For me, there was only one Xbox title that I was completely hyped for in 2021. And thank goodness it’s lived up to said hype. Forza Horizon 5 is another visually stunning and gloriously polished racing bonanza across a wonderful map, giving us one of Mexico’s best ever looks in a game. Whilst there aren’t loads of changes and innovations in terms of gameplay structure, and there were some poor issues with censoring legitimate names, the game handles better than ever and sounds better than ever, an exemplary work from Playground Games and a show that the Fable franchise is in a safe pair of hands.
The game’s much-advertised level of detail (remember those cholla cactus needles?) is exemplary, with the world brimming with life and detail, whether it be on sprawling urban roads and other cars, or in jungles bursting with gleaming water and lush greenery. That detail extends to the accessibility options, with the game boasting plenty of colour-blind modifiers for different types of colour-blindness, a modifier for the entire game speed in offline mode and screen readers. Additionally, the game will also see British and American Sign Language added in an update and coupled with the screen reader, it’s an incredible level of work. It can be improved further still, as seen in Ben Bayliss’ review for Can I Play That?, but add on top support for the Xbox Adaptive Controller and this is a landmark game for accessibility in the same vein as The Last of Us: Part II. It certainly was enough detail to impress, picking up the Innovation in Accessibility win at The Game Awards.
Between these games, accessibility has finally started to be a central point in game development, which leads to a question. Why can’t all games adopt these techniques?
Of course, the increasing conversation has seen some AAA developers begin to adopt industry standard techniques and some commonplace accessibility options such as scalable closed captions and color blindness modes now pretty common in games big and small. However, even some games you’d expect to have covered options can miss details. Take Halo: Infinite, where the small UI text can cause visually-impaired players a problem, and titles that don’t have remappable control schemes such as Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. The latter is still a sticking point in the console space, with console versions historically sticking to preset control setups and not allowing players to change setups. The fact of the matter is that this is a necessity for disabled gamers, who may need to change setups to suit their needs. According to a report by disability charity Scope, 16% require controller remapping, with millions of gamers in the UK having a disability. Whilst this can be solved with the Xbox Adaptive Controller on Xbox, players looking on other platforms may not have the same options to do so.
This isn’t some light issue, this is the difference between people getting to enjoy their free time with a game and not. Failures in this aspect, however small, can be crucial to preventing people from playing the things they want to, something which reflects poorly on what is supposed to be a multi-billion dollar industry.
Microsoft have been doing some decent work, having launched a new version of their Xbox Accessibility Guidelines, designed for developers to give tips on how to adopt accessible techniques and options into a game from the design level, with sections designated for text-to-speech, colour blindness filters and more. However, even these resources are described as being “a set of minimum guidance”. This goes in addition to a 5-module course set up by the company entitled “Gaming accessibility fundamentals”. So there’s some tools being made by the company to at least educate developers on how to make considerations for this issue. On a system level, the November update saw the consoles given improved colour filtering, as well as further audio settings for headsets and 20 featured tags to mark accessibility options in the storefront.
It isn’t just Microsoft looking at this. Countries around the world have begun taking action, with Germany requiring any studio looking to obtain funding from the country’s federal programme to disclose their plans to make their project accessible. After the expiration of some waivers, U.S Companies have to comply with the FCC’s guidelines on accessibility. The FCC even spoke at the yearly Games Accessibility Conference which sees industry professionals speaking on how developers are tackling issues, to speakers tackling issues still facing players after so long. Microsoft, along with Sony, Naughty Dog, Ubisoft and more, sponsor the event.
These are crucial steps that Xbox are taking, but of course, more should always be done. In particular, the game speed option available in Forza Horizon 5 is something that could be further explored as a universal option on the console itself, allowing gamers who need that time to be able to have it, regardless of the game they’re using. Whether that can be done is a big question, but every company, including Xbox, should be asking these questions daily and looking into them.
Additionally, whilst the company’s first party studios are part of a larger complex of companies with resources aplenty, smaller studios need the support to do more. The costs and challenges for indie titles are known to be exponentially larger and Microsoft continuing to do more to help smaller studios to do so is necessary for gaming as a whole. The company is the custodian of their console, and should treat every title on it as needing accessibility and helping developers to achieve this.
Regardless of these questions, it’s important to see studios like Playground Games embracing accessibility and going the extra mile for players. Of course, things need to get better, and that involves the industry as a whole tackling the problems and coming up with large-scale solutions. Hopefully, Forza Horizon 5 is another key step forward, one that prevents the industry from taking a step back.