Solomon Stone Romney was an avid gamer as a kid. Though born with a left hand that wasn’t fully formed, he played games at both the arcade and at home as he grew up and considered himself a skillful player. Then one day he found himself unable to beat the final boss of a game he’d invested days playing. He knew what he had to do to win the battle, but with his missing fingers he simply wasn’t able to manipulate the controls in the way the game demanded, despite hours of trying.
“Game technology had outpaced my ability to adapt myself to the controller,” said Romney, a retail learning specialist with Microsoft. “I was physically unable to complete the game.”
He gave up on the boss, boxed up his console and traded it in. It didn’t seem right or fair that though he was a passionate and practiced player he wasn’t able to use the game’s arbitrarily designed controls to do what he needed to do within a virtual, man-made environment.
Solomon is not alone in his frustration. In the U.S. alone, 26,000 people experience loss of upper extremities every year, with an additional 8 million suffering some form of temporary impairment. Some disabled players have tried to work out their own ways to play by, say, holding one controller under their chin and another in one hand, getting someone to do some of the control work for them, or cobbling together various inputs and switches to create something that works for their unique situation. Rather than using a peripheral adapted to their bodies, as most players do, they need to adapt themselves to what’s available.
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However, Microsoft is about to become the first console manufacturer to offer a control solution that specifically caters to this large and growing segment of the population. Announced Wednesday, the Xbox Adaptive Controller – which will launch later this year with a Canadian price tag of $129.99 – was designed with plenty of input from people like Romney, as well as non-profit organizations such as Warfighter Engaged and SpecialEffect, which are dedicated to helping disabled players find ways to indulge their hobby.
“This is part of our long term approach to accessibility in gaming,” said Bryce Johnson, Microsoft’s inclusive lead in product research and accessibility, who’s in charge of ensuring all Microsoft devices are designed for inclusiveness. “We worked with the community to ensure we were building the right product. It’s now part of the ecosystem of our family of devices.”
The Xbox Adaptive Controller is a white rectangular box that acts as a hub for the switches, buttons, controllers, and pedals that disabled gamers tend to favour over traditional controllers. It has a couple of programmable saucer-sized buttons assigned by default to the A- and B-buttons of a traditional controller, along with a large d-pad. But the rest of the controls found on a standard Xbox controller are given over to a row of 3.5mm jacks at the back – one for each individual controller input, from triggers to menu buttons. This allows disabled players to map specific controls to a device of their choosing, facilitating literally thousands of device combinations so that they can easily create an interface that lets them play games the way they were meant to be played, with no physical disadvantage.
For example, I watched as Romney connected a Wii-style nunchuk controller with one thumbstick to one of the control stick jacks and a pair of pedals to the trigger ports. Then he hopped into the racing game Forza Horizon 3 and began playing one-handed just as well as anyone I’d seen using a traditional controller.
What’s more, the Xbox Adaptive Controller is designed for true plug-and-play efficiency. Players can reorganize their switches, pedals, buttons, and other inputs however and whenever they like simply by unplugging from one port and plugging into another, without even stopping to pause their game. They can also create multiple control profiles so that they can seamlessly switch activities within a game – like, say, going from running and exploring the world to stopping to fish at a lake – without needing to reorganize their peripherals. This ease of use is handy not just for disabled gamers, but also for the people who care for them, who might not be players themselves.
Evelyn Thomas, the accessibility program manager for Xbox, and one of the controller’s masterminds, said that the multi-year design and manufacture of the Xbox Adaptive Controller forced her and her team – who were confident of their understanding of interface design thanks to 15 years spent working on Microsoft’s acclaimed Xbox controller – to “move from a know-it-all mindset to a learn-it-all mindset” as they figured out how to design a device that caters to gaming’s outliers.
For example, the big A- and B-buttons on their first manufactured prototype couldn’t survive forceful interactions with feet or elbows, so they re-engineered their mechanics to improve durability and responsiveness. And the 3.5mm jacks – a standard used because it’s compatible with the vast array of discrete switches and inputs many disabled gamers already own – have been given little troughs directly above each port to help guide wired plugs held by less nimble fingers into their respective holes. Plus, a series of screw holes on the back make it easy to attach the controller to a variety of mounts and stands to ensure comfort for players using it for extended periods.
Romney, however, seems less interested in the details of the hardware and more interested in what it allows him and other disabled players to do, which is get back in the game.
“It’s not about the controller,” he said. “It’s about the player, the people. It eliminates the barrier between the gamer and game.”