Approachability and Accessibility

This article is, similar to my previous one, more focused on a more general design idea than a specific game analysis. However, it’s been sitting on my mind for a while and so I’m putting it into article form primarily to articulate it out, but also because it’s started to shape the way I’m thinking about games and how I perceive the way they’re designed.

Specifically, we’re going to be talking about accessibility and approachability in game design, and how even though they overlap sometimes, they’re not exactly the same thing and how it’s important to keep their differences in mind, both as you’re designing a game and as you’re talking about where games do and don’t succeed at achieving particular goals. First, we’ll talk about why I feel there needs to be a distinction, then point out the qualities unique to each side before we settle on how they dovetail together and how they impact a game.

Of note: this is not an article specifically about difficulty per se. A game can be accessible and approachable, but still be difficult or tricky to grasp, so it’s not a hard and fast rule that approachability and accessibility options *always* make a game easier. Accessibility and approachability interact can affect the actual & perceived difficulty of a game in many different ways, but difficulty is a subjective topic that is kind of being talked about alongside these things, not as a central conceit of why approachability and accessibility exist. A game that is accessible and approachable may not perfectly handle all these problems, but it will try to reduce them as much as possible — so when I speak about “ease” in the contexts of approachability and accessibility, I’m not always talking about the difficulty of the game being affected by these things, but how easily intentions are being conveyed to the player.

Morrigan Aensland from Darkstalkers playing and losing a game of Tatsunoko vs. Capcom against a kid in a yellow baseball hat. She looks furious, while the kid laughs victoriously. Yatterman-1 and Yatterman-2 are walking by in the background and watching curiously.
Sometimes you just get done up. It happens to everyone.

Why Does There Need To Be a Difference?

It took me a lot of conversation around Elden Ring in a specific Discord server I’m in, and some of the things that various server members (rightly) had issues with, for me to finally untangle my thoughts around how to make the distinction between accessibility and approachability, let alone that there was one to be made in the first place.

The reason why I’m making this distinction in the first place is this: even when approachability and accessibility overlap and influence each other (as they often do), they’re not always the same thing, and need to sometimes be addressed separately.

Not incorrectly, there’s been a tendency in game critique in various circles to bring many disparate issues that a game may be having (no controller remapping, poor subtitling, lack of difficulty modes or options) under the same banner of “accessibility” — from the perspective of allowing more people to be able to play the game in the first place. It’s not a bad instinct and I can usually split one from the other in casual conversation, but the more I’ve listened to these conversations, the more I’ve felt that the issues that a specific game might be grappling with don’t necessarily fit under the general statement of “this needs to be more accessible”, and have to be analyzed separately from the idea of accessibility once you hit the design perspective or a deep dive on an analysis.

For example, a game can have great subtitling options and control remapping, but still have poor checkpoint management, uneven resource distribution, poorly managed or presented objectives, an inability to pause, or many other such issues that are explicitly gameplay and mechanics difficulties. These aren’t things that prevent players from interacting with the game per se like colorblindness modes, subtitles, 3D audio, or highlighting important objectives on a map or a quest log would, but they are things that wind up causing that interaction to be more difficult and hinders players’ ability to understand what is going on in the game.

To put it another way: a game can be made more accessible for a variety of players (including disabled players) in a variety of ways, but just addressing accessibility issues alone doesn’t necessarily mean that the mechanics of the game are any easier to parse as a result of addressing those issues, at least not completely. At that point, the problem isn’t that people are unable to play it because of, say, bad subtitles, an inability to remap controls, or colorblindness modes being missing, it’s that the game is actively working against letting the player develop comfort with the game on a mechanical, interaction-to-interaction level. That’s where we cross over from discussing accessibility issues and start talking about making the game more approachable.

Looking at these issues separately and knowing when and how to do so lets you better control how they play off of each other once they intersect as a designer, and as a player or even a reviewer it gives you the space to look at how accessibility and approachability issues are either feeding into each other or are distinct from each other.

