#338: Katie Goode on VR Accessibility & Designing for Users with Disabilities

Katie-GoodeKatie Goode is the Creative Director of Triangular Pixels, which has developed Smash Hit Plunder for the Gear VR and Unseen Diplomacy for the Vive. Unseen Diplomacy is a room-scale experience that has people crawling through tunnels as a spy, but Katie wanted to ensure that she wasn’t excluding people with disabilities in being able to enjoy and participate in their experience. I had a chance to talk with Katie at GDC for how they’re taking into account accessibility for VR by designing experiences that still work for users who are deaf, colorblind, or have a disability that restricts their movement.


There’s a menu option at the beginning of Unseen Diplomacy if your movement is restricted, which then alters the experience to make it more accessible to people who can’t crawl around on the floor whether due to age, an injury, or a disability. There are some sections that are completely removed, but there are other adaptations to the game that move the buttons and objects around so that they’re accessible to people in a wheelchair.

In the end, designing with people with a range of disabilities in mind usually ends up with stronger game design for everyone. For example, the visual cues in Unseen Diplomacy were more explicit and didn’t solely upon color or audio to give the user feedback in their game. This not only makes is so that deaf and colorblind people can still fully enjoy the experience, but it also in the end provided a more clear design for everyone.

For more information on VR accessibility, be sure to check out this article on designing VR for people with physical limitations by Tomorrow Today Labs’ Adrienne Hunter.

Here’s a gameplay video of Unseen Diplomacy, which is available on Steam for $2.99. The game does require a minimum of 4m x 3m space, and so I wasn’t able to fully play it in my 2.9m x 2.3m room.

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:11.894] Katie Goode: I'm Katie Goode. I'm co-director of Triangular Pixels from the UK. And at the moment, we're working on a couple of games. So one is Smash It Plunder, and the other one is Unseen Diplomacy. In fact, we're showing Unseen Diplomacy at the Valve stand on Friday. Great.

[00:00:26.559] Kent Bye: So tell me a bit about both of your games that you've developed so far.

[00:00:29.572] Katie Goode: Okay, so Smash Hit Blunder is basically our first and actually the main title that we're developing on at the moment. The idea is that you run around the dungeon, smashing the place up, looking for treasure, and it's somewhat based on a couple of TV shows from the early 90s. Well, British TV anyway, and that's Super Mario Peak Sweep, And Finders Keepers, I don't know if you've got American counterparts. So in that it's very hands-on and originally we started developing it on the Gear VR and we're still investigating platforms with that. But we've got some really interesting ideas with it. So hopefully at some point we'll be able to announce what we're actually doing with it, I guess. And then Unseen Diplomacy is basically a jam game that we did, which sort of evolved into something much bigger. And we did it for what we call the National V-Game Arcade in Nottingham, in the UK, which is basically this museum of game culture, really. And they don't like to call it a museum because it's all hands-on stuff. And they actually have an event called Game City. And for that, Unseen Diplomacy, we have this massive hall, like a big English hall, you know, like Union Jackson. The Queen was on the wall. And it was basically like this half-game, half-theatre-like experience, where you walk into the room, you get interviewed by a bunch of spies, you would go on the DK2 and peer into what the Vive player was doing, and sort of help them out through CCTV camera. And the Vive player was rolling underneath lasers, crawling through vents, just infiltrating an enemy base. And then we had players that were still effectively playing and joining in, it's just they weren't in VR, because we had a shared screen and you could see what the player was doing inside the Vive, you had high scores and how much time was left, and then they had little forms to fill in and judge how well their friend was doing. So yeah, that's basically like this whole big experience thing that we've managed to sort of condense down to like, so what we're showing on Friday is basically just like the Vive portion of that game. So it's only like a little snippet. But yeah, that's what I'm doing at the moment.

[00:02:34.062] Kent Bye: So with the Unseen Diplomacy, what type of experience were you trying to create for someone going through this game?

