We speak with Harley Baldwin and Alexis Miller of Schell Games about how VR can grow and become more accessible in the future.
Accessibility is one area where media games still need to make plenty of strides. Thankfully, we’ve been seeing more of a push for accessibility in the medium from various games and developers. One such developer is Schell Games, a studio driven to improve accessibility in VR titles that is currently working on adding accessibility VR upgrades to early access sword fighting title Until You Fall. Recently, we interviewed Harley Baldwin (VP of Design) and Alexis Miller (Director of Product Management) of Schell Games, and spoke about their drive for accessibility in Until You Fall, accessibility in VR as a whole, what sort of improvements they expect to see in VR tech going forward, and more. You can read our conversation below.
"We first looked at accessibility features for Until You Fall because very few of our players are experienced melee fighters, but we wanted everyone to feel the power of being awesome with a weapon."
Video games have tried to incorporate more real-world motion over the last few decades – first with the motion controls, now with VR – but until now, very few people have tried to actually make an effort to reconcile those kinds of games with accessibility concerns. What was it that prompted you to look into accessibility features for Until You Fall?
Harley Baldwin (VP of Design): The reality is that we first looked at accessibility features for Until You Fall because very few of our players are experienced melee fighters, but we wanted everyone to feel the power of being awesome with a weapon. From that perspective, so many of the choices we made were about enabling activity that we don’t often get to master in our daily lives. In the same way that elevators in buildings are added to comply with the ADA, but are mostly used by families with strollers, the main accessibility features we added are there for everyone, like the premonitions we give about where and when to block. Once we developed that mechanic, it was a pretty short walk to wanting to support more guests with more differences.
Alexis Miller (Director of Product Management): One thing that helped to lead us down the path of thinking about accessibility features for Until You Fall was actually having experience creating accessibility features in I Expect You To Die. Once we solved some of those challenges in VR, like creating a seated experience and creating a one-handed experience, it made it simpler (though still not easy) to implement those features in another VR game. I also think that experience helped to increase the appetite and interest for figuring out what more we could do to increase accessibility.
Given the sheer volume of potential accessibility concerns with VR games – motion sickness, vertigo, nausea, headaches, as well as physical disabilities preventing the range of movements necessary to control some games – did you find the prospect overwhelming? How did you decide to approach such an incredibly broad problem?
Baldwin: What we’ve discovered is that it’s easy to get overwhelmed if you try to support accessibility by adding features that you must implement after the game has been designed. The process that we’ve embraced establishes accessibility goals as constraints on the design goals. Once a team is committed to supporting a difference, it’s much easier to design that support from the beginning. For example, we had seated play in the game super early because we knew that if we waited until the rest of the melee systems were “mature,” we’d design systems that were in conflict with seated play, and then have to add systems that rolled back those conflicts for some players. Instead, we set ourselves the constraint of supporting seated play in all systems. Guests who play standing use those systems as well, but they also have embodiment options they can use.
That’s not to say that we didn’t add features especially for accessibility, or that we won’t continue to do so in the future.
Miller: Schell Games has done a lot of research to understand the range of accessibility topics for video games in general, as well as for VR. Originally, there was a very thorough spreadsheet with over 120 different types of accessibility considerations. Despite its best intentions, it was overwhelming. We now have a simplified version of that spreadsheet that groups goals within broad categories. We’ve started to make this spreadsheet part of our pre-production process. The team reviews what is relevant and brainstorms solutions. It is immensely helpful to think about accessibility as early in the process as possible. And encouraging the brainstorming of solutions before committing to making new features helps the team to come up with some easy wins as well as gives the team enough time to plan and budget for big features.
This range of accessibility options is a bold new frontier for games. But early access games and VR game development are similarly a bit of a minefield in terms of having a defined rulebook. How has your experience been trying to take on all three at once? What would you say has proven to be the most challenging among these?
Baldwin: You say minefield, I say exciting set of ever-changing constraints! It might sound flip, but it’s also true that there’s nothing a designer loves more than a set of constraints. Those are concrete problems that we can solve, and that’s the fun part. You say “no defined rulebook” and we hear “opportunity to set the standard.”
