Time for game makers to see the world in two colors • Eurogamer.net
Hello! Welcome to our ongoing series on Accessibility in Games. Today Edward Hawkes takes a look at games and color blindness.
Some time ago, our ancestors moved into the treetops and found that fruit was pretty tasty. Before that, we weren’t fussy. After that, fruit was at the top of the menu. And so we developed a three-color vision to distinguish unripe fruits from the most ripe ones. Or that’s a theory. In truth, we don’t know exactly what changed our color perception in the deep past. But for whatever reason, although most mammals see the world in two colors, most people see the world in three colors. It’s called trichrome.
Now i know what you think There are more than three colors. Richard of York won in vain for this. Well, keep your horses, because poor Richard didn’t win a battle for nothing. There are many, many colors, but for most people these are all mixtures of red, green, and blue. Trichromats have three color receptors called “cones” on the back of their eyes, and all of the colors in the rainbow are made up of these three building blocks. Different ratios of red, green, and blue can produce almost any color. And if you see in three colors, you can try it out yourself with the color rotator in Microsoft Paint.
However, while most people have three fully functioning color cones, not all of us have. Some of us have anomalies with one or the other of the cones that make it difficult to see certain colors. This is called “abnormal trichrome”. And some of us only have two cones called “dichromy”. These conditions are colloquially referred to as “color blindness”.
Before you get complacent about your extra cone, keep in mind that many animals have more than three. Most birds are tetrachromats – four cones of color – and their life is an eternal ultraviolet disco. In comparison, technically all humans are color blind. But some of us are more colorblind than others.
Human color blindness comes in different flavors. The most common is red-green blindness. In fact, there are two different states: “green blindness” (deuteranopia) and “red blindness” (protanopia). But both have similar results: it becomes difficult or impossible to distinguish red, green, and brown tones. And it’s also hard to tell the difference between blues, purples, and dark pinks. There are other types of color blindness as well. There is blue blindness, and that’s exactly what it sounds like. And some people see the world in black and white. But these are rarer.
However, while certain types of color blindness can be rare, color blindness itself isn’t really the case. Almost eight (eight!) Percent of people with a Y chromosome have some form of color blindness. If you know more than thirteen men, likely one of them is color blind. It’s less common in people with two X chromosomes, but still around one in two hundred. In Europe alone, around 30 million people are color blind. That is five times the population of Ireland.
Since it is so common, one might expect color blind players to be well catered for. And, to be fair, many games have color-blind options. But too many games still get it wrong. Sometimes groundbreaking wrong.
The problem is that colors not only make things pretty, they also look intuitive and immediate. As a result, game designers often rely on color to communicate game-critical information. It’s useful. But as a designer for that not correct Colors become hopelessly unintuitive in games for color-blind gamers.
This happens a lot. Mario Kart’s red and green shells are iconic. The red grenade is a homing missile, the green one fires straight ahead. But of course, if you’re red-green color blind, they look identical. Resident Evil’s red, green, and blue herbs can be mixed in potent combinations, which is quite difficult if you can’t tell them apart.
The wrong color combinations make certain games simply unplayable. It’s a huge problem for puzzlers. If you’re red-green blind and want to play a few rounds of classic puyo puyo, bad news! The green and yellow puyos look the same. Do you want to avoid getting crushed in the remaster of Mr Driller Drill Land? The indistinguishable green and yellow blocks are here to ruin your day.
The problem isn’t just old games or small development teams. Hearthstone is the sixth most popular game of all time on Twitch and recently released a new Pokémon-like RPG mode, Mercenaries, which features a rock-paper-scissors-writing system. Wizards beat protectors, protectors beat fighters, and fighters beat wizards. However, these are coded in red, green and blue. And since there aren’t any options for color blind players, color blind players will either have to screw up their eyes to see the tiny UI hint, memorize each character’s class, or simply play another game.
And color coding problems are just the tip of the iceberg. Certain color palettes can cause foreground characters to fade into the background. Try playing Fifa when the jerseys are the same color as the field of play. Other games, especially real-time strategies, often use so many colors on the screen that the action becomes a huge, uninterpretable mess.
Well, to be fair, color blindness is hard to understand when you have tri-color vision. Dealing with the subject means navigating a dense jungle of terms such as “protanomaly” and “retinal cone”. We can’t expect game designers to memorize mantras like “Deuteranopes can’t tell the difference between blue and purple”. But here’s the thing. You do not have to. There are tons of free tools out there to do the hard work for you. This tool allows you to pick a nice RGB color palette and tell if it’s suitable for color blind people. If you want to go a step further, there is free software available that, with the push of a button, shows everything on your screen as a color blind person sees it. Game development suites like Unity and Unreal even have color-blind simulation add-ons that allow you to see your games in real time, just like a color-blind person does. And when all of that fails, the most common way of getting help is from a color blind person.
Although we still have a way to go, progress is being made. The Outer Worlds does not have a color blind mode as the game was designed to be color blind friendly from the start. Every year more and more games have one-click presets for color blind people. With some games, like Audiosurf, players can even choose custom UI colors so that players with rarer types of color blindness can find their own solutions. Other titles display gameplay information using patterns, textures, and symbols. Bejeweled is a great example. Although it uses a rainbow of colors, it is completely playable in monochrome as each jewel has a different shape as well. Into the Breach and FTL are great at it too. And the extra legibility not only helps color-blind players, it also makes the game more intuitive for everyone.
However, there are still hurdles as we move in the right direction. Puyo-puyo Tetris 2, for example, finally got a color-blind update. However, it did so two months after the launch when many had stopped playing and the remaining players were battle-hardened veterans. Overwatch introduced great color customization options in 2018 with complete control over the user interface’s color indicators. But the players had to go through two full years without her. Comprehensive color-blind options should be available from the start.
Why? Well, sometimes it’s just courtesy. It’s annoying when you miss the fun because someone on the UI team wasn’t thinking ahead. If birds were ever to start doing tetrachromatic puzzle games, we would all think the same. But beyond that, it’s just good business. I’m sure there are several reasons the Hearthstone Mercenaries is not exactly thriving. But developing a game that is inaccessible to ~ 8 percent of the male player base really can’t have helped. Hopefully there will be corrections. But they might be late.
So, if developers are reading this, the next time they start a new project, take a moment to take a moment to think twice about your color palette. Because it’s easy to design for color-blind players, especially if you start development early and have a plethora of resources at your disposal.
It’s time to see the world in two colors.