Tuesday, March 21, 2006.
By Terri Wells.
Hearing about a blind gamer would remind some of us of the rock opera "Tommy." But these aren't pinball players; they're computer gamers, and they often play online. They are part of a growing community of audio gamers who enjoy everything from card and puzzle games to first-person space-themed shooters. And some of them could even take you down.
Most first person shooters and many other online games are a matter of eye-hand coordination and fast reflexes. Players need to see the threat and respond, and while the music and sound effects in a game can enhance the experience (indeed, at least one symphony orchestra performed a concert completely based on music from various video games), they usually aren't central to it. No gamer in his right mind would close his eyes while shooting or play a game blindfolded, right?
Believe it or not, while most sighted gamers would never play with their eyes closed, there is a growing group of blind gamers who are proving that eyesight may not be instrumental to taking down digital foes. You may have heard about Brice Mellon, a teenager from Lincoln, Nebraska who plays video games so well he even managed to play Mortal Kombat against its creator and win. But Brice is just the smallest tip of the iceberg.
Take Michael Feir. He founded Audessey Gaming Magazine back in 1996. It's a quarterly gaming magazine specifically for blind gamers, and available online (though the most recent issue is from the first quarter of 2005). A visit to the website does a lot to confirm that yes, this really is for blind (as opposed to just visually impaired) gamers; the interface is utterly simple. The first page mainly contains a list that links to all the back issues. Clicking on a link brings up the magazine in question - all on one screen, simple text only. In short, it contains nothing that a text reader might trip over.
There are now a wide range of games that cater to the blind gamer. These are not only simpler, puzzle-based games either. They represent almost as many genres as the ones designed for sighted players, including multiplayer role-playing games, action adventure titles, driving games, science fiction style games and yes, puzzle-related games as well.
Experts estimate that the market for computer games playable by the blind is enough to keep about 30 to 50 professional audio game developers busy. They sell around 3,000 games a year - a mere drop in the bucket compared to the larger video game market. But there are about a million blind people in the United States alone, so there is plenty of room for growth.
With text readers, blind players could handle the early PC text-based adventure stories as well as any sighted player. Those merely required the player to type in text-based commands, such as "go straight" or "search room." Now, however, with action happening in real time, something must make up for the lack of high-speed visuals - and naturally enough, that is sound.
Amateur games designers recreated many of the 80s arcade shooters, with sound designed to let a player know where the hazards are coming from. Justin Daubenmire, for instance, created Troopanum, which he describes as "almost like a carbon copy of Galaxian, Space Invaders, and Missile Command all in one." In that game, the player must shoot down wave after wave of attackers as they scroll down the screen - but there's no screen, only sound to let the player know the location of the attackers. This is only one of the games produced by BSC Games, a unit of blindsoftware.com, the company Daubenmire founded.
Daubenmire's games sell for $35 each, which is eminently reasonable given that many high-end games sell for $50 or more. The higher price of those games pays for realistic three-dimensional graphics. Programmers creating games for the blind face a different set of problems: how to translate the action of a computer game - all of the action, not just the obvious parts like gunfire - into sound.
Consider the amount of work involved in translating a space adventure game completely into an audio format. Every attacking spaceship, monster, and other threat needs its own distinctive sound. These sounds get louder as the threat gets closer to the player. Threats should also be able to move from side to side - and they can, thanks to the wonders of stereo. And when the bad guy is between your cross-hairs, what better way to learn about this than with a special "lock-on" sound effect? There's no need to be able to see your opponent to frag him!
Others in the Biz
Daubenmire is hardly alone. Adora Entertainment offers seven different titles for blind and visually impaired players, with more under development. These range from Alien Outback (where you fight aliens in Australia) to Monkey Business (in which you chase the bad guy through "ten levels of first person insanity") to - someone had to do it, of course - two different digital pinball games.
All in Play bills itself as offering "the most accessible online games anywhere!" Granted, these are card games, but they offer a place for sighted and blind gamers to play against each other on an equal footing. But wait, there is more, much more.
AudioGames.net, run by Richard van Tol and Sander Huiberts, seems to offer almost everything a blind gamer could want. The site started as simply a database of audio games, but it has expanded tremendously since then. It now boasts a ton of features to support the blind gaming community, including:
* What it describes as "the biggest online archive of audio games and blind-accessible games," complete with reviews and other information about the games.
* Articles on audio games and blind-accessible game.
* Cheats, walk-throughs and trainers for audio games and blind-accessible games.
* A forum.
* "Submit-a-Game functionality," which allows users to add games to the archive.
* And of course, a huge link list.
PCS Games has been in business since 1995. Their home page not only lists their own games, but offers links to the sites of other companies making blind-accessible games. Their own latest is a game called "Pac-man Talks."
GMA Games offers Shades of Doom, an exciting game inspired by the popular Doom series. It was built on Microsoft's DirectX technology, the same technology used for many graphical PC games. Players move their characters in a three-dimensional sound environment, traveling through a research base. They are guided by the sound of the wind in passages and rooms, the echo of their footsteps, the sounds of nearby equipment, and - if they choose - their environment analyzer computer. The goal is to shut down an ill-fated experiment. After all, why should being blind prevent someone from being able to save the world just like the rest of us?
Computers optimized for blind gamers tend to cost less than high-end gaming rigs for sighted players. This should come as no surprise, given that a high-end graphics card can add several hundred dollars to the price of a PC. The fact that most games aimed at a blind audience are keyboard or joystick-controlled also helps to keep the price down.
Players will need a set of headphones to help them get the most out of audio games, however. With no visual files, sound becomes that much more important for conveying information. Computer rigs for blind gamers feature something that should also be familiar to sighted players: an eight-speaker surround sound system.
WidowPC sells high-performance custom-designed gaming machines; while their usual customer is sighted, they do also make some for the blind. The models for blind gamers start at around $1200 and go up to $3000 depending on the options chosen. Joshua McClure, founder of WidowPC, who was asked by Daubenmire to design gaming computers for the blind, notes that they are a little cheaper than the corresponding models for sighted players. McClure estimated that, as of February 2005, his company had sold about three to four dozen rigs for blind gamers.
Audio games still have some ways to go before they can catch up with their visually-oriented counterparts. And Electronic Arts won't feel threatened by the likes of BSC Games anytime soon. But Shades of Doom, released in 1998, was a watershed for the blind gaming market. Audio games have continued to mature since then. Audyssey founder Michael Feir is delighted to see this. "Games now don't make us feel like we are playing a dumbed-down game for blind people, but real exciting quality games." So stay on your toes; the next gamer who frags you might not even need to see you go down.
Terri Wells, Company: Developer Shed, Email Address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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