Hello Darren. A nice meaty post for a saturday morning. It raises two very crutial issues for games accessible to blind people and the developers of said games. I'll offer my perspective on both of them.

Let's start off with advertising and awareness. To be blunt, it has proved extremely hard to get the word out. I tried all the time while I was editor of Audyssey and I have no doubt Ron has as well. Even when I took opportunities to approach people who you'd think would be predisposed to be receptive, I met largely with a blank wall. On one occasion, I approached the SCORE computer camp run by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. This was in 1998 when I was a junior staff member that Summer. They had all the facilities one could wish for including numerous computers. There were certainly some nifty games out there. However, they weren't the least bit interested in letting the teens have a crack at them. They would rather keep recreation completely separate. The only place I had any success at all was at the grass roots level. I participated in a couple of youth days demonstrating games after showing some to a few living skills instructors. I'd love to show my current o&M instructor a few of the games including Tom's beta of MOTA. However, those people are so over-worked that there's just no time. Even when I announced my computer guide to them, nobody even answered me. I still have some hope of getting it published through their library as a Daisy book for people. However, I haven't heard back from the person who finally did pay some attention to it in a couple of months now. These organisations for the blind can be very slow to act even when you dangle a free carrot in front of them. Despite a lot of the management doubtless having experienced the value of computer games first-hand, there's no drive even to spread awareness of their existance let alone sponsore their development.

Developers have also been trying over the years. I know Dave Greenwood and Phil Vlasak have made extensive efforts and gone to great lengths. Don't think nobody has put any effort into this side of things. We have a week in Canada called White Cane Week. I've made repeated attempts to get the mainstream press interested on the grounds of human interest stories about accessible games for blind people. So far, I've had no luck with that approach at all. Perhaps, others have had more success. I know Che Martin was on an NPR program once. I've been on Wired along with some of the accessible game developers as well as in Time Magazine's technology section. Those moments in the sun are very few and far between though.

Also, where are most of us going to find the money for widespread advertising? That in itself is a tremendous barrier. I've begun work on a game which is likely to take me around five years to complete. As part of that, I found and purchased a sound effects library as well as royalty-free music. All totaled, I've spent around $800 over the years. To recover that investment, at a price of $30 per game, I need to sell something like 30 coppies. Price games much higher than that as Bavisoft's Grizzly Gultch demonstrated and you're going to have a lot of piracy going on. This is especially the case if you don't invest in security. When it comes to that, I'm going to follow Malinche's lead and rely on the loyalty and honesty of my customers rather than deal with security head-aches. Now I have very little doubt that if I manage to finish the game, at least thirty people are going to buy it. I like to think I've earned at least that much trust and good will over the years. However, there'll be continuing costs associated with keeping the game available for sale. Even if I just sell it as a downloadable file, there's bandwidth to pay for. A lot of these developers have families as well. Do you invest in advertising a game you've developed as a hobby or do you put that spare cash in savings or towards your kids? Game publishing companies can pay in advance for game development since they have some idea of selling at least a minimum number of copies once the game's published. None of them will invest in accessible games or even in adding accessibility to existing games since they just won't see a return on that investment of any consequence. I remember an article a ways back where an estimate of something like two or three thousand audio games were sold in a given year if you combined the sales of all accessible game developers. I don't think you'd even be able to interest a publisher of casual games like Popcap Games in that kind of low prediction. Look at it another way. Even if I produced a stupendously good game which sold a thousand copies, I'd barely make what an average sighted programmer would consider to be a living. The economics of producing games are very tight. Even a majorly successful developer like Dave Greenwood can't make producing games accessible to blind people a fulltime job. All inPlay, with its games designed to attract both blind and sighted people, has done far better than I ever would have expected but things have been very tight for them over the years too. I'd be surprised if most of them didn't have other fulltime jobs as well. There just isn't a lot of money to invest in advertising.

Even if there were, let's face the facts here. To make any kind of "real money" while keeping your game affordable, you need to bring sighted people into the equasion. While they might find the idea of a sound-based game a novelty worth paying for, that interest just doesn't seem to last very long. I've found it pretty nearly impossible to interest sighted people in playing an audio game for very long at all. They simply need things to look at. My fiance Janene certainly found trying Pong to be a fun activity for about fifteen minutes. However, she just gets board if there are no pictures. I have a whole lot of excellent audio dramas which I'd love to share with her. However, except when she's either preoccupied with something else or the stars and planets are perfectly aligned, she just doesn't have any interest at the moment. She has two perfectly good ears and all one has to do is sit and listen. How much more difficult is it then to attract them to a game they have to learn how to play and can't see? It's a very tough sell. As a blind developer, I would have major reservations about getting somebody to create graphics for my game. Good graphics cost even more money and I'd never know precisely what I had bought other than through hearing what other sighted people said about them. Would the world I create be well represented or would the graphics alter what people took away from the game for the worse? As somebody who has never seen before in his life, I'd never know.

