Looking back at the first mobile phones, it’s kind of stunning how far we’ve come. All they could do in the beginning was make or receive calls, but it didn’t take long for manufacturers to start piling in the features. Today, mobile phones have so many features that I imagine even the heavy users that make up the bulk of TouchArcade’s readers aren’t familiar with all of them, and certainly don’t use many of them. I mean, except for that super-useful Apple app for checking stocks. Everyone uses that. Joking aside, features you or I may never use might be extremely important to someone else. In a way, that’s the strength of mobile devices. By providing a little something for everyone, everyone has a reason to own one. But some of those features that most of us never have a reason to check out can be life-changing for others, such as the many accessibility features Apple has implemented in iOS.
One of these features is the VoiceOver option. You can find it in your device’s settings under the Accessibility tab. When it’s enabled, touching any bit of text will result in it being read out loud by the device. For the visually-impaired in particular, this is a huge feature. The world we live in isn’t always considerate of everyone living in it, and even as technology has pushed farther, it hasn’t necessarily moved in a positive direction for everyone. Look at games, as an example. Early games were text-heavy, requiring the player to use their imagination to visualize the world they were interacting with. As time has gone on, some of the biggest pushes have been in graphics, sadly making them less accessible to the visually-impaired. Apple’s iOS devices have changed that, if only a little. The tools are now there to offer more choices than ever to a group of gamers who have had to get by with very few. The big problem is, many of us don’t know they’re there.
When the RPG Reload article about King Of Dragon Pass ($9.99) was posted a few weeks ago, I did my usual routine and kept an eye on the comments. We get some great ones from our readers, with a lot of insightful observations and useful feedback. This time around, one comment from a reader named Zack Kline caught my attention. It reads, “One aspect which often gets overlooked is that it’s one of the few big iOS games which has really gone out of its way to become playable by the blind. There’s a sizable population of iOS users, myself included, who are really happy that Apple has done so much work on making their platform accessible, but don’t have a lot of interesting games to enjoy. Frankly, (King Of Dragon Pass) is the best, and certainly the deepest. I only wish we had more choices."
Then, I flipped over to Twitter and saw a comment from a man by the name of Michael Feir. Michael also pointed out that the game had full accessibility support, commenting, “It’s the best example of a formerly inaccessible PC game made fully playable on iOS thanks to Apple’s VoiceOver screen reader."
I got in touch with both of these men to talk about iOS gaming and accessibility. One thing led to another, and I ended up talking about the issue with many other blind or visually-impaired gamers, along with several iOS developers. Even though this isn’t the usual kind of article we feature at TouchArcade, we thought our readers might be interested in what everyone had to say about the subject.
I spoke to Zack first. He’s 26 years old, fresh out of university, and still trying to decide on his next step. Blind since birth, he got his start in gaming with a Nintendo 64. It’s not exactly the platform that comes to mind when you try to think of accessible games, but at the very least, Zack enjoyed the sound design of many of the games he played. His favorites read like a list from any N64 fan: Pokemon Stadium, Super Smash Bros., and even the Legend Of Zelda games, though he couldn’t enjoy much more than just wandering around in the various areas of each world. As time progressed, he found consoles less and less friendly for his needs and moved over to PC, where he found many titles that satisfied his growing urge for deeper gaming experiences. He’s enjoyed many text adventures, and he’s a huge fan of roguelikes, especially NetHack. Outside of gaming, he enjoys reading books, watching movies and TV, and ballroom dancing.
Michael Feir has also been playing games for most of his life. His first games were actually board games like Monopoly, which he enjoyed playing with his sighted brother. When he was 10 years old, he got an Apple IIe computer. It was on that computer that he played his first accessible video games, enjoying text-based games like Great Escape and Eamon Adventures. In junior high school, he got a Eureka A4, a computer specially designed for the visually-impaired. He enjoyed playing Infocom’s library of text adventures on it, along with Rogue and its various offspring. An avid reader of XYZZYnews, a fanzine for interactive fiction enthusiasts, Michael decided to start his own fanzine in the summer of 1996, when he was just 21 years old. Titled Audyssey Magazine, it was meant to be a general enthusiast magazine for blind or visually-impaired gamers. He ran the magazine for 40 issues before handing the duties off to another editor. The full archives of the magazine are still available on the web, if you want to check them out. Michael has degrees in English and philosophy, and enjoys reading books of all sorts and listening to audio dramas.
