Making Magic: The Gathering Arena Accessible To The Blind
Last updated: January 8, 2021
I grew up playing Magic The Gathering. To be honest, I wanted to play Pokemon, but when we got to the store, just a bunch of kids wanting to play some card game, the guy said that Pokemon was sold out. No problem, he said, there was magic. So we bought it, and started playing. And that was the best thing that could have happened that day.
Because I can’t see anything, I put braille in my cards. Yes, that damaged the cards and they lost their value beyond any hope of repair. No one cared. We sat down days and days at home playing, building decks and having fun. My brother and friends read the cards they were playing, and I felt with my fingers my cards. And we had so much fun.
I improved my system. I started writing braille codes in card sleeves, so that I wouldn’t damage the cards. In the beginning I wrote as much as I could, but that made each card sleeve useful for only one card. I improved my system even more. This is what I still use today: I have numbered card sleeves, from 1 to 60, and when I build a deck, I memorize what card number 1 is, card number 2, and so on. It works and I can reuse my sleeves in different decks.
I haven’t played this year. there is a pandemic going on, you probably have heard about it. You also probably heard that there is an online version of the game called MTG Arena. And this is what we are going to talk about today.
Wizards, please make MTG Arena accessible to the blind. it is possible, it is the right thing to do, and it is not hard.
Gamers with disabilities have been asking for years for more games to be accessible. The reason is not hard to guess why. We also want to have fun, we are also a market that can consume products, and we also want to be able to participate. Add to that the fact that making games accessible is definitely possible technically speaking, and this whole thing sounds plausible, doable and have I said possible?
This year we received amazing news with the launch of The Last Of Us Part II with accessibility features, which definitely shows that this is possible. This game is more complex than Magic in a sense that it has an open world and several actions that can be taken, while Magic is a state game, which is easier to describe.
I also got very emotional as Steve when I heard about the news:
I've been reluctant to post this.— Steve Saylor (@stevesaylor) June 12, 2020
I recorded my reaction when I saw the #accessibility settings in #TheLastofUsPartII for the first time thinking it would be a fun video for posterity. I...did not expect this.
This is why we do what we do. 😢
Thank you @Naughty_Dog. pic.twitter.com/D5Or2B9Tfw
The rest of this article can be seen as a mixture of design doc, vision doc and some requirements. I will describe how MTG Arena could be made accessible for blind players.
Magic: a game of states
I touched this subject briefly in the introduction, but the fact that Magic is a game of states makes adapting the game much easier. Unlike an open world game, where players can walk, interact with npcs and engage in all sorts of activities, the situation here is much simpler. The game holds a state, which consists basically of the board, hand, deck (and others, but just these for example), I was always able to hold the game in my memory and know what was going on by keeping track of the state of the game.
Actions in the game cause the state to change, but things are discret. there is a state before, and a state after. If we have an alternative way of describing the current state as well as a way to describe what is changing from one state to another, the game can be made accessible.
In addition, because the way the game works right now, a player must use the mouse to control cards. To make this game accessible, it is necessary to have some sort of keyboard support.
the rest of this article focuses on two problems:
- How to make input accessible: where I discuss keyboard support for MTG Arena and what it means.
- How to make output (aka describing states and transitions), accessible: where I discuss how to implement a text-to-speech solution that would allow blind players to know what is going on.
Keyboard support for MTG Arena
MTG Arena needs to implement keyboard support to allow blind players to play. There are some scenarios described below to give an idea how this could look like:
- In the game state, many things can be seen as a list. List of cards in your hand, list of cards in the board. Shortcuts to jump between lists and then shortcuts to navigate in these lists are necessary.
- Once a card is selected browsing it from a list, shortcuts could give players ways to cast it, tap, activate ability, or declare as an attacker, for example.
- Casting a card from your hand could be as simple as (pressing f1 to go to your hand, arrow keys to select the card, c to cast), for example.
- When presented with a list of options, the game, again, could treat it as any other list and offer a way for the player to navigate in the list and activate the option (with enter, for example, meaning the default action for the selected option)
- Lists of options could be created on the fly. For example, when an opponent makes a list of attackers and you have the chance to declare blockers, you could browse the list of attackers using the same shortcuts to browse a list, and perform the action of declaring blocker on each attacker. From there, you select a create from your board that is able to block, and select this option.
- Not only inside matches, but menus of the game also need to support keyboard shortcuts, so that players can select the options using only the keyboard.
This is a brief example to show that although many things are possible inside the game, they are similar in the way you are interacting with them. We are talking about keyboard shortcuts that move you around a list of options, and ways to activate these options.
TTS output for MTG Arena
When players can’t see the screen, they need an alternative way of receiving the information. By providing a text-to-speech(TTS), solution, a player could hear the cards that are being played, selected or just in focus at a given moment.
Long vs short descriptions
In the beginning, when a new player starts playing Magic, it is necessary to read the card again and again to know what it does. This changes over time, to the point a person sees just the image, part of the name, and the card’s abilities are immediately known in the mind. No need to read the card again.
For this reason I advocate for every time a keyboard shortcut selects a card or a card is played, only its name is read. A special shortcut reads the card in its entirety. With this approach, the game speed will increase and still give the flexibility to review cards players are not aware yet.
History of last messages
In my experience watching some live streams of the game, it can follow a very fast pace. This will cause many messages to be spoken, and potentially, some to be lost in the middle of a lot of information happening.
One way to solve this problem is to create a history of last messages, that works as a list, where a player can navigate through the messages and hear what was last spoken.
This is a brief discussion of how we could make the game accessible. I still believe there are elements I left out of this text to focus on the biggest two aspects: input and output.
I looked into the API that some game plugins are using, and they inspect the logs of the game to make their features. The information presented there is not enough to make the game accessible, especially the part of keyboard shortcuts is impossible. Reading some of the cards played could be, but there is no point to know what are the cards being played if you can’t play your own.
I hope the developers of the game read this and try to make the game accessible. It would be awesome.
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