[00:02:40.283] Katie Goode: Well I guess there was a few things that we really wanted to concentrate on when we were thinking about it. One was really using the full Vive space. So there's no tricks, there's no teleporting, there's no portaling, there's no slow moving methods of walking around. It's just people walking. And the other thing was making sure that if you're not a gamer you can totally play it. So there's only one button to pick up objects and put down objects. Every one of the objects is basically exactly how you interact with it in the real world. Exactly. And even, like I said, with the walking around, the fact that there's no teleporting means that you just walk physically around. And then the other thing we really wanted to make sure was that pretty much anyone could play. So we actually have a restricted mode in there that we wanted to do. So if you're disabled and less able to walk around, we weren't able to crawl around through events and things, then you'd still be able to play. So we just sort of altered the levels to be like higher and things. And then the final thing we really wanted to do was basically, we knew that we were going to get big queues because this is like the Vive back in October, like nobody really in the UK at that point necessarily got their hands on it. So we really wanted to make this a bigger social experience, and we really love event games, so part of that was like, how do we turn this single-player thing into this bigger, much more open thing, and trying to burst VR out of its sort of HMD shell, as it were. And so this is where this sort of social aspect came in, where it's almost like a Crystal Maze football yard type thing, where people could sort of join in, and sort of chip in somehow, and just feel part of that experience.

[00:04:14.432] Kent Bye: So how are the two different types of players interacting? I mean, you have someone who's in the Vive experience, that seems like that's kind of the centerpiece, and then you have potentially one or more people in DK2. How are they interacting and what type of information is being transferred between the two of them?

[00:04:29.127] Katie Goode: Yeah, so the DK2 player is basically, well, it's a CCTV camera, but it's more like an eyeball on a stick. So they always have one-to-one movement within the world. And so the Vive player can see that and see there's this movement of this human-like object staring at them and looking at them. And so the DK2 player can see the Vive player and see his head and the hands, so they can see what they're doing. And the idea is that a lot of the little challenges involve some sort of cognition activity, which basically means that you need to think to do them. We didn't want to make them too hard, just in case they had small children or maybe someone was playing by themselves, but we wanted to make it just enough that basically if you had someone as a CCTV camera that can see the whole room, they can help you out. And our inspiration for that is very much like Crystal Maze, which is basically this UK TV show again, where people could only see into the room through cameras or through holes in the wall. And giving a bigger picture, like just an overview of what was happening, really helped the player inside the room and trying to solve some of these puzzles and activities. So the interaction information was things like, there's one room where it's really hard to see where the key card is and it's really easy to miss it. It's really, really hidden. But where the location of the CCTV camera is, is that basically if you look straight on, you can see it. But if you are crawling into the vent as the Vive player, you really can't see it. It's really quite hidden. So if you had someone helping you, then they could say, oh, oh, before you go through, you need to get the card. And then, like, once you've got the card, then it's all right. No, it's there. And they sort of end up pointing to their head. Of course, being in VR, people sort of assumed that their hands were being trapped and started trying to point. But even just the actions of the head, looking directly at the card, they were still like this sort of physical interaction and being able to see physical results of people interacting as well as just vocal happening, as it were.

[00:06:32.385] Kent Bye: And so you mentioned that you want to try to use the full space. And I know there's been some experiences that I've had that my space was too small to actually experience everything. And so are you somehow dynamically changing the scene based upon how much actual space someone has?

[00:06:46.239] Katie Goode: So as this game was basically just created for this event back in October, we haven't bothered trying to change the size of the space at all. Now, if we were creating a full-on retail game, we want to make sure that pretty much anyone can play it. We want it approachable, we want it user-friendly, and if you've got the kit, we want you to be able to play it. But this game isn't about that. It wasn't about that for us. It was something that we created a month that happens to be something that everyone wants to sort of get their hands on in some way and explore and enjoy. And there will be spaces that they can do that. And we have to think about and discuss, I guess, possibly with Valve about what happens if a game does only support that size. It's just the nature of the redirected walking that you can't have anything smaller unless you want to start messing around with the player's perspective, or messing around with the room slightly turning, which could cause them to feel ill. So, if you make the redirected room smaller, you end up with, like, basically little tiny corridors, and, like, it just gets smaller and smaller. It doesn't feel like a real space. And that's something that I really want to do, is make it feel like it's a big, massive space, bigger than what actually is the room tracking area. So, yeah, at the moment, no. No plans, I guess, is the short answer. But we know various ways. I mean, even when we first started playing the Vive, we were like, oh, yeah, you could totally just dynamically scale a room if it happened to fit in that area and things. Or there's other people that end up doing teleporting. And there's loads of different things you could do. It's just that's not what this game is about.

