Galactic Colonies – Accessibility Update

Since I announced that it will still be a little longer to get the accessible version of Galactic Colonies out, I thought I could at least keep everyone updated on the progress. 

First things first – no, I don’t have a release date for the accessibility yet. But the game is coming along great, and a lot of things have been done in the last two weeks. I wanted to give you a little update on what I’ve been working on, and share a short video.

Same UI, but different

I’m trying hard to make the accessible version of the game use the exact same UI as the game has when accessibility is turned off. That is not only consistent, but it makes it a lot easier to maintain the game, too.

But this doesn’t always provide the same game experience to sighted and non-sighted players. Sometimes a small change in how the UI works can make the game more enjoyable for players that rely on a screen reader.
Let me give you an example. 

To construct a building on a planet, a sighted player first selects the building from a list in the build menu. Then he can see the price and time it costs at the top of the menu. If he has enough money, he’ll hit the button labeled “Build” at the bottom of the menu to start construction. 

Sounds simple? Now do it blind!

Image doing the same task when you are navigating the construction menu with a screen reader, and traverse all buttons one by one.

Selecting a building is easy enough. But then you’d have to navigate back to the beginning of the page to read the price and the construction time. And this is assuming that you even know that you have to do that in the first place. Then, if you want to build it, you have to get to the very bottom of the page where the build button is, traversing through each and every building button on the way. The information and functionality that is instantly available for a sighted player is hard to get to for non-sighted players.

So instead, when accessibility mode is on, the price and construction time of a building is read out immediately along with the building name. And if the player wants to start construction, he can double tap while the building is selected, and that will automatically start the build process. No need to navigate to the build button at all. In fact, the button won’t even be shown if accessibility mode is turned on.

Side by side comparison of the construction menu in Galactic Colonies.

Left shows sighted mode menu, right shows the accessibility version

The code of the user interface had to be partially rewritten to support this change, but I think in return the construction menu is now really usable. You can see and hear this in action in the video at the end of this post as well.

Selling Stuff

To sell product from a warehouse, sighted player can use sliders. While they drag the sliders to the right to sell more and more of the product, other part of the UI will change to display how much product will remain and how much money will be earned if the player lets go of the slider at that point.

This is not practical for screen readers at all.

We took a lesson we learned from Crafting Kingdom and replaced the sliders with buttons. One button to sell all, one button to sell half, and one button to sell a single unit of the product in the warehouse.

Here’s screenshot of the warehouse menu for sighted and for accessibility mode next to each other.

Side by side comparison of the sell menu in Galactic Colonies.

Left side shows the slider based sighted version, and the right side the accessible version which uses buttons instead

In this instance, the UI had to be replaced by completely different UI which is only active when accessibility more is on. This change required both new code and a new user interface setup, so it took a little longer. 

Got something to show?

After the last post only included an audio demo I’ll include a short video in this one. Please keep in mind that this is still all extremely work in progress and by no means ready for release yet.

Thank you to everyone who’s commented and thank you for all the patience.

Galactic Colonies – Accessibility Sneak Preview

Galactic Colonies is on track to be fully accessible. Soon-ish.
Actually, it’s coming along quite nicely. I made a recording of the first 4 minutes of gameplay. If you’re interested in a sneak preview, here it is:

If your screen reader has issues with the sound cloud player, here’s a direct download link: Galactic Colonies Accessibility Audio Demo

Sounds like it’s almost done, when can I play?

In the demo, things sound a little further along than they actually are. In reality there is still a metric ton of work to be done.

I’m sorry to say, I have no release date for the accessibility patch yet. But it will more than likely be a few more weeks.

Different from all other games I’ve made accessible in the past, this game has a lot of 3D elements. Those are making things tricky, and there is need for many creative solutions.

Sounds a little… vague?

Fair enough. I’m going to describe an actual problem that I’m working on this week. That should demonstrate why it takes a lot of time to make this game accessible.

As part of the game, players have to build colonies on planets. This gameplay happens on the planet’s surface. Players can explore new regions, construct houses, farms and other production buildings and set up a flow of products between buildings. Everything is in 3D of course, and the camera can be moved and zoomed.

Screenshot showing a colony on a jungle planet, more than two dozen buildings, many lakes and part of the ocean

Colonies can get large

The difficulties start with selecting a free region to place your next building on. In the beginning only a handful of regions are explored, but there are a total of 2500 regions on each planets surface. Obviously I don’t expect players to swipe through them one by one, by one by one by one… I need to find a different method for players to navigate their colony.

