Xbox's Adaptive Controller aims to bring gaming to community of disabled players
Microsoft collaborated with accessibility and wounded-veterans groups to design device
Originally published Sept. 3, 2018
Mark Barlet vividly remembers an evening in 2004 when his friend Stephanie Walker was unable to join in on their regular online games of EverQuest II.
"She was crying because that night, her mousing hand decided it wasn't going to work," he told CBC Radio's Day 6.
"Multiple sclerosis kind of said, 'Not today.' And she was crying because she saw video games kind of slipping away from her."
Now that there's a growing number of hardware and software designers making games and devices with accessibility in mind, playing modern video games won't be a daunting — often impossible — task for people with a serious physical disability.
The standard controller used on an Xbox or PlayStation console sports over a dozen input devices, including buttons, analog sticks or even a touchpad or gyroscope. PC games, meanwhile, demand skilled dexterity with a mouse and keyboard.
Barlet — himself a disabled U.S. veteran — searched for any solutions that would allow someone with MS to play games but found none.
So he and Walker co-founded The AbleGamers Foundation soon after that emotional evening. It's a charity and advocacy group dedicated to making games accessible for people with disabilities.
Watch a preview of the Xbox Adaptive Controller in action. You can listen to CBC Radio producer Luke Williams's documentary, which looks into the history of accessible gaming by clicking on the Listen button above.
Now, after years of grassroots and do-it-yourself projects led by groups like AbleGamers, Microsoft Corp. is set to release a new controller for those who might find it impossible to play games with conventional hardware. It's the first major (first-party) company to make something like this.
The Adaptive Controller (out today for $129.99), has been built specifically to allow people with a wide variety of disabilities to play modern video games.
Even the packaging includes several hooks and seams that allow someone to open it with one finger — or their teeth.
Gaming for everyone
At first glance, the Adaptive Controller looks more like a turntable than a traditional gamepad. It's a flat board with two large, pressure-sensitive pads that act like regular buttons, but can be activated with much lighter pressure.
On the rear are 19 3.5-millimetre ports, corresponding to every button or joystick input available on a controller. Users can plug in a variety of third-party devices, from simple buttons and foot pedals to something more elaborate like the QuadStick, a mouth-operated controller meant to allow precision gaming for quadriplegics.
It's been amazing for the community to have a device being designed around their needs.- Solomon Romney, a retail learning specialist for Microsoft
Tiny grooves near each port make it easier for someone with motor problems to slide the jack into the plug. You can save multiple control profiles to let you easily play games that require different control schemes.
It's a flagship product of Microsoft's Gaming for Everyone campaign to promote gaming — typically a hobby seen as predominantly for young males — as more welcoming to people of various ethnic backgrounds, genders, body types and sexual orientations.
Microsoft developed the Adaptive Controller in collaboration with AbleGamers and other accessibility groups, including the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and Warfighter Engaged.
"There is no part of this device that didn't have influence from the community," said Solomon Romney, a retail learning specialist for Microsoft.
"It's been amazing for the community to have a device being designed around their needs. And it's been amazing for Microsoft because it's shown us things that we never would have thought of.… And the result has been, I think, a much better device than either of us would have gotten by ourselves."
'For as broad an audience as possible'
Console and hardware makers aren't the only ones thinking about accessibility in the gaming scene. The past few years have seen an increase in features like colour-blind modes and larger or adjustable subtitles in the interest of readability.
Toronto game designer Jason Canam, however, wanted to go beyond that.
"I wanted to make games that would be for as broad an audience as possible — not from a taste standpoint, but just from, I don't want anyone to be left out because they can't enjoy the game," he said.
His latest game, a brawler called Way of the Passive Fist, allows players to add multiple colour-blind friendly filters to the screen, reconfigure their controls to let them play the game one-handed and adjust a granular array of difficulty options.
Reducing the number of enemies, for example, makes it easier to play if they're overwhelmed by too many moving objects on the screen. Loosening the timing needed to chain attacks together helps players with lower reaction times hit satisfying combos.
Canam collaborated with Clint Lexa, who plays games on the livestreaming site Twitch under his alter-ego, halfcoordinated. He stressed how important it was to reach out to Lexa, who has hemiparesis (partial paralysis) and plays games one-handed, for input at the outset of the game's development rather than as an afterthought.
"Often, accessibility is brought up very late in production and the responses are often, 'Well, it's too late to change that now' or something of that nature. With Clint's recommendations and guidance, we were able to build a foundation for our systems from the ground up with accessibility in mind," he told video game trade site Gamasutra.
Inclusion or profit motive?
After dominating the console sales market in the early 2000s with the Xbox 360, its successor, the Xbox One, has lagged behind Sony's PlayStation 4 in sales since 2013. It's also fallen behind Nintendo's runaway hit the Switch in terms of general buzz.
Given the historic lack of major games companies' attention to accessibility concerns, skeptics might see the Adaptive Controller as a cynical grasp for headlines rather than a genuine attempt at inclusivity.
Even if the Xbox Adaptive Controller doesn't drive revenue like a new Halo game would, it's a worthwhile investment as part of the company's continuing push for accessibility, and a wonderful thing to do for people who are often written off by big companies as an audience not worth serving.- Brendan Sinclair, North American editor for GamesIndustry.biz
Brendan Sinclair, North American editor for GamesIndustry.biz, doesn't see it that way.
"Even if the Xbox Adaptive Controller doesn't drive revenue like a new Halo game would, it's a worthwhile investment as part of the company's continuing push for accessibility, and a wonderful thing to do for people who are often written off by big companies as an audience not worth serving," he said.
Canam echoes this sentiment, stressing further that Microsoft's entry into the relatively niche market of non-standard input devices is critical to reaching a wider audience that homebrewed and DIY projects simply cannot.
"If we want real change in the industry, it's going to come from the much larger mainstream corporations. They have a wider reach. They have a wider audience. They can really cause the greatest amount of change," he said.
"What's awesome is they're presenting it like it's this professional, polished commercial product. And they're saying, 'Yes, it's worth having this in the world,' which I think sends a message to everyone saying that this is important, and they've made it a focus. So they're really stepping up to be leaders themselves."
Brought to tears
There's no doubt in Barlet's mind, either.
"To see that the industry has moved to where I could potentially go to a Best Buy, of all places, and buy an accessible controller — like, I don't even know what the world looks like. That's pretty amazing," he said.
He recalls the emotional moment in late 2016 when he first laid hands on a prototype of the controller sent to him by Microsoft.
"I stood in my kitchen and I just cried, and I said something very bleep-worthy. Like, I knew it was happening, but I was holding it.… Even with it in my hand, I still couldn't believe that this was real. And that's the power of video games."
Written by Jonathan Ore. This radio documentary was produced by Luke Williams.