Giant Bomb News

35 Comments

The Players You Don't Know About

FREEQ is an audio-focused radio drama set in the future, but it was never designed for players who couldn't see. Until they asked.

A single game cannot be for everyone, and any design decision is going to alienate or turn off some set of users. But what happens when your game does the opposite, and attracts a set of users you never anticipated or accounted for? That’s the problem developer Psychic Bunny faced earlier this year with FREEQ, an auditory, interactive adventure about manipulating time and space.

A huge part of FREEQ is determining the location of nodes that can be used to connect people through your future switchboard.

FREEQ was a crowdfunded game before the idea became popular. It was part of Kickstarter’s beta way back in the fall of 2009, when the game raised a hair over its $12,300 asking price. Development on the game was a series of ups and downs, with poor design decisions and unexpected departures of programmers pushing the game further and further back.

“Nobody died! [laughs]” said producer Diana Hughes.

It was just bad luck.

The game was inspired by designer Jesse Vigil’s love of radio dramas, and wanting to take advantage of the peripheral included in every portable device Apple produces: headphones.

“We always intended the game be very largely auditory in nature,” said Vigil. “There was always the hope that you could play it without looking at the screen at all. I had this idea that this was a game that you could play while riding the subway, without necessarily looking down so much that you weren’t being alert to what stop you were on and stuff like that.”

But as time went on, the game’s backers became restless, and eventually Psychic Bunny had to find a way to ship. That happened in April of this year, and the game was warmly received. In FREEQ, players are a futuristic switchboard operator, locating frequencies in the rift, and choosing whether to connect people with one another. You can listen to the conversations, and decide how the story should play out.

After release, Psychic Bunny moved on to other projects. Though FREEQ didn’t become a breakout hit, it never expected that to happen. FREEQ was always meant to be niche, and it seemed to make the players that found it happy. In the weeks and months that followed, however, the developer started receiving comments about the game’s design in emails, reviews on the App Store, and Facebook posts.

There was a common thread to these comments, too. They were low-vision or blind players who had purchased the game, believing that as an audio-focused game, it would be playable for them.

Though there aren’t many visuals in FREEQ, it wasn’t designed to be played without them. The comments were not filled with anger or vitriol, though.

“They said ‘what can we do?’” said Vigli. “Right from the beginning, offering, implicitly, support.”

Though FREEQ was not making enough money to justify additional development, there was a tipping point in the feedback from impaired players that pushed Psychic Bunny to take action.

“We got a critical mass of those, and decided this was a thing that needed doing,” said Vigil. “We knew that the minute I started getting these emails, I was like ‘well, yeah, we planned to do this, but we couldn’t find a way to make it bloody work!’ [laughs] We decided that we would just ask them. We found a group of people, our most vocal critics, and invited them to be in on this beta/exploratory process while we talked out the problems and the proposed solutions that we had.”

Psychic Bunny brought these same players into its inner circle, and asked for feedback. Very quickly, these users mentioned features within iOS that Psychic Bunny hadn’t even considered. For example, iOS has extensive accessibility features, including a system-wide tool called Voice Over. It does exactly what the name implies, reading everything out loud and includes another new set of gestures.

If a game has a drop-down menu, Voice Over will read the options available to the player. The player taps on the screen twice to move onto the next option or swipes to select that option. Given that FREEQ is mechanically simple, mostly asking players to perform simple actions while pretending to manipulate a switchboard of sorts, it was easy for Psychic Bunny to imagine how Voice Over could work.

This proved a revelation, as Apple had made it very simple to add a few hooks and have Voice Over support within an application. Unfortunately, FREEQ was built in Unity, and Unity didn’t support Voice Over. But since Apple had already spent the time figuring out its implementation, all Psychic Bunny had to do was build around the concept of Voice Over, and make it function similarly within FREEQ.

It helped that Psychic Bunny had experience with similar problems, but more importantly, the players who actually requested these features did so in a way that made the studio sympathetic.

“We’ve done a lot of work doing PTSD therapy for returning war fighters and things like that,” said Vigil. “We respond well to advocacy, and a chance to do something for an underserved community is something that, obviously, already appealed [to us]. When they were not only organized but engaged and, honestly, the most courteous and just...gosh darn nice of video game players that I’ve ever encountered in 10 years of doing this. It made it even easier.”

Once the team had implemented the changes with its testers, Psychic Bunny even released an audio-only trailer for FREEQ on Soundcloud.

“We respond well to advocacy, and a chance to do something for an underserved community is something that, obviously, already appealed [to us].

As a designer, Vigil has been trying to keep issues like this in mind for many years. Early in his career, Vigil was paired with a colorblind programmer who would constantly point out problems.