The planet surface is flat, but it is a hex map, not squares. So a simple up, left, right, down navigation doesn’t cut it either. Each tile has six neighbors around it, not just four.

It is important to know which tiles are next to one another. Farms built next to a lake will produce more food. Houses next to an industrial building will have reduced capacity. Because which colonist wants to live next to a polluting, stinking factory? So the game can’t simply make the decision of where to build next for the player either.

The problems don’t end there. Some buildings need to be connected, so that one building can deliver products to another. You can produce food all day long, but you need a warehouse to store it in. And then you want the food to be distributed to your various houses, so your colonists don’t starve. Buildings that are too far apart cannot be connected. And one warehouse can only supply goods to a maximum of four other buildings.

Colony on an ice planet showing a warehouse receiving food from a farm and distributing it two connected houses

Warehouses are among the most important buildings in this game

Planning out what is delivered where is a core part of the game, so again, the game cannot make these decisions for the player automatically. These connections are set up visually by tapping on the buildings you want to connect. Difficult to do if vision isn’t an option.

But as you can hear in the audio demo, I haven’t been idle these past few weeks, and some parts of the game are already playable.

That was just a glimpse

I’m spending my days trying out a lot of different solutions to all of these problems, and then throwing away anything that doesn’t work.
This, obviously, takes time.

And keep in mind, everything I described above is just one of the mechanics in this game that I have to solve. It isn’t the only one. I haven’t even talked about space travel yet!

We made a good game with Galactic Colonies, and I’m determined to deliver a good experience on the accessibility part, too. I know as well as anyone how frustrating waiting can be, but I’m convinced it will be worth the wait.
Thank you for being so patient!

Stop punishing developers who are trying to make their games accessible

Heads up – I’ve written this post to vent a little bit.

The company I work for has just recently soft-launched a new mobile game called Galactic Colonies (Link). We are committed to making this game accessible for blind players as well eventually. We were actually hoping to have accessibility ready on release day, but we fell a little short of that.

A few weeks delay

To cut a long story short, we ‘re currently working on adding in the missing pieces, but estimate that we need a few more weeks until it is as playable as we want it to be.

an ingame screenshot of the game showing a desert planet surface with many houses, farms, storage and mining buildings.

Screenshot from Galactic Colonies

It is quite a complex game to make accessible. It contains lots of interactions with 3D elements, even including flying a colony ship around on a space map. All of these game mechanics need to be handled with custom new mechanics and love and care, which takes time.

We are completely aware that there are players with vision impairments who are waiting to finally be able to play. But nobody is going to enjoy the game if we release the accessibility mode of the game in a barely working state. A few weeks delay is worth it in our opinion.

Make your game accessible now, or else!

Ever since we started an open beta we’ve been regularly receiving eMails from blind players letting us know just how upset they are with us. Some of these are quite disheartening to me personally, considering I’m working hard on making this game accessible. We’ve also started to receive negative reviews on the store because the game is not yet accessible. In one case, a 1 star rating was accompanied by the comment that the reviewer would change their review only once accessibility is added.

Do a few bad reviews really matter? Yes. Our game just launched and overall review count is still low. So each 1 star review is quite relevant for our overall average score, and can cause some damage. The average rating will recover over time, but right now it’s there.

But really, the effect this has had beyond that is what matters.

Do bad reviews help?

The first comment of our production manager was this: “We should stop making any of our games accessible. That way we avoid these kind of reviews.”
This is probably not the reaction the people giving us bad ratings had hoped for.

The mood inside the company has shifted and taken a sharp turn away from accessibility being seen as something positive. Now it’s a topic that causes eye rolls and sighs of annoyance. Instead of working on accessibility, I now have to fight to justify all over again whether the time spent on accessibility is worth it. Every time the topic comes up, the review is slapped in my face. My job just got a lot harder.

It’s also highly doubtful that those reviewers will actually come back to change their ratings. By the time we’re done, they’ve most likely long forgotten about us. And knowing that is even more frustrating.

I feel punished for even trying

I want to explain how unfair this feels. Those players are most likely not going through every single inaccessible app on the store and giving it a 1 star rating. There are hundreds of thousands of apps that are inaccessible.

In other words, if we wouldn’t even try and just leave our game to be inaccessible, we wouldn’t have gotten those reviews.
Instead, we’re getting attacked exactly because we are trying to do better, trying to make our game accessible. Yes, we aren’t as fast as everybody wants us to be, but is this a reason to try and bring down our game’s rating?

