Ben, a gamer without sight and accessibility consultant, started playing fighting game Killer Instinct sometime in 2015. His first online matches didn’t go well.
“I got absolutely rocked,” he said of these early battles. “Just annihilated.”
Ben, who streams his digital adventures under the tag SightlessKombat (SK), was no stranger to the genre. He’d mastered previous-gen fighting titles like Mortal Kombat X, Street Fighter, Tekken, and Soulcalibur, taking his cues from gameplay audio, haptic feedback, and occasional sighted assistance. Something was up with Killer Instinct. After lots of disastrous matches, SK found out what.
The key to victory in Killer Instinct is deft use of combo attacks, elaborate moves that deal game-changing damage. The length of a combo attack is governed by a “knockdown value” (KV) meter, a bar that steadily rises through the duration of your combo. If you trigger an “ender” attack at the height of the KV meter’s rise, you deal extra damage. If you don’t, the combo ends. Gamers who surf the KV wave effectively tend to win.
In the original version of XBox One’s Killer Instinct reboot, the KV meter was a strictly visual feature. It was simply unavailable to gamers without sight.
“Sighted players could see the KV meter, end their attacks, and be fine,” SK said. “As a gamer with no sight whatsoever, there was no audio cue for the KV meter, no haptics. There was nothing to tell me: ‘This is when you need to end your combo.’”
According to a June 2022 research report by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), SK’s experience with Killer Instinct remains alarmingly typical for gamers with vision impairments and blindness.
The RNIB researchers asked ex-gamers who were blind or partially sighted (BPS) why they’d given up the hobby. More than 70% said it was because video games don’t have enough accessibility features.
That’s not all the report revealed. This is groundbreaking research on video game accessibility, a combination of qualitative and quantitative investigation sourced from more than 500 gamers, ex-gamers, and nongamers, with and without sight. Authors even spoke with top decision-makers in the games industry.
Following publication of this report, we sat down with John Paton, RNIB’s innovation and technology officer and a co-author of the study, and SK, RNIB’s first accessible gaming and immersive technologies research officer, to find out more about the latest in video game accessibility—and what we can do to improve access for gamers with vision loss. Here’s what we learned.
Interested in the RNIB’s research on accessible gaming? Download the RNIB’s Accessible Gaming Research Executive Study, or email firstname.lastname@example.org to request the full report.
Demand for Video Game Accessibility is Widespread
As the RNIB report concludes, “it is clear that there is still a lot of work to do in the area of accessible gaming.” The research surprised Paton, however, by revealing how much support accessibility had outside the BPS community. In fact, most of the participants in the study wanted more accessible video games—including sighted gamers.
“One of the things that came out of the research is that sighted people want games to be accessible, as well,” Paton said. “We found that 95% of respondents across the board said that they think better of a developer for having accessibility in their games. That was people with sight loss and people without. So it’s not just a case of, if you need it, you care about it, but if you don’t, it’s not important.”
“One of the things that came out of the research is that sighted people want games to be accessible, as well.”
That makes sense, SK said. The fact is, accessible games benefit all players, sighted or not. For example, take the issue of small text, a common accessibility barrier in mainstream video games.
“If you’re 10 feet away from your screen, on your couch, you can’t read that text,” SK said, speaking of sighted players. A large-text feature solves the problem for sighted gamers with cavernous living rooms as well as players with partial vision. The universal value of accessibility tools is a common theme in technology discourse, and it’s as true for video games as it is for web design.
“That’s the big thing,” SK said. “You want accessibility that will help everybody—and that’s pretty much most accessibility. Everyone will have a use for these features, normally.”
Gamers seem to know this. So why aren’t developers, studios, and publishers meeting the demand?
Why the Accessibility Gap in Gaming Persists
The lack of video game accessibility doesn’t spring from lack of interest, RNIB’s research suggests. Developers want to make games more accessible for players with vision impairments. They just don’t know how.
