How Ubisoft is putting the spotlight on accessibility

This past March, the Assassin’s Creed Origins team earned the Barrier Breaker Award from DAGERS – a site dedicated to evaluating accessibility in games – for its subtitles, which include nametags for spoken dialogue, readable font size, and a background to ensure the text doesn’t blend in with the environment. While the team was honored to win the award and very happy with the number of players who actually turned subtitles on (60% of all owners, and 70% of all owners with the PC version of the game), there’s a broader understanding at Ubisoft that it can do more for accessibility, and to make sure more people encounter fewer barriers when playing and enjoying Ubisoft games.

“Teams around Ubisoft have been considering different areas of accessibility for a few years now. Things like colorblindness, epilepsy trigger avoidance, eye tracking, and so on,” says Annaïg Antoine, Project Manager within the Corporate Social Responsibility team and Ubisoft Paris. “Now, we have an objective to reach internal standards of accessibility by 2020, implementing basic accessibility features like subtitles, remappable controls, as well as color blindness features. Our CEO, Yves Guillemot, has even said that we must provide a positive and long-lasting gaming experience to all players, regardless of their physical or mental condition. It’s a priority for us as a company that our games are accessible for everyone in the world.”

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We spoke more with Antoine and others who are helping Ubisoft and its studios achieve those goals through education, planning, and understanding of the benefits accessibility features bring. We also discussed the challenges of integrating accessibility features, and how the culture around them is changing. Our panel also includes:

Andrei Begu, User Experience Requirements Lead, Ubisoft Romania

David Tisserand, User Research Project Manager, Ubisoft Montreal (on Assassin’s Creed Origins)

Ian Hamilton, Accessibility Specialist and Industry Consultant 

How would you define accessibility in this context? 

Hamilton: To properly define accessibility, you first need to look at how disability is defined. Disability is essentially a mismatch between a person and their environment. When someone’s medical condition interacts with some kind of barrier that prevents them from performing a task. Accessibility is about being aware of those barriers that people encounter, identifying which of those are unnecessary, and removing them

Antoine: When I’m doing a presentation for our production teams, I use the same definition. There’s an example with a man in a wheelchair in front of some stairs, and he’s trying to go to a restaurant. Obviously, he can’t because there are stairs. I think this kind of example is quite powerful.

Hamilton: He was just going about his day absolutely fine until he encountered those steps. So, it’s not his wheelchair that’s causing him problems. It’s not his medical condition that’s causing him problems. It’s the interaction between those things and the environment that’s the issue. That’s something called the Social Model of Disability. It came about in the 1970s from people with disabilities who were frustrated with the way disabilities were regarded up to that point: as a problem with yourself. Something needs to be fixed within you or compensate for by you.

Since the ‘70s, it has now become the predominant way disability is regarded around the world, including by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was ratified by nearly every country in the world.

That reframes the issue in a much more actionable way. 

Hamilton: Because the focus is on the barriers, you often find that something that is a complete blocker for one person is also a bit of an annoyance for other people as well. So, if you remove a barrier for a small group, the benefits are often much wider. For example, something like a curb cut – put in place for wheelchair users, but also helpful if you have a stroller or a suitcase.

Antoine: What I like about this definition is that someone is also responsible for the barrier. This person has to do something about it. It can be the people who built the stairs, or it can be the designer or the developer who puts a barrier in the game or on a website.

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Annaïg Antoine, Project Manager within the Corporate Social Responsibility team and Ubisoft Paris

In terms of Ubisoft’s efforts towards accessibility, why is now a good time for this focus? Why is this gaining steam?

Antoine: Around 20% of players have some kind of disability. It obviously makes no sense for developers to unnecessarily restrict their audiences like that if there are easy solutions available. Plus, when you are integrating accessibility features into a game, it will also improve the lives of all players by allowing them to customize their experience the way they want. Everybody wins in the end

Hamilton: The data for subtitles is an example of that, right?

Tisserand: Subtitles are pretty routinely made for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and therefore cannot follow the story. We at Ubisoft are lucky to have some telemetry, so we realized on average that 60% of our players turned on the subtitles when playing Assassin’s Creed Origins on all platforms, and 70% on PC. This is only one example, but you realize there are a lot of people benefitting from having subtitles: people who are not native speakers who still want to hear the original voice-over, because that’s the way some of us watch movies. Maybe people can’t play with the sound on, because there’s a baby sleeping next to them. There are all of these situations where it’s beneficial.

