Last September, Microsoft made history with the first mass-market video game controller designed with disabled gamers first and foremost in mind. The Xbox Adaptive Controller, which won this year's Golden Joystick award for best innovation, was developed in conjunction with the charity Special Effect (which has spent years designing bespoke controller solutions for gamers with unique needs), and the design's guiding principle was accessibility and flexibility. A device that could work for and adapt to as many gamers as possible.
The controller – a large base station with D-Pad and A and B buttons – retails for £75, with additional inputs sold separately. It has now been in the wild for a few months, so we decided to reach out to players who've been using it to find out how good a job Microsoft has done and whether there are still areas that could be improved.
The first gamer we got in touch with was Brendon Pratt, who streams and makes YouTube videos as The Hand Solo. His channel name references the fact that, following a workplace accident, Pratt had to have his dominant left hand amputated and now can play using only his right hand. He initially tried to stream games on PS4, but was limited in what he could play by a lack of remappable controls on a lot of the system's games.
PC was better in this regard, but with a standard controller Pratt was still having issues playing a wide variety of titles – to the extent that he used to add blu tack to the back of his controller to make pressing the left analogue stick with his knee easier.
Pratt now primarily plays games using the Xbox Adaptive Controller on PC, and it has apparently dramatically changed the way he plays games, as well as the kinds of games he can play. Paired with Xbox's ability to remap controls at a system level, he can now play a lot more games:
My current set up is an Xbox Adaptive controller with 2 pedals as well as a standard Xbox One controller, using Co-pilot to allow two controllers to work as one. I then have left trigger mapped to my left foot and left bumper to the right foot.
One thing I really think people on the outside looking in don't understand is how much thought Microsoft have really put into this, not just on a hardware level but also on the software level. I can't overstate how easy it is to set up the controller options. The packaging is made in a way that is easy for people with limited mobility, with things like large loops on the ends of the tape and no cable ties because they are a nightmare for people like myself.
In this case, Pratt now finds he can play his favourite games, such as Rocket League and Forza, much more comfortably.
We also spoke to John Poulter, a gamer who is simultaneously happy about the existence of the Xbox Adaptive Controller but is also struggling a little due to Microsoft's regional sales choices with the hardware's accessories.
Poulter has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a condition which causes muscles to become weaker over time, and as a result has begun to have contractions in his hands. These contractions prevent him from using most gaming controllers, but do not prevent him using button based control setups like keyboards, on the understanding that the game can be played with a limited total number of buttons or keys.
For Poulter, the Adaptive Controller has opened up games he previously couldn't play, by giving him the ability to add three or four extra controls to his setup, and have them positioned in places he can more easily reach accurately while playing.
The new controller has allowed him to return to playing more complex games, including Far Cry 5, Battlefield 5, and Assassin's Creed: Odyssey, as well as hopefully opening up even more games to him in the future.
However, while Poulter has been able to return to playing some games, others require peripherals that Microsoft seemingly will not ship to the UK.
The problem for me is with the peripherals, as they are not available in the UK Xbox store, and the US store won't ship here. There's a one-handed joystick that looks like a Wii nunchuk that I can't find anywhere else that would really help with my setup.
I have friends who play games on the Nintendo Switch and I am trying to use an adapter to allow me to play Mario Kart using the Adaptive controller.
While the Xbox Adaptive Controller is only officially supported on Xbox One and PC, Poulter is also hoping that it could soon help him get back into playing Switch games like Mario Kart 8 with his friends. Having seen recent YouTube videos about a gamer managing to get the controller to unofficially work on Switch, there is hope that he might be able to get back to playing with his Nintendo-loving friends too, so long as Nintendo doesn't take steps to lock out unofficial support.
I have bought an adapter that lets me connect the adaptive controller to a Nintendo Switch, and will be trying it on a friend's console tomorrow. Mario Kart 8's features such as auto-accelerate mean that I can play the whole game with only 4 buttons. This could finally let me play a modern Nintendo game properly, as the last Nintendo console I was able to play was the Gamecube.
Xbox's Adaptive Controller, hands down, is one of the most interesting bits of tech this year. But even more interesting is the cool ways people are using it to interface with other systems - like the Nintendo Switch.