But I digress! Actually, we didn’t take them all on at once. Schell Games has a long history in VR, (Jesse Schell was the Creative Director for the Disney virtual reality studio where they built Disney Quest, and Schell Games has developed over 20 VR experiences) so we were able to bring that experience to bear here. Solving the problems that come with VR is built into our DNA, if you will. And the reality is, once you let go of trying to re-make screenspace games in VR and embrace the medium, many of the things you solve for in VR are universally accessibility-related. Sim sickness is a good example. Once you commit to not making a high percentage of players sick in VR, you find yourself aggressively pursuing solutions that make the game more comfortable for everyone.
In that regard, early access is a benefit, not a challenge. For example, we got some feedback from the community that the movement speed felt slow, so we cranked it up. We play a lot, and we spend a lot of time in VR, so our sensitivity to sim sickness has been suppressed. Pretty quickly, we got a lot of feedback that we’d maybe overcorrected – one person said they’d never been sim sick before, but we’d managed to do it to them. What a great thing early access is – we were able to get that feedback, dial it back a little, and release a new top speed for testing, without worrying that our guests would feel the problem was irrevocable.
Honestly, the community has served us beautifully in early access. They’ve been generous with feedback, and it’s helped us include new features for accessibility. The Screen Flash feature for those who are photosensitive is an example. A community member let us know that it was a concern, and we were glad to be able to respond.
Miller: I came to Schell Games from the healthcare and health insurance industries where we had rules upon rules and change moved at a snail’s pace, so I absolutely love the culture here of having so much freedom and creativity and being on the bleeding edge of VR development and accessibility. As with most new adventures in life, we have been more successful by learning from one another and listening to our players. I would recommend early access to any developers who really want to take a deep dive in connecting with their community and creating a game in cooperation with that community. It might be hard for a team that doesn’t really want to hear criticism or ideas that challenge them but it can be a powerful process.
For us, I think one of the more challenging aspects has been betting on the right horse with the ever changing VR hardware trends and hardware companies, especially when game development takes so long. The reality is that you can create an amazing VR game and have a wide range of accessibility features, but if you develop it on a platform that no one can buy anymore or no one wants to buy anymore, it is really expensive to overcome.
"What we’ve discovered is that it’s easy to get overwhelmed if you try to support accessibility by adding features that you must implement after the game has been designed. The process that we’ve embraced establishes accessibility goals as constraints on the design goals."
Broadly, how would you assess the accessibility offerings of the video game industry so far? How would you say these offerings can improve?
Baldwin: Oh, we’re all over the place as an industry, aren’t we? It’s mind-boggling how many games there are that have made no attempt to make the game more accessible. At the same time, I’m constantly playing games that have done something delightful to broaden their audience. We’re in this interesting period where games are such a cultural touchstone that they’re no longer niche as a medium, but there still exists a huge market of niche games. Some of those niches are inherently accessible, and some are defined by their barriers, and some are struggling to find ways to break down or erect barriers. Overall, though, I think that the realities of competition and discoverability in the market are pushing more makers to try to include playability for more people.
Miller: The accessibility offerings of the video game industry are changing each day but it’s still not something that feels mainstream. In the research that I have done, I often found it hard to even know what companies are doing, including companies who claim to be working to improve accessibility. So the industry also needs to do a better job at sharing that information. On this particular topic, I believe that the rising tide (of greater game accessibility) would lift all boats. Recently, I have been impressed with what Naughty Dog accomplished in The Last of Us Part II.
What kinds of features are you hoping are built into or supported by the next generation consoles to facilitate broader accessibility?
Baldwin: I’m mostly thinking about VR these days. From that point of view, cordless headsets are high on my list – the lessening of friction with being able to pop it on anywhere and not be tethered to your desk is tremendous. The other is hand controls. I’m looking forward eagerly to having hand controllers that give us independent finger control and nuanced feedback on pressure.
Beyond that, having more sophisticated inputs feels important to me – things like spoken commands being ubiquitous, that sort of thing. And VR as a medium has only scratched the surface of the kind of accessibility that AAA is trending towards with the release of The Last Of Us Part II.
