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VR for everyone: Accessible game design tips from Owlchemy Labs
FERGUS BAIRD / UNITY TECHNOLOGIESSenior Content Marketing Manager
Dec 7, 2022|14:0 Min
VR for everyone: Accessible game design tips from Owlchemy Labs

Over a billion people experience disability globally, and many are gamers. 30% of gamers in the U.S. identify as disabled, yet 66% say they face barriers or issues related to gaming.

Fortunately, this situation is starting to change.

From Tribe Games and Owlchemy Labs to Insomniac and Naughty Dog, studios of all sizes are creating more accessible gaming experiences. Today, 70% of allplayers use accessibility features built into games, whether they have a disability or not. Players want flexibility, and accessible game design can provide that.

Owlchemy Labs, the studio behind titles like Job Simulator,Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality, and, most recently, Cosmonious High, champions accessibility in VR. In June, they introduced Cosmonious High’s first accessibility update, with a range of updated gameplay options, including one-handed control mode, features to accommodate seated players, colorblindness enhancements, an immersive subtitling system, and more.

Andrew Eiche (chief operating owl and cable slinger), Jazmin Cano (accessibility product manager), and Peter Galbraith (accessibility engineer) joined Unity’s Hasan Al Salman on Twitch to discuss the update.

Read on to learn how this innovative studio built a culture of accessibility, get tips you can apply to your own games, or watch the full stream below.

Putting accessibility first

Their accessibility statement explains that, “At Owlchemy Labs, we believe deeply in making VR for everyone! Improving our accessibility helps us achieve that goal.” The studio has built a strong, accessibility-first culture that every Owl experiences from their first day of onboarding.

“There’s a huge developer documentation page, which is fantastic. It has a fabulous guide on accessibility,” says Jazmin. “There are tools, learning resources, and examples of how Owlchemy approaches games with this thinking. From day one, it shows everyone at Owlchemy how important this is.”

Conversations about accessibility at the studio aren’t relegated to specific Slack threads and channels, but are discussed openly everywhere. “It’s really important for everyone to see what’s going on in the industry and even just learn about it as we develop,” says Jazmin.

VR for everyone: Accessible game design tips from Owlchemy Labs | Thumbnail image
Applying universal design principles

Owlchemy Labs considers every gameplay element through the lens of universal design. Where possible, each feature is built to be used easily by anyone, without having to enable specific accessibility settings from a menu.

“There’s a great saying that goes: ‘Design for one, extend to many,’” says Jazmin. “When you create something that’s accessible for one person, it’s likely going to benefit more people than you had in mind.”

The team considers accessibility from the start and draws on learnings from previous projects, which makes it easier to implement or iterate on new gameplay features.

“We do a lot to think about these things from the beginning as much as we can,” says Andrew. “We’re always improving and getting better, which is why we created the accessibility update. But having the thought process from the beginning makes the whole process significantly easier.”

Players can dynamically change their own height in-game using Small student mode.
Players can dynamically change their own height in-game using Small student mode.
Empowering players with one-handed mode

Accessibility options in Cosmonious High generally aren’t hidden in menus. To play in one-handed mode, you can just turn off your second controller and start playing.

Peter Galbraith, the team’s accessibility engineer, shares how Owlchemy Labs adapted features like the Powers Menu, the way you select various VR superpowers, for one-handed mode. “Previously, you would have to tap the back of your hand and it would pull up a radial menu of your powers. With the new accessibility update, you can just double tap, and it opens up the menu so you’re good to go.”

Players can grab objects telekinetically by gesturing towards them and pulling them with a flick of the wrist. “You don’t have to reopen your hand and get the exact timing when it hits right. It’s a really nice way to make you feel powerful, while making it easy to identify and grab what you want,” Peter says.

One-handed mode obviously helps players who don’t have use of both hands, but it has subtle benefits for players who do.

“When you design for one use case, you can actually end up solving for a lot of different situations,” says Jazmin. “You can play Cosmonious High while holding a drink, or a snack, or a pet. Maybe only one of your controller’s batteries is charged, so you only have one to play with. If we didn’t have this one-handed mode, in these situations, you just wouldn’t be able to play at all!“

One-handed mode in action
Cosmonious High's one-handed mode in action
Making VR accessible for seated players

During the stream, one viewer asked what makes VR games inaccessible to players who use wheelchairs.

“Imagine looking around your own room. All the things that are more than an arm’s length above your head – all of those are inaccessible,” says Andrew. “Imagine if you’re a person who is capable of leaning or moving in your chair, so literally all you can do is stick your arms out in front of you and move them. Those are the kind of things that we have to consider for wheelchair accessibility.”

