Why EA Sports Started Taking Accessibility Seriously
An informal game jam from 2014 kicked off a series of events that ended up with the studio hiring its first in-house accessibility lead.
Image courtesy of Electronic Arts
FIFA 18 has been out since September 2017, which means we really aren’t that far off from Electronic Arts talking about the next game. But a few weeks back, as part of an otherwise routine patch—one of the changes polished up the way German and Polish text appears on screen—EA also rolled out an impressive suit of new accessibility options. These aren’t minor tweaks, either; these are deep dives into the way FIFA 18 controls, from in-game to menus, to give those with disabilities options.
This YouTube video by The Gamers’ Charity gives a thorough breakdown of the update:
The patch makes it possible to, for example, swap menu navigation from the right stick to the left, or add a pause button to the screen (on PC), letting players pause with a mouse, instead of a keyboard. This is layered on the already impressive options FIFA 18 provides, such as the simplifying the controls down to a single analog stick and two buttons, accounting for more scenarios where players might experience issues.
There’s a big difference between games that can be enjoyed by players with disabilities and games encouraging it. When I wrote about a Monster Hunter: World fan with a degenerative muscle disease finding ways to play such a complicated game, I failed to underscore it was an accident. Monster Hunter: World is not an accessible game; it coincidentally has enough options for people to make it work. Very few games take active efforts to even understand what players with unique circumstances need.
One big reason FIFA 18 has more accessibility options is a collaboration with UK charity group SpecialEffect, who builds technology to make games more accessible, often working with individuals who face very specific challenges.
“We felt that it was important to include accessibility features in FIFA 18, so that more fans could enjoy the game,” FIFA producer Michael Peters told me recently. “When implementing these features, we wanted to ensure the additions properly met the needs of the players they were intended to help, while at the same time did not adversely affect other players.”
Because SpecialEffect already knew what players were looking for, they were able to recommend additions to FIFA 18, some of which ended up in the shipping game, and others that have taken a little longer. Getting them implemented required team members from various departments—engineering, interface design—working together.
Peters told me EA considers this a foundation for the future, too. These features will be included in future FIFA games day one, and they’re researching other options.
This is part of a larger push by EA Sports, culminating in the launch of a dedicated website last week for players to provide feedback on accessibility features, ideas for changes, and to generally inform EA about what it can be doing better.
“As a gamer, there's no company I like less than EA,” wrote one person on Twitter in response. “Their list of could-have-been-fun games ruined by shareholder greed is long. But this... This the first thing EA has ever done that I admire. I hope it sticks.”
It was a backhanded compliment, but the EA-run account still liked the tweet.
Much of this change has been driven internally by Karen Stevens, a rendering engineer turned accessibility lead—the first time EA created such a position in the company.
“I’m a long-time accessibility advocate and disabled myself, with severe hearing loss being my most obvious issue,” said Stevens during a recent email exchange. “This has helped me understand the importance of inclusion and has greatly influences my accessibility work.”
Stevens has been working at EA Sports since 2013, primarily on Madden NFL. Her engineering work took priority, albeit with accessibility advocacy remaining important.
She had a chance to combine the two in the summer of 2014, when EA Tiburon, the developer behind Madden NFL, held an internal game jam. Stevens pitched accessibility features, including brightness and contrast controls, colorblind options, and a way to increase the size of on-screen icons for players with low vision. Her pitch won.
“This is where Madden NFL’s accessibility journey began,” she said.
Because she was an engineer, Stevens was able to do the heavy lifting on implementing these features herself. Though it would take a few years for the ideas to filter into the finished game, starting with Madden NFL 17, the series was embracing accessibility.
A few months ahead of release, Stevens could reveal what she’d been working on.
“I once asked a friend if he was looking forward to the next Madden NFL, as he is a huge Raiders fan,” she wrote. “He told me he can’t play Madden due to vision problems; he couldn’t see anything that moved quickly and was small—like the pass icons. I decided that if I ever had the chance, I would try to improve the game so a wider audience could play Madden.”
Everything options Stevens had proposed—brightness and contrast controls, colorblind options, increase icon size—made it in. It was a step forward, but one Stevens considered that: a step. She started a Twitter account to solicit feedback.
“Soon after I was asked if I was able to take feedback for other EA games, and this led me to forming a network of contacts inside the company,” said Stevens. “I created an internal website to act as an information repository, so when others asked me for advice to handle feedback, I could pass out links for information. This process took over more and more of my Madden NFL day job. After Madden NFL 18 shipped, my side job became my full-time job.”
At EA Sports, Stevens works hand-in-hand with the developers, from FIFA to Madden. That takes up a good chunk of her time, so for the rest of EA, she’s just consulting. In both cases, though, she’s acting as a conduit for developers to provide information.
“This relates back to the biggest problem games have when it comes to accessibility—lack of information,” she said. “This goes both ways. The site [EA just launched] provides a feedback mechanism that logs issues directly into databases, so it’s much easier to communicate feedback back to teams. It also is intended to provide information on existing accessibility features, to better inform our customers on the suitability of a game.”
With any luck, EA’s work will be the start of a larger trend. How about it, Nintendo?
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