Accessible & Approachable, What’s The Difference?

21 August 2023

Accessible & Approachable, What’s The Difference?

There are two commonly-used phrases relating to the broadening of a game’s future audience: ‘accessible’ and ‘approachable’.

Think briefly about what you understand these terms to mean.

Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there are radical and important differences between them. The differences are so stark, and so influential on the product, the audience, the development process, and what they mean to future players, that it’s worth taking time to distinguish between them properly, and ensure you’re using these terms deliberately.

What is the difference between ‘accessible’ and ‘approachable’?

‘Accessible’ means taking steps to make your game playable by players with disabilities.

‘Approachable’ means taking steps to make your game playable by newcomers to your genre.

Although they both consider the increasing of an audience size, and the increased selling-through of units to customers, neither of these terms are related specifically to marketing.

Both terms are distinct from broadly informing players that a game exists — marketing and advertising — although the accessibility and approachability of a product certainly will influence the marketing messaging, audience, definition and audience size.

Both terms refer to the game’s design pillars, its feature-set, and the types of players that the eventual player audience wants to and can include.

Let’s explore in more depth the differences and approaches to making accessible and approachable games.

Making an Accessible Game

An accessible game is one that deliberately includes accommodations for disabled players. You’ll no doubt be familiar with some of these accommodations — in fact I’d bet you’ve used them yourself at some point: subtitles, high-contrast modes, the ability to reduce music volume and increase speech independently, aim assists, controller re-mapping, and so on.

These ‘accessibility features’ are specific, often toggleable on-or-off accommodations that can support many differing contexts of play, importantly including players with disabilities.

People with disabilities number around 25% of the population — one in four people worldwide — with a wide spectrum of potential impairments that, without due consideration during your game’s design, can hinder their ability to play your video games.

Making a game accessible requires deliberate inclusion of the disabled community in the design process, steering adoption of both standard features — such as subtitles and difficulty modes — as well as innovative accommodations reflecting the uniqueness of any given game.

Running ‘accessibility testing’ is the most-common approach to drive game accessibility forward: inviting players with specific access needs to play the prototype and unfinished game, and thereby exposing the barriers they uncover through naturalistic play.

To say “we will make our game accessible” is to commit to implementing considerations that allow your game to be enjoyed in its entirely by disabled players, including as much versatility and feature-based support as your development roadmap and budgeting feasibly permits.

Making a game accessible extends your audience to the groups of players who share access needs you choose to support. Furthermore, beyond the immediate disabled audience are a total spectrum of non-disabled players who rely upon or benefit from these accommodations too: 97% of all players played Assassins Creed Odyssey with subtitles turned on, and 9.5 million players of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End used one-or-more of the game’s accessibility options. These are neither small nor niche gains in your player audience — and nor are they exclusively disabled players — they’re the general population, the everyday consumers, the people wanting to fully enjoy the games you create.

Making an Approachable Game

An approachable game is one that deliberately accommodates newcomers. Video games have always acknowledged the need to onboard and respect players who are fresh to an experience. Be that because they’ve never played a game before at all, or never a game of this genre, or never a game of this intellectual property.

The days of printed game manuals in the box are long-gone, but the need to provide foundational knowledge to new players has not.

Video game tutorials are so ubiquitous that they’re almost a meme, and although there are more effective ways to teach players how to play, elaborate in-game tutorials remain a staple inclusion.

But whether it’s a tutorial, a manual, a YouTube video, or more elaborate and dynamic game design considerations, the objective is the same: deliberately increase the number of players that can ‘get to the fun’ of a game by effectively communicating the game rules and lowering barriers to play, in respect of a players’ lack of prior experience.

Consideration of newcomers doesn’t end at the tutorial: the whole game needs to be enjoyable. The inclusion of no-challenge ‘story modes’ is perhaps the most poignant of game-wide accommodations, definitively opening up the end-to-end game experience for newcomers. There are smaller scale but no-less effective approaches,

Making a game approachable requires deliberate inclusion of newcomers in your design process, checking through the support that is provided to your newer players. User testing with players who might be at the edges of the target audience, likely who have never played a game like yours before — but might — in order to expose barriers to play. This usually extends the traditional reach of research studies and activities, which typically have a laser focus on existing fans of similar games, rather than growth audiences.

Increasing the approachability of a title has enormous potential upside: there are far many more people in the world that feel your game isn’t for them that those that feel it is. Breaking into an untapped market of gamers through approachability has been done before — notably by the Nintendo Wii console and its easy-to-use waggle-and-point controllers. Yet these ‘adjacent’ player groups are often under-considered as addressable and worthwhile audiences.


Promising Approachability and Accessibility

It should be clear that both of these audience-facing goals — approachability and accessibility — require specific efforts in product design. These are not marketing activities, nor re-framing of existing features, but instead a specific design-influencing commitment to inclusion of broader audiences in design.

Mistaking one term for the other risks misleading players. There are established communities of disabled players clamouring for games that promise inclusive design and accommodations; it would be a mistake to seem to promise them an accessible game in error.

Non-gamers and casual players too are looking for games that promise ease-of-use, unpatronising and assistive games that don’t punish their inexperience. Although they are less-centralised and less-vocal than the disabled player community, they are no-less deserving nor viable as future fans and advocates of your games.

Should you make your games more accessible and more approachable? It makes good business sense to. And there is knowledge and support for your development process to do so. Both of these objectives require studios to embrace listening; the design process must include the people, the feedback, and the space for iteration to ensure so. This can be an uncomfortable and seemingly costly endeavour for studios without a history of inclusive design practice. But what a prize for those that can, and do: a worthwhile and deserving audience of future fans unlocked.

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