This whole thing about cloning games raises a couple of things. Clearly, Darren, you've had sight before at least enough to experience some of the videogames of the past couple of decades. I myself have only been able to hear about these creations and enjoy them vicariously through others. By your logic, we shouldn't have any adapted Chess sets or Scrabble with Braille on the board or pieces. There shouldn't ever have been a Braille Monopoly set. That kind of thinking never fails to irritate me. I would very much like to have these experiences which have been such a large part of life in the sighted world. Maybe, I can't have exactly the same experience but I'd like to have as close to it as possible via sound. Games like Mario Brothers, Asteroids, and Gauntlet are experiences which I would cheerfully pay even forty or fifty dollars to own if somebody would make them accessible for me. They're the games my sighted peers were playing for countless hours. They had a kind of pure arcade fun that I very much appreciate the idea of. I also have thoroughly enjoyed the efforts of people like James North, Josh Delioncourt, and others who have made that experience possible. Just because a game is old doesn't mean it isn't worth playing anymore. I'd love to pay the original companies to produce accessible versions of games but it just isn't worth their time. Therefore, the only way I'll ever be able to fully appreciate what it's like to play Gauntlet or a good sidescroller is if somebody else makes it. What's old hat to you is rich unfulfilled experience for me.

There are certainly ways of providing the same sort of experience while still being legal about it. Do a search on Google for Asteroids clones and you'll find a ton of them for sighted people. The same goes for Space Invaders, Pac Man and many other classic titles. All of them have sufficient differences from the original games so that their owners don't get sued. I believe we have a number of examples of people who have approached this whole dilemma quite well. Dave Greenwood's Shades of Doom is a good case in point. It isn't a clone of Doom made accessible. It's a game somewhat like Doom made accessible. James North's Dynaman is another good case. He made an experience somewhat like Pac-man but with many differences. Each arena is made of five mazes stacked on top of each other. People have to race to a corner with a charged capacitor to become immune to a spark. They also have to grab bouncing coils to bridge the broken circuits. The fun is the same kind of thing as Pac-Man but the game is original and different enough that I think a lawyer would have a very tough time taking him to court over it. Same goes for Sonic Invaders or Aliens in the Outback.

As to originality, I certainly want to see that from developers. However, we're tipically dealing with one person who has to wear a lot of different hats. It isn't very common to find people who are both good at programming as well as good at creative writing. We're fortunate to have some of these people around. I expect very good things from Tom Ward and Che Martin as well as Josh Delioncourt over the years. They have the depth of vision to think of original settings for their games and the programming knowledge to turn their dreams into working fun games. I myself am a writer at heart. I could probably turn the story for my game into a good novel with far less effort. I'm going to use Inform7 to code my game in. That language is designed to produce interactive fiction with and understands basic English sentence-like source code. Despite that, I know I'm going to be taxing myself to the limit trying to explain to the computer what I want from it. I just don't have that sort of mind or inclination. There are probably a lot of people who could program quite well but don't have the creative capacity to conceive of a whole new universe for a sidescroller or space flight simulation. The moment you partner up with somebody though, things become a lot more complicated in terms of the business of selling your game. There's the whole "who's done what amount of work" thing. Add to that the relatively small amount of profit an accessible game will make and you see why developers tend to work alone. I presume Tom Ward is doing his best to avoid as much of the head-aches associated with royalty payments as he can.

To truly change things, you'd need a fully accessible game which had the same success as something like Space Invaders or Trivial Pursuit. Something which was utterly original and released at that magical right time where it grabbed hold of society as a whole. Games like Zork achieved that kind of thing way back when. Asmash hit like that might get people to at least entertain the idea of accessible games more generally. Until such a watershed moment happens, we're essentially stuck where we are. AS people lose their sight due to age-related conditions, that might grow the market for some games. Again though, one has to think about how different approaches required to be fair to blind players would go over for sighted people. Take Aliens in the Outback for instance. The first wave of each new level features a new kind of enemy coming down one at a time. That makes it easier for blind people to encounter a new ship and get used to dealing with it. I myself find those initial waves boring since I'm now familiar with all the ships. Sighted gamers would find that to be excrutiatingly boring even on the first encounter and would perhaps find the third wave onwards in a level to be worth their attention. Developers are still finding out what works and what doesn't in terms of introducing new concepts and abandoning others. We haven't had anywhere near the depth of experience that sighted gamers have.

There's still enough interest in interactive fiction to keep at least one commercial developer afloat. However, there's not enough interest to get anybody to produce an interpreter for interactive fiction games which would make these text adventures easily and universally accessible to blind people. Think about that for a moment. Nobody has come up with a shareware interpreter which would make text adventures fully accessible without a screen-reader. If somebody did that, I'd cheerfully pay twenty to thirty bucks for one. It would have to let me review the text and make it easy to access built-in hints and help. It would also have to support all current Zcode, Tads and other popular game formats. That has proved to be problematic with my screen-reader and the various interpreters available for free today. Yes, folks. I would pay for something I used to be able to do effortlessly in Dos for free. Sad, isn't it? But as technology moves forward, that's the kind of twisted world we live in. Style is far too easily trumping substance. There's certainly a backlash against that out there though as Microsoft has well and truly begun to find out.

Michael Feir
Author of Personal Power:
How Accessible Computers Can Enhance Personal Life For Blind People

A Life of Word and Sound

Creator and former editor of Audyssey Magazine
Check out my blog at:

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