[00:08:15.023] Kent Bye: I haven't heard a lot of people talking about accessibility within VR, trying to design an experience for people who had disabilities. So how did you do that?

[00:08:25.420] Katie Goode: So for people who are less able to move around, that's basically mean that making sure that walk paths were effectively wheelchair sized, although this is UK wheelchair, which seems to be considerably smaller than US wheelchair, that it was making sure that they didn't have any vents that would have to crawl through. It was making sure that any keyboards or anything that was meant to be at desk height was actually at the desk height of which a wheelchair user needs. And just making sure that when the pace of the game at the end isn't quite so quick for them really. Because they wouldn't necessarily be able to move from side to side as quick as more able people are able to. We also make sure that our games don't rely entirely on colour. just in case you know it's quite actually a large population of the world that is colorblind so just making sure that it's really contrasting and not sort of very close blue reds and things like that but also like just trying not to rely on just color changes for things so it's normally like shape silhouettes things like that Otherwise, I'm quite interested in just making sure that any title we produce is as comfortable as possible for as many people as possible. I guess, ultimately, I believe that developers have responsibility. We have a social responsibility to look after Like, a fellow man. So, for me and my company to be releasing something which makes people comfortable, I wouldn't want to do that. And that comes in various forms, that it makes sure that people doesn't feel ill, but that also means I probably won't ever produce a game that involves lots of murdering and killing of people. So yeah, I guess there's quite a few things on that list. In terms of accessibility, we actually met someone a while ago who didn't have a right hand and this was on the Gear VR. And we thought that might actually end up being a problem. But actually what we found that he was able to play our demo that was on the Gear VR store because he just used sort of, I guess, the nub of his arm instead, which is just still touch sensitive. And he could still play because of the fact that we didn't really program anything that required you to have fine control and fine motor control. So that was more of an accident. But I thought that was quite an interesting thing to see. Even though our game sort of more like required you to turn yourself around physically at a time that we showed a demo, we also had a wheelchair user able to play because he just put his arms down and turned himself in the chair. But for that, we were like, he's doing it too slowly. I want to make that quicker for him. So we ended up putting in a mode to allow you to turn around quickly using snap movements so that wheelchair users basically don't have a disadvantage when they're playing the game and trying to get a high score.

[00:11:19.243] Kent Bye: Interesting. So we're here at GDC and you're gonna be giving a talk about social VR What's your take or what are some of the big points that you want to try to make to the audience? That's gonna be here at VR DC.

[00:11:29.590] Katie Goode: So my talk about social VR tomorrow is basically more like local people in the same room social VR not like the social VR in terms of people over the internet talking all space type thing and it's gonna be basically going through things like how to create your single player game into something that's a bit more open. It's about how to make actually multiplayer games and also, I guess, looking at the potential restrictions people might end up having. For example, I think one of the interesting points to point out is that if you want a multiplayer VR game in the more traditional multiplayer sense, as in versus, then if you end up having a household, they're probably not going to have four of the same headset in the same household. So it's just pointing out things like that. And I guess my main point is bring people to awareness of the fact that, again, this almost lies in the social responsibility. Because VR is a really isolating place. Because more often than not, you're the only real person in this massive virtual world. And everyone else could potentially just be an AI and not really real. Humans crave social interaction. And they're potentially not going to be able to get it in your game. So how do we make sure that people on the outside can help that person? At the same time, if you're staring at someone playing a VR game, you're not going to feel great necessarily. So how do we make that person happy too?

[00:12:57.267] Kent Bye: And I've seen that you've had at least one or two other talks that you've given about virtual reality. What are some of the other topics that you've covered?

