The need for accessibility in games is not exactly a new discussion. AAA titles regularly implement basic accessibility features such as contrast controls, subtitles, and multiple control scheme settings.
However, the need for further improvement in the industry has recently come to the forefront.
Everything from the need for exhibitors at conferences to take accessibility into account when setting up booths, to the need for controllers that can be used by gamers of varying abilities has demonstrated that while efforts are being made, the industry still has a ways to go.
This is especially true for indie developers. As indie titles become more important for the long-term future of the gaming industry, accessibility will become something indie developers will need to begin to take into account.
Of course, with all the financial and time constraints on small developers, this is not an easy task.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Carlos Coronado, developer of recently released indie survival horror, Infernium.
Carlos currently teaches at the University of Barcelona. He began his journey into the gaming industry by making the Warcelona mod for Left 4 Dead 2. He dove into indie game development in 2014 with his award-winning MIND: Path to Thalamus. After that, he developed Annie Amber for Gear VR and then started Infernium. He is also a scuba diving and sailing enthusiast.
Following the recent accessibility update for the Nintendo Switch version of Infernium, we decided to ask Carlos about his interest in accessibility in games: what made him interested in accessibility and what challenges it posed or benefits it brought as an independent developer.
We also got a brief description of what his next project will be after Infernium.
First off, before we get into the topic of accessibility, I have to ask you how you came up with the concept for Infernium? A PAC-Man inspired survival horror is definitely a unique premise.
What caused you to bring those two ideas together?
Well, I had always wanted to make a horror game but none of the ideas I had “clicked” with me. However, while doing my first-night dive in Apo Island (Philippines) I was amazed by how beautiful, calm, and at the same time scary the experience was!
I remember going out to the water and, even before putting on my scuba gear, I said to my diving buddy, “I know my next game is going to be a beautiful horror game where you see the enemies from a mile away!” So yeah, it was then when I had the idea, and the Pac-Man element came naturally while developing it.
The setting and concept of Hell are central to Infernium’s story, though it is certainly a version of Hell which has an element of beauty not commonly associated with purgatorial or eternal punishment.
Why did you choose Hell as a setting, and why did you decide upon this particular imagining of it as opposed to a more traditional, Dante’s Inferno version?
As I said, that diving experience was key. Aside from that, gameplay always comes first in my games, and I always try to think about settings that allow me to be very creative while generating cool gameplay mechanics. Hell was like a big sandbox for me, and the twist of making that Hell beautiful allowed for a greater level of creativity. The beautiful environments add an interesting psychological element. The game teaches you that the more beautiful an environment is, the more dangerous it is! This creates a contrast between what you see and what you feel that really drives players crazy, and I love that.
It is entertaining watching YouTubers and Streamers playing Infernium and witnessing them totally distrust the beautiful environments!
Now, onto accessibility, something you have been very vocal about. I have seen you discuss it with fans on your Twitter account and you have highlighted Infernium’s accessibility features on the game’s Steam page.
Even before your last accessibility update, Infernium offered not only sound but visual cues indicating a nearby enemy, as well as from which direction that enemy was approaching; a feature that is not incredibly common.
With the update, you have allowed more intermediate accessibility settings, including slowing game speed by decelerating enemies, or removing them altogether.
What made accessibility so important to you as an independent developer?
Yes! I must say I had no idea about video game accessibility before meeting Kait Paschall. She moved to Catalonia with her husband and while they were searching for a place to live they stayed in mine. During those months she got really interested in the development of Infernium and she introduced me to accessibility for video games.
She made me see that with a little effort on my part the player base would be much wider, and therefore I could sell more copies! For example, she explained the game would be 100% playable for deaf gamers by simply adding the red screen visual alarm when you start getting chased. This was the first one but the list goes on and on.
After the release of the game, I also experienced something that made me change my mind again and introduce even more accessibility features. For example, I saw my girlfriend (she is not a gamer) playing the game with the PC Mod “No Enemies” downloaded, and she was constantly telling me how great the experience was for her. She didn’t care about the challenge, but just walking in the game and seeing how everything was connected was a huge experience for her.
