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By Sarah E. Needleman
Microsoft Corp. is making its first videogame controller designed for people with disabilities, the latest in a growing number of industry efforts to accommodate players who face challenges seeing, hearing and directing the on-screen action.
The tech giant Thursday is expected to unveil the Xbox Adaptive Controller for Xbox One consoles and Windows 10 computers. It will cost $100 when it goes on sale later this year, about $40 more than the standard model.
A mass-produced piece of gaming hardware is long overdue, advocates say, and could help people who rely on more expensive, customized gear.
More than 33 million people in North America play videogames with some kind of disability, ranging from colorblindness to missing limbs, according to AbleGamers, a nonprofit that pushes for more accessibility in the videogame industry.
"Social media has made a huge impact on being able to spread awareness of our mission and to gain support," said Craig Kaufman, program director at AbleGamers, which worked with Microsoft on developing its specialized controller.
Even so, accommodations for disabled gamers still aren't yet the norm, according to Ian Hamilton, an independent consultant who specializes in helping developers make games more inclusive. For such folks, "buying games can often be a lottery," he said.
In recent years, game companies increasingly have added accessibility features, such as letting players remap buttons on controllers to suit their needs. In some games, it is possible for visually impaired players to alter the colors of characters, or for those who can't hear on-screen dialogue to turn on subtitles.
Emilia Schatz, lead game designer at Sony Corp.'s Naughty Dog studio, said that when she was making the 2016 cinematic adventure game "Uncharted 4," she received emails and tweets from disabled gamers asking for specific features.
Her team ended up adding more than two dozen, including small changes such as letting players fire weapons by holding a button rather than having to press it repeatedly -- a boon for novice gamers as well as people who have trouble rapidly tapping buttons. "It's a learning process," said Ms. Schatz.
The increased focus on inclusiveness comes at a time when videogames have never been more popular. People are increasingly flocking to online multiplayer games that let them socialize as if hanging out at the mall -- even though they are playing at home.
Charley Gentry, a 29-year-old gamer who was born without arms or legs, plays games using just his chin to press buttons and move analog sticks. He has paid as much as $300 for a modified controller from small businesses such as Evil Controllers, located in his hometown of Tempe, Ariz.
Online games are an important social outlet for Mr. Gentry. At one time in his life, when he was bedridden for three years due to a back injury, they were his main way of staying in touch with friends, he said. Mr. Gentry is convinced most people he plays games with online have no clue about his situation, having only told a few people over the years.
"When the shock ends, we don't talk about it again," said Mr. Gentry, who counts "Fortnite" and "Battlefield 1" among his favorites. "They treat me like a normal person."
Microsoft's Xbox Adaptive Controller is meant to work for gamers with a wide range of physical limitations. It is lightweight and rectangular like a keyboard, with large programmable buttons and 19 inputs for connecting peripherals disabled gamers might require, such as foot pedals or joysticks.
The new controller sprang from Microsoft's annual hackathon event in 2015, when a group of employees chose to make a device that could be used by disabled gamers. Their prototype drew praise from executives throughout the company, including Chief Executive Satya Nadella, whose son Zain was born in 1996 with cerebral palsy.
The controller "fits the values of our company," said Navin Kumar, director of product marketing at Microsoft. He declined to say whether the company expects to profit off the device, but said it will be sustainable for the company going forward.
Write to Sarah E. Needleman at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 17, 2018 05:44 ET (09:44 GMT)
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