We’ve all been there – a curious older relative or someone who doesn’t have much experience with video games is keen to “have a go” on the latest game you’ve been banging on about, until you hand over the controller and the wave of confusion hits them. You might have well have passed them an alien artifact.
The control pad is a simple tool of the trade for most gamers, but for the uninitiated, the interface can be daunting to say the least. A standard Xbox controller has 17 different buttons, two analogue control sticks and a d-pad. A bit of a step up for those who might be more familiar with the one or two button arcade games of the 80s.
Now, imagine that same controller in the hand(s) of someone who may not have the same level of mobility or dexterity as you and I. Disabled gamers often struggle to hold a standard controller, let alone use it for the kind of rapid responses required for fast-paced modern titles.
This fundamental tool used to interact with games – something that most of us can literally use with our eyes closed – can be an insurmountable hurdle to those who would love to join the fun, but simply don’t have the means to do so.
It’s somewhat surprising that it’s taken this long for one of the major players to seriously address the issue of accessibility, but with the adaptive controller, Xbox believes it has finally come up with a solution that will put disabled gamers on a level playing field with everybody else.
At E3 in Los Angeles, I sat down with Microsoft’s accessibility manager Evelyn Thomas and learning specialist Solomon Romney for a closer look at the adaptive controller – a passion project which has been in development for some time.
“This controller is the result of several years of research, design and innovation,” Thomas said.
“It actually 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, Microsoft CEO] actually refers to Oneweek as the one week of the year that inspires the other 51,” she said.
“We realised that there were non-profits and charities who work with wounded vets and they were creating these one-off, custom bespoke solutions for a very small selection of gamers who they could help. They were building custom gaming rigs for soldiers that had come back from active duty and suffered traumatic injuries.
“These rigs were expensive, they were fragile, they required someone with electrical and mechanical engineering expertise – so 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.
But while the concept itself was relatively simple and straightforward, the process of putting it into practice to create a viable, mass market product was anything but.
“It certainly wasn’t easy,” Thomas said. “It was a serious learning experience. We know how to build this thing [holding 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.”
So Microsoft’s teams of designers took things right back to the drawing board with a simple design brief: Create something that would allow as many gamers as possible to access everything on the Xbox and Windows platforms.
“We really took the principal of accessible design to heart. We recognised exclusion, we learned from that diversity and built something for a single-use case that we knew would be extendable to many,” Thomas said.
“But when we got this thing off the production line and brought into our labs to do functional testing on it, it immediately broke. The buttons just shattered – people were punching right through the boards – so we realised we needed to go from a know-it-all culture to a learn-it-all culture”.
For Romney, who was born without fingers on his left hand, the adaptive controller is a project he has been particularly passionate about.
“In the disability community, we have a saying – ‘nothing about us, without us’,” he said.
“So we took that on board when we were designing this product. We went out and we partnered with groups like Warfighters Engaged, AbleGamers and the Craig Hospital in Denver, which specialises in spinal cord injuries. We went to occupational therapists and people who have breaking [controllers] apart for years and asked them to help us make this work. We put it in the hands, feet, elbows, whatever – of people it was designed for.
“We asked questions, we tested, we collaborated with these groups in a way that I don’t think we’ve ever done before on product design. And all that ultimately led us to this – something that will be usable by as many people as possible. Because gaming should be for everyone,” Romney said.
The end result is a fully customisable control board with oversized buttons and pressure-sensitive pads, which can be activated using hands, feet, elbows or any other body part. Crucially, every single button can be re-mapped using the accessories app. Each configuration can then be saved individually, so a layout designed to work with Halo can be instantly switched to a completely different set-up for a driving game or sports sim.
Romney gave us a live demonstration of the adaptive controller in action. First of all taking a supercar for a spin in a lap of what he called “three-finger Forza”, using a special nunchuck peripheral to accelerate, steer and move up the pack in race on Forza Motorsport 7.
There was zero noticeable loss of control or interactivity – even meandering overtaking moves and hairpin turns were negotiated just as smoothly as you’d expect from somebody using a standard Xbox pad.
“As strange as it sounds, for us, it’s not about the controller, it’s about the player,” Romney said.
“Ultimately our goal is to remove all thought about the controller from the equation so you can just forget about it and play.”
Although the adaptive controller has the potential to open up the world of gaming to thousands of people who would otherwise miss out, in business terms, it’s a relatively risky prospect. At an RRP of US$99, it’s debatable whether Microsoft will sell enough of these units to break even, let alone make it a major money-spinner for its gaming division.
However, it’s clear that this project is about more than just bottom line profits for Microsoft. As head of Xbox Phil Spencer puts it, “We’re coming up on two billion people playing video games on this planet. As an industry, when you start to hit that kind of impact act in terms of the broad base of people that interact with your art form, I do think we have a social responsibility”.
Lee Henaghan travelled to E3 courtesy of Xbox