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EA and VTree Bring Football Back To Disabled Gamers

by Meagan Marie on Dec 29, 2009 at 11:21 AM

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.

GI: Since My Football Game's release, have any success stories worked their way back to you?

Bergen: Yes! At the VA - we are working hand and hand with them - and it's phenomenal. I was personally there with one guy who is about 20. He is basically paralyzed from the neck down from an IED. Very very quiet guy. In fact, when I was at that hospital, he was in the back and a therapist came up to me and said that he would like to come and talk to me when I finished. Well another therapist yelled at him "hey you, come up here, I want to see you play this game!" Well the poor kid almost had a heart attack. He has a sip and puff controller for his wheelchair. Cognitively, he is fine, but physically he can only move his right arm a bit.

This kid wasn't on the game two minutes, and he is telling the therapist and he is talking and man I wished the EA guys were there when he blurted out "This is just like Madden! I can play again!" And I talked to him later and he said his goal was to be able to play Madden again. And that made my day. Nothing could have happened that day to take me off that cloud.

GI: Speaking of Madden, had there ever been a discussion with EA about the game falling within the Madden franchise?

Bergen: No, absolutely not. We really do work in partnership, but that's never been brought up. Even though there are technically 56 million Americans with a disability and we've been in the business for 10 years now, it is still a specialty. You have to know the clients and the parents and the special needs organizations. We have a handle on it. We like being independent. I'm the majority owner of the company and I intend to do this until I can no longer type or write code or design. I really don't have an interest in selling.

GI: Since My Football Game already includes official livery from the Military by VA request, have you thought about of securing NFL licensing?

Bergen: It's too ambitious right now. The cost to legally negotiate it....we really didn't want to get too much into it because of the cost. Obviously we're not going to sell anywhere near the numbers of the regular games. We don't want individuals to pay $80 or $90. Also, every time that a player gets traded or quits or so on, the football leagues want you to have the ability to download and swap that player. And that's too much for our clients.

Everything is also PC based for that reason. We only works in the special needs community, and more individual families have PCs for educational purposes and so on than they do Nintendo Wiis and Xbox 360s and PS3s. The vast majority have to have computers. So we wanted to make sure that there was no additional cost on them to play the game.

GI: Do you think that the partnership with EA has been mutually beneficial? While they have included significant accessibility features in their past games, should we expect to see some new considerations in their future work?

Bergen: I can never speak for them, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was a mutually beneficial relationship. Without any specifics, they are learning a tremendous amount of stuff from us as we are from them. We've been  doing this for 10 years, and when we explained why things needed to be changed to them, it was like "hey, we get that!" So they are learning how to make their games better and  even if not intentionally, to make their games more accessible.

GI: As a final question, how do you see the current video game landscape in terms of accessibility? Does the future look hopeful or is there room for sizable improvement?

Bergen: As far as I can tell the mainstream companies could do better, and anytime you put a tag like "special needs" on a game people who might want it are not going to go near it. If they had subdivision companies to approach these projects or looked to companies like us to help out, it could be a giant quality of life improvement for individuals.

So hey, if you don't want to do it yourself because it is very  costly and very time consuming - as much if not more than what they are already doing because you are trying to work across a spectrum of cognitive and physical challenges and give them the best bang for their buck - partner up with companies like ours. We're not the only company like this out there. There are tons of companies that would be happy lend a hand.

If you are interested in picking up My Football Game for a friend or family member, it is currently available through the VTree call center and website.