So, let’s actually talk about what makes each different.

Approachability

Approachability centers around design decisions and game options that focus on ease of player interaction with the game AND understanding of the game from a gameplay and mechanics perspective. Difficulty modes, control remapping/rebinding, gameplay options ala “invincibility mode” or certain types of old-fashioned cheat codes (the good old Konami Code being the most prominent of these), tutorials, trial areas, and variant gameplay modes are all what I consider examples of approachability design, though there are plenty more things under this umbrella such as “game feel” tricks (which we’ll also get into later).

The main questions that approachable game design will attempt to answer generally shake out like this:

  • How do we create a space in the game where players feel empowered to learn something about how this game works?
  • What are we doing to allow players to come to terms with this game’s systems and rules?
  • What are we doing to allow players the least amount of friction with interacting with the game’s systems and rules?
  • How are we allowing players to make sure they *can* adjust the game’s mechanics in ways that allow them to reduce the friction they have with interacting with the game’s systems and rules?
  • When are we giving players information about how the game works, and how are we giving them reasons to utilize it in ways that feel empowering or less frictionless?

Not every approachability problem needs to answer all of these questions at the same time, but when a solution to an approachability problem is implemented well, it either feels effortless to interact with or opens up space for a player to mechanically interact with the game on terms that let them understand it better, either in the moment or over time.

To take the fighting game training mode as our first example of a variant game mode: in its most basic form, a training mode allows a player to get used to controlling their character against an opponent that doesn’t fight back. If players want to learn the ranges of their buttons without having to think or act under the pressure of a real match, training mode is great for that. If a player wants to practice combos without worrying about being hit, a training mode is great for that. In more complex and fully featured training modes, the situations the player can simulate or set up for their own practice increase drastically, letting them test a variety of approaches to various situations at their leisure. It’s not a substitute for playing against other people, and it can’t all be learned at once, but a player can use training mode to whatever extent they want or feel comfortable with to improve their skills in a consequence-free zone.

An image of Guilty Gear Strive’s training mode menu, demonstrating that you’re allowed to tell the computer-controlled training dummy to automatically use special attacks after they block a hit from you without having to record your inputs of that move first.
Pictured: the gold standard of fighting game training modes, the “you no longer have to record your own reversals in training modes” option.

Gameplay options (and their forerunner, the cheat code) tend to affect approachability in a similar sense. The most obvious form of this, the “god mode” option where the player takes reduced or no damage from enemies, is great for letting players analyze enemy behavior or just experience the events of the game without feeling the need to immediately achieve mastery — the action roguelike Hades has been lauded for this in particular given the cyclical nature of its gameplay and how multiple playthroughs are an expected part of the journey through its narrative, as you can toggle its god mode freely and without consequence.

But these considerations also extend to other games and even less “drastic” options than a god mode or a training mode.

I’ve been slowly working my way through the very excellent action game Unsighted. One of its main selling points is that pretty much all of the characters are robots, even the main character, and all have a visible and noticeable timer indicating their current lifespan, with attendant consequences once it runs out for that character.

However, the game’s Explorer Mode options lets you disable these timers freely (with other changes available too), and the story’s flow and pace remains unaffected with no gameplay penalties. And the moment I found out about it, I turned off the timers and never looked back, because I wanted the freedom to explore the world of the game and take my time learning about its systems and characters without having to feel the march of time stomp across my back, and the designers were forward-thinking enough to realize that there would be members of their audience who would appreciate that option, too.

There was an indirect knock on the difficulty as a result, but only from the angle of “the time I had left” to play it — I was able to leave enemy damage unchanged and so have gotten flattened by bosses and particularly tough enemies more than once. But now, knowing that I can take my time and learn things little by little, I have the space to treat this game less as an endless ticking clock and take in things more sedately, to learn enemy behaviors and make more mistakes because I’m not being pressured as heavily for them.

