Indie Game Accessibility: Key or Extra?

Indie game developers often face unique challenges when bringing their creative visions to life. While I building my latest game, I am wondering how complicated or difficult would I deliberate make my game to be. Will it be accessible to my target audience? With limited resources, time constraints, and a highly competitive market, it’s not surprising that some may question whether accessibility should be a priority. In this blog post, let’s delve into the pros and cons of incorporating accessibility features in indie games in general and come to a well-rounded conclusion on whether it’s essential or simply a nice-to-have.

The Case for Accessibility in Indie Games

It’s easy to forget that many players face unique challenges when it comes to enjoying video games. Some may have visual, auditory, cognitive, or motor impairments that can make gaming a daunting task. But with a little awareness and creativity, we can break down barriers and design games that cater to the needs of a diverse audience.

The primary argument for including accessibility features in indie games revolves around the idea of inclusivity. When games cater to a diverse range of players, they foster a sense of community and belonging.

Watch how YouTube Steve Saylor – who is blind – plays Celeste in Assist Mode.

Celeste, a critically acclaimed indie platformer, is known for its challenging gameplay. Developer Maddy Thorson made an effort to include an Assist Mode, which allows players to modify various gameplay aspects, like game speed and the number of air dashes, to tailor the difficulty to their preferences. As a result, Celeste has gained a reputation for being both challenging and inclusive, catering to a broad range of player abilities.

Now consider that accessibility can help us indie devs to reach a wider audience. This should contribute directly to potential sales and word-of-mouth marketing. I imagine that it brings differentiated uniqueness of our games in terms of clever features, as well as building a stronger reputation within the gaming community.

Watch Erin Hawley’s gushing review of HyperDot’s accessibility. Erin lives with Muscular Dystrophy and anxiety.

HyperDot, an action-arcade game developed by Charles McGregor of Tribe Games, has received praise for its accessibility features. McGregor collaborated with the AbleGamers to test and refine the game’s accessibility options, which include remappable controls, color customization, and gameplay modifications. This partnership not only improved HyperDot’s accessibility but also raised awareness about the importance of inclusive design.

The Challenges of Implementing Accessibility in Indie Games

Despite the benefits, indie devs face several obstacles when considering accessibility features. An instant hit is limited resources. Indie devs often work with smaller budgets, which could limit their ability to invest in accessibility research, testing, and implementation. Developing accessible games may require additional time for design, development, and testing – a luxury not all indie devs have.

For example, I am a fan of CGA graphics. I even wrote a piece on using the CGA color palette for new games. However, I am wondering how inclusive CGA colors are to colorblind players.

Cuphead is known to be extremely hard to play.

The toughest implementation of accessibility is probably in balancing with creative vision and gameplay. Cuphead, a run-and-gun indie game, is renowned for its retro art style and punishing difficulty. The developers, Studio MDHR, initially faced criticism for their lack of accessibility options. However, after receiving feedback from the gaming community, the team acknowledged the issue and released an update to include features like remappable controls. This example highlights the importance of considering accessibility during the early stages of development to avoid negative backlash.

The Witness, a first-person puzzle game, sparked controversy for not being accessible to colorblind players. The game relies heavily on color-based puzzles, making it difficult or impossible for some players to progress. Despite the criticism, developer Jonathan Blow chose not to modify the game, arguing that making the puzzles colorblind-friendly would compromise his artistic vision. This case demonstrates the delicate balance between creative vision and inclusivity that indie developers must navigate.

I am not colorblind but can imagine how a scene like this can annoy a colorblind gamer.

Game On! Accessible Design Principles

As an indie developer, finding the right balance between implementing accessibility features and focusing on core gameplay can be tricky. If we are motivated to enhance inclusivity in our games, we have to get started with Universal Design. It is a concept that focuses on creating products that can be used by everyone, regardless of their abilities. By keeping our design flexible, simple, and consistent, we can make gaming a more inclusive and enjoyable experience for all players. This can be as simple as prioritizing accessibility features like remappable controls, adjustable font sizes, subtitles and colorblind modes. I’ll perhaps write about these features after gaining more experience with it on my next game.

Gathering feedback from the community is certainly a good source of truth. Safely plough through Reddit comments with a radioactive suit, and you should pick out gems of great ideas. The review section on Steam games would be helpful too.

AbleGamers would be a good place to explore accessibility needs. The organization creates opportunities that enable play to combat social isolation, foster inclusive communities, and improve the quality of life for people with disabilities. Check them out on their website.

Not sure where to go from here?

If you had guessed from my writing that I appear to be new to incorporating accessibility into my games, you are right. This is a principle that I intend to follow for my future projects, and I am only just starting my exploration journey. I would love to learn from your experience as both a game developer and a gamer.