Disclosure: This is an article written and released by Ubisoft, and sent to GameCritics via Ubisoft PR. While we don’t usually run PR releases, given its focus on accessibility and our lifelong dedication to same, we’re happy to share this information. The article can be seen in its original format here.
Anno 1800 is coming to Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5 on March 16, enabling console players to build bustling cities, establish complex trade routes, expand their empire, and negotiate with opponents diplomatically, commercially, or militarily. Anno 1800 Console Edition includes enhanced graphics and redesigned UI and controls to better suit console and controller play. While working on the redesign, the Anno design team was able to implement many new accessibility features, some of which are only necessary on the Console Edition and some of which will be included in the PC version as well.
To learn more about the accessible design considerations needed when bringing a PC game to consoles, we spoke to Nicolas Magnier, senior game designer at Ubisoft Mainz.
Anno 1800 launched on PC nearly four years ago. Ubisoft’s accessibility teams and efforts have grown a lot since then; where do you go, accessibility-wise, when you already have a complete game to start with?
Nicolas Magnier: Since the launch of Anno 1800 in 2019, the development team kept working on the game, not just on additional content, but also by improving the game and adding a lot of quality-of-life features. For example, we added the ability to play the game at half-speed, which is great if you want to take things a bit more slowly. So, when we started to work on the console version, we immediately benefited from all these improvements.
For the console version, we also had to rethink a lot of the controls and UI, which was a great opportunity to include accessibility in our redesign. For example, since we had to support controllers, we automatically included all the expected accessibility options for the player, like changing the deadzones, axis inversion, vibration intensity, etc.
Are there standard accessibility practices that Ubisoft abides by in 2023 that weren’t in place yet in 2019?
NM: As of 2021, all new Ubisoft games are required to include accessibility goals in their production plans, to ensure the team has the expertise, tools, tech, and resources to deliver on their ambitions. How to achieve this is left to the development teams, as effort and complexity vary greatly from game to game. Each title should strive to be as accessible as possible within its genre and platform(s) it runs on.
What sort of new considerations, challenges, and opportunities does putting the game on console have from an accessibility standpoint?
NM: Bringing a game like Anno 1800 to console is such a challenging task, because the series was so focused on the PC experience. The game was made to be played at a desk with mouse and keyboard, and now the game had to be adapted to be played on a couch, a few meters from the TV, with a controller. Such a change is directly related to accessibility topics like game controls or readability of the UI, so it was both a challenge and an opportunity to design with accessibility in mind.
One of our biggest challenges was adapting the UI to be readable from couch distance. We have a lot of information to show to the player, so increasing the text and icon size was quite a battle. The team had to rework all the screens in the game, sometimes in significant ways. Of course, this is not just about the size of elements; the team also worked a lot to make each element clearer by tweaking the contrast or the layout.
Another challenge we continually had during production was finding how to trigger some actions – how to give commands to ships, open screens, etc. You can do so much in the game that we had the common issue of running out of buttons on the controller. We also had some actions that are valued differently depending on the player; some people use the map a lot, while others prefer to jump from island to island. There are also players who may have more difficulties using certain buttons, like the analog triggers or pressing the analog sticks. This is why we let players configure the mapping of the main actions in the game and even swap buttons and sticks.
Very early on, we also realized that navigating lists would be slow and tiring, so we ended up using a lot of radial menus instead which improved the menu navigation a lot. However, discussing with the accessibility team, we realized that it would be difficult to use for some players. They had some great ideas, like keeping the selection when the stick is back to the neutral position, and having an option to limit the number of entries in a radial menu. For that last one, the UI team already had made some radial menus dynamic to prototype how many entries would be comfortable, so we simply had to expose this parameter in the options. We would not have made that option available if we hadn’t talked to the accessibility team, so it was good to go over these topics with them.
We often talk about designing accessibility into games from the ground up. Obviously, Anno 1800 already existed, but were there certain foundational aspects to the game that needed to meet certain accessibility criteria?
NM: One critical feature we worked on early with accessibility in mind is the cursor. Unlike with a mouse where you can be very precise, we had to find a way to interact with your world with a large margin of error, so we made the cursor quite wide to increase its visibility, and to let you select an element even if you are not quite on it.