The Explorer Mode options menu from the game Unsighted. It has options for disabling character death timers, making combat more forgiving, giving invincibility to the player, or granting increased stamina. In this picture, all 4 options are enabled.

Crash Bandicoot: It’s About Time also takes a very forward-thinking approach to this sort of thing — it offers the “Modern” and “Retro” gameplay options to you when you first start the game and lets you change them freely ala the Unsighted character timers. Modern gives you infinite lives per level, while Retro gives you a stock of lives and forces you to restart a level completely if you run out of lives while playing said level. While it’s not God Mode, it’s one less point of friction with the game in and of itself.

The devil’s in the details when it comes to this kind of thing precisely because approachability is looking to take the rough edges off of things in ways that the player will and won’t notice — and that’s where we get into the stuff about game feel that I was talking about earlier.

“Game feel”, in this case, refers to quite literally how a game feels to handle. When you play it, what mechanical pain points do you encounter most often? What feels just gracious enough that you don’t have to struggle with it? What little tricks do the developers use to minimize those pain points as much as possible?

Maddy Thorson put together a thread of game feel tricks that she used as part of Celeste in this Twitter thread and it all points at little things that lean toward giving the player ease of interaction with the various systems of the game — a little bit of extra time to jump when you happen to leave a platform, buffering a held jump input to jump again when you’re near the ground, and doing some slight position correction when dashing or jumping on or near obstacles.

Similarly, Kirby and the Forgotten Land has a few game feel tricks of its own that are meant to help players control Kirby a bit more easily and attack more freely, given that it’s a 3D Kirby game that isn’t taking place at a fixed angle. Attack ranges on Kirby’s attacks are arranged such that if a move looks like it “should have” hit, it will — so if you’re not perfectly aligned with an enemy for attacks, you have a little bit of leeway and will probably hit them anyway. Forgotten Land also uses the same jump buffering trick that Celeste does, and most notably does not allow the player control over the camera — instead, the camera focuses and shifts angles to point at specific landmarks in the world nearby as a form of soft direction for what the player should be doing.

A still shot from a video of the game Kirby and the Forgotten Land, demonstrating Kirby attacking an enemy despite not being lined up with them perfectly. Caption: “The game accounts for the player’s perspective by tracking the positions of Kirby and the camera. It then maps out a range in which attacks may appear to land. If an attack is within that range, the attack will hit. By doing so, even people who are not so good at 3D action games can attack enemies without any stress.”
See, a stubborn gamer would call this a bad hitbox. Me? I’mma just say “thank you for being nice to me” and keep on keeping on lmao.

Even in these subtler forms, this is what approachability aims for — to make sure that players have less to fight against the game to accomplish, and that they have the options to mechanically control what does cause problems for them.

Let’s take a look at the other part of this article’s focus now.

Accessibility

Similar to approachability, accessibility centers around design decisions and game options that focus on ease of player interaction with the game AND understanding of the game, but from a presentation perspective — audio design, visual design (including the user experience), user interface design and planning, and considering the user experience.

Here is where we talk about the more common elements of what’s considered accessibility, such as:

  • colorblind modes
  • subtitles (including text size thereof)
  • control rebinds/remaps (yes, there’s a reason why I’m repeating that one from the approachability section — we’ll get into it later)
  • options for removing screen shake or tinnitus simulation
  • brightness/contrast adjustments
  • field of view adjustments
  • high-contrast options

Thorough discussion of accessibility also has to dig a bit more into how the game itself is actually presenting this information to players and if it’s doing it in a way that doesn’t obfuscate information in ways unintended by the designers. Some questions asked when considering accessible design include things like:

  • What information are we giving to the player with various cues (visual, audio, haptic, etc) and the user interface?
  • How are we making accommodations for disabled players who may not be able to take in the information as-is, or who can’t interact with the game under the default settings and information presentation style?
  • How do we let the player customize and control aspects of the game’s presentation to let them parse information in ways that work best for them?
  • What are we doing to try and minimize the amount of friction that players have with understanding the information being given to them by the user interface?
  • What are we doing to minimize friction in actually interacting with the user interface?