Researchers asked game creators if they felt they understood the needs of gamers with sight loss. Only 14% of respondents described that understanding as “firm.” More than 55% said they knew some, but “could do with more training or advice.” Over 30% said they had little or no confidence in their knowledge of accessibility for gamers with sight loss.
“The barriers for developers aren’t a lack of motivation,” Paton said. “It’s more about how to actually get there.”
Developers who want to build more accessible games often run into technical or organizational barriers. Game development is a complex world with conflicting interests. Studios may nix accessibility features because they cost too much. Publishers may not label more accessible games so players with vision loss can find them. As the RNIB report suggests, most developers simply don’t know which features will help.
“It’s like a giant tangle of accessibility spaghetti,” SK said.
“It’s like a giant tangle of accessibility spaghetti.”
But the RNIB research, and SK’s lived experience, reveal a few paths forward.
5 Ways to Make Video Games More Accessible for Players with Blindness and Vision Loss
The Accessible Gaming Research Report provides four recommendations that could make games more accessible to people with vision loss. These range from legislative controls to a laundry list of accessibility features across the gaming technology stack. (For details, see the report.)
Paton and SK had a few more suggestions, as well. Here are some of their ideas on how to improve video game accessibility for players with limited or no sight.
1. Build Accessibility Features Into Game Engines
Developers usually don’t code games from scratch. They build them in game engines, specialized software for game creation. Most leading game engines don’t provide the accessibility features people with vision loss need. Developers who want to add these tools have to build them from scratch or cobble together third-party plug-ins, which discourages the practice.
Game engines could include tools like:
- Built-in text-to-speech (TTS) systems for audio description
- Support for all common screen readers
- Audio glossaries for sound cues
- Suites of visual features, including object outlines and high-contrast color schemes
- Text resizing
To be sure, though, there’s no combination of accessibility features that’s ideal for every gamer with vision loss.
“The key thing to remember is that sight loss is a spectrum,” SK said. “The features I need, as someone who sees nothing at all, might vary compared with somebody who has part of their vision still usable.”
“The key thing to remember is that sight loss is a spectrum.”
To support games that include the broadest audience, game engines would need to provide an extensive list of accessibility tools. Then developers could implement combinations of them on a case-by-case basis.
If engines made these tools available, they’d eliminate the costs of building them from scratch. Studio management wouldn’t have financial cause to object. And they’d make accessible design a lot easier for developers. That would encourage more developers to choose the accessible game engine, so there’s a strong business case to be made for accessibility throughout the technology stack.
“We got a lot of feedback saying game engines with built-in accessibility features would really improve the breadth of accessible gaming out there,” Paton said.
2. Identify a Game’s Accessibility Features on Gaming Platforms
The platforms and marketplaces that sell games are also part of the holistic drive toward better accessibility. They can help by adding tags to game descriptions, guiding players with vision loss to titles with the accessibility tools they prefer.
“We’re not necessarily saying platforms should say, ‘You can’t sell your game here if it’s not accessible,’” Paton said. “But there are movements from some of the platforms to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to tag your game.’”
Indeed, some gaming systems are already adding accessibility tags to their titles, XBox and Microsoft among them. Broadening the trend will place pressure on studios to include these features. Maybe it’ll even encourage game engines to introduce accessibility tools.
3. Keep the Broader Gaming Community Engaged in Accessibility
As the RNIB’s research suggests, gamers overwhelmingly want accessibility features. The trouble is that advocacy tends to wax and wane, reaching a fever pitch on the release of a game like The Last of Us 2, famous for its commitment to accessibility, and then fading into the background a few weeks later.
To keep pressure on game engines and developers, we need to keep accessibility front and center in the gaming community. SightlessKombat has an idea how to accomplish this goal.
“There’s nothing more valuable than the human component of the gaming experience,” SK said. “That’s why I do a lot of my streaming, to show off not only the inaccessibility of games when it happens, but also how you work around it if you need to, and talking about why you need to—and why you shouldn’t have to.”