Hamilton: The baby being asleep is an example of what we were talking about earlier with the focus on the barriers – when you focus on the smaller groups, there are going to be all these people that benefit. Like what [Naughty Dog] did with Uncharted 4; if you’re adapting a control scheme for people that only have one hand, and can turn on various assists and swap things around, that is obviously great for an audience that has a permanent physical impairment. But there are also temporary impairments. You’re also addressing people who have a broken arm, and then there are situational impairments for someone holding a baby or something like that. Just under 1% of the total population is one-handed, but 30% of Uncharted 4 players used those one-handed controls.

“I really like what we’re doing at the moment, which is making people on our teams, people at HQ level, and, slowly but surely, everyone in between aware.”

What’s the biggest challenge in implementing these kinds of accessibility options in Ubisoft games?

Tisserand: We’ve been making more and more complicated games, right? They require big teams, a lot of resources, and prioritization. Historically, at a lot of companies, accessibility hasn’t been at the table, so the first challenge is getting to the table. Like with the work Annaïg is doing, it’s getting us to where we need to think about it, and we need to have people take responsibility for it on each of the development teams. I think we are achieving that now.

The second challenge is, now that you’re at the table and you’re talking, are you being heard? It’s finding the people who are like-minded that respond to this interest in making our games as accessible as possible to everyone.  We then find the resources and request the resources, so that the people in charge can actually tell us, “Yes, you can work on that particular feature.”

I really like what we’re doing at the moment, which is making people on our teams, people at HQ level, and, slowly but surely,  everyone in between aware. That, I think, is going to be very powerful. Assassin’s Creed Origins is just one example of that.

Hamilton: That has been the real change across the industry in general, over the past couple of years –

that top-down support. For a long time, it has often just been a case of individual developers trying hard to get their feature they care about into the game, which can be really difficult.

There’s a general principle here that applies across all industries. If you want to engender lasting cultural change, it needs to come from multiple angles. You need to have people on the ground implementing stuff who know what to do, and care about doing it. You also need to have pressure from the top down with management who care are willing to enable and empower those people on the ground to do it. You also need to have external pressure from gamers, whether it’s positive feedback or negative feedback.

If you only have one of those three areas, you’re left with a single point of failure, which can often be just a single person. Then, if that one source of pressure is lost, everything reverts back to where it was before. But if you have these multiple angles, it becomes a part of the everyday fabric.

How do you make the case for accessibility?

Antoine: When we talk to the production team, they tell us they’re interested most of the time. They care. This is a big deal, so what we’re trying to do is talk to the production team as early as possible, so that they can implement these ideas at the beginning of the development process so it’s easier to keep them.

Hamilton: Over the past year or two, there have been increasing numbers of companies that are dipping their toe in and starting to put a few accessibility features in, relatively late in development. By that time, there’s a lot of retrofitting. You find companies that managed to do a little bit, but they’re left thinking, “If only I thought about those things from the beginning.” But now, we’re moving on to the next generation of accessibility, and we’re beginning to think about these from the start.

Tisserand: Going back to what Ian was saying, that’s what happened on Assassin’s Creed Origins. We had the typical, very tiny fonts that every game on the market has. Then we decided to increase the size of the font to around 36 pixels, but all of the UI elements were already programmed. There was no way to go outside of the framing. Because we did it later in the development process, it cost us twice the time it would’ve taken to do it early. The positive is, they will think about these things earlier in the future, much more straightaway. Now that we’ve realized what it is by doing it once, everything is going to change, at an engineering level, at a tools level. They are equipping themselves so that they can move very quickly.

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David Tisserand, User Research Project Manager, Ubisoft Montreal (on Assassin’s Creed Origins)

Is that an internal victory, having that process? Obviously, externally, Assassin’s Creed Origins was awarded for its subtitle treatment. How did that come about and what does it mean for the team?

Tisserand: This comes from the third-party feedback, which is very important. The impact on our team is that now there’s official recognition from an expert site in this matter that we, as a game with a lot of visibility in the market, made the most accessible subtitles currently in the industry. But to be humble, in the end, the cost of developing them was very little. Thanks to Ian, we had guidance for what we should do to achieve that, which is basically adequate font size that is readable from a normal distance. Also, having the speaker names to know who is talking, and the background behind the text – there are a lot of important things [that made the subtitles work].

You have to realize there are a lot of games from other companies that have way more options in some of these areas, like being able to change the opacity of the background. One game isn’t going to have the font size; other games are going to be able to change the subtitle size. What we did is put them all together. That’s really helpful for us internally, to be able to say to everyone, “Look, what we did was very simple. We wanted to do more, but we didn’t have the resources. It’s fine, but we just did a little bit, and look at everything that happened: the feedback on Twitter, Reddit, and all of the players who couldn’t play our game without that.”

