Tonight I want to share some thoughts on game design, but from a deeply personal perspective. I don’t consider myself a good game designer; I’m a million times more confident in my programming abilities as a game developer. But working to build an indie studio—it forces me into the role of design due to simply being part of a small studio. Generally I defer to my close friend and studio co-founder Jeff Crenshaw, who’s had a talent for design since childhood; he’s got a number of five-subject notebooks littered with game ideas to prove it (some of them being pretty damned hilarious, I’d like to add).
But lately I think about game design in one way which I don’t think he can: from the perspective of someone with a brain disease—which I in no way say to disparage his talents.
I have spinocerebellar ataxia, or ‘SCA’ for short. SCA affects people in different ways and at different rates of speed, but in general the disease causes one’s cerebellum to deteriorate much more rapidly than normal. The cerebellum is the part of the brain responsible for a number of things, namely motor skills. So as it breaks down you start to lose control of things like balance, hand-eye coordination, control over ones muscles, even the ability to speak. By the far the most frustrating aspect, however, is that SCA has no effect on one’s mental capacities. If the disease made one ‘dumber’ then it would be easier to overlook things like constantly knocking over things around the house when reaching for them, or dropping my toothbrush all the time, or having to hold onto to things so as to not fall over. But SCA doesn’t work that way, and so as the symptoms become worse one starts to feel like a prisoner inside one’s own body.
I’m not trying to be melodramatic or sympathy-seeking here. It’s just that spinocerebellar ataxia is a rare disease. And in my experience most people are unaware of it and what it does.
Affects on My Thoughts on Game Design
Naturally accessibility has become a large issue of importance to me. On that note, I strongly recommend every game developer to read this site. It has a wealth of information about accessibility in games, on subjects I would have never considered.
The strongest affect SCA has had on my views of game design is with regard to controls and input. Being a fan of bullet-hell shmups, that’s the kind of game we originally set out to make, although quickly dropped the bullet-hell aspect. My favorite bullet-hell shmup franchise is Touhou Project, but I can no longer play it like I could three years ago when we (meaning Jeff, I, and others) began our shmup. The controls in Touhou Project have never been particularly complex when it comes to the amount of input, i.e. the number of buttons used, but the ability to make minute adjustments in movement is pretty much gone. So nowadays I wouldn’t want to make such a shmup anyway. I don’t think most people would want to make a game they can’t really play that well, for any reason, e.g. I also wouldn’t want to make a real-time strategy game because I have always sucked at them.
SCA has strengthened my interest in designing games where reflexes are a non-factor. For example, turn-based strategy games, many role-playing games, some simulation games, card games, visual novels, and so on. These are often games where reflexs and hand-eye coordination don’t really matter.
The disease has also decreased my interest in certain technologies, namely motion controls. For example, in Bloodborne for the PlayStation 4, you press ‘X’ to do a lot of things like open doors, climb ladders, etc. But you can also hold ‘X’ and perform a gesture via motion controls. I often find myself unintentionally doing some gesture when trying to open a chest or activate a lever or whatever, because my hands in general are shaking uncontrollably. It’s frustrating. I would never design a game now that depended on motion controls. To be fair, Bloodborne doesn’t depend on them; I am only using it as an example of a type of input I would probably have in mind when designing a new game. The same goes for voice controls. Right now my SCA has affected my speech somewhat, but not to the degree I can’t speak clearly; it just takes more effort than normal. So it’s a feature I don’t think I would consider incorporating anymore.
I guess this has really been more a rant than anything particularly insightful. I feel like game designers and developers should be more thoughtful and aware of accessibility. I certainly am nowadays, for obviously personal reasons. But the experience has made me more sensitive to trying to account for all kinds of accessibility issues in my game design ideas.
For all the problems spinocerebellar ataxia causes in my life, I think it’s made me a better game design by forcing me to think more about accessibility issues. It’s an example of how one can find something positive in all problems in life if one tries hard enough.