In today’s world, being a gamer involves having the knowledge, skill and expertise to play the various challenging games that are being developed. Oftentimes, this results in those without such skill and expertise feeling rather worthless at the games they play. Now, imagine not having the ability to even pick up and use a gaming controller to manoeuvre through a game.
For a lot of new and beginner gamers, playing games with more seasoned pros can be daunting, however, not being able to play at all due to the physical nature of having to hold a rather technical piece of equipment, such as a gaming controller and press numerous small buttons and pads to play a game is utterly disheartening. It’s heart-breaking to learn that the only reason you are unable to play video games with others like ‘normal’ people do is due to a disability that you have and the fact that no one gave much thought as to how you would join in and play. In other words, people with disabilities or those who suffer from mobility and dexterity difficulties have been discriminated against in that gaming companies have not thought about ways to be inclusive to a large portion of the population who would actually love to play video games.
Thankfully, this is no longer an issue with the invention and release of the Xbox Adaptive Controller, a piece of hardware that bridges the gap between those gamers who are physically able to play games and those who aren’t.
At E3 last week, I had the opportunity to chat with Microsoft’s Accessibility Manager, Evelyn Thomas, and Learning Specialist, Solomon Romney, who gave me a bit more insight into the Adaptive Controller.
For the team at Microsoft, the Adaptive Controller was a bit of a passion project and had been in development for some time.
According to Thomas, the Adaptive Controller “started out as a Oneweek project at Microsoft. Oneweek is a massive hackathon where everyone in Microsoft comes together and creates teams to come up with innovative ideas and solutions. Satya (Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft) refers to Oneweek as the one week of the year that inspires the other fifty-one.”
Microsoft had seen that various non-profit groups and charities had been developing one-off solutions, including custom gaming rigs, for a small portion of gamers, such as soldiers who had returned from active duty with traumatic injuries. However, these solutions were expensive, fragile and required engineering skill to utilise, which, unfortunately meant that it wasn’t very accessible.
“We saw a real opportunity there. We wanted to put the power and might of what Microsoft can offer and provide a solution at scale,” Thomas said.
While the company saw an opportunity to provide a product that would promote accessibility and inclusivity to all gamers, the process of creating a widespread and long-term solution was challenging.
“It was a serious learning experience. We know how to build this thing (showing off a standard Xbox controller). Fifteen years of iterations have gone into it. We know that people hold it a certain way and use their fingers to hit certain buttons. But if you have limited mobility you can’t make those button combinations or even hold it for any length of time. The controller becomes the barrier that prevents you from using the system.”
In response to the challenges they faced, the development team learnt from the diversity of gamers to design a product that would allow gamers of all kinds to access everything on offer on their devices. Their focus was to create a one-off case that was extendable to many, which led to the learning from and collaboration with a diverse range of groups from Warfighters Engaged and AbleGamers to the Craig Hospital in Denver.
Solomon Romney, for whom this project was very dear due to his own physical disability, said, “We asked questions, we tested, we collaborated with these groups in a way that I don’t think we’ve ever done before in product design. All that ultimately led us to something that will be usable by as many people as possible. Because gaming should be for everyone.”
I definitely concur with Romney and praise the team at Microsoft and Xbox for continually championing inclusivity, diversity and accessibility. This was clearly delivered by Phil Spencer, Head of Xbox, at the Xbox briefing at E3 and is certainly evident in all that the company does.
After giving an insight into the ideation and creation of the Adaptive Controller, Romney demonstrated the controller in use, showing off a lap of Forza Motorsport 7 using a special grip controller to steer and manoeuvre, as well as a pedal to accelerate.
From the demonstration and the look at the product up close, the Adaptive Controller looked extremely easy to use, with button mapping abilities that can be customised in the settings of an Xbox One console. Not only that but the design was clearly well thought out with ports that have grooves to allow for easy plug and play, as well as, a base that offers grip and does not slide of surfaces easily. Along with these design features, the buttons also have some added depth and are slightly larger to allow for ease of use.
When watching Romney play Forza Motorsport 7, it didn’t look as if there was any loss of control or smoothness in gameplay. In fact, had I not known Romney was using the Adaptive Controller, I would have assumed he was playing the game using a standard Xbox One controller.
In my session, I also learnt that Xbox has a feature called ‘co-pilot’ which essentially connects two controllers together. This means that a player is able to get some help with a game from another person using another controller, without having their own controller removed from their hands. I absolutely love this facility as it gives those who may struggle with a controller, even the Adaptive Controller, to be able to get some help without feeling like they are lacking in any way.
It also means parents and children are now able to play together, pro-gamers can lend ‘noobs’ a hand and more. I was blown away, especially because this means that Tom, my partner, can now help me through difficult challenges in game without frustrating me by removing my controller from my fingertips.
After all the insight and demos I’ve had, I can confidently say that I’m a big fan of what Microsoft and Xbox are doing for gaming inclusivity, diversity and accessibility. The Xbox Adaptive Controller is a fantastic initiative to pave the way forward, and the best part? Xbox is making it open for other gaming companies to utilise as well, meaning Sony could use Xbox’s design to make it’s own Adaptive Controller. How amazing is that?