Kotaku UK has contacted Microsoft regarding the sale of accessories in the UK, and whether there are any future plans in this area, but no reply was received by the time of publication: if one turns up, we'll update this post.
Finally we spoke to Dominick Evans, who previously spoke with us about how Nintendo's move to motion controls for Pokémon Let's Go prevented him from being able to play that game.
I play laying down, so the challenge for me is always finding the right place to mount the controller. It's quite big compared to the standard controller. It has room for 19 Jack inputs, so every single button can be linked to a separate button, switch, or joystick.
This allows for a wide variety of diversity when it comes to your set up, which is amazing since so many disabled people have different physical needs. There are innumerable ways to set up the controller, so many people do have the ability to benefit. I was able to use something to hold it into place, although I could certainly benefit from a more traditional mount that could accommodate the controller's size.
This is why Microsoft recommends you work with a rehab specialist, to figure out the best set up for you, something not really advertised to the public. I set the controller up on my own, and I plan to eventually get an actual mount that I can use to keep the controller from sliding.
I do worry a little bit about the cost, not for myself, but for others who might not have the economic resources that I'm lucky enough to have. The actual controller is actually cheaper than a lot of the pro controllers I see on the market that were not designed specifically with accessibility in mind. However, it is the menagerie of accoutrements – buttons, switches, joysticks, etc. as well as mounting setups that may cost a bit more.
I was lucky enough to get the Xbox Accessible Controller from Xbox to check out and use in my Twitch stream, as well as review, but I found the price incredibly reasonable compared to the type of set ups many of us used to have to pay for, which were usually hundreds of dollars.
During our discussion, Evans mentioned his concern that the Xbox Adaptive Controller, for all the good things to say about it, may create a perception that disability access in video games is now a 'solved' issue. As a gamer who doesn't need the use of this controller, I've at times been guilty of thinking of it as a problem solved rather than a step forward, and Evans emphasises that the push for better accessibility options isn't over yet: not least because, inevitably, the Xbox adaptive controller only works on certain hardware.
I think where people have a misconception is with the idea that this is the be-all and end-all for accessibility. This is just the starting point! We have a long way to go until gaming is truly inclusive for everyone. I don't want gaming companies to say Xbox did this so we don't need to do anything else to make games accessible. We still need individual accessibility in games.
We need other major gaming companies like Sony and Nintendo to design controllers for their systems. A lot of disabled people cannot play Nintendo games especially, and that's a problem. This needs to be seen as the turning point for accessibility. It needs to establish a standard of where to go from here.
Games will continue to evolve, and accessibility needs to keep up with that. It's taken a lot of hard work by disability activists all over the world to get to the point where a controller of this magnitude could be created. We owe organisations like Able Gamers so much, as well as individual activists who have been fighting for gaming accessibility for years. This is a great stride forward, but let's see what comes next!
I'm glad Microsoft is making a commitment to accessibility, but they are one company. We need all of the gaming companies to make that same commitment. Gaming is for everyone, so everyone who wants to should have the opportunity to play.
While what Evans says is undeniably true, it's also not the right place to end. While preparing this article I spoke to many gamers with disabilities who use the Xbox Adaptive Controller, not all of whom I had space to quote, and the general sentiment was clear: the Xbox adaptive controller represents a huge step forward, and Microsoft has made a breakthrough in the space.
This is a mass-produced, relatively affordable, officially supported and fully remappable controller that can adapt to fit an enormous number of user scenarios. It's not limited to first party accessories, and the attention-to-detail extends to it shipping in packages that many gamers with disabilities will be able to unbox and set up without support.
There are flaws and, despite the team's best efforts, there are still some use cases it doesn't serve. But this is the first iteration of hardware that will surely see revisions in the years to come, and any issues shouldn't detract from the scale of Microsoft's achievement. The Xbox adaptive controller opens up gaming to more players than ever before and, with the guiding principle of adaptability, continues to prove itself capable of working in unusual circumstances.
This isn't the end of the conversation by a long way, but the Xbox adaptive controller has moved everything up a level. Microsoft deserves all the praise going for funding this project and following it through in such a considered manner. It represents an enormous step forwards not just for the individuals whose lives it has changed, but for gaming as a mainstream and inclusive industry.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.