Although I spoke primarily with Zack and Michael, they are but two of a surprisingly thriving community of visually-impaired gamers. You can find many members of that community at AppleVis, a site that focuses on providing resources for blind or low-vision users of Apple products. It’s a fantastic site with a lot of useful information and a forum populated by many helpful people. Zack and Michael both point to it as an instrumental part of how they came to iOS gaming. I conducted an informal poll there as to which iOS games the community liked best, and the results told me at least two things. First, even with the relatively limited selection of accessible games out there, tastes vary wildly from from person to person, and second, this is a group that is hungry for a greater selection of games. With OS-level support for accessibility being a part of iOS hardware since the iPhone 3GS, you might expect there to be more out there right now than there really is.
I also spoke with several iOS developers, all of whom have at least put effort into trying to make their games accessible. I wanted to hear what they had to say about the topic, and I am grateful at how quickly and eagerly everyone replied in spite of their busy schedules. Whatever the results may be, it’s good to hear that this part of the audience is at least on their minds. The first developer I got in touch with was natural given the genesis of this article. For David Dunham, the designer of King Of Dragon Pass, adding VoiceOver support was simply an extension of his desire to expand the game’s audience beyond its PC origins. He had received requests from blind gamers for the PC version that he was unable to do much about at the time. When he was asked about it by a number of blind gamers, including Zack Kline, in the lead-up to the launch of the iOS version, he was interested in trying to make it happen. “One of the reasons for the iPhone port was to let more people play the game, so expanding to VoiceOver users was another step in the right direction. And since it was not impossible, it seemed like the right thing to do," Dunham told me.
Since King Of Dragon Pass was mostly a text-based game, Dunham used UIKit to make it rather than a sprite-based engine. That meant that almost everything worked with VoiceOver to some extent without any extra work done. From there, it was just a matter of going through every screen and making sure things worked as they should, particularly with regards to pictures. The only part that required extensive work was the game’s map, which was originally designed as being coordinate-based. The new VoiceOver map is actually composed of discrete tappable areas, according to Dunham, something that came about as a result of enthusiastic testers and would-be players.
A Dark Room ($1.99) is an incredibly popular game whose iOS version launched towards the end of 2013 and really caught fire through the first half of 2014. If you’ve played the game, you know that it is essentially a text adventure. You also probably know that it’s a surprisingly deep, compelling experience, far more than its exterior would suggest. It’s also fully compatible with VoiceOver, though it didn’t quite start that way. The game was mostly compatible right away, particularly in the earlier parts of the game. How it got the rest of the way once again comes around to a player. The developer, Amir Rajan, relates on his blog how he received a tweet one night asking for help with a certain section of the game. Said Rajan, “After a few exchanges on Twitter, I finally realized he was blind. He was using iOS’s built in screen reader to play the game and was well into the storyline. I never expected a blind person would try playing the game." After helping that player move forward, Rajan read up on iOS’s accessibility features and with “very, very little work" was able to implement an update to sort out the remaining issues.
It was even easier for developer Choice Of Games, Dan Fabulich told me. Since they knew that interactive fiction games had long been popular among visually-impaired gamers, they were hoping it wouldn’t be too much work to make their games accessible. As it turned out, it took virtually no work. Their first game, Choice Of The Dragon (Free), completely worked with no changes or extra effort required. There have been times when maintaining that accessibility has been difficult, he tells me, but that’s mostly a result of bugs in VoiceOver itself. “When VoiceOver works, our apps work", he says.
For other developers, it’s not quite as simple of a task. When Star Traders RPG (Free) launched, there were no plans for accessibilty features. It was a small project from a small developer, but any readers who know the developers, the Trese Brothers, know they don’t shy away from hard work and community support. When members of the visually-impaired community expressed to the developers that the game was somewhat playable, seemed quite fun, and that they really wanted to play it. The Brothers checked into the issue and found about 50% of the game worked with VoiceOver, which meant around half of the game didn’t. As the team was constantly pushing out updates anyway, they simply took on the big job a little bit at a time. “For Star Traders, VoiceOver and full accessibility was a matter of hours put in, not something that was specifically technically difficult," said Andrew Trese.
The dungeon-crawling RPG Silversword ($2.99) was initially released without any accessibility support at all. The developer, Mario Gaida, was keen for feedback from players on how the game could be improved. He received an email from a visually-impaired gamer who was interested in playing the game and was wondering about accessibility support. Gaida initially replied that it would be impossible to play without being able to see the gameplay window. Fortunately, it didn’t end there. As Gaida told me, “I had totally forgotten about the power of imagination. In addition, I had forgotten about the road that led me to Silversword in the first place: I wanted to play a game that doesn’t need state of the art graphics to be playable. I wanted something that demanded imagination. So why shouldn’t it be possible to open the game for visually impaired people?"
