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Xbox: ‘We believe that we can compete on a lot of things; accessibility should not be one of them’

The Golden Joysticks introduced a new ‘Outstanding Contribution’ award this year, to celebrate “the game, people or technology that has changed our industry for the better in 2018.”

To say that the Xbox Adaptive Controller was deserving of this accolade would be quite an understatement. Having launched in September exclusively on the Xbox store, it’s a single step forward for accessibility and inclusion of disabled gamers like we’ve never seen before, and we can only hope the initiative proliferates and inspires other companies to put accessibility at the core of their vision.

Microsoft’s program manager Evelyn Thomas, who heads up accessibility strategy and development for Xbox, travelled from the US to be at the Golden Joysticks and collect the award.

Her passion for her work and what the Xbox team managed to achieve with the Adaptive Controller is undeniable from the start of our meeting in the comfy bar of her hotel, when we ask her to tell the story of how it all started.

“There’s a gentleman by the name of Matt Hite [service engineer at Microsoft] and he had a lot of friends who were in the military. He was hearing stories about how they weren’t able to do things in their life that they used to do, due to injuries, and one of them was gaming,” she starts explaining. “He came across Warfighter Engaged, who builds custom gaming rigs for returning vets. He worked with them and realised that while they were doing just amazing work, there were some gaps in some of the things that they were building that he felt he could probably help with. [The controllers] were fragile because they were hand-built, they were expensive, they were really hard to maintain and when they broke you’d have to have an electrical engineering degree to fix them,” she laughs.

All of this meant the custom devices were not easy for someone to effortlessly pick up and learn, she continues: “So a lot of handholding by the charity which means they didn’t have a lot of scale or reach. And even for the people that knew about the charity they had a backlog of like 400 people that they couldn’t serve.”

Around the same time, Microsoft was holding its annual Ability Summit, a two-days event focusing on accessibility and inclusion, internally and externally.

“[Matt Hite], on the back of a napkin, started jotting down an idea, chatted with a bunch of folks and they said: ‘That’s a great idea, let’s do a hackathon on it’. Satya [Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO] likes to refer to those as the one week out of the year that inspires the other 51. So it became a hackathon project and we built a product, tried it out, tested it with customers. We really believe in that philosophy of ‘Nothing about us without us’. So from day one we made sure that we included our gamers in the development process so that they could help point to us where to start, what we should be building for them. We then iterated on it from that feedback and ultimately it became what it is.”

Listening to Thomas tell the story, it feels like this was a very short process. But it was actually quite the opposite. The very first contact with Warfighter Engaged was in 2014 and from there the team also had to convince the top management at Microsoft that the project was worth their time – and money.

“Just like with everything you have to be able to pitch and we approached this product a little bit like a startup. It was a really scrappy group of people that were really passionate and just wanted to make it happen,” Thomas smiles. “They weren’t necessarily tasked with doing it as their everyday job but they just carved out time in their day to get the work done. But once we had the concept and once we could basically talk to our leadership and demonstrate what it was we were building and who the market was, it was a very easy sell.”

From there, the growing team worked around three main principles, linked to the three different types of customers they wanted to serve: “The first one was the gamers of course. So it needed to be functional and extensible for them so that they could have it set up the way that works for them,” Thomas says. “The other one was caregivers, and caregivers aren’t necessarily all that technical in most cases. So it had to be drop-dead simple, easy to find, easy to set up, easy to use.

“And then on the other end of that spectrum are the charities and nonprofits, which use a lot of these devices. They can build these bespoke devices so it needed to be extensible, it needed to be flexible, it needed to support an ecosystem that already existed so you don’t have to reinvent that wheel. And all of that was validated by our direct connection with the charities and with the individual gamers with disabilities. We just went to them and said: ‘This is what we’re thinking – is this the right thing?’ And with a few minor tweaks that’s how we landed where we are.”

THEY’RE TELLING US

Implementing all the features needed and finding the right design for the Xbox Adaptive Controller was no easy task and the team ended up in a bad position a few times, Thomas recalls.

“We’ve been building controllers and Xboxes for a very long time. We know the forces that are required for the buttons. So we created the Xbox Adaptive Controller, had it manufactured, brought our first testing units into our lab and the machine started pounding away on the buttons and they immediately broke,” she laughs.

“It was a light bulb moment for us and it was one of those things where we went from this know-it-all culture to this learn-it-all culture. And we just refactored how we thought about every decision we ever made building the product.”