Miller: I think that controllers have a lot of room for improvement to facilitate accessibility. In comparison, think about cell phone keyboards and all the options users have for typing and communicating. I can type with two hands or just with my left hand or my right hand; I can swipe between letters; I can communicate with GIFs and emojis by tapping a few times; I can type with my voice. How many of those things can a player do with most game controllers? It is sadly lacking.
Let’s talk about the design of Until You Fall itself. This is your second VR game that leverages full scale tracking into gameplay. What would you say the advantages are of full-scale VR over seated or standing VR? What would you say are the challenges?
Baldwin: Honestly? Until You Fall is our seventh VR game that leverages full scale tracking into gameplay. We’ve been very busy.
Advantage wise, roomscale gameplay is super compelling to many people because it strengthens the presence of the virtual environment and makes it available as a game mechanic. So being able to embody oneself in that space and navigate in it is compelling in and of itself, and then being able to use the environment feels so good.
But the challenges are profound, and they intersect very strongly with accessibility concerns. Lots of people get sim sick if they have virtual motion. We’re learning how to ameliorate and manage that issue, but for a small percentage of people, it’s really a problem. We don’t want to put out a game that makes people sick and we just don’t want people to associate our games with a yucky feeling.
As well, there are plenty of people who enjoy games that have mobility issues. The average gamer age is 35 now – an age where mobility issues really start to make themselves known. It’s why we added seated mode for UYF. We didn’t want people who have been playing games for years and years to be left out in the cold because of a bad knee or whatever.
Miller: I think the advantages and challenges of full-scale, seated or standing VR depend on the player. It’s not one size fits all. While it may be true that full-scale VR provides a very immersive, complex environment that many players love, there are other players who find that experience to be uncomfortable or overwhelming. One specific challenge in designing Until You Fall was making a seated sword fighting experience that worked while still making the player feel like an awesome swordmaster. Throughout the process, there were challenges with providing as many options as possible for the player to move around (or not) in the game. The team relied on lots of playtesting and player feedback
When deciding to tackle accessibility in VR games, why did you go with Until You Fall, which uses room scale VR? Why not I Expect You To Die, perhaps, which is seated?
Baldwin: Well, partly, it’s because I Expect You To Die’s concept was initially conceived with an accessibility issue in mind. We fired up the first Oculus headset, got in there, and saw how bad the sim sickness was – we started thinking “how can we solve that issue and make a game that doesn’t make people green?” So accessibility is kind of in the game’s DNA already, as it were.
But in some ways, we wish we’d be able to do more with IEYTD. We’ve found that you can either add costly accessibility features when a game is completed, or you can make accessibility goals part of your design goals from the beginning, and come out with a more elegant product that meets those goals without separating your player base as much. So the time to do it with Until You Fall was as it was being developed and in early access, not after it had shipped.
Miller: I Expect You To Die actually did address some considerable accessibility features, like motion sickness, being able to play fully seated and allowing one-handed play. We were able to tackle more with Until You Fall partially because we had IEYTD as a foundation to build on. We have also developed several other educational VR games that gave us learnings and insights into VR accessibility, too. So I would say the reason for tackling more accessibility in Until You Fall was partially just our maturity as a studio and partially the tremendous opportunity to get feedback on accessibility features by being in early access. It’s hard to imagine being able to do as much without that stream of community input about what issues were bothering players and what was working.
"It’s mind-boggling how many games there are that have made no attempt to make the game more accessible. At the same time, I’m constantly playing games that have done something delightful to broaden their audience."
Going forward, what kind of advancements and developments do you foresee for VR?
Baldwin: I think a lot about controller form factors and VR hands, which started in the same place that a baby’s hands start in terms of development. In the beginning, all we could do was open/close all the fingers in the classic “palm grip” that babies learn first. Then the systems moved to enabling us to use the “mitten grip” – you know, where the thumb could be a separate entity and give a bit more control in what you’re gripping. Now we’ve upgraded to the “thumb-forefinger grip,” which kids master at around a year old. Today, we’re essentially all toddlers in VR.
My theory is that controller development will continue reflecting human hand development. I love the phrase “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” because I see in so many ways humans reflecting our biology in the games we play. Whatever controller lets us master the next developmental step is going to blow those possibilities right open.
