Triangulating Accessibility

A couple of months ago, Eve and I played The Maw together, and I’ve been mulling a related post ever since. The Maw, for those of you who haven’t played it, is one of the more approachable titles on XBLA. It has relatively simple controls — for a modern 3D platformer, anyway — and a cute style and theme. I’m quite fond of it. Anyway, watching Eve grapple with The Maw was enlightening, to say the least.

A bit of background for newer readers: Eve is a perfectly capable smarty-pants, but she didn’t grow up with video games and is often frustrated by the few console titles that I have introduced her to. I knew that she would have trouble with camera management in a 3D space; that’s a skill that simply needs to be learned over time. And I knew that she’d have difficulty remembering which Xbox controller buttons mapped to which in-game behaviors, even though The Maw has relatively few mappings; that’s partially an experience issue as well, and partially a consequence of the Xbox 360 controller’s near-magical ability to terrify and stupify casual gamers.

X marks the spot. Sometimes.

What I didn’t expect was for Eve to have trouble with the obvious (and theoretically helpful) indicators/hints that Twisted Pixel, developer of The Maw, had sprinkled throughout the game. Just one example: at various moments during play you will encounter huge, red “X” marks which are intended to communicate the fact that you cannot proceed through a passageway — you must first solve some puzzle. When I first encountered these red X marks they seemed terribly redundant; the game offered more than enough clues without them (for example, one passageway was barred by a giant, snapping, angry plant. Clue enough for most readers of this blog, I’d wager.) Eve, on the other hand, was very grateful for the tip… with one minor problem. As it turns out, she interpreted the big red X to mean “X marks the spot – go here” instead of “X means stay away!” And so, perversely, the X marks caused Eve to waste several minutes wandering around aimlessly as she tried to figure out how to proceed. I finally gave into frustration and told her what the X’s meant.

It isn’t a question of “too easy” — it’s a question of “what defines easy?”

What’s the moral of this story? If you’re worried about whether or not your game is “easy enough” for a casual audience, you might be asking yourself the wrong question. An experienced console gamer’s definition of “easy” can be misleading. Inexperienced console gamers require a complete rethink of what it means for a game to be accessible. A big-ass carnivorous plant and giant red X mark combined were still insufficient to convey “stay away” to my summa cum laude, scholarship-winning wife. An explicit hint as to what she should have been doing or where she should have been going — as opposed to what she should not be doing — would probably have been more helpful and more appreciated. (Credit where credit is due: The Maw is often quite good about this; Eve really appreciated the goal-centric thought-bubbles that would occasionally appear above the Maw’s head.)

Don’t try to guess what works for casual gamers; test it

By definition, the people creating or publishing a video game are often incapable of imagining what it would take to make that game accessible to someone who has rarely played console games. The best (in fact, I’d say only) way to figure that out is to frequently test the game on a diverse group of casual users and to solicit their feedback. Twisted Pixel received plenty of advice from casual game experts at Microsoft. No disrespect to my former colleagues — many of whom are absolutely brilliant — but some of their advice clearly didn’t help. Not that my advice was so much better… and that’s the point, isn’t it? “Experts” are no substitute for diverse playtesters.

The Maw is a lovely game developed by one of the most inherently talented independent studios that I have ever had the pleasure of working with, so this post should certainly not be taken as a critique of it. Rather, I’d call The Maw an instructive example of how difficult it can be to make a game accessible to truly inexperienced console gamers, even when sincere effort is applied to the task.

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