One of last year’s most acclaimed games was Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
Developed by Canada’s own Eidos Montreal, the game received significant praise for delivering a rip-roaring galactic action-adventure packed with a deeply emotional, award-winning narrative. Here at home, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy also won Game of the Year at the Canadian Game Awards — no small feat considering the number of games made in Canada.
But Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy has garnered a strong positive reception from another, often underrepresented community: gamers with disabilities. These players, who are visually impaired, hard of hearing and/or have limited mobility or cognitive impairment, regularly face many barriers when playing, like the lack of adjustable subtitles, high contrast options and closed captions. Altogether, an estimated 250 million gamers around the world live with disabilities. With that in mind, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy offers a variety of accessibility features, which have been well-received by players and accessibility advocacy sites like Can I Play That? and DAGERSystem.
To learn more about what went into making Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy more accessible, MobileSyrup spoke via email to two of the key developers at Eidos Montreal behind these efforts: Améliane F. Chiasson, accessibility lead, and Daniel Fortier (lead UI programmer). They spoke about the development of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, the importance of accessibility as a whole and what the larger industry and gamers alike can do to make games more inclusive for everyone.
Question: Your background in QA and User Research led into your current role of Accessibility Lead. What is it about focusing on prioritizing players’ experiences that appeals to you, and what does it mean for you to now be formally focused on accessibility with your own dedicated team?
My first recognition plaque as an Accessibility Lead 💜
Thankful and humbled everyday for this opportunity I call a job. This is only the beginning. pic.twitter.com/hlF0kJfjRA
— Améliane FC (@TheSlasherChick) November 26, 2021
Améliane Chiasson: My entire career, I’ve always had to put myself in the shoes of our players. Whether it was ensuring our games were clear of game-breaking bugs or ensuring that our experiences were enjoyable — my mind was and will always be set on ensuring that the players’ experiences are a priority. They are the ones who buy our games and engage with our creations, so I feel we must think of them — all of them — all throughout our development process. We can make games that we love, that represent us, but we must never forget we aren’t making games just for ourselves (that wouldn’t be a very business-savvy mindset, anyways).
Q: What are some basic accessibility features that you think should, ideally, be in every game?
Daniel Fortier: Subtitles customization is a must for sure. Allowing the player to adjust the difficulty of the challenges is also something that should make its way to becoming standard in games, as it directly translates to a better experience for everyone, which is what games strive for at their core.
Chiasson: Echoing Daniel’s comment, subtitles presentation and customization is absolutely crucial. I will also add full control remapping, input alternatives, closed captions and menu narration.
After that, it becomes a little more intricate, but — design-wise — ensuring all information is communicated through multiple channels (for example: audio cues also have visual cues and optionally haptics, too). Also making sure your UI/HUD, as well as environmental design (if you have in-game hints, signs or indications), are colourblind-friendly.
Q: Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy has received a lot of praise for its accessibility features. What work went into a) identifying key accessibility features and b) successfully implementing them?
Fortier: Accessibility was an ongoing discussion right at the start of the production phase of the project. The game has a lot of conversations and banter and it was clear that subtitles were to be very useful for player to get every last bit of it, so we made sure it was designed and implemented early to get the best results possible. Around the same time, we had a lot of discussions on the fact that we wanted this game to be playable and experienced by a large audience of all kinds, and that we wanted to throw down the barriers that might come on the way to that objective. That led to the design of the difficulty customization, which was centered around basically exposing values that are traditionally hidden from the player by designers, thus giving them total control to the player to adjust what they want in their experience of the game.
Chiasson: Being aware of the core pillars of our game, as well as the intentions that went with them, really helped in identifying what were the priorities and focus when it came to accessibility. And this was true even before our department was created. So when we got on board on the project, we already had a clear scope of what to expect. That being said, making and implementing those features—and doing it well—required the dedication and commitment of many team members. This was a new process for a lot of people, and we’re lucky we had the production’s support to make it happen.
Designing and implementing for accessibility was not a structured process for us before, so we learned a lot during our time with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and hope to apply those learnings for our future projects.