To the extent his resources allowed him to, Gaida worked with the player who had emailed him to try to implement VoiceOver support in the game. Many things took a lot of thinking, like how to make it possible for the player to move about in the world. It’s not perfect, but the game is playable. The trickiest part came from the game’s treasure chest mini-game. In the game, when you find a locked chest, you have to pick the lock using a variety of tools. “I finally added some distinct sounds to every gizmo, so that the player could activate it once the correct sound was played. I don’t know if it works very well for all players but so far I didn’t get any help calls," Gaida said.
Situations like that chest mini-game aren’t uncommon in games, and it can make it challenging or even impossible to implement full accessibility. David Dunham told me, “I still have no idea how I would even begin to make a game like Battle of the Bulge ($9.99) (which I worked on as well) accessible — too much information is map-based and graphical." It’s a common refrain among the developers I’ve talked to. Some games are hard to make accessible from a conceptual level. This unfortunately includes many RPGs, whose text-heavy interface and general turn-based nature would seem to make them a natural fit. It’s the dungeon navigation that causes issues. Heroes Of Steel ($3.99), from the Trese Brothers, has a heavy dungeon exploration component. Andrew Trese told me, “Every dungeon is different, and every turn of the wall is important for line of sight, and exactly where the monsters and heroes are standing is changing constantly. Its challenging to imagine how this kind of experience can translate to (VoiceOver)." We’re probably a long way from a fully-accessible Final Fantasy game.
Even games that seem to work from a conceptual point of view can run into problems. For example, what could be more friendly to VoiceOver support than a gamebook? Well, it depends on what engine you’re using. Unity is a wonderful engine that has enabled many smaller developers to work cross-platform fairly easily, but it has no native support for Apple’s VoiceOver feature. It’s also the engine used by Tin Man Games, one of the more prolific gamebook developers on the App Store. Basically, any developer using Unity is going to have re-write the VoiceOver tech within the engine, no small task. Neil Rennison from Tin Man told me, “We did spend some time investigating whether we could do this cost-effectively but ultimately we concluded that it would cost us a lot of money to implement a new form of (VoiceOver) in our apps." As he reminded me, the gamebook market is very niche, so the developer has to make hard decisions about where their resources go in order to stay in business. Rennison doesn’t rule it out for the future, at least. “As soon as we get into a financial position where we can do this sustainably then we will," he said.
Of course, these are all examples of post-hoc VoiceOver support. Another way to ensure full accessibility is to design the game around including it from the very start. Some fantastic experimental games have come about from this idea. Back in the 1990s, Japanese fans were treated to Real Sound: Kaze no Regret, which initially released on the SEGA Saturn and eventually made its way to the Dreamcast. The designer of the game, the late Kenji Eno, was a major champion for blind gamers in Japan. Somewhat famously, he traded SEGA exclusive rights to Real Sound in exchange for the hardware company donating 1,000 Saturn units to the visually-impaired. Real Sound was a sound novel, basically a Choose Your Own Adventure presented as an audio play. Eno wanted to revisit the concept, but he never got the chance. Nearly 20 years later, virtually no one in the console market has attempted anything similar.
The iOS market allows for a bit more risk-taking, however. I don’t think it’s so much a matter of the audience being more receptive as it is that budgets are quite a bit lower, making the cost of gambling on an idea a bit lower. As a result, there are some very unusual iOS games, with many success stories among them. Perhaps one of the bigger ones is Papa Sangre ($4.99), from developer Somethin’ Else. It’s an audio horror game that uses sound to make a scarier experience than most visuals ever could. It’s not alone in Somethin’ Else’s line-up, either. Indeed, all of the developer’s games are designed to be equally accessible to sighted and visually-impaired gamers alike. “This was a fundamental objective for these games from the very first line of the very first internal think-piece. And yet these are not ‘games for blind people’ but ‘games sighted and blind people can play on the same terms.’," said Paul Bennun of Somethin’ Else. “This was only one of the important objectives — equally important was to ‘make the best ever audio games.'"
