Feature Article

All-Digital PS5 And Xbox Series S Pose Unique Accessibility Challenges

Digital consoles can make it more difficult for disabled gamers to sample games and find the ones they can play, says consultant Steve Saylor.

As we move into the new generation, it appears the industry is taking big steps toward creating the eventuality of an all-digital future. Both PlayStation and Xbox are offering lower-priced all-digital consoles--the PS5 Digital Edition for $400 and the Xbox Series S for $300--which may make up an increasing share of their console sales as the generation continues. But a digital future poses a unique challenge for disabled gamers, and one that requires laying the groundwork for solutions now.

The benefit of an all-digital future for Microsoft and Sony is clear. With a discless console, you're locked into their respective ecosystems and the companies get a cut of your purchases. It's entirely conceivable that the shift toward all-digital will be partly organic, but also pushed hard by the platform-holders themselves. The lower price points for each appears aimed at incentivizing digital consoles to spur on this vision of the industry's future.

The issue with all-digital consoles was flagged on Twitter by accessibility advocate and consultant Steve Saylor, aka the Blind Gamer. Saylor works with Can I Play That, an online resource for disabled gamers to find accessibility options in games. Saylor noted that disabled gamers often rely on trading in physical games to act as a stopgap, almost-refund policy if they come to realize a game isn't well-suited to them. The concern is caused by a combination of generally poor pre-release information on accessibility options from publishers and the lack of refund policies on many digital storefronts.

"We don't really get a lot of accessibility info about games beforehand," Saylor told GameSpot. "We get it, maybe, about two weeks before the game comes out, if at all. And sometimes it's just a blog post on a website. It's almost buried in either the news cycle or social media timelines. There's never really any big push for it."

As an example, he cited Cyberpunk 2077. Despite having known about the game for almost eight years, and a promotional campaign that has included trailers, preview events, and regular Night City Wire streams, we know precious little about whether gamers with disabilities will be able to enjoy it.

"We're getting so much information about the game, including [that] you can customize your character's genitalia," Saylor said. "And yet, as far as accessibility info, there literally has only been one tweet [about subtitles]."

That lack of information for most games leaves gamers with disabilities in a bind: take a gamble on purchasing a game without knowing if it will be playable, or wait and be left out of the digital water-cooler conversation that other gamers take for granted. Physical copies allow for somewhat of a compromise, letting disabled players recoup some money if the gamble doesn't pay off.

Digital storefronts on consoles offer no such simplified solution. Saylor said Microsoft is the most lenient, offering a contact form that can be submitted for the company to evaluate providing a refund on a case-by-case basis, but usually only within 14 days of purchase. (He also notes that Xbox Game Pass is a handy solution for disabled gamers, letting them sample a wide variety of games to find the ones that work.) PlayStation's refund policy requires you not to download or stream a game before getting a refund, though Sony can be contacted for special exceptions as well. Nintendo, Saylor said, is the most opaque, offering no digital refunds at all. GameSpot has contacted Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo for comment on their policies but as of press time has not received a response.

But physical purchases are still a less-than-ideal solution, and as the industry leans more toward an all-digital future, navigating the accessibility issue will become even more pressing for gamers with disabilities. To truly tackle the problem going forward, the industry needs to adapt--developers should be both clearer and more consistent in advertising the accessibility information for their games, journalists should regularly pursue trying to find this information when it isn't public, and console storefronts should have broader digital refund policies.

"Obviously, knowing about it allows us to make our proper purchasing decisions," Saylor said. "I think that the easy solution would be to change the refund policy--but not to do it in a way that will single out people with disabilities, because there's always going to be people that are going to take advantage of that. And that, essentially, is a subtle form of discrimination, if you are only given the refunds based on the accessibility standpoint."

Saylor said that accessibility info should be included in the marketing plan from the beginning--not only because it gives disabled gamers plenty of time, but also because it lets them engage with other fans who are excited about the game. He said Ubisoft's recent reintroduction of Immortals: Fenyx Rising (previously Gods & Monsters) was a good example, as the company invited content creators with accessibility needs to participate in a preview demo and give their impressions.

One digital storefront that has attempted to tackle the problem is Steam, which offers digital refunds as long as your total time played is less than a certain amount. That's a good solution, but Saylor said it isn't a magic bullet.

"The caveat to that is that sometimes there are gameplay elements that are a little bit further into the game, past the first few hours, that might become difficult for disabled players to be able to play," Saylor, who consulted on TLOU2, said. "Say for instance, The Last of Us [Part 2], with the Rat King. That was really difficult for some players to play. [Naughty Dog] actually did release a patch later to remove some barriers to be able to complete that section. But we didn't know until, obviously, about 15 hours in.

"So yes, I think having within the first few hours, if you try it and you know you can't play it, yes, a hundred percent, of course, a refund would be great. But in a way, I think also the timeline of within the first 14 days or first 30 days, whichever, would probably be better."

All this said, Saylor recognizes that disability is "more of a spectrum than an on-off switch." Accessibility tools fall under a wide umbrella of those meant to assist with vision impairment, hearing impairment, or limited motor capabilities. The breadth of different types of disabilities means the more information available before launch, the better.

"There are certain things you can talk about that are just, in general, able to benefit in multiple disability types," he said. "And that's great and that's kind of all we want. If you really want to [provide] as much information as possible, then studios can put out basically the entire list of all the settings that are in the game, accessibility or otherwise. At least then, we know beforehand what's available. Because we disabled players, we know what we would need. Sometimes we can be surprised and find that a feature that we didn't think about would benefit. But we know exactly what we're looking for."

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