In recent years, game companies have been trying their best to implement the best accessibility practices for video games. One studio that always impresses me is Ubisoft, which seems to strive to improve accessibility features in its games, title-after-title.
As part of Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2020, I had the opportunity to jump into a video chat and speak with David Tisserand, the senior manager of accessibility at Ubisoft, to talk about the direction and efforts that the company is taking when it comes to accessibility, and how it wants to embed accessibility into the studios’ DNA.
Ubisoft is a vast collection of studios based across the world; even Assassin’s Creed Valhalla reportedly has 15 studios working on the title. However, I was curious about how accessibility is organized across all of these studios, especially between so many different countries. David tells me that the accessibility team is “acting as a hub in the middle of all those teams.”
Essentially, Ubisoft teams are collaborating with one another and sharing past learnings. Where one team may struggle with one accessibility issue, another may have already found the best way to resolve that issue in the past and shares it with the studio. The accessibility team ensures this process is unified across all studios across the world: “The learnings, positive or negative, from any part of the company goes into the hub, and then we can just spread out to all the other teams.”
I asked if David ever looks at other studios’ bad features as a way of seeing what other studios are doing wrong, and what Ubisoft can learn from them. He clarified that he does keep eyes on the industry as it’s good practise, but “I would go further than that,” he explains, telling me how he looks more towards the reactions from the community and what the community shares with him and his team. Something I was incredibly glad to hear.
As an example, I’ve expressed my disappointment online about Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part 2 releasing a trailer without subtitles readily available. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s cinematic trailer was another instance where I shared my opinion on the lack of subtitles. I brought this up with David, who actually (on the day that the trailer was released) worked to get them enabled as quickly as possible.
“Internally we [the accessibility team] are collaborating with everything.” He explains, “So when you think about the release of a trailer, for example, there is a mix of the marketing team, PR teams, dev teams, and now the accessibility team is part of those discussions.”
I wanted to know David’s thoughts on burning captions into trailers so that they’re permanently attached to the video no matter where they’re shared. We discussed how unfeasible this would be, as it requires uploading numerous trailers; one with subtitles, one without, foreign languages, and audio-described trailers. It would be a lot of videos to manage. However, David did say he wants to see platforms, such as YouTube, allowing multiple accessibility features available for the viewer at once. For example, he proposed giving channels the options to upload subtitles, audio tracks, and audio-description tracks all on the same video, making that one video more inclusive to audiences with different accessibility needs.
Assassin’s Creed Accessibility Origins
David originally started pushing for stronger accessibility while working full-time on Assassin’s Creed Origins. Once that game was released in 2017 and the project was over, David tells me that he and a group of co-workers who helped with the accessibility made a presentation detailing everything they had learned, successes and failures, from adding more accessible features to the game. He gives an example, saying they learned that “Retrofitting accessibility later in the development process is much more complicated than thinking about accessibility at the beginning of the design process.”
At the time of Assassin’s Creed Origins’ development, the accessibility focus on this new, greater scale was still fresh territory for Ubisoft. For example, the subtitle sizes weren’t increased until later in development, but once it was increased, the team focused on increasing subtitles in every other Ubisoft title. David mentions that it was post-Origins that the actual dedicated a11y team or accessibility team at Ubisoft was created. Learning these features throughout the development of the game allowed them to carry those practices over to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey from the beginning, which in turn, allowed for more accessibility features to be added with the extra time saved. As a result, Odyssey allows control remapping on all platforms.
Despite the numerous subtitle sizes available in Origins and Odyssey, there’s still no full control over subtitles, which isn’t all that bad because the subtitles themselves are done well. But David explains that adding such control is “a question of time and resources” and that Ubisoft will be trying different things and pushing options for them further on future titles.
Ubisoft continues to learn about the challenges faced by disabled players by speaking directly to them. David mentions how they’re always listening to the community. In 2018, disability advocates (otherwise known as “A11Ys”) being loud on social media sparked the company to start sending out review copies to advocates and disabled content creators at the same time as mainstream outlets. “We want to change the DNA of the company,” he tells me, explaining that Ubisoft wants to embed accessibility into its development process.
In sending copies to disability advocates, not only is Ubisoft including them and recognizing them as a valid outlet, but the reviews and accessibility-focused content from them reaches their target audience; an audience that wants to know the state of accessibility within the game and whether or not it’s suited to their needs to enjoy it. Additionally, the comments and concerns raised allow developers and the accessibility team to look at this criticism and improve the current title being worked on, or improve a future title.
Things happen early on in production too, so it isn’t just review copies that help to address those concerns. Ubisoft runs, as David describes, “Accessible Design Workshops” that take place internally. The company invites disabled advocates to the studio to sit down with developers and give their input and help developers shape the games’ accessibility features.
Blind Accessibility Focus
“There is still a lot to do and we want to continue improving,” he says. “This year, we wanted to put the emphasis on trying to help our dev teams making games more accessible to blind gamers.”
