At CIPT?, we focus on accessibility features in games – such as text sizes, captions, and control options. These aspects are critical and fundamental to enjoying games as a disabled gamer. Today, I want to talk about moving beyond accessibility features and talking about what makes for accessible design. Design is a much more complicated topic because it involves the inner workings of the game itself, and not just how that game is presented.
I believe most console games can and should be designed with a universal audience in mind. Even if the content is mature, we should not assume that everyone playing the game is of a certain age or has certain characteristics. Mature and hardcore games should be enjoyable by casual and younger audiences (with appropriate parental supervision). Conversely, games that are generally played by younger audiences should be designed with enough depth that they appeal to older audiences as well.
Children’s games are usually easier to play, mechanically, than games designed for adults. Because of the low difficulty, simple mechanics, and bright graphics, kids’ games can be some of the lowest-hanging fruit as far as making games accessible. I want to look at why that is and how those kids’ games might inform more mature titles.
In exploring this topic, I’ve been playing through the LEGO franchise, and I have gotten completely sucked in. These games demonstrate some of the wonderful mechanics that I think should be applied to general audiences and mature games as well. So, let’s look at some of these mechanics. These are in no particular order.
Nothing you can’t fix in a level
There should be no mistake that I make in a level that is unfixable within that level. This may look like softlocks, where the player gets stuck somewhere and is unable to progress. It may also be versions of softlocks where there was a time limit to accomplish something to progress, or an item needed. Any item that is needed should either be found in abundance or should pop back in if the player drops it somehow. If there is a time limit on a necessary powerup or similar function, infinite attempts should be allowed.
This might be different in a game like Mario where the levels are short and trying over and over is the point. Even then, I expect generous checkpoints to ensure that I don’t have to grind too much as I try to beat a level. In story-based games, I am not going to want to have to replay a long stretch of story that I’ve already seen just so I can have a second attempt at a puzzle that I messed up the first time.
Different levels of interaction
Something that I absolutely love about LEGO games are the seemingly infinite different types of objectives. There are multiple collectible types; some are found through exploration; some require skills to acquire; some reward completionism; and some are granted for simply making it to the end of the level. This allows players of different skill levels or time constraints to play the game meaningfully. In kids’ games, especially, this is important because kids develop at different rates. They also may want to play with older or younger siblings and family members.
Hints are amazing. Whether it’s because the player is a busy adult and only has time once a week to play, because the player is very young, or because the player has a cognitive impairment, it is really easy to forget tutorials. Hints help keep players in the story and maintain forward momentum. LEGO games do this very well by showing you which button you need to press to do a task. This is a setting that can be turned off, but it is on by default.
Process of elimination
LEGO games offer a very rich environment to explore, and it’s not always immediately clear how to proceed. The goal is to figure out how to get to the next area. Given the size of the environments, this can seem very difficult. However, if a certain object is not part of the solution to moving forward, the player will not be able to interact with it more than once. In this way, players who struggle with figuring out how to advance can simply try all their options, and they will eventually find the way to move forward because it will be the only thing that still allows interaction. Completionists also love this because they are able to easily tell when they are done with an area.
No time limits
With very few exceptions, LEGO games don’t have time limits. They don’t even tell you how long you spent completing a level. Again, there may be types of games that benefit from time limits. However, in those games, an assist mode with extra time or no time limit would enable more people to play. LEGO games encourage a lot of exploration, and any exploration-based game should give as much time as players want to explore.
Freeplay of levels
In the LEGO games, you have the capability to replay previously completed missions. For folks who have limited time to play, this feature can alleviate stress. This is great for kids who are constantly developing and refining motor skills, but it’s also great for adults and disabled folks of any age.
Minimal punishment for dying
Similar to my first point about getting rid of softlocks, no one wants to replay long sections because of a mistake. We’re seeing more and more platformers like Celeste and Super Meat Boy that have very frequent save points and allow for reattempts immediately. Forcing players to see a game over screen and then restart the level does not encourage them to keep playing. LEGO games reduce your stud total if you run out of hearts, but you pop back in within seconds. Mario Odyssey utilized a similar method, and I find it to be a much more modern approach than the old GAME OVER screen that makes you restart from the beginning. Modern games have much more story than the old arcade games, and the life mechanics should keep up.
LEGO games are amazing at giving players information in multiple ways. They use haptic feedback and glowing outlines to show interactive objectives. Assets appear in different saturation levels than the background. Objects that can be picked up have little arrows pointing to them, and then another arrow points to where they should go. The arrow even changes color when you are in the right position to set it down. The aiming reticle is much bigger than most games, as well as being animated, which helps to draw attention.
Navigation can be very challenging for a variety of reasons. Low vision players may not be able to see items well enough to fully understand what is in the environment. People who aren’t able to play very often may forget where things are. Even though navigation can be difficult, that does not mean that linear levels are the only option. LEGO games offer an excellent mix of free exploration and clear direction. When players need to go to another area, many LEGO games incorporate a guide character to show the way. There are also arrows pointing to the area that players need to access.This allows players to take their time experiencing each area, but also makes sure that they don’t get lost.
Playing with other people can have a particularly large impact on kids. Teaching good social skills and responsible gaming through parents playing with kids can be very powerful and create healthy habits. Beyond that, though, multiplayer options in kids games can make games more accessible for younger kids or kids with disabilities. The LEGO games offer two players the chance to play together. Through this mechanic, another player can provide as much or as little assistance as is necessary.
Many people enjoy kids’ games. Not just kids. And even if kids were the only ones who played them, we should still work to provide better games. Young people will always be trailblazers, but video games are no longer a niche form of entertainment. Parents are now more familiar with video games, and it’s no longer enough to slap a mascot on the box and expect families to buy games out of brand recognition. Kids deserve good games, and when the games are entertaining, the market expands dramatically. By thinking about the needs of kids at different developmental stages, LEGO has made games that accommodate a wide range of abilities and disabilities.
Of course, that is not to say the LEGO games are perfect. Eventually, I will do separate reviews of the games, but I’ll point out a few shortcomings here. Some games have very confusing boss battles where it’s not clear what you need to do to beat the boss. It also requires button holds and makes you start over if you release the button too soon. I found boss battles to be very frustrating after the rest of the gameplay was explained so well through hints and tutorials.
LEGO games also make extensive use of cheat codes and unlocks, and many of the features that can be unlocked through extensive play serve important accessibility functions. For example, you can unlock extra hearts, invincibility, or fall rescue. It’s simple enough to look up a list of the cheat codes and plug them into the game, but it’s not advertised well that these mechanics are available from the beginning.
Those aspects are fixable, and I have every hope that LEGO can make their games even better in the future given how much they already get right.