Many of the biggest things to consider as specific examples, though not exhaustive, are covered by the Game Accessibility Guidelines. In particular, these guidelines start with accessibility at its most commonly considered level (plus a few things I’d consider either approachability or crossover points) and start moving onto the things that have to be considered as part of the game’s overall presentation outside of simply having options to cover it.

For example, designing for colorblindness means that critical information has to be conveyed by the shape and imagery of UI elements, not just their colors. Subtitles not only have to be legible but also need to convey the ambient sounds of the current scene, especially those that are critical to understanding what’s going on that is audible in the scene but not necessarily visible. Button prompts on screen need to reflect the controller the player is using (within some degree of reason) and the text on the user interface needs to be visible and legible — even adjustable if that’s possible. Even visual effects and how they’re composed can turn into accessibility matters if they’re not considered carefully.

Let’s go a little further with this by looking at some examples of where accessibility past options goes right — and goes wrong.

A prominent issue with the Kanzuki Beach stage in Street Fighter V that led to its ban from competitive play is based on one particular design flaw: it has ankle-deep water covering the majority of the stage. Certain characters have projectiles that fly low enough to the ground to get covered up by this water, creating a deep information disparity on this stage when fighting against characters who can utilize this. The Skies of Honor stage is similarly banned due to the spin and roll of the plane causing motion sickness for some players.

Even certain costumes for certain characters in Street Fighter V can be difficult to utilize or play against because of how they distort their character’s silhouettes — Gill’s Pyron costume is a prime example due to its heat haze effect distorting players’ ability to read his poses and limbs, and even removing the distinct two-tone coloring of his body that is central to his design.

A screenshot from Street Fighter V showing the character Gill’s main costume and his alternate Pyron-based Darkstalkers tribute costume. His main costume depicts him as blonde, with his skin being red on the right side and blue on the left, while his Pyron costume completely removes that and has a shimmering haze effect that distorts his body and limbs even when standing still.
LIKE LITERALLY CAPCOM THE WHOLE POINT OF GILL’S ORIGINAL DESIGN WAS THE RED AND BLUE SIDING INDICATING WHAT ATTACK HE WAS GONNA USE. WHO APPROVED THIS???

By contrast, Killer Instinct (2013) is lauded for how carefully its visual and sound design is constructed. One of the major functions is a “combo breaker”, which can only be done during certain parts of an opponent’s combo and require a specific button press of either a light, medium, or heavy attack button. A major update to the game updated the HUD so that it tells you what type of combo breaker you did, and if you fail a Combo Breaker, the HUD also expresses both how you failed to break the combo and how long your Lockout penalty for failing will last.

A screenshot of Killer Instinct 2013’s main HUD, demonstrating how the on-screen text changes to describe light, medium, and heavy combo breakers.
5 separate screenshots of Killer Instinct 2013’s HUD displaying 5 icons indicating to the player why they failed to break a combo — three of them are based on what button the player should’ve pressed to break the combo, while one is a clock icon depicting that they did their combo break too late and the final one is an exclamation point indicating the player got hit by a counter breaker.

From a non-visual perspective there are a few other tricks KI uses here. One type of move that you can use a combo-breaker on is called an auto-double, which is always made to animate like a character’s existing normal moves. Auto-doubles, when they hit, will always use sounds that match the strength of the button used. Additionally, the game has very specific sound cues for “shadow” moves that require a different structure to be hit with a combo breaker, and the announcer will specifically voice certain player actions out loud, such as Combo Breakers and failed Combo Breakers. For vision-impaired players, this serves a number of practical benefits that lets them interact with the gane’s systems, but it also serves a benefit to other players who may not be blind or low vision but might have other difficulties processing what’s happening on screen just from visual cues alone.