David tells me of the workshop process and experience with one advocate they invited to Ubisoft Montreal before the world suffered a pandemic. Brandon Cole, who is a blind player and features in Ubisoft’s latest video, was invited to the studio for two days to sit down with the developers. During this workshop, the developers shared concepts and features and Brandon shared his experiences, explaining his disability, and whether these features would work for him. David mentions, “By designing the game the right way with the right features, we can make our games more accessible to blind players.”
He goes on to tell me that blind gamers are even included in the conversation when the studio releases a trailer, allowing them to be involved and feel welcome to collaborate with the studio. Essentially, David wants blind players to feel as if they can speak to Ubisoft, be that through social media, or customer support and express their issues. In turn, Ubisoft wants to be able to fix those issues by sharing these concerns internally, making the DNA of the company more accessible going forward.
Personally, I’ve always felt that if developers took an active stance on accessibility early on, they’d have more accessibility features available from day one. I asked David if he feels that research and taking action early in development would help a game’s day one situation. “Yes, the answer is straight away, yes. There are no questions asked,” he chuckles. “It has a lot of value.”
Developers at Ubisoft learn a lot from this research, and David tells me how the experience of meeting the players through workshops is an experience that stays with them throughout their career, with accessibility then tucked into the back of their minds.
“The best way to start a project is to make sure that players are talked about in the development process,” he says. Not only that, but David tells me that in addition to QA testers, Ubisoft also has QA accessibility testers that focus specifically on accessibility in the title. “Our QA accessibility team evaluates the accessibility of our games during the development process and post-launch as well,” he explains.
Involving the community
It’s not just in-game that Ubisoft is targeting. David mentions how they want to start “making the whole experience around our games accessible,” by introducing more ways to consume content. This includes Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s audio-description trailer, speaking to customer support, and even navigating the official websites for each game. In a nutshell, David wants anything Ubisoft to be inclusive.
Being front and center with in-game accessibility features seems important to David. He mentions Ghost Recon: Breakpoint’s accessibility blog that went live in 2019 a few weeks before the game launched. “We wanted to inform players before the game was out about what they could expect in the game,” he says. The blog post detailed an extensive list of what would be available from day one and was honestly a fantastic example of giving disabled players the information they want to know prior to purchasing a title.
The accessibility team at Ubisoft noticed the positive reaction from the community to this blog post. “The reaction was so positive and very useful,” he admits, telling me they reported back to the teams and mentioned the positive reaction online, encouraging them to do more of the same for future games. “We’re working with the marketing and PR teams to see what we can do this year and next year to try to inform the community as early as possible.”
Next-Generation Potential Impact
One thing I was interested in knowing was the possible impact of next-generation platforms and accessibility, with the PS5 and Xbox Series X expected to release later this year. Of course, David isn’t a technical expert, nor is he a programmer. Despite that, he says, “Having more CPU or GPU is definitely giving more freedom to development teams to innovate and do things that technically was impossible before now.” However, he’s unsure if these platforms will help revolutionize accessibility, but he is determined to help Ubisoft “get the basics right.”
Future Goals for Ubisoft
Steve Saylor, an accessibility advocate who runs a YouTube channel and creates content for Can I Play That?, told me that David once said he had a goal to ensure that by 2020, all Ubisoft games will launch with a basic level of accessibility, such as control remapping, colorblind modes, etc. Now that we’re in 2020, I wanted to know what David’s goals for the future are.
“We gave ourselves some goals that, fortunately, we managed to achieve on most of our games,” David states. But for the future, he mentions Ian Hamilton, an accessibility specialist who always looks at what more could be done within video games; “I’m doing exactly the same, following his lead. Now that we are close to achieving that level, what could we do more?”
Making a game accessible for sightless players is David’s goal for the future, but he knows it’s going to be a journey that can only be helped by collaborating with the right players. “This year, we were thinking, ‘Okay, we’re doing the basics, trying to refine them, to polish them and make them the best they can be. Where are we still missing information? Do we still need to progress?’ And that’s where I came to the conclusion that we should involve sightless players as well in the communication and try and improve on that front.”
David also wants to ensure that the end-to-end user experience is accessible. He explains that customers can open accessibility tickets to provide feedback directly to developers at the studios if customer support cannot answer the ticket. He wants to “close the loop” ensuring that the services and content by Ubisoft are as accessible as they can be, and work to continue to actively improve things at the studio.
I think that Ubisoft has been doing a good job over the last few years with ensuring more recent titles are as accessible as they can be. But what’s even more exciting is that Ubisoft continues to want to strive for more accessibility support, and it continues to listen to the community. A lot of the time, raising concerns about a game can feel as if you’re shouting into the void online, but knowing how proactive the accessibility team is being leaves a lot of hope for the company’s future. I’m certainly excited to see more features as well as improvements for existing features to come from Ubisoft. In addition, it’d be fantastic to see other studios follow suit across the industry, listening to, and supporting disabled players in the early stages of development.
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