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  • Why Accessible Design Can't Save Inaccessible Gameplay

    - Josh Bycer
  • One of the hardest skills to pick up when studying game design is being able to think outside your own skill set and knowledge base to see how someone else can figure out, or get stuck, at a game. This also leads into the discussion of game balance and UI/UX (user interface, user experience) design. I want to talk about something that is going to sound very weird at first, but it's a design trap I'm starting to see that people aren't talking about. For today, we're going to discuss when a focus on accessibility without approachability can make an accessible game inaccessible.

    Toodee Troubles

    I'm working on either a video or written review for the game Toodee and Topdee by Dietzribi. This is a puzzle platformer built around the idea that you can switch between side-scrolling and isometric viewpoints that affect how objects and enemies behave in the world. While the funny story and great art may lead you to think that this is a casual or easy experience, it is anything but.

    The puzzle logic required for playing is advanced and combined with a lot of tricky platforming and one-hit deaths. One hit deaths, good story, tricky platforming... that should sound a lot like another indie platformer that was released in 2019. Just like CelesteToodee and Topdee feature an "assist mode" in the form of a difficulty setting. This allows you to turn on infinite hits, increase jump height, and other features designed to make the game easier for people who want it.

    Except there's one problem, people aren't doing that and instead are dropping out. At the time of this piece, it's still too early in the game's lifecycle to fully analyze its achievement and completion rates, but the downward spiral of churn can be seen quite easily. The difficulty spike going from chapter 1 to chapter 2 is immense for this kind of game, and at this moment, the game lost almost 70% of its player base in less than an hour. Down the road, I am going to do a deeper look at the completion rates for my show Completion Critiques, but this is not what you want to see the opening week of a game. The exact moments of frustration I had with the game are almost directly related to where I see the churn rate spiking on the achievements page.

    assist modes do not correct or fix pain points in a game's design (image from accessibility guidelines)

    This can also be seen in Celeste that had high churn spikes despite having a mode that let people who got stuck literally turn off any difficulty with the game.

    And that raises a question: Why do games with complete accessibility tied to their gameplay not helping people finish it or have high clear rates?

    Inaccessible Accessibility

    I can't think of a catchy title for this phenomenon just yet, and if you can, let me know in the comments. What happens is when a game when trying to be as accessible as possible ends up doing the opposite and making an experience that is not retaining its player base.

    Both games mentioned make use of their accessibility features outside of the core gameplay loop and UX. As I've spoken about many times, the core gameplay loop and UI/UX of a title are more important than anything else when it comes to the success of your gameplay. If those three elements aren't working right, no amount of story, aesthetics, or even accessibility, is going to keep people playing.

    With both games, I could see issues with how they onboard and guide players through the mechanics, and I feel that both could have done a better job with their skill curves. Having an assist mode is no substitute for UX or onboarding. With Toodee and Topdee I got stuck at a puzzle primarily because the puzzle used a rule that was not explained prior and expected the player to know it ahead of time. The lack of an undo feature, in a game where one incorrect move could cause a restart, is a noticeable quality of life issue. I felt like instead of learning mechanics and interesting solutions, the puzzles felt more like fighting gimmicks in the design. Speaking of fighting, the boss fights combine both puzzle-solving and platforming and can easily lead to frustration as the game does not onboard the player to the elements and boss behaviors of these fights prior. In fact, the skillset required to beat the bosses is oftentimes different from what you're going to use when solving the stages.

    Games with high difficulty will have higher churn, but good UI/UX will often lead to more fans finishing it

    The issue is when an assumed focus on accessibility with the UI/UX being ignored or downplayed in a game leads to it not retaining people who grow frustrated with the problems. Accessibility does not course correct issues or pain points in a design. No amount of accessibility options will save a game with systemic problems.

    A great design and solid UI/UX, with accessibility built from that point, is a far better experience for everyone. What we've seen from consumers is that given the choice of turning on assist features or quitting, a lot of people are just going to quit, but there is a better way of presenting these options.


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