“There’s nothing more valuable than the human component of the gaming experience.”
To move the conversation forward, SK said, the industry should amplify the voices of gamers without sight or with partial sight. Publicizing streamers and gaming influencers like SK is a key strategy, but one SightlessKombat isn’t enough. We need dozens, maybe hundreds.
“It’s being able to show anybody who’s willing to listen directly what accessibility means,” SK said. “It’s showing people what can be done, what should be done, and why.”
4. Encourage Knowledge Sharing Between Developers
Remember how developers say they don’t know how to make games more accessible? That’s because they’re all trying to figure it out on their own. That isolation should end, Paton and SK said. Developers seem to agree.
“One of the things that came out in the research is that developers are very interested in knowledge sharing,” Paton said. “We could create and nurture networks that discuss developer questions: How do you make an immersive world accessible? How do you track the path people need to use? How do you communicate things like maps to blind users? Those are things that developers and studios can talk to each other about and collaborate on.”
Luckily, the move toward knowledge sharing has already begun, SK said.
“We’re already seeing elements of that,” he said. “We don’t know for sure, but it looks like Sony’s studios are starting to share. God of War: Ragnarok is looking like it’s going to take a lot of inspiration from The Last of Us Part 2’s feature set. There must be some kind of knowledge sharing going on there.”
But collaboration within one company isn’t enough to change the industry, SK said.
“What we haven’t seen is cross-platform knowledge sharing,” he said. “We want to see people like The Coalition and Microsoft Studios sharing with Sony’s multi-platform studios, or working with Bungee, say, to make Destiny 2 an accessible experience. There’s so much scope there.”
5. Create Feedback Mechanisms Between Gamers and Developers
Game studios can’t share knowledge they don’t have. The first step toward more accessible gaming is listening to gamers with disabilities. But how?
Some advocates are already at work on these feedback channels. AbleGamers Player Panels connects game studios with gamers who have disabilities, so they can play-test games and share recommendations. Studios like Rare actively seek player perspectives on games like Sea of Thieves, a SightlessKombat favorite. But these efforts remain limited to certain games or geographic regions, and many developers say they’re not sure how to reach out to the various communities who play their games.
“One of the big things that came out of the research was a lack of those feedback mechanisms,” Paton said. “Developers were saying they didn’t have a good way to get feedback from blind and partially sighted gamers.”
“Developers were saying they didn’t have a good way to get feedback from blind and partially sighted gamers.”
Luckily, the RNIB has a ready model for developing conversation between companies and the audiences they serve.
“We also do work in the broadcast sector,” Paton said. “One of the things that’s really helped there is connecting broadcasters with audiences, getting that communication between people with sight loss and the broadcasters directly. Once you have broadcasters listen to the audience, it just works, because it’s a customer relationship issue then.”
Individual advocates sometimes break through to the studios, too. It happened to SK. Remember his early struggles with Killer Instinct’s KV meter?
Once he figured out the issue, SK hopped on the official Killer Instinct forums to explain it. There was every chance in the world that the studio would ignore his perspective, but the community rallied round his calls for an audio representation of the KV meter. The conversation wouldn’t go away.
A few weeks later, the developers quietly implemented new audio cues in the game, releasing the patch without fanfare around the end of 2015. Now SK could hear when his KV meter was full. He knew when to trigger the ender attack. He began to dominate.
By early 2016, SightlessKombat reached the coveted Killer status on the XBox One boards. Six years later, he’s still playing Killer Instinct.
“The audio cue means I can play against sighted players and know what’s going on with their combo gauges as well as my own,” SK said. “It’s a tiny thing that most gamers wouldn’t have even thought of, but it was a night and day difference for me.”
We need more differences like that, and we can all do our part in making them happen. Maybe this is the greatest lesson of the RNIB’s latest research: Everyone in the gaming community has a role to play in improving video game accessibility.