I also noticed the most downloaded mods for PC were all mods that made the experience more accessible for people, so I thought it was a good idea to make those options available to everyone, and that’s what I did with the accessibility menu. It basically adds 4 new options you can enable and disable anytime: No Enemies, Slower Enemies, More Tutorials, and No “Perma Death”.
Obviously, it is not how I intended players to enjoy the game but, hey, who the f*** am I to tell people how they have to play or enjoy!
After looking more into accessibility in games, I realise I took for granted how many features were already being implemented by AAA titles, such as allowing contrast controls, the ability to remap control schemes, subtitles, and making intractable objects obvious.
Do you think smaller, independent developers have a certain disadvantage when it comes to implanting these types of features?
In the AAA market, everything in terms of game-feel is sorted out. I mean, those are titles developed for really, really wide audiences! That’s why accessibility is taken for granted.
On the other hand, indie titles are more experimental and willing to risk more. I think that’s why most indies don’t think about accessibility features.
However I don’t really think introducing accessibility features is going to make your game ‘less indie’ or worse, and that’s something we all need to work on and spread. If indie devs realise accessibility features = money, more and more indie titles will introduce accessibility features.
Do you think smaller developers have an obligation to make certain their games offer at least basic accessibility features? This would entail at least some of the guidelines outlined here.
I think there is a thin red line between accessibility features and good game design. I think when you are designing good games and mechanics you don’t realise most of the time you are introducing accessibility features without even knowing!
That’s great, but we should work so that aside from good design, game devs also take accessibility into consideration.
What are some elements of Infernium that perhaps have not been mentioned specifically that you implemented to help make the game more accessible for players?
The in-game maps! I love those and no one is talking about them! Every time you visit a new area of the game you can search for a map sketched by someone in the past and if you take your time to read the map you can literally gather all the useful info: where the enemies are, where the light is, where the next map entrance is… It is super helpful if you are willing to invest the time to read the maps. Here is a guide made by a user showing all the maps.
Another “feature” I am really proud of is the crowdsourced Wiki! It’s literally filled with info, including a guide, tips, secrets and even the complete lore story in order. It is a way of getting yourself in the world of Infernium without even buying the game.
Where do you see yourself improving on accessibility in Infernium, or in future titles?
I’d say reducing the number of buttons/controls the player needs to interact with the game.
I’ve already been prototyping my next project. It is going to be a 2D sidescroller game about revitalising corals underwater. Think about Flower but in 2D with Limbo’s art style and controlled with only one joystick!
Where do you think the gaming industry as a whole stands regarding accessibility? Do you think improvements still need to be made and, if so, where do you see a need or needs that have not yet been met?
I see day by day more and more positive messages about accessibility are being spread.
I can say: “Hey! Put accessibility features on your game!” but few will listen. Instead, if I say: “Hey, In the first weekend after the accessibility update on Switch the game has sold as many copies as in all it’s life on sale”. Then more devs will listen.
In the future, I see accessibility features as something being taught at universities and eventually becoming common enough that it will be taken for granted in every game.
Final question: What advice do you have for aspiring independent game developers in general, and then regarding how they might make their games more accessible given the challenges indie developers often face?
My advice is that if they want to implement accessibility features, they need to do so early on in the development. It is easier and more elegant. It is way more complicated to introduce accessibility features once all the design is done and maybe even not worth it depending on the kind of game you are making.
In general, I would advise them to try to have short development cycles and never spend more than one year working on a single project. It makes you go nuts!
Indie Developers At The Forefront
While the gaming industry continues to evolve, concerns over making certain all gamers of all abilities will be able to learn from, play and experience more and more of what the industry has to offer will continue to rise to the forefront. There is always room for change and room to make things better.
If Carlos is any indication, indie developers may once again be at the forefront of the gaming revolution, just as more and more unique and clever content arises not from AAA titles, but from small developers with a passion to make great games that everyone can play.