Modularity in particular was at the core of the design process, to make sure it could adapt to the player’s exact circumstances. For this reason, the back of the controller has 19 3.5mm ports and two USB 2.0 ports, so players can purchase the accessories that fit their needs.

“We’re not telling them how to play the game, they’re telling us. We want to give flexibility to the players. Xbox should be a place where everyone can have fun. With an emphasis on everyone,” Thomas says.

The design of the product also look incredibly polished and slick. And there’s a good reason for that, she continues.

“We wanted it to feel like it belongs to the Xbox family of products so disabled people don’t feel like their friends get to play with the cool controllers and they don’t.”

Even the packaging was made with accessibility in mind: “Chris Kujawski, our lead designer on the project, had two fundamental principles: it should be easy to open up with one hand and you shouldn’t have to use your teeth. That was pretty much it,” she says. “And that has influenced the rest of our product lines in terms of how we’re thinking about the packaging for the other hardware that we offer. It’s even changed how we think about who we market to and how we market to our customers.”

The impact of the Xbox Adaptive Controller on the rest of the firm’s business goes beyond packaging and marketing though, Thomas adds.

“It’s dramatically influenced everything, from how we greenlight projects to how we get our products through. It used to be: ‘Is there direct revenue, does that immediately result in bottom line dollars? Then we’ll greenlight it, otherwise move on’. And this has really changed leadership’s opinion about what are the right things to invest in. At the end of the day it’s the customer, right? It’s investing in something for the customer.

“We’ve been working on assistant technologies and accessibility features on Xbox since as far back as 2014. And it’s going to live on in perpetuity and everything that we do in this product influences the next body of work.”

Thomas wouldn’t share any details about what’s coming in terms of accessibility and inclusion at Xbox but promises there’s some “pretty great stuff coming down the road.”

For the Xbox Adaptive Controller itself, the future looks bright and Thomas confirms a statement Xbox chief Phil Spencer made around the reveal of the device: the firm is very much open to the idea of sharing what it learnt with Sony and Nintendo.

“We believe that we can compete on a lot of things; accessibility should not be one of them. Everybody should be able to have the joy of play. And Phil is right: we are 100 per cent committed to making this available to other platforms. If they’re open to it and they’re interested, we’re ready to have those conversations. We have had conversations within those organisations about our controller.”

CHAMPING AT THE BIT

There’s a long way to go before gaming gets fully accessible, even at its simplest level – just look at the recent controversy surrounding Activision not including subtitles in its Spyro Reignited Trilogy.

But Thomas reckons the industry can start with two simple things to improve inclusion and accessibility.

“What ends with a product should start with people,” she starts explaining. “And studios, game developers, hardware developers, anybody who builds anything should really think about how they are in partnership from day one with the people who want to use their product. You can build in isolation, but you’re going to end up with something that really isn’t going to benefit them as much as truly embedding them in your decisions. So the strongest feedback I have for anybody is: think about your customer first, think about what they need and then build that in and you’re just going to win,” she laughs, before continuing.

“The other thing is that there are tons of gamers out there who want to give feedback. They want to be able to play and so they’re just champing at the bit to give feedback to developers. We get emails every single day: ‘Hey, are you testing this? I’d love to give you my feedback because I have muscular dystrophy’ or ‘I lost an arm’. So listen to your customers.”

Xbox has partnered with charities from day one: Warfighter Engaged, as we already mentioned, but also AbleGamers and our UK-based SpecialEffect. The team also worked in partnership with Craig Hospital, a hospital in Colorado that focuses on people with spinal cord or traumatic brain injuries.

“We’ve been in partnership with them to begin with and we’re expanding those partnerships out within the United States and external to the United States as well,” Thomas says.

So if you’re reading this and you work for or know a charity, a hospital, an organisation that would benefit from having access to the Xbox Adaptive Controller, now is the time to get in touch with Microsoft.

“We’re always interested in new partnerships that can actually help the gamer. And we know that the hospital space and the education space are spaces where this product would really benefit a lot of kids – and a lot of adults as well,” Thomas concludes.

About Marie Dealessandri

Marie Dealessandri is MCV’s senior staff writer, having joined the publication during its days as a weekly magazine. After testing the waters of the film industry in France and being a radio host and reporter in Canada, she settled for the games industry in London in 2015. She can be found (very) occasionally tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate, Hollow Knight and the Dead Cells soundtrack.

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