See, leaving a bad review isn’t motivating us – or anybody – to work faster. It’s quite demotivating, to be honest.

Moving things forward

All things considered, the accessibility in Galactic Colonies is making good progress. We do not have a fixed release date yet, but it’s looking good. Most of the user interface is already accessible, and just last week we got space travel in the game working – but many things are still left to be done.

At the end of the day, we are a very small studio, self-funded, and don’t have the capabilities and resources that big studios have. So we’ll always be slower than the big guys.
That being said, thank you all for being so patient and sticking with us!

Unity Accessibility Plugin – Update 18 – WebGL Support

One of the features requested rather often for the Unity Accessibility Plugin is WebGL support. I’m happy to announce that it is almost ready to ship. In this post I’ll explain a bit about the problems WebGL presents – and their solutions.

TL;DR
Check out the UAP WebGL Demo

Woman sitting in front of her PC which displays the WebGL logo. She's looking exhausted, but happy.

Yes, the Unity Accessibility Plugin will have WebGL support!

WebGL and screen readers

My latest update to the UAP (v1.0.4) includes experimental support for WebGL. Experimental is my way of saying that the screen reader portion of the plugin works – aka UI navigation and interaction – but there is no speech synthesis. To use the plugin with WebGL, developers would have to write their own or purchase a third party text-to-speech plugin and connect it with the UAP.

This is because browsers do not have speech synthesis themselves. They rely on the user having a screen reader installed on their system instead. This works for text based content, but not for 2D and 3D content rendered in Unity via WebGL. Unity cannot access a user’s screen reader via the browser.

I’m currently working on the v1.0.5 release of the plugin to solve this issue.

All Text-to-Speech isn’t created equal

There are of course high quality speech synthesis plugins available on the asset store, which can be made to work with UAP with just a few lines of code. But I would like for the plugin to be as self-contained as possible and work as much out-of-the-box as I can get it. So I want something I can include with the plugin.

I could possibly get some low quality speech synthesis up and running based on some of the free and open source tech out there. But there’s no point in including a crappy text-to-speech engine with the plugin that produces barely intelligible audio.

Do you want your app to sound like this?

Keep reading – it gets better!

Google Cloud Text-to-Speech

Google offers a cloud based Text-to-Speech system. Cloud-based means that the Unity game would send the text it wants spoken to the Google server and Google sends it back a sound file with the generated speech.

I’m looking for a solution specifically for WebGL, meaning players will already be online. So an internet-based solution is a viable option.

And the quality is great.  Here’s the same sentence from the previous example, generated from Google:

Go ahead and listen to the first one again, to compare…

Latency

I was a little worried about the speed of the system. With this being a cloud based solution, the process is a little slower than a screen reader, which runs directly on the end-user’s system. Not only does the speech have to be synthesized, but it has to be send as an audio file via the internet to the end user.

But after I’ve tested the system both in the Unity Editor and in an actual WebGL app, I found that it’s not bad at all.
If you want to know how good or bad the latency is, here’s a demo:
UAP WebGL Demo

Some assembly required – but not much

The upcoming v1.0.5 release of the UAP plugin will include fully integrated support for the Google Text-to-Speech service. All a developer will have to do is to set their API key in the plugin settings and it will work. I will include a guide with lots of pictures on how to create the API key.

UAP plugin settings showing an input field asking to insert the Google API key.

The API key shown in this picture is bogus, by the way 🙂

Because the service is part of the Google Cloud, it isn’t entirely free and you need a Google account for it. You get a $300/12 months free trial period though, which is pretty awesome.

Here’s the link, if you want to test it out:
https://cloud.google.com/text-to-speech/
No, I’m not getting paid by Google, I just think a direct link is safe and convenient.

Other TTS Plugins

No solution is right for everyone. Developer’s might not want to use the Google Cloud API, or they might already own a different Text-to-Speech plugin.

With the new release, I reworked the way UAP handles Text-to-Speech, to make it very simple to connect to any other TTS plugin that the developer might want to use. Not that it was complicated before, but it’s just gotten a lot easier. I also added step-by-step instructions into the documentation.

Screen Reader Detection

I’ve written before about how important it is to detect whether your users are or (more importantly) are not using a screen reader.
Read the post here: Playing Hide-And-Seek with TalkBack

But it is near impossible to auto-detect whether a screen reader is installed or running on a user’s system when all you have is a WebGL app.