The development team gets it. We understand. We’re going to do everything we can to keep moving on in that direction, to be as inclusive as we can.

Hamilton: Another important side to making progress – outside the benefits to the game and to the audience – is the benefit to the wider industry. It’s a statement of intent that this stuff is important and it’s worth thinking about. You only need to go back three of four years to find consideration of color blindness to be really rare. It was only really indie developers who were considering it. It wasn’t until we got a few big-name games to consider it, and as a result, gained a ton of media attention. That awareness really started to spread and people started to pay greater attention. If you’re in a position like Ubisoft is, then you have a lot of other developers paying attention to your games and they really do notice. Any time a high profile developer puts something out, it draws a line in the sand.

“We’re going to do everything we can to keep moving on in that direction, to be as inclusive as we can.”

What have been some of the key learnings from increasing the focus on accessibility? 

Tisserand: A lot of the work Andrei [Begu]’s team is doing is really important, because at each stage now, we’re providing feedback to the development teams about where we are with accessibility, which before just didn’t exist. There was no awareness of where we were and why we needed to improve.

What goes into giving that kind of feedback? 

Begu: It’s a pretty new thing. We started this one year ago. We’re trying to adapt and understand exactly what it feels like to be a person that cannot fully enjoy a game, and what needs to be done to fix it. What we’re doing right now is trying to start our tests as early as possible in order to see what’s missing from the game and what we need to focus most on. Of course, there are lots of things that need to be done, but our main focus is to push for the top three features that are the most requested in the community.

What are some of the more consistent features you recommend? 

Begu: The first one is remappable controls. Users should be able to customize it how they like it and how they need it. Colorblindness is another one that should be in there. And subtitles as well. Subtitles with options to customize size, color, background, speaker identification, and closed captioning as well.

Once your team masters those consistently, what’s the next step in terms of growth?  

Begu: Well we start discussing with the studio teams. Some of them also come to us for help with ideas. Like, “We want to do this, but how exactly should it look? How can we integrate them to be OK from your perspective?” This can be a challenge for us, because again, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of a disabled person and what may seem OK from our perspective, may not be the best option for them. We’re always trying to learn as much as possible and work with the studios. We also want to have our users help us, join us in testing our games and giving us suggestions, because those are the most important voices.

Tisserand: That’s already when the game is in development and you can start assessing how accessible it is, but recently we’ve seen people start taking it into account way earlier in the development cycle, and understanding the pitfalls of doing it too late and the limitations of doing it too late. You can see there’s a big change happening here, which we’ll see pay off in two or three years. We’re also trying to involve disabled gamers early in the process to give advice to our designers. If you’ve played Assassin’s Creed for the last 10 years, then you know all the mechanics, and you can perfectly articulate how a certain mechanic is not usable for you, which may be very easy for a designer to fix once they know about it. Then you just open up the game for people who couldn’t play it before. Those gamers are the experts; they understand what it’s like to play our games the most.

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Hamilton: The set of considerations that Andrei mentioned fits perfectly with what I come across in forums and social media. I’d also add in text size. Remapping, color blindness, subtitles, tiny text – those are complained about so much across the entire industry. Those are the kinds of things that would be really nice to see standardized, not necessarily standardized in terms of what approach to take with them, but standardized in terms of actually approaching it in the first place.

Even if it’s just standardized by a few couple of key players in the industry that would account for a lot of awareness and expectation-setting amongst the public. It would be wonderful if, as gamer, you could pick up any game and have a reasonable expectation that some of the basic fundamentals will have been considered.

Ubisoft has historically played a role in that standardizing and expectation setting. It’s hard to picture now, but back in 2008, when the first Assassin’s Creed came out, subtitling wasn’t standard at all. Games often did not have subtitles at all, including the first Assassin’s Creed. And Ubisoft saw that feedback coming in from players, and set a publisher level certification requirement for all future games to have subtitles.

When enough developers make moves like that, it sets expectations. Once players saw enough games with subtitles, it became an expectation, so they were able to feel more comfortable questioning why other games didn’t do the same.

Begu: I also want to mention the website gameaccessibilityguidelines.com, just because we were largely inspired in our checklist of what to include in our games by this website. It’s very well organized. It has very good examples of what to do and what not to do. It’s organized in terms of importance. I think it’s an invaluable resource that everyone should know about. We were largely inspired by it.

