Ragnarok Is ‘The Most Accessible God Of War Game’, Says Lead UX Designer

Ragnarok Is ‘The Most Accessible God Of War Game’, Says Lead UX Designer

God of War: Ragnarök will be on our salty shores very soon, and the game has already started to trickle down the media cracks.

We’ll have our first impressions of the game up in due time, but I’d like to come to you with another side of God of War: Ragnarök, and that’s just how darn accessible it is.

We’ve seen with some of the newer PlayStation titles that there’s been quite a strong focus on accessibility for all players, including those with disabilities. I mean, The Last of Us Part I despite people believing it didn’t need to be made boasts a hefty amount of accessibility features not seen in prior versions.

For the newest God of War title, it’s no different. Santa Monica Studio has gone above and beyond to make sure that not only is Ragnarok an absolutely fantastic game in its own right, but that it can also be played by literally anybody through accessibility features galore.

To give you an idea of just how accessible this game is and what went into the process of making the most accessible God of War game to date, I had a chat with Mila Pavlin, who is the lead UX designer for God of War: Ragnarök. Check it out!

Image: SIE

What’s your experience been like working on the game?

It’s been absolutely fantastic. As you know, I’m the lead UX designer on God of War: Ragnarok, mainly focusing on player onboarding, player tutorialisation, accessibility and then helping with all the UI/UX, like the interactions within the game.

It’s been really fantastic working on a team that’s so talented and has such a diverse group of folks that work there, and the focus on accessibility of this game has been really heartwarming and just seeing how much we could bring the community into the process of building the game.

Amazing. Upon booting up the game, from the get-go, you’re offered the opportunity to set up accessibility options. This is pretty commonplace with PlayStation games nowadays, but I did notice that Ragnarok notably has the two-tab pre-menu for quick setup and accessibility options. So why was this done?

Well, we had two options, which is the quick start or the guided setup. The quick start is for those players that just wanna get into the game, they don’t need to tune anything. Really, we’re just giving them the option around making sure your monitor looks good and it sounds great and hit go.

But we also wanted that opportunity to do a more deep-dive guided setup for folks. So looking at that, we gave people the option of setting up things like the common settings at the beginning, like if you want to do the inverted X or if you wanna make sure that you have the subtitles turned on. Things that almost every game is gonna give you that option for.

And then we jump into our preset menus, and the preset menus are [there] because we have so many options within the game, that we wanted to give people a starting point to jump off of.

So there’s two things that you’ll notice about the presets, is that we broke them down into different categories and that these presets have a lite version, which is Some [options] and then they have a full version, which is more heavy-handed.

So if folks, for example, have low vision, they might wanna do the vision full presets so that it gives them all of the [options like] making the text size bigger, and making sure that they have high contrast, and making sure that everything is set up for them in a way that navigates them through the game and gives them that option. But if you just want a little bit of help, we can give you that Some feature.

Those kinds of setups just set the groundwork for players and we did something unique in the menus where we turned the text blue when you have a setting that’s changed from the default. This way, players could understand after they’ve set all these options, they can go into the menu and say like these are the ones that were changed. They can go and tune those or tweak those however they want because it’s a lot to take in at first, and we wanted to make sure that players had that nice onboarding experience.

Yeah, absolutely. I’m glad you mentioned the presets, because outside of the full menu of accessibility options, there are also those presets. I just wanted to ask what goes into the process of deciding these presets, and deciding what would give people with specific disabilities a better experience?

You know, a lot of it comes from the players. We did a lot of play-testing and we made sure that we included players who had different categories of disability within our play-testing. Making sure we hit four major areas, which was the vision, hearing, motor, and cognitive. Those are the kind of the four areas that we were making sure that we had players from.

They would come in, they would play the game, and they would tell us, “Hey, these are the settings that I would always need to have turned on,” and if we got people repeatedly asking for the same setting, we would make sure that that was in the preset.

We’re like, “Well, every low-vision player that we’ve had has asked for large text size, so we’re just going to put that in there and we’re just gonna make it a default.” Because that way, we can make sure that somebody can read from the couch and they can have that positive experience.