Q: What’s especially notable about your [Chiasson’s] role is that you’ve worked on several Square Enix games, not just Eidos Montreal’s. Since you’re based in Montreal, what’s the process like in terms of collaborating with the international teams on games like Just Cause and Life is Strange? [Note: this interview was conducted prior to the announcement that Square Enix is selling Eidos Montreal and other studios to Embracer Group.]
Chiasson: Our department’s level of involvement — and my own — will vary depending on a few factors. Of course when it comes to our internal projects, it’s a little bit easier to be more hands-on and be there early. But for our external games for example, we usually will connect with key members of the team who will act as accessibility champions and help connect that bridge with us. We will equip them with documentation, meet with them on a set basis, provide feedback on their work, connect them with consultants and review the game whenever needed. The earlier we can be involved, the better and easier it is to tackle accessibility. And this goes for all projects!
Q: I’ve spoken to accessibility consultant Steve Saylor, who you worked with [on this game]. He noted that a key reason many games lack meaningful accessibility features is because they’re not thought of early in development. What should developers do to ensure that accessibility is considered early on throughout all facets of design?
Fortier: Steve is totally right in his assessment, and the process is already underway in our current in-development projects. Another way to see that issue is that accessibility is often seen as something that you add to a feature to make it more accessible to disabled or impaired people, rather than something that actually improves the feature by making it more comprehensible, functional and, in the end, fun! So the best way to fix this is to change the mindset around it, discuss it as soon as conception and ideating to explore new ways to make the features accessible to everyone by design, rather than “fix” them later in the process. Everyone benefits from some kind of customization in games, might as well make it part of the design!
Chiasson: Steve and Daniel are correct. I would add that as a best practice, including accessibility in your intentions and vision can help your team commit to it from almost day one. The ideal process for this is to have an accessibility team be involved in key design processes with your core team from the early days… but if you don’t have such a team yet, identifying accessibility champions on your project to act as owners is a great way to ensure accessibility is never left on the backburner. Having a plan and clear objectives is essential — even if that plan evolves or changes — at least you’ll have people who are nurturing and pushing this important mission.
Q: What are some other examples of games that you think offer well-rounded accessibility options?
Chiasson: I’m very inspired by the work of many other studios when it comes to accessibility — AAA and independent studios alike. From unique, innovative games like The Vale: Shadow of the Crown to huge releases like The Last of Us Part II or Forza Horizon 5, there’s amazing new best practices and creative solutions setting new standards for us to work and strive for. Other companies like Xbox (Microsoft) are also at the forefront of this mission, setting new guidelines, offering services for testing games and developing adaptive technology for disabled video games enthusiasts.
It doesn’t matter who works for who; when it comes to accessibility, when one of us succeeds… we all win.
Q: The 2022 Game Developers Conference State of the Industry survey found that more developers are now implementing accessibility measures into their games. However, one respondent noted that “there is still a lot of pushback in implementing accessibility features.” Why do you think there’s this pushback and what can be done to help combat this resistance?
Fortier: As I mentioned before, there is this idea that still persists in some capacity that accessibility is something you use if you are disabled, not something that everyone could benefit. There’s also a misguided thinking that accessibility will impact and diminish the creative vision of a project, by making it easier than it was designed to be. The reality is that while in effect, it can make games “easier” with difficulty options, for example, it is also an opt-in experience, which allows players to decide what they want as their experience of the game.
The interesting thing is that this has been there for most of modern gaming history. Take, for example, Wolfenstein 3D, which allowed selecting the difficulty level when starting a new game. I think the resistance comes from a misunderstanding of what accessibility really is, which makes the best way to combat is to continue discussing it, making it an integral part of the creative process and then, as weird as it sounds, making it so standard that it becomes invisible.
Chiasson: I think mainly there’s a lot of misconceptions about what our objectives and intentions are when we talk about making games accessible. We don’t want to “make your game easier” or throw a wrench at your creative vision. We want to work with you to welcome even more people into the world and experience you’re creating. Disabled people are part of your target audiences. And even beyond that, it’s been demonstrated time and time again that accessibility options and considerations are also appreciated and used by players who don’t consider themselves as disabled.