Miller: Going forward, I foresee that VR will take advantage of our sense of touch – being able to touch objects and environments in VR and feel pressure or texture on your hands as if you are holding a real object. It will have incredible power to complete the sensory experience.
What are your hopes from the next generation of consoles, as a creator, and especially as one of VR games?
Baldwin: I’ve already talked about this topic a little, but to go deeper, I’d say that I think of VR gaming as the ultimate accessibility opportunity. Just think of it – we’re able to trick our brains into thinking they’re somewhere they’re not, using tools we’re not really holding. The possibilities for this technology are delightful.
So from that perspective, if you think of VR games as a set of accessibility features to enable activities that the average person doesn’t get to do, and the rules of these games as a way to keep the challenge of the experience interesting and lively, it just feels like the sky’s the limit here. Never have we had such a rich palette of tools to create a fantasy and to fulfill such deep, diverse wishes. I want to play in those fantasies. I want to survive those apocalypses, gather those collections, train those companions, feed those birds, ride those dragons, protect those innocents, and face those ethical conundrums. We have these amazing tools. I’m just so excited to see what we make of them! Let’s go deeper – let’s make some sustained worlds and let’s make places and systems to inhabit and change to suit oneself.
Miller: Video games, especially VR, are becoming a shared experience more and more. I think it is extremely important for consoles to support even more than they do now. Make it easier for VR players to share their experience with other VR players, with non-VR players, and with remote family and friends, including multi-player games as well as single player games. As cordless headsets like the Oculus Quest are making headway in the market, it continues to be a challenge for most players. On a practical level, you shouldn’t have to be a developer or professional influencer to figure out how to cast your favorite game to share with your friends. On a social level, especially during these isolating times, VR should be as common as Zoom to connect with others. There are options now, but there is still a lot of friction.
The concept of easier remote sharing in VR could be tremendously helpful to us in the development process too, as a tool for greater playtesting capabilities with players all over the world and players with all kinds of abilities.
What are your thoughts on Microsoft’s non-committal approach towards VR for Xbox Series X?
Baldwin: I think we’ve already seen some movement from them. It’s non-committal now, but it’s not where they started. They started by saying there wouldn’t be support. I think they’re looking at the same data everyone else is looking at, and that data says that tethered headsets are niche, and you don’t get wider platform adoption until you’ve got a quality standalone headset. Xbox is a platform that deals in scale, and blockbusters, and it’s not an easy thing to figure out how to make a niche product work for their market. That being said, I think they’ll get there. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the original Xbox. It wasn’t first to market, but it was a solid offering that allowed people to have a dedicated gaming rig in the living room and it was super easy to develop for because we devs were mostly using similar desktops. They’ve done this kind of technology transition before, and they’ll do ok. When they do show up again, we’ll be ready.
Miller: Because advances in the VR market are moving and changing so rapidly, it makes me wonder if a massive company like Microsoft just can’t keep up. It’s nothing personal to VR and certainly shouldn’t be taken as an indicator of VR’s success. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing, because it means that other companies are given the opportunity to shine in the VR spotlight. Microsoft’s relative absence leaves room for other seats at the table. I don’t think they will be absent forever though.
"Going forward, I foresee that VR will take advantage of our sense of touch – being able to touch objects and environments in VR and feel pressure or texture on your hands as if you are holding a real object. It will have incredible power to complete the sensory experience."
Given that the PSVR was a success, how do you think Sony should approach for their next headset for the PS5?
Baldwin: If I could have anything from PSVR, it would be a re-think of the controllers, specifically the addition of sticks and squeeze sensors.
If I could have two things, it would be to untether the headset somehow. I know I sound like a broken record, but the change in experience is profound. That freedom is hard to explain if you’ve not had it, and hard to imagine giving up if you have.
Miller: I’d love to see some reimagining with their controllers. PlayStation appeals to a wide audience, so wouldn’t it be great if their controllers could be more easily usable by more players? I also think it’s time to make their headset cordless. Given the competition now, they can’t make an argument for needing the cord for quality purposes.