So those are the things that kind of go into those presets, and the some category was for those that were… Y’know, we made sure that the core ones were in, but maybe there were a couple of others that people thought were more optional or were tuned for people’s different experiences.

And so that’s the difference between the some and the full. The full is like, “Here’s everything we got, let’s give you the best experience,” and the some being like, “Here’s a starting point, if you want to tune it then go from there.”

All this comes together to create the experience of the most accessible God of War ever, so I think that’s really what we were looking for, is to make sure players have the options or the choices that would give them the best experience that they could get.

Image: SIE

So there are also the controls in the game, which in certain situations will call for multi-button commands. When the game approaches that level of complexity in controls, where you have multiple buttons pressed for attack and defense as well as combos, it can be a lot.

What kind of challenges does that present to someone who doesn’t have that kind of dexterity available to them, and what goes into making that more accessible?

You make a really interesting point when you talk about multi-button combinations, and how do we make that good for players who maybe have less access to the controller.

So when you’re looking at the controller itself, where we have the buttons placed has always been something that throughout the whole series has been very fixed. In this game, we allowed full customisation of the controller so you can rebind those controls to any button that you want, which is really important when you have players who are one handed.

If you’re trying to do all of those combos with only one hand, that can be a frustrating experience if you have to do everything yourself. So what we started to do was ask players like, “What are the important things that you need to do, and what are the things that maybe we could automate or that we could move to buttons that weren’t as important?”, so that we could have those as out-of-combat things.

We found that the certain things like picking up objects during combat, that’s an extra button press that a player wanted to have automated. Leaping over things, climbing things. If we could just automate that function, it’s one less button press that they have to do. These things started to relieve a little bit of that tension from the amount of buttons that you had to press.

We went in too with our some of our QuickTime events and we said, “Well, you know how important is it for you to mash the button here, could we make it a hold? Could we make it something automated? Does it have to be something that you do?”.

So in certain circumstances, we reduce the number of button presses down to a hold, or automated it so that the player could do that automatically. For certain things that we couldn’t automate e.g Rage, where you have to press 2 buttons at the same time (L3 + R3), we offered different options for that, including adding a new swipe feature.

That swipe feature allows you to bind a couple of key functions to the touchpad swipe, so you can do things like Rage or Shield Bash on a swipe, and you have four different directions that you can bind to so you could give different commands based on that.

This really helps for those folks that can’t press down those buttons like the L3 + R3 buttons that sometimes are difficult to press. Let’s give them an option that is gonna be less intensive for them.

So I personally think of accessibility as a wider descriptor that also includes difficulty levels. You know, having the option to make the game more or less challenging also allows accessibility for players of all levels.

So how does your team go about scaling these difficulty levels (of which there are five) while still making sure that the game provides the thrill that it does?

Absolutely. When we look at the five different options for difficulty, I break it into two parts because there’s puzzle difficulty, and then there’s combat difficulty.

What we’re looking at with combat difficulty is: How overwhelming is the combat for the player? How much are we pushing at the player at one time?

So as you scale up and down that, from the Story mode up to God of War mode, we start to give more and more things that are being thrown at the player at once. More different move sets, more intensive action into the player, so we get that thrill as you go up the scale.

If you’re playing on God of War, it’s gonna be all out. Everything is gonna come at you all at once. Whereas if you’re playing on the Story mode, they might take their time a little bit more before they come in for an attack, or you might get a little more telegraphing for something.

We wanted to add a kind of middle ground between the Balanced and the Story because what we heard from players as they were playing is that a player would play on Balanced, and they’d get to a really tough fight and they felt like they could almost do it. They were almost there.

But they just needed to turn the difficulty down just a little bit, but they didn’t wanna go to Story because they felt that it maybe felt like they were tuning it too much in that direction. And so we gave this mid-range, Grace, which was for the players that felt Balanced was just a touch too much for them and but Story was a touch too easy. So we wanted to give a middle ground for that.

I think that scaling and adding that extra difficulty was something very important to broaden the scope on that end.

