Accessible_Game_Switch.jpgStarted by Barrie Ellis three years ago, OneSwitch is a website aimed at providing information on assistive technology for moderately to severely disabled gamers. Ellis specifically focuses on accessibility switches – modified controllers with an on/off button that can be connected to the unit to operate particular functions within the game. “If a person happily presses a switch to roll a dice in a group game, even if they do not grasp the concept, it is their luck that provides a result, and no one elses,” he says. “This has value.”

OneSwitch aims to not only provide instructions for the modification of controllers, and suggestions of games playable using this equipment, but also to illuminate the issues associated with disabled gamers so that developers might learn too. It is in this capacity that Ellis was recently asked to act as Accessibility Advisor for the 2006 Retro Remakes competition, themed Good remakes of good games that anyone can play, regardless of their ability”. He will also be appearing as a member of the International Game Developers Association's Game Accessibility Special Interest Group giving a talk on Accessible Gaming at the Brighton Game Developers Conference on July the 14th. We spoke to Barrie about accessibility, the Retro Remakes competition, and what the industry can do to accomodate disabled gamers.

(Click through to read the full feature, including plenty more interesting info on accessible gaming.)

Why did you start OneSwitch?

OneSwitch was started in June 2003, after nearly ten years of working paid and voluntarily for severely disabled adults. I spent a lot of time tinkering with accessibility ideas after discovering assistive technology at 'Thurrock Care' day centre in 1994. Here, old BBC computers with various accessible interfaces were in regular use, for educational aims, and for pure fun too.

People seemed to react positively to technology, and the power it could bring them. I started to wonder if I might be able to adapt some of the old games machines and gadgets I had in my loft from my childhood. Things progressed from there...

In relation to gaming, what is "assistive technology"?

Basically, anything that assists you in playing video games, where you couldn't otherwise. It can range from things as complicated as Eye Trackers for people unable to use any other part of their body, to things as common place as a pair of head-phones for blind gamers wishing to play Audio Games.

My personal focus is on controllers adapted for use with accessibility switches. These enable gamers to use different parts of their body to activate different controls with the most appropriate specialised switch. The picture above demonstrates a boy (Christopher Myers) playing a mini-game of darts on Sega's Shenmue II on Dreamcast using a red head switch.

I gather you're pretty handy with electronics?

I'm self taught, and would only say that I have pretty basic electronics skills. Thanks to the Internet, I've almost always managed to track down people that can help, where I've been stuck.

How difficult are the interfaces talked about on your site to create?

It depends. Adapting old Namco Arcade Sticks is not particularly difficult, but is very time consuming. You need to wire fourteen accessible switch sockets to each and every control. Adapting something like a PC USB game controller for a single switch gamer is probably the best place for beginners to start.

I imagine there'd be a lot in terms of minigames that are playable using one-switch, but has there been much in the way of complete games that have been released in the recent past?

Many PC and on-line games have been written that are single switch compatible - I particularly recommend Aurikon and Alice Amazed.

As for games from main stream developers:

In 2002 NAMCO released Star Trigon in Japanese Arcades, which aside from a START button, was played entirely with a single button. Great fun game.
In 2000 Clap Hanz’ PlayStation game Everybody's Golf 2 could be played with a single button (although menu navigation is more involved).
Um Jammer Lammy could be played with a single button in Easy mode (again - needing more controls for menu navigation).
In 1998 CAVE released Uo Poko in Japanese Arcades, which could be played entirely with DOWN on the joystick.

So - pretty obscure! Of course there have been quite a few single button mobile phone games, but I don't really consider these very accessible games, due to the tiny controls of a mobile handset.

Do you think accessibility is ignored by developers?

Accessibility for disabled gamers, which include young children and novice gamers, is rarely considered by main stream developers. There have been some notable exceptions. Atari included "Special Feature" game options on their golden age Atari VCS games. These were aimed at very young children, opening their games up to a wider audience. Valve included subtitled descriptions of sounds in Half-Life 2 fully opening up the game to deaf gamers.

The reasons why wider accessibility is generally ignored by developers are down to three reasons as I see it:

1. Ignorance. Developers unaware of this area are understandably a little daunted by the huge range of disabilities. They don't seem to realise that many accessibility features are quite simple to implement, and could benefit a wide range of gamers. No one is realistically expecting a game to be made accessible to everyone. Many are expecting a little more consideration though.