“He would just constantly yell at me,” he said. “‘You stupid moron, I can’t tell the difference between these two assets, what are you doing?’ [laughs]

(Somewhere, Jeff and Vinny are silently nodding in approval.)

Working with these players to improve FREEQ opened the studio’s eyes to how it might make games in the future, and more carefully consider the ramifications of some of its design choices.

“There are a multitude of different design decisions that cut out a group of people that might enjoy the game, except for this one thing,” said Hughes. “What it’s done is that it’s make us think long and hard about ‘does this decision that we’re making do anything that really helps the game? Or doesn’t add anything but definitely would turn off a group of people?”

"There are all kinds of things that games take for granted that maybe we should be designing a little more openly," said Vigil.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
41 Comments
Edited by SgtSphynx

Interesting read, I honestly hadn't even considered that there were game players who had limited or no sight. That's really cool of them to do.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

I''m legally blind and I love that we're seeing efforts by developers to make games more accessible to the visually impaired. Good for these folks, and much thanks from those like me.

Moderator
Posted by Hassun

Those are some pretty lofty aims they have. And an audio first game sounds very interesting, especially in our visually oriented culture. Gaming for the blind... The future sounds bright.

Posted by MikeLemmer

Where does he get those wonderful Scoops?

Posted by Marmaladebrat

Good to hear about a game for more people, including the blind. Just wondering has anyone here ever experienced Kenji Eno's Real Sound:The Wind's Regret?

Edited by Mathey

This is so cool.

Posted by emem

Great.

Posted by Haethos

Big props to the devs, and good job with the coverage :) fascinating read.

Posted by pizzasheets

are these "[gamer culture thing] you DON'T KNOW ABOUT" headlines a joke or something

Posted by Familyguy1

Woah. Interesting read. Honestly never would have really thought about something like this. That game sounds interesting as well.

Edited by fisk0

I remember there was some audio focused sci-fi horror game made by a Swedish studio back in 2003 or so. At least I remember a lot of preview coverage in Swedish media, not sure what happened with it or what the name of it was.

Posted by ultrapeanut

This is incredibly cool, and the game sounds interesting in its own right.

Posted by patrickklepek

@fisk0 said:

I remember there was some audio focused sci-fi horror game made by a Swedish studio back in 2003 or so. At least I remember a lot of preview coverage in Swedish media, not sure what happened with it or what the name of it was.

Please tell me it's in English!

Posted by KenpachiRamaSama

@mikelemmer: He goes straight to the Scoops dimension and kidnaps there queen holding her ransom for only the hottest of scoops.

Edited by fisk0

@patrickklepek said:

@fisk0 said:

I remember there was some audio focused sci-fi horror game made by a Swedish studio back in 2003 or so. At least I remember a lot of preview coverage in Swedish media, not sure what happened with it or what the name of it was.

Please tell me it's in English!

I really can't remember much of it, I'll dig around and see if I can find out what it was.

Edit: Sadly it doesn't seem to be, I think I found it, "Akatallas Hemlighet" (or, "The Secret of Akatella"). It yields the stunning 16 results on Google, with no screenshots whatsoever, just a couple of news articles from 2001, and a brief mention in a master's thesis from 2008 from the Department of Design Sciences at Lund University (in English). There seems to be only one copy of the game at one library in the entire country.

Also seems like it wasn't so much horror as a puzzle game, where you're tasked with restoring the air supply on your space ship that has had an accident while travelling between Earth and one of it's colonies.

Posted by MormonWarrior

One of my greatest (somewhat irrational) fears is losing fingers or a key sense like sight or hearing that would destroy my ability to do music, play games, and enjoy most of the things I do in life.

Cool at least to see that there's stuff that can work for blind folks. Just hope I never need it.

Edited by ichthy

Reminds me of Papa Sangre.

Posted by joshwent

One of my greatest (somewhat irrational) fears is losing fingers or a key sense like sight or hearing that would destroy my ability to do music, play games, and enjoy most of the things I do in life.

Cool at least to see that there's stuff that can work for blind folks. Just hope I never need it.

There are countless examples of people flourishing despite lacking what we'd deem necessary for creating Art. You just gotta make it work...

Edited by Fram

Wonderful story, and the game has a really cool premise too!

Posted by Eldredpe

There's a PC horror game called "Blindside" that I haven't tried yet but came in Groupees Halloween bundle last year and is entirely done with audio, as the protagonist wakes up blind.

You can get it on Desura, and it's apparently on iOS, as well.

Could be really interesting.