[00:13:03.230] Katie Goode: So the other talks I've done have, I guess, touched on the developer responsibilities a bit. They've mainly been how to design for the VR platform, like as a really starting base, what the VR platform is. What makes people feel ill? How can you stop that? So I know that we were probably some of the first to do some really weird things with internal static skyboxes and things. So trying to point out all these different features for people and what they could probably do with them. And basically just offloading all the stuff that we had learned to date. And then I guess I'm doing the same again this year. I think this is the first talk I've done this year, like full-on talk. So this is like my new thing for this year is, hey, OK, you all know how to make VR games now. Let's make them for everybody.

[00:13:55.339] Kent Bye: What's one of your favorite memories or stories that you have from a VR experience?

[00:14:00.864] Katie Goode: Favorite memories? That's a really hard one. I guess I have to go back quite a while here because this is on the DK1. I was working for Sony London Studio at the time and I think someone brought a DK1 to the office and I was investigating what could be really done in VR for the early Morpheus concept stuff and I remember downloading quite a lot of demos and feeling horrifically ill. But don't ever just do a day of downloading random demos, it's going to do horrible things to your head. But I downloaded Minecraft for VR. I think it's Minecraft? I can't remember what it's called, yeah. And that just blew me away. And now, it wasn't the most comfortable experience, but it utterly showed me what VR was really good at. And that was exploring things in front of you and exploring spaces. And pretty much both the games that we've done to date, that we've announced, are all to do with exploring spaces and really being able to analyze things in front of you. because I feel like that's ultimately what VR is really good at. So I have to say, I spent so long playing that Minecraft VR game that I ended up staying in the office until like half ten or something at night. I just didn't realise what time had passed. It was hours and hours and it only got out, I guess, because the security guy just tapped me on the shoulder and go, you seem to be like the only one here, what are you doing? I'm like, do you want to go home now? I was like, oh shit. So yeah, that's probably me. I guess my favorite memory, because I guess that was my turning point of, yeah, this isn't just tech, this is something else.

[00:15:39.415] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:15:46.495] Katie Goode: So I guess my favourite thing and the ultimate potential of Virtual Reality is just really enabling really different gameplay and as a designer I've always been more interested in different gameplay. Things like, what did Portal do to FPS's? Like, what did Katamari do? I mean, that was crazy in terms of gameplay. Not necessarily the best story, not necessarily the best controls, not necessarily the best anything, but in terms of gameplay, it was so different. And so I'm always craving new gameplay, and I get so frustrated with sequels. All that jazz. So, VR is so great for me because it's just enabling all this totally different gameplay. Like, there is no chance, like, Smash Hit Plunder could work on anything else but VR. There is absolutely no chance Unseen Diplomacy could work in anything but VR. Because, you know, you can't track someone in that 3D space. You can't show them what it would be like to move around. It doesn't work in a cave system. So it's enabling those and it's enabling me to work on them too. So I think that's what's so different about VR. And I guess as a business standpoint and like people setting up studios, I mean this is the first hardware release I know of that basically has been so open and open so early that anyone could start up something. And so the amount of jobs created and interesting potential, like different studios doing different things, I mean, that's just incredible. And that's nothing else I've seen in industry. And that's keeping a lot of people employed. So yeah, potentially life-changing too.

[00:17:27.995] Kent Bye: Anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say?

[00:17:31.417] Katie Goode: You know, if you're interested for developing for a platform, There's really nothing to stop you from developing on VR straight away. I mean, just get cardboard, just get a cheap phone, and just start making something. Because you just don't know where it's going to lead. I mean, we didn't think that doing a little demo thing in our spare time was going to lead anywhere necessarily. And now we're going all around the world, showing our game. We're full time on our own games. We've got all the dev kits for free. I've got so many vibes. It's untrue. I keep breaking them. So yeah, just start developing because you just don't know where it's going to lead. And you just don't want to miss out at the end of the day. And if you don't do something now, you might not ever do it. So just take the risk.

[00:18:22.761] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much.

[00:18:24.002] Katie Goode: That's cool. Thank you.

[00:18:25.949] Kent Bye: And thank you for listening. If you'd like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then please consider becoming a patron at patreon.com slash voicesofvr.

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