2. A lack of easy to digest help. There is yet a concise collection of accessibility help and advice. In the meanwhile, I can recommend these sites:

An umbrella of the major players in gaming accessibility.
Features an excellent research area and forum.
Top Ten Accessibility wish list guiding the Retro Remakes 2006 entrants.

3. No agreed ratings system. A standard needs to be agreed for categorising and announcing accessibility features, along the lines of the American ESRB and European PEGI age ratings systems. This will make life easier for game producers and consumers alike.

I guess, in terms of what you're saying with simply implemented features, I've heard a lot of people complaining about things like lack of support for colour blind gamers - it's just a simple thing, but, like you say, it's just not considered.

Precisely. Developers will find that adding just one simple accessibility feature will open up their game to more and more people. Who could possibly lose out from this?

Well, as you mentioned, Valve subtitled Half Life 2, and it did widen the audience for their game. This seems to have been one example of accessibility technology that's filtered through the mainstream media and has been duly praised.

A good thing. More please!

Do you think the rating system is the kind of thing that we could reasonably expect to see implemented in the next few years? It doesn't seem like something that would be overly difficult.

I think it is more difficult than it seems, but is definitely possible. With the IGDA's Game Accessibility Special Interest Group we are planning a book which will hopefully be looking at ways in which this can be put in place.

What is your relationship with Retro Remakes to date?

I first became aware of them in the lead up to the Classic Gaming Expo UK in 2005 which we had a stall at. A guy called 'Merman' contacted me, telling me that a mini-competition had reaped a handful of one button games at Retro Remakes. I got in touch with them, asking if I could host them on my site. They agreed, then went one better, and ran a competition solely to create accessible one button games. Seventy odd games that came from this international endeavour accessible to play with a single button.

The team at Retro Remakes seem very sympathetic to accessibility, which has led to this year's competition. This was kicked off thanks to ‘Caffeine Kid’s desire to see a worthwhile game programming competition for 2006.

You're on board as "Accessibility Advisor" for the 2006 competition - what does that entail?

I helped with the rules and advice that opened the accessibility side of the competition. From thereon I've been on hand to give advice to programmers as questions have surfaced.

Have you had many people asking for help so far?

There have been a good number of intelligent questions from a wide range of people. Some of the programmers have remarkable knowledge in this field and have at times answered their own questions. Where I and the entrants have been unable to provide good advice, I have relied upon the IGDA's Game Accessibility Special Interest Group. Posting questions on their mailing list generally garners some very helpful replies.

What are you hoping to see come out of this competition?

An idea of how difficult it has been for programmers to create fun games, with good accessibility features in a three month time scale. This might help persuade main stream developers to do the same with their games. I'm also hoping to see some novel ideas on how to provide accessibility, such as the "ActionCaptions" suggested by ‘Rogue’.

What kind of features would you like to see implemented?

I posted a personal wish list for the Retro Remakes programmers. I can't think of much more that I would wish to see at this stage. If there were only a few things that started to filter through, it would be: Game options supporting simplified controls. Speed control options over the entire game. Very wide difficulty setting options, with developers remembering that there is no such thing as too easy for some gamers.

Is there anything coming up in the near future that you think will improve the situation? I'm curious as to whether you think the Nintendo Wii controller will impede or assist accessibility.

The Wii one handed controllers will certainly help a range of gamers, but not all. It's certainly a step in the right direction. There are a lot of gamers out there already using one handed controllers. Microsoft have recently announced that they are looking at releasing a simplified controller for the Xbox 360. They realise, perhaps on the back of the Wii and present day concerns, that very complicated controllers are alienating a whole range of potential gamers.

Sony seem to be lagging behind with their PS3 as regards any accessibility. They have announced the most complicated standard controller yet seen on a games console, and with the move to USB and wireless controllers, the massive range of PSone and PS2 controllers have been shut out. I really hope that Sony consider releasing a PS2/PSone game controller adapter for the PS3. The previous PlayStation consoles have been the games console of choice so far.

Do you think we'll see things changing in the future?

Yes, and it already is slowly. I just hope things keep getting better. Everyone has the right to fun.