Accessing a Colorful Dystopia

You know what’s great about inclusive design? It doesn’t have to make a big spectacle of itself in order for you to recognize it, enjoy it, and utilize it. A solid character creator means the player can express attributes they most want to be represented by, the ability to take whatever path through a story best fits the role you’re playing, and the world having clear visual designs to all of its supernatural elements. Luckily, The Outer Worlds from Obsidian Entertainment contains all of this. You can be almost anyone, handle things how you want, and you can fairly clearly see what’s happening along the way!

Logo image for The Outer Worlds

Shortly after The Outer Worlds’s October 2019 release, Obsidian studio design director – Josh Sawyer – tweeted a statement explaining why The Outer Worlds lacked a Colorblind Mode option: it didn’t need one. The information received from colors in The Outer Worlds is redundant to other information, including icons, physical shapes, and text information presented to the player.

Screen capture of The Outer Worlds weapon inventory screen with a variety of weapons, damage types, and unique indicators

As an example, this is a screenshot straight from my level 23 character’s weapon inventory. Each weapon item has a little symbol in the lower left of its box, indicating the type of damage that the weapon is dealing. The symbols have a pretty distinct shape and their brightness levels are in contrast against the darker background. That difference in physical shape not only seems like a natural fit in indicating the damage type, but it means that the colors there aren’t necessary to identify what’s what. Let’s look at the same screenshot in greyscale.

Modified screen capture of The Outer Worlds weapon inventory screen with a variety of weapons, damage types, and unique indicators with colors removed

Depending on  your view of this article, the picture view may be a bit small to really indicate the distinctness in the symbols, but I can attest to their physical distinctness at full resolution. I’d also like to point out some of the other information that’s there, such as the Unique items with their glow effect in the background, or the special Science weapons that have a faint atomic symbol. This is very good, especially compared to other games with such loot tiers indicated only by a color outline. Even the ammunition boxes also have non-color information, including the text of being Light, Heavy, or Energy, as well as the box pictures having different shapes and levels of brightness.

This kind design inclusivity doesn’t just come out of nowhere. Josh Sawyer called out game director and chocolate-lover, Tim Cain, as having a nearly monochromatic form of colorblindness. I was able to land an interview with Tim to discuss his color blindness and how it affects his work. Tim explains that his form of color blindness runs in the family, where almost everyone is born with full color vision, but loses colors over time. In his 20s, he made a switch from glasses to contacts and missed a single color bubble test. Since then, he’s done worse on the color tests every year, starting with his greens and reds, followed by blues. According to Tim, the sky is usually a steely-grey color, regardless of the weather. On the plus side, the nature of his color blindness has actually increased his night-vision ability, though it doesn’t help him fight crime or anything.

Photograph of Tim Cain from Gamespot.Despite a lack of overnight crime-fighting, Tim is a legend in the games industry, having lead and worked on some of the greatest RPGs of our time, including Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. Notably, Tim is one of the original people behind the Fallout series, having directly steered much of Fallout 1 and 2’s design. I was able to get my fanboying out of the way early in our interview, as I can cite Fallout for being the game that really opened 10 year old me up to the possibilities of what a gaming experience could be. Tim was quick to call out that I was definitely too young to play those games – and he’s correct – but I think I turned out alright.

Even when Tim was with Interplay Entertainment in the 1990s, he was pushing for inclusivity in designs. He recalled a game that had a copy-protection system that utilized a code wheel where you needed to refer to a color on the wheel to confirm a code to validate the game. Tim could not tell what some of the colors were and one of his managers even thought that Tim was messing around, not being able to understand that the colors just don’t work for Tim.

Tim referred to a few things that highlight on his color blindness in his day-to-day life. When buying something with his credit card at a store, it’s normal to be told to “press the green button to confirm”, but that can be tough if you can’t discern the green from the other button colors. He prefers buying clothes online, because the items are often listed with the color being written out on the product pages, whereas your typical clothing rack doesn’t have such information. Tim has also become a self-described “reverse vampire”, going into work much earlier than his colleagues because he isn’t as comfortable driving at night because it’s harder for him to tell the positions of things like traffic lights when it’s dark out.

In game design, Tim has some tips to be more inclusive in the design. If a game element is going to use colors to identify differences, then the color change should come with a texture change as well. When working with a UI designer, do a greyscale mock-up to ensure the necessary information is still clearly visible. Tim said that at Obsidian, they’ve been talking about replacing the need for many accessibility settings by just having the design be as inclusive as possible from the get-go, like having a big enough text size to avoid needing to add in text-size settings.

Tim would like to see more done for accessibility, both at Obsidian and across the industry. Now that the studio is under the Microsoft corporate umbrella, they are also able to take advantage of Microsoft’s Accessibility division resources to further their inclusive design efforts. Tim said that he would love to be able to tell his Xbox that he’s colorblind, instead of having to tell each game individually.  Since The Outer Worlds was declared a commercial success by the game’s publisher – Take-Two Interactive – in their Q2 FY2020 investor call, then there may be more market viability for that kind of inclusive design philosophy and the hard work in pulling it off, which includes following some of the guidelines we offer through Accessible.Games.

Haven’t found your fortune in the Halcyon Colony in The Outer Worlds just yet? You can find it for Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PCs with a Nintendo Switch version currently in the works!

Do you have your own accessibility and games development story to share? Then let us know so we can get your perspective out there.

Thank you for reading and doing your part in making sure everyone can game!


Kevin is a games & tech industry marketing nerd with an affinity for duct tape and playing an orc in every game he can. You absolutely should @ him on Twitter @norumu.