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The Future of Game Accessibility on Xbox

Passion for game accessibility has grown exponentially among developers and gamers alike in the past decade. According to the ESA Foundation, there are nearly 46 million gamers with disabilities in the U.S. alone, so we’re heartened to see that game developers are actively seeking out resources that guide inclusive game design to ensure that their games are fun for everyone who wants to play.

At Microsoft, accessibility is a core aspect of how products are built. The implementation of inclusive design principles is a foundational part of the overall development process across Team Xbox.

In early 2019, members of the Microsoft Gaming Accessibility team set out on a mission to create the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines (XAGs); a comprehensive set of best practices to support the game industry in driving accessibility efforts forward. The XAGs are intended to be used by designers to generate ideas and as a guiding checklist for validating the accessibility of a game. Leveraging years of accessibility research in the gaming industry as well as close partnerships with industry experts and members of the Gaming & Disability community, the original XAGs were launched in January 2020.

Feedback Received!

Post-launch, the team has been committed to ensuring that feedback from our Gaming & Disability community is both encouraged and heard loud and clear. There was an understanding from the beginning of this process that the only way to truly ensure that the needs of developers and members of the Gaming & Disability Community were met was to partner with these groups during the creation of the XAGs, as well as after they launched.

Over the past year, developers have expressed enthusiasm for the XAGs, but also asked for additional context and clarification as to how to ensure these guidelines are properly implemented in their games. Additionally, there has been a clear desire for more content that helps a developer understand “where to start,” or “how to focus efforts.” Finally, there have been requests for help understanding the impact that XAGs will have on the gaming experience of players with disabilities.

The Improvements

Given all of this exciting feedback, the team developed a vision of how the XAGs could be improved to be even more helpful. Kaitlyn Jones, of the Microsoft Gaming Accessibility Team, led the project. As a gaming accessibility expert with a background as an occupational therapist, Kaitlyn focused on the following improvements:

Improved Language: The language used in the XAGs has been improved to ensure that guidelines are clear and easily understood. A focus on removing overly technical terms, or adding additional context to help readers understand terms, was a top priority.

Clear “Goal”: Each XAG now has a succinct “goal” statement. Readers can more easily find XAGs relevant to their current work by quickly reading through goal statements.

Improved Overview: To ensure that developers understand the importance of each XAG guideline, improved overview sections now provide key contextual information including a summary of the impact a XAG can have on gamers with disabilities as well as those facing situational impairments.

Scoping Questions: High level questions ask developers to identify whether certain elements are present in their game. This yes/no determination can help developers more easily identify which XAGs are key priorities to be focused on first.

Key Areas to Target: Helps developers identify areas across their game experience that should be addressed when implementing XAG guidelines.

Background and Foundational Info: As some XAGs are more complex than others, additional background and foundational information has been provided to help make certain XAGs easier to comprehend.

Implementation Guideline examples: To help clarify guidelines that were difficult to understand, numerous examples (in the form of images and videos) have been created and aligned with various guidelines to demonstrate real-world examples of specific guidelines in action.

Using Our Guidelines to Improve Games

Once all of the updated Xbox Accessibility Guidelines were ready to go, the team realized that it could take further steps to ensure that developers have a way to find out whether or not their games were actually reaching the level of accessibility they targeted. With that in mind, the Game Reliability Engineering team and the Gaming Accessibility Team have collaborated to put together an industry-first, platform-provided game accessibility testing program that can validate games using the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines. Mike Gamble, principle software engineering lead in Game Reliability Engineering and 25-year game industry veteran, led the project.

Developers now have the option to send Microsoft their Xbox or PC title and have it analyzed and validated against the recommendations provided in the XAGs. Where issues are found, they are noted with reproduction steps, screenshots, and other information to help the developer understand what aspect of a given experience may be challenging for certain gamers with disabilities.

They also wanted to make sure that developers understood the potential impact of a given issue on our gamers. To that end, the reports include additional information such as links to gaming accessibility and inclusive design documentation, non-profits and industry-recognized subject matter experts, platform-specific technical documentation, and more.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the program, however, is the inclusion of gamers with disabilities as part of the testing project. Every test pass includes members of the Gaming & Disability Community to not only run test cases against games, but to provide their feedback and insights as well.

We have been overwhelmed by the positive feedback we’ve received from the developers who partnered with us in trials of the testing program–their feedback has shaped it. That’s why we are confident that whether a developer is just starting to dip their toes into game accessibility or if they are already far along in their inclusive design journey, this program has something to offer them and, ultimately, their customers.

The Journey Continues

The Xbox Gaming Accessibility Team is incredibly grateful to all of the game developers and Gaming & Disability Community members, advocates, and experts who have provided feedback to us over the last year. But our work isn’t done yet. We are continuing to take feedback from developers as well as the Gaming & Disability Community. It’s important for us to ensure we are constantly improving and raising the bar for inclusive gaming. This is just a single point in that journey.