Image: SIE

With puzzle difficulty, we found that some players were super great at combat but when it came to the puzzles, they were just like, “Oooh”. We actually had players say that they never engaged with the bell puzzles because they just couldn’t do them or they couldn’t get the timing down.

We went, “Well, you know what? The game is about this story, this epic fantasy. It’s about this visceral combat, about having fun with everything. If you’re not having fun with the puzzles, maybe we can do something to help give a little more leniency there.” And so we added in the puzzle timing feature, which allows players to tune how much extra time they get to complete a puzzle.

So when you’re in a puzzle situation, maybe in the original puzzle you could only have about 10 seconds to complete the whole thing. Well, if you put that on the Some feature, maybe we’ll give you 12 or 13 seconds. A couple of extra seconds to get it done. If you put it on the full, we might give you almost double the time to complete it.

We don’t restrict players from that really valuable resource that is needed for completing the game because oftentimes, those puzzles contain things that are helped to boost your health or boost your rage, which is going to make the game feel better over the long run.

So it’s something that the players can tune as well as some of the tuning adjustments, where you can turn on puzzle aim assist. This allows you to get a little bit more of that zoom-snap to the target when you’re trying to hit those hard-to-hit puzzle objects.

I think for some players, that can be enough or the combination of the puzzle timing to make sure that players are not hard stopped at a puzzle because of motor difficulty because they can’t quite see the target.

In the case of someone who’s deaf or hard of hearing. We have the direction indicator so that they understand when a bell starts ringing or stops and which direction that’s coming from, so those things can all layer on top of each other to create as much or as little help as you need.

Beautiful. There’s also a case for accessibility for people new to the series entirely. I had never played a God of War came in my life. I always wanted to, and then just never got around to it.

The decision to include the recap in the main menu helped me get a really good idea of what I was getting into. What sparked this decision?

We knew going into this game that we were a sequel, that we were going to be continuing a story, and that not every player was going to have just played the last game, right? So we wanted to make sure that any player who’s coming into the game has a fundamental understanding of where they’re starting, and what are the stakes of the story.

Y’know, it’s an epic conclusion. But we knew that not every player could have gotten to that other game so, especially with the added accessibility features, this may be accessible content that a player couldn’t have played previously so we wanted to make sure that that onboarding process was very well thought out.

We did a lot of research into it, we looked into how sequels onboard people, and what we found was that a lot of games weren’t really onboarding players in the way that we wanted our players to have that kind of respect and grace to the story.

So adding in the recap video at the start, even narratively how we present it, was a way that we could make it feel like it’s part of the story. We’re reflecting on the last part of the game and then we’re gonna immediately bring you into the consequences of that, so kicking off into the consequences of where it all began. I think that was super important.

It also goes into our tutorialisation. You may find that through the game, you get little hints and tips that are really dictated by the player. If the player is hanging around an area for a really long time, you might get extra dialogue and extra tips to help you out. That’s especially in the opening areas of the game, that was designed for the player that is just joining us right now.

Whereas the player who speeds right through it won’t see any of that. It just goes right by. So I think that we wanna keep both the player that has been with us for a long time and the new player both in respect when we’re handing the game to them.

god war ragnarok accessibility
Image: SIE

Absolutely, and I actually want to touch on that really quick, because as someone who’s completely new to the series and was learning along the way how to play, I also came into plenty of those dialogues where they were like “Maybe you should do this!”, but it always felt natural.

In saying that, how did the team go about making sure those little dialogue points that double as tutorial sounded as natural as possible?

So this is a part that I really enjoyed talking about because tutorialisation was one of the things that I worked a lot on. We worked very closely with the narrative team because we wanted to make sure that everything was in the context of the story so everything was diegetic in that respect and that when you’re going into an area.

The characters know things about the way the world works. They understand these things and so they’re trying to figure things out just in the same way that you’re trying to figure it out, to the point where we even have really great hidden dialogues of people being frustrated, or saying little things that you might not expect because they’re with you along that journey.

We hit a moment where we saw in playtesting that players were becoming frustrated, and they’re hitting a point in which they’re saying, “I’ve been here for 5 minutes, 10 minutes. I can’t figure this out. I really wish somebody would just say, ‘Hey, just use your axe’.”