When I asked Bennun if it was more difficult to make games that take accessibility into account, he replied, “It is more difficult with no doubt — every line of code or design decision you have to make is something to assess and debug. However, this is a matter of priority. The same thing goes for (say) female characters in games, where many developers say they ‘don’t have time’ to represent women properly. It just depends on what you consider to the definition of ‘a game.'" For Somethin’ Else, following their priorities has led to some great outcomes. Bennum says the response from players has been, “Off the charts. We are so happy to be some people’s favourite game. That’s profound, and very rare. Additionally, sighted players love the games too. The novelty of the game isn’t that blind people can play them but they’re interesting designs. We put so much stuff behind the scenes, it’s also gratifying that some of that work is invisible. It means we made something good. Yes, I’m proud of these games!"
In talking to the developers who have been able to make their games accessible, their feelings about the response from players are almost universally positive, in fact. In the case of King Of Dragon Pass, David Dunham actually implemented some code so that he could track how many players make use of the VoiceOver function. It varies over time, but in the last month or so, he reported that 7% of players loading up the app are doing so in VoiceOver mode, a very significant number. From a purely financial view, Dunham informed me, the investment was worth it. He went on, “But that’s not the only viewpoint. Not long after we released with VoiceOver support, we got email from a player who said he was a blind teenager from the Netherlands. He thanked us for making a game that finally let him feel like part of the world gaming community, because he could play on an equal level with everyone else." Amir Rajan told a similar story about A Dark Room. “It’s worth it to get a thank you email from a father with a blind daughter that can enjoy a popular game that her seeing friends play too," said Rajan.
Of his experiences with Silversword, Mario Gaida said, “I know of some players who took the time to inform me that they were enjoying the game with VoiceOver, so I think I did something good." Andrew Trese of the Trese Brothers told me, “A lot of what we do, we do because we feel passionate about it. I am really happy when we can do something and not count the pennies. Yes, it was absolutely worth it! The community has been so kind, encouraging and great." Dan Fabulich of Choice Of Games replied, “We’ve received a very strong, very positive response from the visually impaired community of gamers." He added, “Making games that are accessible and inviting to the whole human community of gamers is both good business and the right thing to do."
Gaming is a great hobby, and it only gets better the more people and ideas are allowed to become a part of it. For visually-impaired gamers, iOS’s built-in accessibility features have pushed things forward significantly after a long period of seeing the hobby seemingly move farther and farther away. As Zack told me, “(iOS) has more potential than almost any other current platform out there." There’s still a lot of work to be done, but hopefully in the future, gamers like Zack, Michael, and all of the people at AppleVis will have more to play.
In speaking with the members of the AppleVis forum, I found a group eager for more variety in their gaming diets. One user by the name of Piotr said, “If there’s any genre I wish there was accessible, I’d love to see more strategy and tower defence games." More than a few expressed a desire for some accessible sports games. Others want more action games, or shooting games. User Paul wrote, “One genre of game I’d love to see more of is the 2D or 3D audio platformer. I have not yet heard of such a thing on iOS." User Lorelei said that she’d like to see more games that sighted and blind players can both enjoy, bringing gamers together. “Ultimately, I really hope that more accessible games come out in the future in various genres, and that people stop treating it as an afterthought in the design process, at least for games which have high potential for being completely accessible," says one user named Marconius.
For Zack’s part, he’d like to see more attention paid to accessibility, and more commitments from developers. As he told me, “If you’ll look into accessibility sometime that doesn’t really help us play your game right now, and that’s all we really want." His ideal game? He’d like to have an accessible open-world game like the Elder Scrolls series. As for Michael, he’d love to play a party-based single player adventure like Baldur’s Gate ($9.99). On the topic of accessible games in general, he feels that the biggest obstacle isn’t a technical one, but rather a lack of awareness about blind gamers. “I still get accosted by people who are stunned that I can use a computer and smartphone. That ignorance is a bigger barrier than blindness," he said to me. “Games are the icebreakers that playgrounds used to be and we’re needlessly left out all too often."
I also want to share with you the results of my request for the best iOS games according to the visually-impaired gamers I’ve spoken to. Let’s make it a list of 10 in no particular order.
- King Of Dragon Pass ($9.99)
- Dice World (Free)
- Solara (Free)
- Star Traders RPG (Free)
- The Nightjar ($3.99)
- Audio Defence ($1.99)
- Lords & Knights (Free)
- Accessible Minesweeper ($0.99)
- SixthSense (Free)
- A Dark Room ($1.99)
Thanks once again to all the gamers and developers who generously shared their time and thoughts with me. While I couldn’t include everything in the article, it all helped inform it, and I appreciate it greatly.