One-handed mode is one way to remove barriers for seated players, but Owlchemy Labs has also implemented other features to ensure players of all heights and abilities can explore the halls of Cosmonious High.

For example, every surface in the game functions like a standing desk, with a handle you can adjust to change the height. Players can dynamically change their own height in-game using Small student mode, allowing them to reach areas they might not be able to reach through height sliders and other toggles.

Players can adjust the height of various surfaces in-game.
Players can adjust the height of various surfaces in-game.
Color blindness accessibility

Cosmonious High has been praised for its distinctive, colorful visuals. However, Owlchemy Labs was careful to ensure the game remains completely accessible to players with different types of colorblindness.

“We have these puzzles where players have to match up different crystals,” explains Peter. “Each has patterns and shapes in addition to colors. Blue triangles connect to blue triangles, yellow squares connect to yellow squares – that way no puzzle or feature is entirely reliant on color alone.”

Owlchemy Labs uses Colorblind Effect from the Unity Asset Store to simulate what the scene would look like for players with the three most common types of color blindness. See the tool in action below.

Subtitling in VR

Owlchemy Labs has put a huge amount of work and research into the subtitling system for their games, which they believe is among the best in the industry for XR. Cosmonious High’s subtitles are embedded into the HUD, and feature the name, image, and pronouns of the speaker, as well as an arrow pointing in their direction that adjusts based on the player’s position.

“The big thing is, unlike television or a 2D view where you can just pop things on the bottom of the screen, we don’t want players to be forced to look at a character when they’re playing,” says Andrew. “But we also want players to know where that character is, so that’s where that little arrow design comes from. We want everyone to have the same level of fidelity that players who hear in the game with the spatialized audio would have.”

Owlchemy’s subtitling features ended up being useful for developers, too. “A lot of our developers play without the audio on because they want to listen to music – they just want to hit play, make sure that all the subtitle timings are lined up, and not hear the chaos,” says Andrew. “And now they can do that.”

For more information on Owlchemy Labs’ subtitles, check out their talk, “Subtitles in XR: A Practical Framework.”

Sourcing feedback from the accessibility community

Owlchemy Labs regularly conducts interviews and feedback sessions and performs user testing with the disability community. VR is a physical medium by nature, so in-person testing is ideal. “A player’s body, their range of motion, and their physicality are all important considerations,” says Peter.

“In-person feedback is super valuable,” agrees Jazmin. “Not only do you get direct feedback, but you also get feedback through body language. If someone’s scratching their head, maybe they’re a little confused. There’s a lot of nonverbal feedback that you get from meeting with someone.”

During the pandemic, Owlchemy Labs began conducting more player research remotely on video calls – now, they do a mix of both. Reaching out and building community online via channels like Discord means they’ve been able to reach even more players in the accessibility community.

“There’s a really important saying in the accessibility community: ‘Nothing about us, without us,’” says Jazmin. “It’s important to respect that statement. Listening to people with disabilities provides feedback, and that’s a must. We have to have diverse voices for this work to actually work.”

Exploring different vision accessibility modes
Exploring different vision accessibility modes in Cosmonious High
Why you should make your game accessible

Closing out the stream, Owlchemy Labs offered advice on implementing accessibility features into your projects – and why you should consider it as part of your game design.

Jazmin: “Whether you’re making a game right now, or you’re about to launch, or you’ve already launched, it’s never too late to add accessibility. Accessibility is a journey: There’s a lot to learn, a lot to explore and a lot to try out. It’s never too late! For example, Cosmonious High launched before our accessibility update. You can always do more.”

Peter: “I echo exactly what Jazmin was saying: It’s never too late to add accessibility. It benefits everyone, not just the people that you assume to have accessibility needs. When you improve accessibility, you are improving your game not just for players with disabilities, but for every one of your players. And the sooner you start thinking about that, the more accessibility features you get to help everyone share virtual reality.”

Andrew: “If, for some reason, you need one last bottom-line way of convincing the folks in your organization that accessibility matters, let me remind you that the entertainment market is a very crowded market: Finding a good niche is always a benefit to you. When you cater to a community and you show that you care, that community is going to respond in kind. It’s going to create a market for you, and it’s going to increase the amount of people that are capable of playing your games. But if you want to do it altruistically, which is where, hopefully, Owlchemy expresses itself – we think that it’s a really, really important goal.”

Cosmonious High is available now on Meta Quest 2 and SteamVR. To learn how to make your own games accessible, check out our Unity Learn course, Practical Game Accessibility.