So we took that back to narrative [team] and said, “Is there a way that we can incorporate this into the narrative? We know that they haven’t been adventuring as much in the last couple of years, so they’ve got to get back into the swing of things.”

I think that integration with narrative is what makes tutorials really stick with players, it really makes it so you understand it better, rather than just throwing up a box on the screen.

Yeah, they get information across, but when you can get it in the story then you remember it. You go, “Oh, I remember that moment where Atreus said you could do this, and then I was like oh, yeah, I can do that.”

This is a bit of an overall question, but what went into the process of creating a game that is an engaging challenge to play while also taking the steps to make sure as many people as possible are able to play it?

You know, it is an incredibly challenging experience to go through because you want to make sure that the core game design is always true to itself. No matter what we’re doing, we’re always comparing that back to: What is the original design intent? What did we try to do in this situation?
So if we want the player to feel frustrated, we have to make sure we maintain that. If we want the player to feel happy, we have to try and maintain that. If we want the player to feel challenged and overcome that, we have to maintain that.

All along the way, the choices that we’re making to make the game more accessible are about adding more information to the player, so it’s ‘add on’ as our first step.

For example, if we have something visual that is going to give a player a cue, we add an option for an auditory or haptic connection with the player so that we have these two different channels of information that are going to the player to add to that.

Secondarily, we look at whether are there ways that we can reduce the complexity around this thing to make it easier for the player to understand. We actually did a lot of research into cognitive load and understanding how much a player can actually remember at any given moment to really try and tune that out.

So we say, “Hey if we’ve got to get rid of something, let’s get rid of these things that are kind of ancillary so that they can focus on these core things,” because you never want that situation where a player feels like it was cheap, right? You always want to make it feel like they are meeting a challenge that is at their level.

All of these things can be tuned in a way that the player can find that challenge balance and can still succeed. Now we did do some options that are in the accessibility menu that we do note on them that they’re pretty significant, but we make sure that players are aware of that when they’re getting into that situation.

god war ragnarok accessibility
Image: SIE

The miniboss checkpointing feature, which lets you checkpoint at different points during the miniboss so that you can survive the challenge, was for my sister. She was trying to beat the trolls in the last game, couldn’t get past it and it hard-stopped her, and I was like, “I want you to finish the story”, so I… Not saying anything bad about my sister, she’s really good, but…

No, of course.

But yeah, we definitely wanted to make sure that everyone can play regardless of their background, but also that we can increase the challenge as players go up in those difficulties. So that when you’re playing on Give Me God Of War, you really get that visceral experience of challenge and that it’s just as challenging as you remember, if not more challenging than, in 2018.

And just a quick final one, because I did an interview with Brian Fairbanks very recently, who made a game called Lost and Hound which is a game made for blind and sight-impaired people. The design of it is quite amazing because it really was made with everybody in mind from the get-go.

So for God of War: Ragnarök, where did the development for accessibility start in the development of the game overall?

We started development on Day One and I’m gonna say, I love that game. It was really great, and I think that that’s something that the developers on that are really pushing the bounds on low vision.

Development is like… We describe it like a blueberry muffin, right? You have to put the blueberries into the batter when you start because when you bake the blueberry muffin, you can’t add the blueberries in later. You’ve got to have it in the batter.

So when we’re thinking about accessibility, the first day of the project, we were working on accessibility. We were working on tech scaling and completely ripping apart the UI and building it back up from square one to make sure everything was scaled, stretched, and scrolled so that we could have this UI that could support a really large text size.

We were going from like a 12-point font to a 24-point font just in our initial designs and that has to be on paper first, because if you don’t have it on paper first you get to the end and you just can’t do anything about it.

So the things that we learn are that the accessibility that’s put in at the start is what’s really gonna be effective at the end. If you’re not designing from the start, then you’re gonna hit the end and realize that you have big holes that you have to fill and those become very difficult to negotiate at that point

Some of our processes throughout the whole game, especially things like the controller remapping and motor awareness like these things, are core to the experience.

God of War: Ragnarök will release on November 9th, 2022 for PlayStation 4 and 5.

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