This is why in particular I said that accessibility is largely about how the game’s presentation is controlled. It’s a full consideration of not just user interface elements, but the very construction of what modes your game uses to present information about itself, and how your game refines each of those modes to make sure that many different types of players have the literal chance and ability to understand that information.

Crossovers

Now, all this said, I do still consider the standard, generally-meant definition of accessibility (“things that you do to let disabled players engage with your game more easily”) to be a completely valid definition of that term. Again, my reasoning for splitting approachability and accessibility into separate buckets is not to invalidate that definition of accessibility, but mostly to make sure that in what we call “crossover cases” — wherein we’re dealing with something that can reasonably fall into both buckets anyway — that we’re considering the proper approaches for how to solve both kinds of problems, as well as the benefits provided from looking at both angles.

To go back to a previous example and demonstrate this point more clearly, let’s talk button remapping again. The Game Accessibility Guidelines define it as an accessibility feature and I agree with that assessment because it tackles the problem from a user experience perspective: “I can specify the buttons I want to use for the actions I want to take, making it less awkward for me to play this game. If I have disabilities that make it harder to play the game on the starting settings, this lets me get more control over that.”

You can also argue, under the definitions that I’ve provided, that it also counts as an approachability feature, if only because you are mechanically changing the way you interact with the game by literally changing which buttons or keys do certain actions in order to get better control over your experience and interaction with the game. Even if you’re not disabled yourself, remapping buttons makes it so that you have the ability to materially change how the game plays so that you better understand how to engage with it.

Ikenfell also provides a good crossover example with the way it handles its timed hit mechanic. In battles, it’s possible to increase the effects of attacks and skills by pressing the correct button with the right timing. However, Ikenfell also allows you to turn on a feature that either makes the timing checks semi-automatic or completely automatic. This feature hits the crossover angle on approachability and accessibility as well, because it’s largely a mechanical decision that winds up impacting gameplay mechanics (approachability), but also addresses motor disabilities a player might have and lets them take steps to make the game accommodate that (accessibility).

The options menu for the game Ikenfell. It displays various audio and visual settings, but most notably includes accessibility and approachability options such as photosensitive mode, content warnings, toggleable letter sounds, and the ability to automatically win fights or automatically get perfect timing on timed attacks in battles.
We also have auto-victory and auto-run options and content warning options and — it’s all SO GOOD.

Crossover cases tend to be where we see the tendency for casual conversation about accessibility to reach in terms of discussion, because of how easy it is for one to push and pull on the other for all that they’re two separate things. The two examples I’ve picked here are very explicit ones, but we see many more examples of this sort of thing if we look carefully: quest logs in games are a big one, as the approachability angle — everything is recorded for you so the information is centralized — also fits neatly with the accessibility angle: disabled people with cognitive disabilities can offload the work of remembering certain things to the quest log. Saving anywhere is a big one too — from a mechanical standpoint it becomes a lot easier to feel confident about trying things and experimenting if you know that failing or dying will not set you back that far, but from an accessibility standpoint it allows disabled people with limited energy for engaging with games to more easily start and stop play sessions as they see the need to.

And that’s pretty much all I’ve got to say about approachability and accessibility. I want to emphasize that the main point of this article isn’t anything close to saying that the term accessibility is over-used, or wrongly used — just that sometimes it tends to be used to cover a broader set of discussion terms that sometimes need their own delineations, even though both approachability and accessibility tend to play very strongly off of each other.

This is by no means an exhaustive coverage of this topic, and in the time since I’ve brainstormed and written this article even more strides have been taken in how game designers think about and talk about these matters. I myself will continue to hone how I think about and describe the difference between these two things while making sure that they both stay a constant presence in my own games, and I hope that when discussing these things with others that you all think of them too.

Thank you for reading!

If you’d like more of a moment-to-moment peek into my mind, with short-form game design thoughts, the occasional game project WIP or art drawings, feel free to follow me on Twitter. I also stream on Twitch, with a focus on older JRPGs, fighting games, and platformers.

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