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Gaming interview: ‘Tau Station’ – making a whole universe accessible

As the accessible gaming community grows at a rapid pace, so too does the number of games being developed with accessibility for all users in mind. ‘Tau Station’ is a fascinating example of good practice in this area.

A free, text-based MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) with a science fiction theme, ‘Tau Station’ gives players an entire universe to explore – a universe which its developers have taken great care to make accessible for players with impairments, through a huge range of features.

e-Access Bulletin chatted to Lainie, one of the game’s developers, to find out more about the quest to make ‘Tau Station’ accessible for all.

- Please tell us about ‘Tau Station’:

“We don’t really think of ‘Tau Station’ as a game. It’s universe to explore and a place where people can make a life for themselves online. The setting is several hundred years in the future, not long after a mysterious event called the Catastrophe has occurred. Survivors are struggling to put civilisation back together again.

“What players do and who they are is up to them. They can explore the galaxy, start a career, fight other players, help rebuild civilisation or profit from its downfall, make friends, set up a social network, and much more. Some people take missions or interact with characters to get clues about what caused the Catastrophe. It’s a complete world, ready for people to experience.

“‘Tau Station’ is a text-based universe, but it’s more than just words on a screen. To create an immersive environment, we’ve supplemented the narrative with a user-interface and custom artwork that give it a strong science fiction look and feel. There are no moving graphics, downloads, or special controllers needed, so you can play it on any device with a browser.”

- How and when was the concept for ‘Tau Station’ developed?

“Curtis Poe came up with the idea in 2010. He’d been playing text games online and liked that their emphasis was on thinking and planning rather than reacting to action with lightning-fast reflexes. Having grown up reading authors like Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, he enjoyed the grand vision of space opera and started thinking about how he could bring it to the text-based game environment.”

- Did you design accessibility features into the game as it was being built or add those elements in afterwards?

“We decided to make ‘Tau Station’ accessible after working with Job van Achterberg. Job is a strong advocate for accessibility, and he’s the one who made us realise we weren’t taking part of the population into account with our development. This realisation made the decision simple.

“A few weeks later, Rinchen Emma Ridley and Job joined us on the project, and they took everything apart to make ‘Tau Station’ accessible. After that, it simply became part of the process. Now, accessibility is taken into consideration with everything. It’s not an afterthought, it’s just our normal design process thanks to Emma and Job.”

- What measures have you taken to make ‘Tau Station’ accessible for players with disabilities and impairments?

“Our goal with ‘Tau Station’ is to be as inclusive as possible. This means building the game from a progressively enhanced and responsive point of view, as well as incorporating WCAG 2.0 guidelines. Beyond that, we consider a variety of users when adding features.

“We ask ourselves all kinds of questions, like: ‘What is this feature for? Can the player disable or customise it? Would it work without JavaScript? What happens when the player uses browser zoom? Can players use this feature via keyboard, mouse, touch, and voice? Are there any known browser or assistive technology bugs we should be aware of?”

- Were there any big challenges in terms of accessibility?

“The more challenging elements of the game have been the navigation, and elements that require a lot of user-interaction and feedback. Designing the training sliders in the gym and our interactive star map are good examples.

“Probably the most challenging element is to ensure that processes are accessible from start to finish. We have to make sure that the context and flow is not lost at any point to any user, regardless of how they interact with the game.”

- Why was it so important to make ‘Tau Station’ as accessible as possible?

“That’s simple; when someone shows you that you’ve been ignoring a part of the population for a huge part of your life, you can’t go back. ‘Tau Station’ is accessible, as will be any other game that we develop. It’s not that difficult to make it happen. You just have to want it, and surround yourself with the right people.”

- Are games developers thinking more about accessibility nowadays?

“We’d like to think so, but it’s hard to see from within the ‘accessibility bubble’. But seeing conferences like #GAconf (Read about the conference at the following link: http://eab.li/4o ) and websites dedicated to the subject, such as Game Accessibility.com (found at the following link: http://eab.li/4p ) and Game Accessibility Guidelines.com (found at the following link: http://eab.li/4q ) leads us to believe that there’s increasing awareness.”

- How do you want ‘Tau Station’ to develop, and how will you keep it accessible as it evolves?

“‘Tau Station’ is going to evolve as stories in books evolve, with different chapters; chapters that we write for the players and the ones that they will write for themselves.

“Asking us how we’ll keep ‘Tau Station’ accessible is a little like asking us if it will continue to be a science fiction game as it evolves! ‘Tau Station’ is accessible and will stay accessible. It’s the choice that we’ve made and also part of the design process, so any new functionality that we implement will be accessible.

“With the right team, with the right people, there is no reason for that to change. Accessibility is a state of mind, and the fact that the technology evolves doesn’t change anything. We will evolve with it.”

Read more about accessibility features in ‘Tau Station’ at the following link:
http://eab.li/4r .

Find out more about the game at the ‘Tau Station’ blog:
http://eab.li/4s .

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