Practical Visual Fixes from EA's Madden NFL Franchise) .
I created AccessibilityFeedback@ea.com and the twitter account ea_accessible to collect feedback for future planning. I expanded to cover any EA product, and I pass all feedback back to teams. This encouraged communities to reach out and voice their needs.
Numerous blind gamers contacted me, and they invited me to participate in their own gaming forum, audiogames.net. Several of them were already attempting to play Madden NFL games, but were running into trouble with various game mechanics, including kicking the ball using a visual meter. Any skepticism they had about me was warranted – there are over a quarter of a billion people who are visually disabled, but they are the most ignored group in the game industry.
As it turned out, blind gamers had been playing Madden NFL for years, but their experience had steadily degraded. They no longer could reliably kick the ball, since it used a visual meter instead of a simple stick flick. They were no longer able to use suggested plays, as the verbal description for plays had been removed. They had no way to know when the ball left the quarterback’s hands, which made the new catching and blocking mechanisms out of their reach.
I knew fixing this was not going to be easy. First, Madden NFL was in the middle of an engine switch from Ignite to Frostbite and the schedule was very tight. Secondly, the requested features were entirely audio based, which made them impossible for me to implement by myself. I had my own accessibility problems. I have progressive hearing loss, and am nearly deaf.
On the upside, I inherently understood how awful it is to be left out and the importance of inclusion. But the downside is that while I can lip read, it was not going to be much help for general audio debugging. As I pondered how to get around my own limitations, I continued to interview blind gamers. I discovered that not only were some already playing Madden NFL, but they were also playing various Need for Speed, NHL, and UFC titles. How was this even possible?
It’s no secret that sound design is by far the most important aspect of gaming without vision. Many blind playable games use directional sound based on the location of things around the player. For example, in Need for Speed nearby cars are louder than cars further away, and stereo sound provides information on if the car is more to the left or right. The more realistic the sound design, the easier it is for gamers to play without vision.
Controller vibrations are available on all console platforms, and are also a common way to make a game more immersive. If you catch a ball, a quick vibration gives the ball weight. This can also notify blind players that a ball has been caught. In Madden games, pre-existing vibrations also let a player know if they were about to be sacked or tackled. I realized I could use controller vibrations, or rumbles, for new accessible cues. This would bypass my own hearing issues - plus making the game at least minimally deaf-blind playable as well!
The feedback sent by blind gamers helped provide leverage to release a Madden NFL 18 accessibility patch. The patch added rumble events for kicking and passing the ball, as well as rumble patterns to identify recommended plays. The game could be played without memorizing advanced menus.
But there was still the issue of inaudible menus. To get around the lack of menu narration, I created step-by-step documentation and provided a text-based version of the game’s manual – using ea_accessible's Reddit to temporarily house all relevant information.
The combo of documentation and patched optional controller vibrations was enough to both bring blind gamers back into the game and allow them enough proficiency to start their own Madden NFL 18 league. In fact, in an online gaming match, you likely couldn’t tell you were playing with a blind player.
As the EA Sports Accessibility Lead, I push for greater inclusion and accessibility. I think of accessibility as the correction of a mismatch between a person and their environment. There is nothing inherently wrong with the player; rather it’s up to developers to create games that everyone can enjoy, inclusive of gamers with disabilities
It’s become my mission to make it possible for everyone to play games. Because games are not just play – they can reintroduce normalcy back into the lives of those who may have lost it. Games can strengthen bonds between friends and families, but they can also be a place where independence can be recovered or discovered. This is priceless.
This is part of a series of columns written by developers speaking at the Game Developers Conference in March.
Karen Stevens is the EA SPORTS Accessibility Lead, focusing on game accessibility and disability inclusion. She’s been in the game industry for over 12 years. Karen is giving a talk at GDC (AAA Gaming While Blind) on March 19th. She’s also giving a GAC talk (Ramping Up Accessibility) on the same day, across the street. She welcomes game accessibility feedback via email (email@example.com) and twitter (@ea_accessible).