Blog two: Start! Last time we left our valiant devs, they had just received production funding for The Vale. Now that we had the money, we needed to flesh out our ideas for our all-audio Adventure game.
Two years ago when we started The Vale, there wasn’t this explosion of accessibility in both indie and mainstream gaming. You had some colourblind and key binding accessibility, and surely a few standouts that I’m not mentioning, but aside from that the only place to get accessible content for the BLV community was in audio games. Just because there weren’t many accessible games in the marketplace that did not mean that there wasn’t a demand for them. For years, many hobbyists, community members, and a small handful of developers have dedicated themselves to crafting audio games - games that allowed those in the BLV community to have similar experiences to mainstream gamers.
Most of these games attempted to take gameplay experiences and translate them in an accessible fashion. For example, Swamp is a multiplayer shooter that is blind accessible and can be played as an all audio game. Swamp has explorable environments, narration, a complex action set, and is by and large and very fleshed out game. The design choices in Swamp were immediately a little jarring to me, but not without good reason.
The methods used to design the game (and many like it) were very interesting to me. As a sighted gamer and developer, I am used to the conventions of games because of almost 3 decades of playing them. Things like spatial positioning, aiming, navigation, and more are all almost second nature to me in a game. One of the first things I realized when playing Swamp is that there are a whole set of different conventions with regards to audio games.
Firstly, Swamp is screen reader accessible - a screen reader is assistive technology used to interpret information on a digital display - so all of the content in the game is designed to be used in conjunction with a screen reader. Given that screen readers are primary components to BLV access to computers, this is the right choice to make. Where this initially threw me was the games reliance on text-to-speech. In world where mainstream games are inundated with expensive audio and voice acting, hearing Microsoft Sam’s robot-voice read a menu outloud to me was unexpected, but logical. Hearing the entirety of the narration of a game in this method wasn’t just unexpected, but it was difficult for me to interpret. The lack of proper cadence, pronunciation, and inflection made comprehension a challenge. But I soon realized that this was a case of convention. When text-to-speech is something you listen to on a daily basis, it becomes second-nature to ignore the less-charming inhuman aspects of this mode of communication.
Secondly, Swamp uses a grid system to position the player and objects. While technically, every object in every game environment is in a grid system, with objects inhabiting a x,y,and sometime z coordinate, this convention fades into the background of sighted games. Visual landmarks and pathways take the place of accurate coordinates and a person who is sighted’s ability to navigate a game space is fairly natural to them. In Swamp, players are able to know and update their location in a square-based grid system that is dictated by text-to-speech. I think this mechanic works well in Swamp, but grid-based navigation is a staple of audio games that can be really hit or miss. Again, I think my privileged perspective here influences my opinion - I’ve never had to rely on this for navigation in a gamespace and I understand the need for precision in navigation.
So, the question we asked ourselves, now that we had funding and time - is how could we make a game that would be accessible and utilize many of the established and successful conventions of audio games, without falling into the less-polished trappings that can make a game seem obtuse to those outside of its conventions. How could we make a game that merges the benefits of an accessible game experience without sacrificing the conventions of mainstream gaming? The answer: evolution.
The Vale has evolved the conventions of audio games, taking the pieces that help players manage accessible game experiences and blended them with high-quality mainstream practices. [Note: The following are examples from development and do not reflect the exact finished product of The Vale, but many of the concepts we implemented in our design] Exploring a village and need to know where you are? Ask your companion to guide you to your destination - and a fully voice-acted character will assist you. Want to change weapons without dealing with a lengthy all-audio menu of options?
Now that is an easy change to make for us as we fortunately have the funding to hire pleasant voices instead of monotonous robots. A more difficult decision involves things like weapon usage. In a typical adventure, a player might be used to carrying lots of weapons and switching between them for different scenarios or preferences. While we want to give players lot of choice in The Vale, we started to realize that there became a middle ground between making an experience that is _exactly_ like a sighted game, versus making an experience that was a blending of conventions. While there are some audio games that give you that classic RPG experience of managing a giant inventory, we found that going through lengthy all-audio menus was cumbersome and frustrating. This frustration might be lessened by those experienced in the conventions of audio games (or those used to screen readers), but we want to make an experience that feels as mainstream and immersive as possible while maintaining accessibility. Sp instead, The Vale pairs down the quantity of weapons you can have,but ramps up the quality in making sure that the weapon choices matter significantly and routing any weapon purchasing, analyses, and equipping through in-character conversations and interactions. This was, a player can have an experience that doesn’t pull them out of the immersion of the story, while still providing an experience akin to mainstream adventure games.
That was a mouthful about conventions. Hope you stayed with me. Feel free to leave a comment below and come back soon for our next post.
Oh! I mentioned I would talk about the current state of The Vale. Well, I am happy to announce that we are pleasantly progressing along the completion of a beta state. We are closed to finishing a vertical slice of our gameplay that we would love to release to the public. So stay extra tuned! Woo! Jamie, out!