Play or Game Over: Unlocking Inclusivity in the Streaming, Gaming and Home Entertainment Space
You’re an emerging online gaming company about to launch your first masterpiece. You’ve spent thousands of development hours and dedicated massive budget to bringing your code to life… with the hope of watching it go viral. But how do you really know how your users – all of them, with their individual abilities and disabilities – will interact with your game?
You’ve tested on the web, mobile, iOS and Android, but is that really enough to ensure you’ve addressed not only the WCAG compliance basics, but inclusive design that gives all your users a delightful experience? What about other platforms - Roku, Amazon Fire, Chromecast, Xbox and all the rest? Add to this the constantly morphing entertainment space – shifting to meet ever-increasing customer demands – and there's seemingly no end to the scenarios in which your video game will be played. For example, just this month, major streaming platform Netflix announced the kickoff of its first cloud-streamed games.
In this blog, I dig into the many challenges that the streaming video and gaming industries face and mention some standouts when it comes to innovative accessibility vision and execution in the field. To conclude, I’ll provide guidance in the form of a requisite blend of organizational philosophy, a commitment to a plan that embodies that philosophy and long-term execution to meet accessibility goals that go well beyond WCAG requirements.
Facing the accessibility void
The sad truth these days is that the vast majority of streaming content providers, gaming or otherwise, are not able to answer the question of whether – or in many cases – where their products fall short of providing accessible experiences for all. They simply don’t have the resources to execute thorough accessibility testing on all the possible platforms on which their content will run, not to mention the myriad of device configurations and operating systems necessary to do so.
Even if they have the resources, they may not know where to begin, as accessibility planning is complex, and executing on strong plans and strategy does not happen overnight. It’s also an interactive process, never a one-and-done.
Addressing accessibility need not be an overwhelming experience. In my role as a solutions consultant at Applause, I regularly work with customers around the world whose accessibility journey starts out very simply. Sometimes it begins with one individual. That person shares their thoughts with teammates and then that group meets with management and gets buy-in from an executive sponsor – and then it all flows from there. At other times, Applause partners with organizations as they begin to form their accessibility efforts, and we apply our tried-and-true programmatic approach to help organizations reach their accessibility goals.
Companies need to build their products by working closely with all persons from the start — PwD and non-disabled. It ensures an equitable experience for all…and benefits everyone.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step
Attitude is everything. And it has a lot more to do with accessibility than many organizations may think.
Pick your example. You’re an aspiring Olympic athlete. You’re an ordinary person who hopes to live to 90 years of age – and not just live that long; you want to live a quality life. You’re a blind mountain climber who wants to summit Mt. Everest. Without the right attitude, none of these feats will happen. But beyond attitude lies a complete buy-in to the goals, then comprehensive research and planning to attain those goals. Then the journey. Consider the end goal, but take the first step, then the second…
It’s an understatement to say that the OTT (over-the-top) streaming and gaming spaces are overwhelmingly complex. And when it comes to testing for accessibility compliance in this sector, it would be easy to throw up your hands in defeat and not take the first step. Yet, there are companies that fearlessly embrace the complexity of providing inclusive video gaming products. They seem to understand the concept of the long game. They embrace this and balance it against the ever-present pressure of time to market, spending time up front researching and gaining diverse input to product design and development.
Video gaming accessibility standouts big and small
Here are two great examples of video gaming companies that have embodied accessibility, but neither attained their accessibility status overnight.
Microsoft - Many consider Microsoft Xbox the premier exemplar of video gaming accessibility. In 2018, it released its Xbox Adaptive Controller and later, in 2019, members of the Microsoft Accessibility Team set out to create its first version of Xbox accessibility guidelines. In 2022, the Game Reliability Engineering team and Gaming Accessibility team worked on what the company calls an "industry-first, platform-provided game accessibility testing program." The program can validate games for accessibility using its Xbox Accessibility Guidelines. It also invites gamers with disabilities to test Xbox games and give feedback before release, influencing development and improving accessibility. This inclusive design – using gamers with disabilities – is an absolute necessity to achieving accessibility goals that go far beyond WCAG conformance to build products that delight users.
Naughty Dog - A subsidiary of Sony Entertainment, this American first-party video game developer is known for developing games for PlayStation. In 2020, when it released The Last of Us Part 2, Naughty Dog set the gold standard for accessibility for a game. Interestingly, one of Naughty Dog's lead gameplay designers cites a simple letter from a user that the studio received while developing their game, Uncharted 4, as motivation for the shift. The user was playing Uncharted 2 and could not rapidly press a button as required toward the end of the game and couldn’t complete the game. This simple letter got the studio thinking about accessibility, which it began to slowly build into future games. Emilia Schatz, lead gameplay designer at Naughty Dog illustrates their budding accessibility insight: “It’s not about dumbing down a game or making a game easy. What do our players need in order to play the game in parity with everyone else?”
