The Axiom of Accessibility
The games industry is fueled by passion. The fans are passionate, the business managers are passionate, and the developers are passionate. Thomas Happ is an indie developer who honed that passion into his hit, award-winning Metroidvania game Axiom Verge, originally released on PS4 in March 2015 and most recently on Nintendo Switch in October 2017. In an interview with Gamasutra, Tom addressed approaching the Metroidvania genre simply because it’s the kind of game that “would be most enjoyable to develop.” In an interview with me, Tom said he just enjoyed game development, and that’s why he did it instead of other things. That may be true, but since originally working on Axiom Verge, Tom has a new source of passion: his son, Alastair.
Alastair was born shortly after Axiom Verge’s release. Due to some complications with Alastair’s care after his birth, Alastair is affected by a condition called Kernicterus. This condition expresses severe neurological damage which heavily affects Alastair’s motor controls and hearing ability. As Tom describes it, Alastair can’t walk, talk, or crawl. While he is capable of chewing and swallowing food, Alastair needs someone to help him eat. His body is affected by dystonia, giving him very little control of his muscles. Additionally, Alastair has Auditory Neuropathy Spectrum Disorder, which means that there is some kind of problem with his inner ear being able to transmit sound to the brain, so Alastair has a cochlear implant to work around that.
Working independently has its costs. Whether you’re doing some contract work or are one of the devs featured in Indie Game: The Movie, self-employment can be challenging. Next to that, just about anyone in the United States understands the heavy burden of critical medical costs. As an independent developer, Tom knows his burden. Tom is dedicated to saving up enough funds so that Alastair can live well now and after Tom is gone. Tom explains, “If I’m not working, I feel tremendous pain and guilt for shirking this duty. If I am working, I feel tremendous pain and guilt for leaving my wife and child to struggle on their own.” It’s a lot to think about before Tom begins worrying for his fans who are waiting for his next game.
Tom recalls a saying that developers thrive on limitations, and to him, having a child with disabilities helps clarify things. In Axiom Verge, many of the items were mapped to their own buttons on a keyboard or controller, as Tom thought it would be easier for players to always have the items on-hand. That’s not so much the case from the perspective of someone with motor problems. For Alastair, it takes a great deal of concentration to hit even a single button, so Tom ponders on whether a system like Zelda’s pause and swap method would be a better fit. Tom thinks Alastair’s gaming future is with eye-tracking solutions. “Something like Diablo where you click (blink) where to move and the character automatically attacks might be even more ideal.” Tom shares, “To that point you need to weigh if it is better to spend a lot of dev time on getting this to work on a platformer, or is it better to maybe do an overhead perspective game, with the drawback that you need to make additional art and animations (left,right,up,down) for the change in perspective?”
If it wasn’t clear from above, Tom is a one-man development team, having developed the entirety of Axiom Verge on his own, with support from others around the business. I had the pleasure of first meeting and working with Tom around PAX East 2015. At that time, I was in charge of the booth and show presence for Cooler Master, a PC hardware company. I reached out through my personal networks to find some indie developers who were interested in showcasing their games on our hardware at the show, effectively giving them their own booth space. Tom and his business partner, Dan Adelman, were one of the three indies to respond. I built and brought the rigs, helped set up some press interviews, and a friend found me in the Special Thanks section of Axiom Verge after he beat it before I did.
The business of games is, at times, overlooked by fans. Sure, people get up in arms about Loot Boxes and pre-order exclusives, but that whole process of just getting a game out there? Hardly even considered, at least not until Epic Games dove in against the rest of the PC gaming market giving developers bigger cuts of the sale. Well, for a physical Switch and PS4 European release of Axiom Verge, a Spanish company called BadLand Publishing offered to give 75% of their share for the game to a special fund in place for Alastair and his medical care, which was an offer that Tom or Dan could not refuse for their EU publishing services. Sadly, it’s been two years since that deal and Tom is still hoping to receive payment. According to reports, including a story from Dan Adelman’s perspective, that promise didn’t quite make it through, leading to additional headache, costs, and struggle for Tom and the business around Axiom Verge.
So, what’s the story here? Frankly, life can be rough. Tom has shared as much of his story as he could, because at times, it’s hard for him to discuss. He does want to let people know to not take anything for granted. To that point, Tom says “Don’t think of disabilities as something that happens to other people, since at any moment it can – and will, with age – happen to you. Be kind to your fellows and your future self.” That is something that I personally believe in, and something that the AbleGamers Charity works towards bettering the experience of.
For the other devs out there, I hope Tom’s story helps give some perspective. Also, be sure to check out the developer resources over at Accessible.games, which Tom says is really quite thorough and is in the game dev language. For the gamers out there, if you want to get your hands on Axiom Verge, you can find it on Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, PS Vita, Wii U, Steam, and the Epic Games Store. For everyone, let’s keep doing what we can to make games accessible to all.
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.