It’s not as accessible as it seems.
Microsoft changed the accessibility of adaptive gaming immensely when it released its Xbox Adaptive Controller in 2018. Adaptive controllers before this were often hard to find, and trying to figure out what consoles they could work with was enough to make your head spin. Especially when companies do things like make their own proprietary wireless signal so you can’t use Bluetooth (ahem…Microsoft).
An adaptive controller that’s made to work with the console you’re playing is a game-changer, and it’s enabled people like me to play games they never would’ve been able to play before. I used to play games in an incredibly chaotic fashion. I’d hold my controller up to my face, use my chin on the thumb sticks and bumpers, and button mash the rest. If I got stuck, I’d have to convince my sister to help me.
The Xbox Adaptive Controller is a huge step forward, but it’s got some major issues. I think anyone making accessible technology should learn about these issues, as they plague all technology marketed toward disabled people.
The Xbox Adaptive Controller is great, but the advertising from Microsoft is a bit misleading. If your gaming difficulties extend to more than just a button or two that are hard to reach, you’ll need more than the adaptive controller itself.
Microsoft argues that you don’t have to buy accessories to use this controller, as you could use Copilot Mode. Copilot Mode allows two controllers, the adaptive controller and a normal one, two control one player. This argument, however, ignores the fact that many disabled people want to play independently, which does require accessories.
When I first got my controller, I needed four AbleNet buttons to supplement the ones on the adaptive controller, plus a Logitech Extreme 3D Pro Joystick (picture an airplane flight stick) to control my character. This allowed me to play the games I had, but it was far from a perfect system.
I couldn’t adjust the camera. I was missing many buttons that were mapped to fairly critical functions in game. Still, I was finally able to complete Dragon Age: Inquisition without waiting for my sister to come home from college.
When I received the Mass Effect trilogy for Christmas, I couldn’t wait to finally play this series that was made by the makers of my beloved Dragon Age. Sadly, I only played for around five minutes before it became clear that I wouldn’t be able to play a shooter like Mass Effect without a second joystick. I ordered one from Warfighter Engaged and was eventually able to get through the trilogy.
There are many more accessories out there, from foot pedals to mouth pieces to light pressure triggers. It can be quite overwhelming, and it’s not easy for gamers without tech knowledge to figure out exactly what they need.
Also, every accessory is added by being plugged in to the appropriate slot on the adaptive controller. With the number of accessories that are often needed, there’s really no way to keep it from becoming a big, tangled mess of cords.
At first, the Xbox Adaptive Controller seems pretty reasonably priced. At $100, it falls somewhere between the standard controller and custom pro controllers. Add in the accessories, however, and you’re going to be breaking the bank.
The AbleNet buttons cost $75 each despite being nothing more than a simple switch. I got a discount since I bought four of them, so I “only” paid $60 for each button.
The cost of a game, for one button.
My sister and her boyfriend, avid 3D printers and huge tech people, examined mine and were outraged at the price, so they decided to see if they could make something cheaper. They bought a set four buttons that made animal sounds from a teachers’ supply store, removed the speaker, and added an aux cord. Four buttons for less than $20 total. Go figure.
Browsing the adaptive technology section of the Microsoft shows more outrageous pricing. $275 for a grasp switch. $400 for a quad stick. The only reasonably priced products are the ones that weren’t originally designed for disabled people like the Logitech Extreme 3D Pro Joystick.
Other retailers aren’t much better. Many turn to Warfighter Engaged due to the versatility they offer in terms of joysticks and button configurations. Their prices are also better than what can be found on the Microsoft website, charging around $30 for a single button.
However, my sister and her boyfriend have said the 3D printing of their products is extremely low quality, and no finishing is done after printing. I’ve found the joystick I bought to be pretty buggy, as it gets stuck a lot. It cost $65.
Warfighter Engaged has always responded to criticism of their pricing by pointing out that they’re a nonprofit, and most of their proceeds go toward providing gaming setups to disabled veterans. This has never really sat right with me, as the only people who will need their products are disabled people. It feels like they’re using one population of disabled people to benefit another.
Innovation is constantly happening in the gaming industry. Consoles get improved, controllers are optimized, and players’ gear becomes essentially obsolete after only a few years.
Accessible gaming seems to be exempt from this kind of innovation. Microsoft has hardly mentioned their adaptive controller since rolling it out back in 2018. The accessories available now were the same ones available back then with very few exceptions. Other console makers like Sony and Nintendo haven’t been inspired to follow Microsoft’s lead.
There seems to be a mindset that accessibility has been achieved when it comes to hardware. An adaptive controller exists, why make another? Accessories are available, what more do you want?
There’s so much money that could be made just by making accessories affordable, as many would purchase the equipment for a gaming rig if it didn’t cost so much. Yet no one seems to be exploiting this available market, and I truly think this is because they think accessibility has been reached.