Antoine: Just to emphasize what David was saying, two important milestones for Ubisoft regarding accessibility were to define an objective to reach an internal standards of accessibility for all our games, which was a very important milestone. The second milestone was to define the checklist of all the features we wanted to see so that all our games could reach this internal standard of accessibility. We were really inspired by Ian’s work and his guidelines. We did a survey to ask the gamers themselves what they wanted to see regarding accessibility. It was very important to define that checklist so Andrei’s team could check it and see if we were reaching all those needs.

Hamilton: I think things like sponsoring the Game Accessibility Conference and the GDC accessibility panel are a part of that as well. It encourages discussion. Sharing knowledge between studios is something that’s really important for and has been particularly nice to see happening.

How do you approach communicating what accessibility options are included in the game to the player? 

Hamilton: That is a really significant issue, especially when it is a case of including things that people haven’t seen before and don’t know to look for. Even with something like color blindness, there are two games: Flow Free and Dots, mobile games that were both based on the principle of connected, similar-colored dots. After they launched, there were many comments on their lack of colorblind accessibility. In reality, both games had really effective colorblind modes, but people didn’t know to look through the menus to find them.

That’s the worst kind of situation to be in: to have done the work, and the people who would benefit from it not knowing it’s there. It’s so important to let players know about considerations. There’s a wide range of methods to do this, from in-game prompts during tutorials and loading screens to bullet points and screenshots in press kits and app store listings.

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Does Ubisoft have a specific approach for communicating these features? 

Antoine: I think it’s one of the next steps we have to do, to communicate towards accessibility, to tell the players what we’re doing.

Tisserand: The one thing we were actually just discussing this morning that we’re trying to put in place is to make sure we send review copies to specialized websites, to make sure that the people looking for this information on these specialized sites can find it easily.

Hamilton: A blind gamer who was here [at GDC] on Monday was talking about the approach of giving review copies to prominent streamers. That’s another avenue as well, rather than focusing solely on the streamers who’ve got the biggest number of subscribers and views, and also looking at specialized streamers, streamers with disabilities that have audiences with disabilities.

What are your hopes for accessibility three years down the road? Five years? 

Tisserand: Personally, I would love to see having an accessibility expert working 100% on accessibility within companies. We still don’t have anyone 100% committed to accessibility.

Hamilton: Subtitles, that’s something I’d really like to see progress on. There’s stuff that’s being done now, especially with Assassin’s Creed, but there’s still a long way to go overall. The nice thing about subtitles is that a lot of these issues have already been solved in other fields, like TV and film. If you just turn your head slightly to the side to another screen-based media, you can just take those guides.

Consolidation would also be nice. So many games do [these] things well, so being able to bring them all together would be nice to see.

Also, in terms of audiences and features: blind accessibility. There are so many games now that are perfectly suited to being accessible to blind gamers, but aren’t because of limitations. Not because the mechanic isn’t suited to blind gamers, but because the tools the developers are using aren’t compatible with the software that blind gamers are using, like text-to-speech software. Things like Unreal and Unity don’t work with that. We’re starting to see that break down with plug-ins with Unity. Consoles now have text-to-speech now as well. Those barriers are starting to come down.

“We’re getting to the point where more and more studios are starting to make considerations.”

In the grander scheme of things, I think it’s getting to the point where the battle of raising awareness is being won. We’re getting to the point where more and more studios are starting to make considerations. Consolidation and standardisation is what’s next, working out how things fit in the development pipeline. You can look at other industries that are a little bit further along and see that they have these nice structures in place that could really fit well within publishers and studios. It’ll be nice to see the more practical ideas of how it fits into the day to day as development evolves.

Begu: The interest shown from our developers at Ubisoft makes me confident that we’ll reach our internal standards very soon, and over the next few years I think we’ll have many more features. Things are moving quite fast, and I’m pretty confident about that.

Antoine: My wish is that the main features that we’re talking about won’t be a discussion in three or four years. They’ll just be implemented because they’re so obviously important. I’d also like to work with more disabled gamers at earlier stages and during user testing. It would also be great to work with more disabled gamer associations.

Hamilton: Once more of the fundamental considerations become commonplace, it would be lovely to see developers freed to start pushing the envelope and get into the more involved R&D work. That’s the thing about the games industry; people in it are really good at technical, creative problem solving. Once the basics are covered and developers are able to see the shape of the remaining barriers, innovative approaches are inevitable. Innovation that can hopefully spread back to other industries, too.

The Author

Giancarlo Varanini picked up a controller at the age of four and hasn't put it down since. This makes things like eating hamburgers or driving a vehicle incredibly problematic. You might remember his previous work from great media outlets such as GameSpot, EGM, Official US PlayStation Magazine, Nintendo Power, and others. Follow him on Twitter: @gvaranini