When it came to building accessibility into its now famous The Last of Us Part 2, game designer Matthew Gallant said, “one of the reasons the team was able to include so many features is that it was part of the design process from the beginning. We absolutely had to plan these features early in production. It was absolutely critical. There were three features in particular — text-to-speech, fully remappable controls and the high-contrast mode — that required large technical resources, and they wouldn’t have been possible without so much time. We couldn’t have done this if we hadn’t, from the outset, said ‘This is a priority.’”
Naughty Dog’s planning and execution paid off. The Last of Us Part 2 sold over four million copies in its first three days, and over 10 million copies as of June 2022 and became a popular Max series.
One of the reasons the team was able to include so many features is that it was part of the design process from the beginning.
Commitment first, action second
What do Microsoft and Naughty Dog have in common? A few things.
First, at their core, they understand that involving gamers with disabilities before releasing games is critical. They know that doing this as early as possible in the software development life cycle (SDLC) is key. Like the aspiring Olympian, if you don’t consider all the variables that will get you to your goal early, you may miss the goal, or at best, create substantial difficulty attaining it. Retroactive fixes to meet accessibility standards are time-consuming and expensive, and don’t help boost customer loyalty in the meantime.
But what if you don’t have the mass of Microsoft behind you or the in-house awareness and savvy of Naughty Dog? In my role at Applause, I regularly work with customers around the world who start their accessibility journey with little knowledge or resources.
The complexity of OTT accessibility testing for streaming
The wide variety of streaming platforms and third-party apps that are used on these platforms is tremendous and growing each day. It would be fantastic if all third-party apps were tested across all the popular platforms. Or, if platforms like Roku had the bandwidth to test all the apps invited onto the platform.
While apps developed for OTT connected devices may have similar code bases, they all are slightly different and must be individually tested for accessibility – and this is just with regard to addressing WCAG standards, not inclusive design to make these experiences delightful for everyone. Even if an app uses the same codebase across different OTT devices, these platforms may have their own implementation of assistive technology in their own operating system (OS), which can create many accessibility issues when it comes to using the OS with the third-party apps on the platform.
For example, a viewer might use a magnifier to navigate through content menus on Roku, but find that this assistive technology varies from the experience of using PlayStation’s magnifier. Is one better than the other in general, or in how it functions with the apps on its platform? User testing with real people with disabilities is the sure way to find out. And there is a long list of accessibility characteristics that streaming content/gaming providers must consider.
One of Applause’s global streaming content provider clients has over 30 digital properties spanning the globe. When it comes to dealing with an organization with this magnitude of digital real estate, the only way to comprehensively approach accessibility is through a programmatic framework that systematically structures accessibility testing across all properties and content. In order to enhance velocity, minimize accessibility issues and foster inclusivity, it's imperative to adopt a shift-left approach within the SDLC when addressing accessibility concerns across digital properties.
A structure for an iterative accessibility program
When working on accessibility testing with Applause streaming-content-provider customers, we often find flaws in the one-directional flow of streaming content that is for viewing only. But when you consider the bi-directionality of gaming content, digital quality issues can quickly add up. For example, not being able to take on a villain if the game instructions don’t have the right color contrast options could be one of the many common and avoidable accessibility issues that prevent games from being inclusive. This is where having testing access to a wide variety of devices, used by the widest variety of people over the widest area is indispensable.
To help take the complexity out of developing accessibility programs, Applause executes pilots for customers, often to assess their digital accessibility maturity. We have a model for doing this, and after applying that to the customer, we offer recommendations on next steps, often grouped by high to low priority. Roughly outlined, we often implement:
Expert-led assessments - Our accessibility experts assess your digital properties, wireframes or content against accessibility guidelines, including WCAG 2.1, providing prioritized issues and recommendations.
Bug fix verification - Once issues are addressed, our team validates that they were fixed correctly and identifies outstanding conformance concerns resulting from code changes.
Accessibility training - Applause provides consulting, customized course development and training – including our new program, PWD Insights, where organizations are connected to persons with disabilities who help with consultation, workshops, empathy sessions and more, giving your staff direct access to real users and their valuable feedback. These initiatives showcase the importance of accessibility throughout your organization and educate individual teams on how to incorporate best practices into regular operations.
Accessibility is an infinite loop
Organizations have varying motivations around addressing accessibility. Some want to just ensure they are legally compliant, leveraging WCAG to do this. Others believe that the vision of world-class organizations - no matter what size - should be to design and create experiences that everyone can experience. Still, others’ motivation is to lower total cost of ownership and increase developer efficiency by minimizing accessibility and inclusivity issues.
Whatever the case, Applause is happy to help organizations take the first step of accessibility awareness, or to help more accessibility-savvy organizations with years of accessibility compliance take the next step on the journey toward inclusive design. In the end, wherever you are in your accessibility journey, it’s key to design, develop and test with people with disabilities instead of for them.