2023 is already a promising year for disabled gamers. From the recent PC release of The Last of Us Part I to Dead Space’s extensive content warnings for individuals with mental health disabilities, accessibility design continues to evolve. And it’s not just Western studios that are innovating. Several titles from Japanese studios are demonstrating a global interest in accessibility in games.
This year alone, games like Wild Hearts and Hi-Fi Rush included dozens of features and design practices that allow disabled people to play with as few unintended barriers as possible. But this attention to accessibility detail is not new. Speaking with WIRED, Wild Hearts co-director Takuto Edagawa and Hi-Fi Rush director John Johanas discussed their games’ options, how the studios work with the accessibility community, and the overall importance of creating accessible and entertaining experiences for all.
Developed by Omega Force and Koei Tecmo, and published by Electronic Arts, Wild Hearts is the latest iteration in the monster hunting genre. And with the difficult task of slaying gargantuan beasts comes an assortment of accessibility features to aid disabled hunters. Customizing keys, enabling screen readers for menus, and even toggling actions such as the Karakuri Stance help to reduce player exhaustion and extend play periods. These settings are just some of the available tools that Edagawa wants disabled individuals to be able to access.
“This is not the first time Omega Force has incorporated accessibility features into our games, but I think it’s the title which we put the most effort into so far,” Edagawa says. “As it’s an action game, complicated controls are often required, so we tried hard to create an environment that’s easy to play for a wide variety of players without compromising the gameplay.”
Implementing accessibility is a process that requires continuous learning and listening. As technology and systems evolve, so too do the methods that developers use to create innovative features and designs. Thankfully, development teams can look to other studios and even consultants for inspiration and resources. For Wild Hearts, Edagawa acknowledges the support that EA provided, as well as the importance of looking elsewhere for guidance.
“We weren’t inspired by one specific game, but we did refer to various Western AAA games when we decided on the accessibility features, as Western games are really advanced in this field,” he says. “In addition, we received a lot of detailed information on how to implement these features from EA, which was very helpful. EA helped us with deciding which settings needed to be included and checked if the features were working properly. There’s always more that can be done, but their input helped set us on the right path.”
EA’s assistance was crucial, not only in offering suggestions but also in helping to refine occasionally troublesome settings. Edagawa notes that the development of specific features and designs, even though they were incorporated at the earliest stages, occasionally conflicted with certain aspects of Wild Hearts. However, since they were a core component of accessibility, developers continuously worked so disabled players could play their game.
“The hardest feature to implement was color blindness support,” Edagawa says. “As it’s a basic accessibility feature, we were careful from the beginning of the development process to ensure that the UX was not dependent on colors. However, there were some moments where using different colors could not be avoided, or it was easier to distinguish by colors though it could be distinguished by other factors. We continued to adjust color blindness support features until the very end.”
Hi-Fi Rush unexpectedly released in January to immense praise. Players found the rhythmic combat unique and entertaining, and disabled individuals had access to numerous settings that help players alleviate exhaustion, like Auto-Action Mode and difficulty settings. And this attention to accessibility isn’t new. Since the company’s 2014 release of The Evil Within, developers at Tango Gameworks have been working to make accessibility a core design principle. For John Johanas, Hi-Fi Rush is a culmination of years of efforts to welcome disabled players.
“The trend was kick-started in the US, where we see the effort put into accessibility and showing that it’s not about destroying your gameplay experience, but just allowing people to enjoy the experience that you’re trying to create,” Johanas says. “As we progressed—and this is pre-Microsoft, at least for Hi-Fi Rush—we had two accessibility things that we approached the title with. One was accessibility settings in a menu, things you can control and turn on if you want to play a specific way. The other was about just making the experience itself accessible.”
Hi-Fi Rush currently offers a variety of accessibility settings such as subtitles, control customization, a color-blind mode, and even options to visualize rhythms. But options alone are not enough for many disabled players. Johanas notes that he and developers looked to studios like Naughty Dog and Insomniac Games for inspiration, but including an overwhelming number of options wasn’t feasible for this specific title. Instead, his team needed to ensure that the game would still be accessible for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals without extensive features.
“So we said, what can we do in the visual aspect to assist players who have issues with identifying rhythm or are hard of hearing in general,” Johanas says. “We looked at how things were interpreted, like how many types of subtitles were used, for example, to get the character interactions as visual as possible, as well as working into that every aspect of the visual, like UI, to make it so there’s lots of different ways that people can interpret the rhythm, even if they can’t hear it.”
These settings and design practices were not easy to implement. Johanas and his team wanted to create a balance between offering assistance while still providing an entertaining challenge for disabled players. Thankfully, Tango Gameworks received additional support from ZeniMax Media’s accessibility team. Through their own extensive knowledge and resources, as well as disabled play testers, Hi-Fi Rush launched in a playable state and continues to evolve in patches.
“They tell us where people struggle in some areas, and whether it’s a player issue and their understanding of the game, or if it’s an issue that could be related to accessibility,” Johanas says. “We can go through and figure out what are those things and tackle them one by one. Also, Microsoft helps us out with their Xbox store. They have a system where accessibility options can be tagged. They gave us the qualifications so we can aim for that. We don’t put in something that people don’t know is there.”
Wild Hearts and Hi-Fi Rush are the embodiment of a global trend. For years, accessibility has been credited to Western studios or indie devs, especially after releases like The Last of Us Part II, God of War Ragnarök, and Forza Horizon 5. Yet, the drive to create accessible and entertaining games is not exclusive to a specific part of the world. With over 400 million disabled players globally, accessibility initiatives continue to evolve. And as Johanas notes, it doesn’t matter what part of the world a studio is from. What matters is that development teams have a desire and want to incorporate accessibility into their games.
“You can have one person who’s an ambassador about accessibility, but you need to ingrain within the team that we should always be thinking, what can we do to make this an enjoyable experience for everyone?” Johanas says. “There are so many people out there who want to enjoy these games, and we want them to have a good time with it. You need to get people to see and understand these issues.”