Edited by parentalcon

Great read! I am always for developers going the extra mile to be more inclusive. The game sounds and looks very intresting as well - I think I'll give it a try sometime. Thanks for the work, Patrick!

Posted by Nentisys

This is really cool!

Edited by Brackynews

Another such game is Ear Monsters, made by a studio founded by the man who designed the Xbox 360's audio system, and the original Xbox's startup sound. (He also did the music for a little arcade gem called NARC.) Might be another good interview for you Scoops. ;)

Anyway I might not ever get around to playing Ear Monsters, but I bought it to support studios who support gaming with disabilities. Seeing the "best with headphones" notice on a game with audio mechanics like this definitely doesn't come off as redundant. :) Wouldn't mind getting this too.

Edited by cooljammer00

Our own Vinny Caravella has done work on a game to help design assets that can be seen by colorblind people. I forgot what it was called though, but it's on his profile page.

There's another audio based game coming out soon, and it's got the guy who played John Marston in it.

Edited by EricSmith

Really liked this! Can I recommend against pull quotes, though? It really destroys the flow of an article, and it isn't necessary since I'm not reading a magazine or newspaper. My attention was gained when I clicked on the story.

Posted by Paindamnation

I''m legally blind and I love that we're seeing efforts by developers to make games more accessible to the visually impaired. Good for these folks, and much thanks from those like me.

I'm legally blind but I wear glasses, do I not count? :(

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@paindamnation: I'm not sure what you mean here. I'm in the same boat - I see, but poorly. Why wouldn't you count?

Moderator
Edited by Raydanger

There was also an audio only game that came out on Xbox live Indie Games within the first 2 years called "In The Pit". In it, you play a monster in a pit that cant see since the pit is always pitch black, and people get thrown in, and you track them down using the sounds in the game; like their splashing of the ankle deep water or their heartbeat. Even when you hit pause, there were no on screen prompts, as the game just read out the options. It was super cool.

Posted by ColinWright

This is pretty darn rad. I have a little cousin who is legally blind and the DS XL was a saving grace. Obviously not in the same boat as those who are fully blind, but its still cool to see all these (maybe) accidental accessibility design implementations in games.

Edited by MarkWahlberg

This game sounds cool on its own, and them going the extra mile like this is pretty great.

Edited by bybeach

' Red skies at Night'

I'm impressed with the whole thing. And what a breath of fresh air from the usual, to be both doing this and even reporting this.

I have to admit though, there were 2 or 3 images I thought well done in the trailer(not the game I know).

Edited by Brisaac

To @patrickklepek and everyone else that finds this awesome, check out AbleGamers! It's a non-profit charity that helps developers make games more accessible, helps gamers with disabilities know if a game works for them, and overall just works to help more people play more games!

Posted by Sarge__Gunnerz

This is so classy and hopefully changes the perspective of at least some of the other smaller developers.

Posted by IanHamilton

@fisk0 said:

@patrickklepek said:

@fisk0 said:

I remember there was some audio focused sci-fi horror game made by a Swedish studio back in 2003 or so. At least I remember a lot of preview coverage in Swedish media, not sure what happened with it or what the name of it was.

Please tell me it's in English!

I really can't remember much of it, I'll dig around and see if I can find out what it was.

Edit: Sadly it doesn't seem to be, I think I found it, "Akatallas Hemlighet" (or, "The Secret of Akatella"). It yields the stunning 16 results on Google, with no screenshots whatsoever, just a couple of news articles from 2001, and a brief mention in a master's thesis from 2008 from the Department of Design Sciences at Lund University (in English). There seems to be only one copy of the game at one library in the entire country.

Also seems like it wasn't so much horror as a puzzle game, where you're tasked with restoring the air supply on your space ship that has had an accident while travelling between Earth and one of it's colonies.

Interesting thread. Both of those game concepts that you're describing have come out in more recent years, and excecuted astoundingly well,using binaural simulation to create accurate 3D surround sound just through standard stereo headphones.

The games are by a small English indie called Somethin' Else. The first game is called Papa Sangre, and is a survival horror game set underground in a temple. The second is Nightjar, same basic principle but set on a spaceship on which the electricity has gone, so again playing in the dark. Because Papa Sangre was such a huge success (bviously it would be, as a survival horror game with no visuals is a great idea), they had more money this time, and could afford tohire benedict cumberbatch to do all of the voiceover work.

Papa Sangre 2 has just come out, this time they hired Sean Bean to do all the voiceover work. Theyhave also just released their game engine to the public, a licencable version for commercial games, and a basic free version for students etc, with a 10 min gameplay limit. Worth checking out - called 'papa engine'.

Posted by PaulieLag92

Not only a cool story, but the trailer for the game looked pretty sweet too.