There’s also sometimes a frustration to acknowledge from developers who are swamped with work towards the end of a project that didn’t have an accessibility program in place and who are being asked to retroactively break barriers. These types of last-minute requests can be very difficult and at times impossible due to resources, budget and tech limitations. Those same developers may then have a bone to pick with people who talk to them about accessibility… when their issue truly isn’t with accessibility, but the lack of planning. That’s why we need to have these discussions early to avoid later hindrances that can cause bitterness about the subject. It’s never too late to see what can be done (if you didn’t do it before), but it’s important to be aware of the state and resources of a project in order to bring actionable solutions to the table.
Q: We also see gamers who just don’t seem to understand — or even try to understand — why accessibility matters. This especially seems to happen whenever people bring up adding assistive options to difficult games like Elden Ring or Sifu. What would you say to these people to help them become more empathetic?
Fortier: There will always be gate-keeping in every cause, and accessibility sadly isn’t an exception. That being said, as with all these other causes, the best way to fight this is open communication, reaching out, patience, and above all, not letting it affect ourselves. As developers and artisans, there is nothing more rewarding and touching than to see players of all walks of life succeed in a difficult quest or boss fight and see the pride in their eyes. Sharing that experience at large can only help make that empathy blossom in everyone.
Chiasson: Humans, in general, tend to deal in individualism, and it sometimes feels like a lot of us are unable to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. Fostering empathy in the gaming community can be hard on multiple levels, whether we’re talking about toxicity, social issues or accessibility. There is also a misunderstanding of what accessibility means and how it should be addressed in games. If you’re struggling to understand why accessibility matters, go and watch talks available on the subject coming directly from disabled players and accessibility specialists. Educate yourself before making assumptions. That being said, I don’t waste my time with people acting toxic for the sake of trolling.
Q: Outside of making games accessible themselves, more public recognition for accessibility is slowly coming from The Game Awards, Able Gamers (which just did an awards show with Ryan Reynolds) and more. What else would you like to see done to continue to promote accessibility in gaming?
Chiasson: I think, mainly, that there’s a lot of room for more accessibility coverage in journalism and game reviews. And I’m not just talking about accessibility-focused articles, but normalizing discussing accessibility when reviewing games and covering announcements and development updates.
Also, I’d love to see accessibility being added in the curriculum of game development education, whether it be in universities or online courses. We need the developers of tomorrow to be aware and educated on the matter so we can continue to move forward in the right direction.
Q: Looking ahead, Améliane — you were one of a small group of people inducted into last year’s The Game Awards Future Class for your work on accessibility. (Congratulations!) What does it mean to be recognized like that, and what are you looking forward to doing with the Class?
Chiasson: Thank you, thank you! I was very happy and humbled to be part of this impressive class of inspiring creators, entertainers and game-changers. I love that The Game Awards started to recognize individuals who are pushing this industry to new horizons. I also love that marginalized communities are being brought to the spotlight because this can lead to more exposure and more professional opportunities. I’m looking forward to learning from my fellow class members about how they experience their own journeys, how we can help support each other and potentially identify areas where we can collaborate in concrete ways to instigate positive initiatives in the games industry. I was positively surprised to notice that we’re invited to meet rather often and that the organizers are treating us with impactful learning sessions from inspiring industry folks. The TGA Future Class program definitely isn’t just for show!
This interview has been edited for language and clarity.
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is now available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch (cloud only) and PC.
This interview was conducted to coincide with Global Accessibility Awareness Day, which falls on May 19th, 2022. The annual event is intended to promote access and inclusion for the one billion-plus people around the world who live with disabilities.
For more information on accessibility in gaming, check out our Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2021 interview with Steve Saylor. Broader resources on accessibility, in general, can also be found on the official GAAD page.
Image credit: Eidos Montreal/Square Enix