The reason is simple. The app could run in a myriad of different browsers and operating systems, and each system has a range of different screen readers that could or could not be installed. There is simply no way to get that kind of system information, especially not from within a browser.

In other words, on WebGL, UAP cannot detect whether it should turn on/off automatically. The only way to work around this is to pass a parameter to the game, for example via the URL. This is unfortunately still up to the developer.

Unity Accessibility Plugin – Update 16 – Asset Store Sales (Am I Rich Yet?)

The Unity Accessibility Plugin has been on the Asset Store for 10 months now – time to take a look at the numbers.

Sales and Updates

The plugin is performing well for what it is: A small niche product.
On average, about 4 people pick it up each month. Not all of these are paid, since I occasionally give out a free key, and the plugin was on sale at a reduced price for a while.

Dark haired woman holding up two bags full of money with a satisfied smile

Do you really think this is what’s happening?

If you do the math you’ll see that no one is getting rich from it.
Of course that’s not stopping the occasional side remark:
Why isn’t this free!?” (to which I quietly sigh and then move on)

I always had very realistic expectations about sales (remember my post: Is It Worth Doing?). In fact, I had only anticipated about 1 or 2 per month. So by my standards, the plugin is actually outperforming! And the sales I get allow me to spend some time each month on email support and on updating the plugin. Since release, I’ve updated the plugin three times and I’m about to release a fourth update.

This is exactly what I was hoping for and I’m really happy the plugin is doing this well!

Mac Support (and JAWS)

One of the biggest features I’ve added was support for voice out on a Mac. I am not a Mac user and feel uncomfortable using one, so I kept putting it off. It wasn’t until a friend needed it that I finally took a deep breath and jumped in. The code for it turned out to be surprisingly trivial. My friend also helped me test it, which made it a lot easier.

I know that JAWS support is still sorely missing from the plugin, and it’s in the works. But that is a whole other can of worms, for another day.
Here’s the link to my Road Map on Trello if you’re interested in what else is coming:
UAP Road Map


					

Unity Accessibility Plugin – Update 13 – How fast can you make an existing app accessible?

With my plugin now in beta testing stage, I was wondering how long it actually takes to make an existing app accessible using the plugin.

So I did a little experiment.

How long does it take?

For this test, I used a game from our company that had just come out of beta testing and was about to be released. Aside from some final bug fixes, the game was done and just waiting for the localization to finish. Not a single thought had been given to accessibility during development.

Result:
It took me a little less than four days to make it totally accessible.

A forest backdrop with the words 'Crafting Kingdom' written in front. A hammer and a pickaxe hover on either side of the text.

If you want to skip the rest of this blog and just check out the game, you can download it here:
Crafting Kingdom on the iOS App Store
Crafting Kingdom on the Google Play Store

Some Perspective

Maybe you have a game in mind that you’d like to make accessible and wonder how much work it would be.
Allow me to give you some additional context, so that you can put my result into perspective and draw your own conclusions.

The game I used is neither small nor simple, and has a ton of UI. It has a scrolling world map, over a dozen different locations with custom UI screens and dialogs, and almost each of them has a custom help screen. There are tutorial windows and statistics screens. In comparison, the Match 3 game I made had only a main menu screen, the game screen and a pause menu.

A medieval world map. Several locations are highlighted, such as a castle and a city.

This map can scroll in two directions

And while this game has a lot of text, it also makes heavy use of icons instead of text labels. It uses 32 different resource icons, a coin image to indicate a price, an X on cancel buttons, a check mark on confirm buttons, an image of a left arrow to indicate a back button… The list goes on. 

Many games use icons in lieu of text. Using images is prettier, uses less screen space, it makes the app playable by people who can’t read, and it saves money on localization. It is a win-win-win-win for the developer. Really the only drawback is that it makes accessibility a little harder.

One of the game screen showing a production pipeline. Graphics show that a ladder can be crafted from two pieces of timber and two pieces of leather.

A screen full of information, but barely any written text.

But not that much harder. Adding accessibility text to an image is easy enough, it just means it isn’t a one-click deal to add an accessibility component to the UI element and be done. You have to type in a name into the appropriate field of the accessibility component. For the product icons I had to modify the code to write the correct text into the accessibility component dynamically.
However, this particular game is localized in 12 languages, and I didn’t want to break with that. So I had to generate localization keys in our database as well which slowed me down a little.

The optional Extra Mile

I also didn’t just slap on the accessibility components and call it a day. That would have worked, but I knew that with a little effort the playability could be much improved.
For example, when a help text was useless for a blind player in its original form – e.g. “Click on the white house” – I created an alternate version of the text and had that read out instead.