We also iterated on this throughout production, especially how the player controls the cursor’s speed. In the end, the player has a lot of controls not just during gameplay, but also in the options. We really wanted the cursor to feel good for as many players as possible. That was very important.
Are there any accessibility features being implemented to the console version that might also be included in the PC version?
NM: A lot of the accessibility work we did on the game was mainly focused on the gamepad controls and the new UI that was created for console, so most of it cannot be applied to the PC version, unfortunately. However, there were still some interesting changes we made on consoles that made sense on PC. For example, in the minimap on the console version, each island is colored based on its owner. It is helpful to improve the readability of the minimap from couch distance. We realized this change would be also useful for some PC players, so we added this as an option for them. We also changed how some menus are organized to reduce the number of entries in categories, and it also benefited the PC version, since menu categories were not as crowded and overwhelming.
A game like Anno relies heavily on UI elements. Bringing the game to console necessitates a complete rework of those UI elements. How does that affect accessibility? Are you allowed to add more features and options since the entire thing needs to change anyway?
NM: Yes, that was a fantastic opportunity to rethink some screens and be able to experiment. For example, we have a menu where the player can manage all their trade routes, and it can be quite involved. To set up a trade route, you need to define which island should be served, assign one or multiple ships, define what goods to load and unload at each stop, etc.
On console, we broke down the setup as a step-by-step process, with some more checks and guidance. Our goal was to make this process easier to understand, and our playtest showed that we improved a lot on making the whole menu less cognitively taxing.
ACCESSIBILITY FEATURES LIST
- Action Remapping and Input Swap: Player can map actions to specific buttons during gameplay. We also enabled digital button and stick swap.
- Axis inversion: Horizontal and vertical axis can be inverted for all possible contexts (Menu Navigation, Cursor, Photo Mode, etc.)
- Camera Speed: Many options to configure the speed of the camera in different context which let the player balance precision and speed.
- Deadzones: Player can change the inner and outer deadzone for each stick, which is good to tweak the stick sensitivity and to adapt to the wear of the controller.
- Drag Controls: Players can change how the drag system works when building elements like streets. Either with two taps (one to define the starting position and the second the end) or by holding a button.
- Hold/Toggle actions: Players can change individual actions that require holding a button to be done with two taps instead (first tap to start the action, second one to end)
- Radial Menu: Players can change the maximum number of entries in a radial menu. We also have an option so that the player does not have to keep pushing the stick to select an entry.
- Trigger sensitivity: Players can set when an analog trigger is considered pressed.
- Vibration Intensity: There is a slider to tweak the strength of the haptic feedback. Player can boost it, reduce it, or turn it off completely.
- Wide cursor selection area: Reduced the precision required to select objects.
- Large UI: UI reworked to improve legibility.
- Minimap region colors: Regions colored based on owner for improved readability.
- Text: Player can disable all italic text formatting and change all text to be sans-serif to improve readability.
- Subtitles: In addition to being able to switch subtitles on or off, the player can also increase the font size and change the opacity of the background to make them easier to read.
- Sound: Players can adjust the overall sound level, or make individual adjustments to the menu, music, voice, and sound effects.
- Control Scheme in the pause menu: At any point in the game, the player can pause and check the main control scheme.
- Custom game: When creating a new game, the player can fully customize the game to fine-tune the experience and difficulty to their liking (guidance level, if they want to play against rivals, quest frequency, severity of fires, etc.).
- Game Speed: Players can change the speed of the game at any point in the game, and even play at half the standard speed.
- Notifications: Players can disable categories of notifications to manage the level of interruption and not feel overwhelmed.
- Reduced cognitive load of menus: Menus are broken down into clearer steps with additional guidance.
Anno 1800 Console Edition is out March 16, for more information about accessibility in Ubisoft games, be sure to visit our Accessibility hub.
- So Videogames Ep. 329: Just So You Don’t Know - March 24, 2023
- Dredge Review - March 23, 2023
- So Videogames Ep. 328: What About Marlene? - March 17, 2023