In 1995, Jackbox Games published You Don’t Know Jack, a party game based on quiz shows of the era. While popular amongst game night crowds, You Don’t Know Jack also found an audience with blind and low vision players, particularly because of its innate accessibility. Prior to the existence of complex accessibility menus filled with intricate settings and options, having a game that read everything out loud meant that individuals with vision impairments could fully participate without inaccessible barriers.
Last year, the developer released the eighth iteration of their long-standing party game collection. Jackbox Party Pack 8 brings games like Drawful Animate, The Wheel of Enormous Proportions, and Poll Mine, enabling 10 players to partake in mini-games with their friends. As work begins on Party Pack 9, the studio continues to create numerous accessibility settings that reinforce their commitment to creating accessible experiences for an array of disabilities.
Settings and features like subtitles for deaf and hard of hearing players, extended or no timers to alleviate physical or cognitive exhaustion, and even motion sensitivity for different input devices are just some of the accessibility options that disabled players can expect when playing these games. Mike Bilder, CEO of Jackbox Games, and Evan Jacover, CTO of Jackbox Games, discuss the necessity for these settings and how community outreach and feedback has been crucial when implementing options.
“As we started making the Party Packs, there were a few [blind and low vision] people who gave some feedback, and it was mostly around how our controller worked, the phone-based controller,” Jacover tells Fanbyte.
One engineer, Alex Swan, took a particular interest in tackling those problems. Combined with community consultation, Swan’s experimentations with screen-reading software within input devices like phones allowed people with varying disabilities to play the Party Packs. The commitment from both developers and consultants continues to impact the development of current and future titles.
“A lot of this has been driven by the community, and just understanding what the needs of the community are — how and when we can modify some of the games to make them work,” Bilder says. “Candidly, not every single [game] can be done that way, but where we can with minor tweaks, we absolutely do that and try to add functionality to the games to make them accessible.”
Beyond just listening to disabled individuals, Jackbox Games uses varying groups of players to playtest new games and accessible features. While the pandemic changed the overall process, namely through the inability to no longer invite them to the studio, disabled people are actively involved with ensuring the games are not only enjoyable, but also playable for their specific disability. Yet, playtesting may not always result in new ideas, especially since each game follows an annual release schedule.
“One of the challenges we have, candidly, is we’re on a very tight development cycle by doing an annual release of the Party Pack, so, a lot of times these games are in various states of completion, even right up until the end,” Bilder says. “Even the focus testing that we do in many instances along the way is not necessarily functional testing — it’s focus testing and just making sure the game is fun and working, even though it might be a skeleton or framework of what the feature set is or might be.”
One such example of applying accessibility settings after a game’s launch lies in the colorblind settings of Trivia Murder Party, a game that first appeared in The Jackbox Party Pack 3. One of the many mini-games within Trivia Murder Party requires players to identify a specific item that features a unique color. After a colorblind player reached out to the team to critique its lack of accessibility, the studio examined how to accommodate players while simultaneously maintaining the game’s challenge.
“It kind of started a really in-depth discussion, spirited discussion internally about how to address it,” Jacover says. “I saw our team really engaging with the issue and doing some research and trying to understand what the best practices are for situations like that. Do you write out the name of the color or are there certain colors that are more effective? I’d say that we were novices at that point and have done a lot to educate ourselves since then.”
One solution to this problem was adding a mode that swapped color palettes to make the game accessible for colorblind individuals. And once a feature like this is added, future games will include previous accessible features while simultaneously adding support for new settings and options.
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“Simple things like subtitles, for instance,” Bilder says. “That is now basically a mainstay for all the products going forward, and I expect that will be the case going forward for any of the games we make.”
Implementing accessibility into any game can take years of trial and error. Through the continuous support of the disabled community, Jackbox Games hopes to build upon previous accessible successes within future titles. With Party Pack 9 releasing in the fall, the studio continues to combine older settings with new features, especially as games evolve with each new pack. While unable to discuss specifics regarding Party Pack 9, Jacover notes that teams are actively working to ensure each game will include appropriate accessibility options.
“We’re still in the midst of production so it’s difficult to speak to features in Party Pack 9, but to give one example, we recently heard from a team that a game that has both written and drawing questions will have a no-drawing option to make the game more accessible,” he says.
Options like subtitles and colorblind settings, once causing internal debates as to their best application, are now standard features within Party Packs. Furthermore, as new accessible innovations and ideas occur, disabled individuals provide direct feedback to Jackbox Games, ensuring their voices are heard and their critiques can result in change. And as Bilder explains, giving players the capability of choosing which accessibility options they want to use is key to creating an entertaining experience.
“Over time, and as you’ve probably seen, features expand in our games. We have certainly shifted our mentality on that,” he says. “The thinking now is ‘let’s expose more and more to the user.’ We’ll default [games] to what we think is the best game experience, or most fun scoring, or timer, or whatever that is, but give those options to the user and let them set up the game how they want to play it and have fun with it.”