I added in additional sound effects for extra feedback which are played only when accessibility mode is active. When a treasure chest appears somewhere on the map, a jingle sound will play. When the player cannot afford to buy something, he will be informed verbally that he doesn’t have enough money. Similarly, the game will speak up and tell the player when the warehouse has run full. Sighted players are notified of this with an animated, bright red colored text at the top of the screen.

Game screen showing the farm. It has four work stations, which are busy producing grain, meat and wool.

When a product is finished, a sound effect will be played.

Because this game has so many buttons and labels on the screen all the time, I grouped the UI elements by context, to make navigation a little quicker. The plugin supports up and down swipes (instead of the normal left and right swipes) to skip directly between groups. This means blind players can get to where they want faster, instead of having to cycle through every single UI element on screen. In a few dialogs I also set up a custom manual traversal order for the individual elements, because the most important information wasn’t always at the top. For example, the game always displays the name of the location that you are in at the bottom of the screen.

In one screen I actually decided to change the interface a little. I added a new layer of UI which offered buttons where there was a slider for sighted people. In that particular context it was the better choice. An accessible slider wouldn’t have given the same fine control to blind players as it gave to sighted ones in that particular context.

Results

With all that extra work it stands to reason whether I could have been done sooner, had I just done the bare minimum. On the other hand, I know my plugin better than anyone else. The speed advantage I gained from that probably more than made up for the difference.

You know your games best, so you can judge whether my results are applicable to you. In any case, they are a good indicator of the general scope. It doesn’t take months or weeks to make an app accessible. The work is more in the realm of days.

Just to be on the safe side – I am definitely not promising that you can make your game completely accessible within four days using my plugin. So don’t sue me.
(Write to me for help instead!)

How fast you will actually be will probably strongly depend on my ability to write good documentation. That’s what I am currently working on.

Afterthought: Not everybody does accessibility from the start, and that’s OK

As a general rule of thumb, I’d say if accessibility is added in early in development, it will be a smoother ride for everyone.

If you do it from the beginning, you quickly get into the habit of attaching an accessibility component to every UI right when you create it. And you implement any additional feedback for blind players at the same time that you actually implement the features. At no time during development will you be more familiar with the feature’s code. Thus, you are less likely to forget any special cases and can make sure everything runs smoothly in accessibility mode as well.

But in reality accessibility is often added later – possibly only after the game is finished. I really want to avoid saying ‘accessibility as an afterthought’ here in this context, which I stumble on a lot when browsing. It just sounds so negative. That’s unfair to any small game developer who wants to put in the work to make their app accessible. They are trying to do something good and don’t deserve to be berated for not having thought about it sooner.

Also consider this – everybody who adds in accessibility late in their current game might add it in early in their next one.

Unity Accessibility Plugin – Update 12 – Release Date and Anniversary

Roughly a year ago I started work on the Unity Accessibility Plugin. That doesn’t mean I have been working on it for one year – far from it. I honestly have no way of telling how many weekend and evening hours went into it. (It was a lot, though.)

Which is why I am a little excited to see that the plugin is finally so close to release!

What’s the holdup?

If you’ve followed this blog a little, you might remember that I already released a game with the plugin.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but having released a game with it doesn’t mean the plugin itself is ready for release. It’s one thing for me to use my own plugin, and another to have the plugin usable by others. It needs rigorous testing, documentation, a nice UI, demo projects and a support forum. And then everything needs to be bubble wrapped and uploaded to the Unity Asset Store.

When?

I hate disappointing people. So I won’t give an official release date. I couldn’t anyway, even if I tried.

Remember the old saying that the last 5% of a software project take 95% of the time? And I still need to do actual (I mean paid) work, too. It is impossible to predict anything with any reasonable certainty.

WHEN???

Ok, so here’s the jist.

The documentation just isn’t done. There’s not actually all that much left to do on the code before the initial release. Oh, yes, I have a long list of things on my wish list (from localization to Braille support) – but all of those are merely nice-to-have features that can wait until after release. The documentation can not.

Documentation, including at least one tutorial video, needs to be there from the start and it needs to be good.

I’m also in the process of finding a few developers that will beta test the plugin (and documentation) with their own projects. I don’t know how long that will take, either.

Sooon…ish?

So that’s where things are at and that’s why I can’t give a release date prediction. If you’re a developer, you probably understand this anyway, buy I just felt like I should explain why I am so evasive when asked for a date.