The lights are on
Games that cater to accessibility have it rough. Developers and publishers naturally worry that such projects aren't financially viable, and thus are reluctant to take risks on them. On the flipside, consumers expect the end result will lack polish and the capacity to challenge them. Chuck Bergen, president of VTree LLC., is setting out dispel such notions with the release of My Football Game. VTree's primary focus is the development of games for the special needs community. The goal is simple - to enhance the quality of life of their consumers. But VTree isn't comfortable delivering a product with anything less than mainstream quality, just one designed with cognitive and physically challenged individuals in mind. The hope is that these individuals will then be able to play a game with their siblings, cousins, and friends and that the game will be engaging enough that the whole family is excited to participate. A partnership with EA Sports allowed VTree to create such a comprehensive and polished product. We recently had a chance to chat with Bergen about VTree's mission, My Football Game's development, and their partnership with industry powerhouse EA.Game Informer: First off, how did you come to specialize in games for disabled individuals? It's obviously a very niche field. Chuck Bergen: I actually own a separate company called Vtree Inc., and it is a ten year-old company. And at that company we develop virtual reality software for improved quality of life for special needs children and adults. And we've been basically been asked for three, four, five years now from parents of kids for video games for them. So we started looking at it, and as we started talking more and more to the individuals that we work with we found out what they really wanted was mainstream games.We also work closely with the Veteran's Administration, helping cater to young men and women coming back from war with traumatic brain injuries and diverse physical challenges. But our products can help individuals with everything from autism to Cerebral palsy.
GI: How did the relationship with EA Sports come about? Once the partnership was established, how directly involved were they in creating My Football Game? Bergen: It was a chance encounter at a trade show out in California. I ran into Rob Moore, who is the chief technology manager over at EA Sports, and I pitched him on working together with us to redesign their sports games for disabled vets and the special needs community. Right from the beginning he was all for it and we took it to his headquarters. The first game is already out and the second one will be out shortly. EA has contributed immensely to the projects. Especially with the legacy code, because we didn't have access to their code in the beginning. We came up with a plan, and for each game at a very reduced rate, we completely redesigned the systems. We used their programmers to program what we wanted designed, and then when the product is finished, we just repeat it for the next game.
GI: Cognitive impairments are usually the least understood and the hardest to nail down because of the broad spectrum of symptoms. How specifically does VTree tackle design challenges for those with cognitive challenges? Bergen: Especially for individuals with cognitive impairments, we get everybody involved - parents, caregivers, therapists and even the individual themselves from a broad range of different types of difficulties. Right from the very beginning, no matter what we are designing, we put it out to them in the beginning. Is it too fast? Is it too slow? Is it too complicated? Are the graphics not bright enough? One of the things we did notice with individuals, especially children with cognitive difficulties, is that they love bright colors. So we wanted to make sure that the graphics were sharp and were clear and were brightly lit up for them. And it helps to grab their attention for what we are trying to get them to do, which is have fun. Also, a lot of the challenge for individuals with cognitive difficulties is things have to be slowed down. So what we did with the game, with every single aspect, is that we make it possible for everything to be taken down to 20 percent speed. So it really allows them to manipulate the game that a speed that they are comfortable with. And hopefully they will be able to speed up the game, not to a hundred percent probably, but with familiarity they should be able to increase and build up that speed. And then they will be able to play with their brothers and sisters and parents and classmates at their level.
GI: What about physical considerations? Does My Football Game support the full spectrum of custom input methods?Bergen: Yes, we have so that in the beginning you can set up your own profile. And if you have an adaptive device that may not be automatic with the game, you can go in there and match your keys to the keys you are looking for in the device.
GI: Why the decision to focus on a sports title? What about "mainstream" football games is most inaccessible? Bergen: Sports are extremely big in everybody's family, whether they have special needs or not. So when the children grow older and watch their brothers and parents play, a lot of parents want to be able to play mainstream games with their children. Even for myself those games are way too complicated and way to fast. I mean I've never found one on the market that at 55, I wouldn't have trouble playing. They are really geared, for the most part, towards individuals 10 to 35 who are very agile and move quickly with the handheld game devices. And for individuals with cognitive or physical difficulties, they may not be able to work with those buttons and all those colors.So what we did is that we worked with some of the biggest manufacturers of handheld devices and worked so that all their drivers function with the game. So it makes it easier for the player if they have their own peripheral that they are familiar with and happy with. Even for individuals with physical disabilities. There is a company called Broaden Horizons that has this really big box with buttons all the colors that match those on the Xbox 360 controllers, but with really big buttons. This helps in two ways in that it gives individuals with physical disabilities a big target to hit as far as red or blue. But it's also good for individuals with sight problems. These big buttons allow them to play, and by slowing the game up it gives them a chance to react to the game.
GI: What about the complicated tactics and rule sets associated with sports and sports games? Is that an issue? Bergen: Absolutely. If you have a cognitive disability or a physical one - if you only have partial use of part of a body - let's say that you are picking your play. In the regular games that are on the market you might be able to pick from over 300 offensive or defensive plays. We took that down to about 30. This way there isn't that many to remember and you can pick them out easier and still take their time with it. So we don't make it as complicated. And we give tips, recommending what we would do on the third down with five yards to go. Also there is a penalty in most regular games that if you don't call your play in 35 seconds it's an automatic flag and five yard penalty. If you have a cognitive difficulty, you might need an hour to pick a play. Our mantra is "so what?" You need an hour, take an hour. So in the regular game they would never get past the kickoff because of constant penalties. GI: Making the goal to push and challenge yourself instead of getting stuck in the game's framework?Bergen: Right, so instead of the game constantly calling penalties on you, you can take your time. We are not going to force you into a 35 second thing. That's for both cognitive and physical difficulties. If you have a physical difficulty and it takes you a while to do something, you're going to need that time.