EletiofeSony’s New Access Controller Reveals a Big Problem in...

Sony’s New Access Controller Reveals a Big Problem in Adaptive Gaming

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For the past five years, engineers at Sony have been developing the PlayStation 5’s answer to the Xbox Adaptive Controller, finally completing a triumvirate of accessibility-focused controllers for all three current-gen consoles, including the Nintendo-licensed Hori Flex. The palm-sized, turtle-shaped Access controller arrives three years into the lifecycle of the PS5, bringing with it an impressive amount of customization and flexibility. Flexibility that costs $90 at launch—$20 more than a DualSense, which is included with the PS5 as standard. In other words, flexibility comes at a cost.

It’s a price reflected in its Xbox and Switch counterparts with the Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC) slightly costlier at $99.99, though both are dwarfed by the Hori Flex’s retail price of $249.99.

These costs are incurred by a community which is magnitudes more likely to be impoverished. British charity Scope estimates disabled people experience an increase in the cost of living “equivalent to 63 percent of household income after housing costs.” That’s an average, in the UK, of £1,248 ($1,558) in extra costs every month simply for being disabled. For disabled players, “gaming is a crucial tool for their mental health,” says Vivek Gohil, a gaming accessibility consultant and journalist. Yet, finding the tools to play only adds to the already prohibitive costs that come with disability.

How the cost of these tools can mount is exemplified in the Access controller. With only nine inputs and a single analog stick, the Access controller can emulate only half of a DualSense’s inputs. Swipe gestures, haptics, and adaptive triggers do not feature. If you’re lucky, you may get away with pairing it with a DualSense. Chances are, however, players will need a second Access controller and a bevy of switches that connect to the controller’s four 3.5-mm jacks (compared to 19 found on the XAC, which also includes two USB ports). Immediately, the cost of the Access controller doubles.

It begs the question of how we balance developing tools for disabled players and making money from them. WIRED put the question to an SIE spokesperson, who replied, “We know cost is an important consideration for many players in the accessibility community.”

Pressed on whether affordable options might be on the way now the Access controller is finally realized, they offered:

“We’ll be listening closely to community feedback online, as well as engaging players at key accessibility events to hear from them directly about their thoughts on the Access controller and how we can continually make gaming on PlayStation more accessible.”

WIRED reached out to Xbox with similar questions but did not receive a response.

As part of a wider landscape of accessible hardware, the Access controller is cause for celebration. It is, however, important that we acknowledge that the cost of accessible hardware remains punitive.

That said, it wasn’t so long ago that things were much worse. “Accessibility controllers today are expensive, that much is undeniable, but it’s important to keep their price in historical context,” says Laura Kate Dale, an accessibility critic and consultant. “As recently as 2017 there were no mass-produced accessibility controllers available on console.”

The precursor to the current slate of adaptive controllers cost in the region of $1,000 without supplementary switches. A cost the Xbox Adaptive Controller slashed overnight upon releasing in 2018. “The controller is effectively just a switch box, and it’s $100, and then the Logitech kit is, like, $60, and you get an assortment of buttons,” says Caleb Kraft, founder of The Controller Project. “So, we’ve dropped a zero off of the price.”

The same can be said for specialized solutions. Barrie Ellis, director of OneSwitch.org.uk, tells WIRED that the Kurzweil Voicesystem retailed at $6,500 in 1984 ($19,248 when adjusted for inflation). “Today you can buy VoiceAttack for $10 and [get] NVaccess for free,” he says.

Take into account the extra costs associated with accessible controllers, however, and prices remain prohibitive. For instance, emulating the full range of inputs found on a basic Xbox controller on the XAC costs in the region of $600. Not every player requires that level of input, but with so many modern games making use of all available inputs, it’s a cost many users must at least consider. It doesn’t stop there. Great as the Access controller, XAC, and Hori Flex may be for some players, “none of these are multi-platform, so that entry price adds up fast,” Dale says.

Something amplified as Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo consolidate accessible hardware around their adaptive controllers. Microsoft has experienced significant backlash after blocking unlicensed third-party devices, a move that disproportionately affects disabled players. The scope of which won’t be clear for some time. This follows years of criticism of Sony for doing the same, going so far as to render the DualShock 4 unusable with PS5 games. Nintendo’s attitude to accessibility requires a conversation of its own, frankly.

This makes swaths of accessible solutions obsolete; the money invested in them wasted. “Building an accessible gaming setup has been a lengthy process, as it requires a specially adapted controller, multiple switches, and accessible devices,” says Gohil. Yet these are swept away in moments as hostility toward non-proprietary devices increases and puts players hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars out of pocket and makes it precipitously more difficult to use current-gen consoles.

It misunderstands the wide and diverse spectrum of disability, one that requires more than a single solution as promoted in consolidating accessibility around one device at the expense of third-party options. “It has the potential to be very bad. Extremely bad,” Kraft says. “It feels hostile toward the users.”

The Access controller and XAC may be revolutionary for some players, but “neither of those make a particularly good one-handed controller replacement, as one example,” says Ellis. “For people needing far more complex solutions, only having the XAC or Access controller would be a giant step backwards.”

It’s why a rich ecosystem of third-party options is beneficial. Not just because they can often be cheaper, but also because they offer a diverse range of solutions that mean disabled players are less likely to waste money on expensive tools they can’t use.

Sony appears to have some understanding of this, having released new 3D printing and 3.5-mm expansion port specifications to, according to our SIE spokesperson, “empower the maker community of hobbyists and accessibility charities to create even more customization options for players with specific accessibility needs.”

On paper, it appears to be a generous move. In reality, it underscores Sony’s overestimation of the potential of the Access controller as a panacean hub when the community needs greater consideration.

Moreover, it places additional pressure on a small group of under-resourced charities to paper over the Access controller’s deficiencies. “It’s depressing; it’s sad,” Kraft says. “These are the only people out there, in my opinion, that are putting the effort into trying to learn all of the things that are out there and possible setups.” Now they’d also need to shift focus to creating solutions for a hyper-focused proprietary device not everyone can use or, indeed, needs.

For instance, simply allowing the DualShock 4—and accessible setups built around it—to be used with PlayStation 5 games would make a meaningful difference to many players and, according to Dale, “would go a long way to demonstrating that they are aware that accessibility isn’t just about the new product they are selling.”

Similarly, third-party options that are smaller, bigger, or unorthodox shapes can be better for players than adaptive controllers and avoid the steep costs associated with them. “That kind of cheap entry point might not be something many think of as accessibility,” Dale continues. “But weird unofficial controllers with just the right mix of features are a big reason I was able to game in my teens.”

With accessibility being pulled into the orbit of proprietary controllers, however, solutions—if they remain viable—are lost behind a paywall erected by the Access controller and its peers.

Worse, focusing on adaptive controllers can mask other ways we should be mitigating the cost of accessibility. When Todd Howard placed the onus on the XAC when pressed on accessibility in Starfield, he exemplified how easy it is to lose sight of the importance of software level accessibility.

If we buy a game only to find it inaccessible, that in itself represents a wasted expense. But this extends to making hardware more accessible and, in particular, more customizable on a software level. How much more? “Ultimately, as customizable as possible,” Kraft says. “If on the Xbox there were so many options for customizing the way your controllers and your XAC worked that it was just overwhelming, then you might have a reduction in the amount of people that need other things.”

Nor should we ignore the information vacuum that accompanies accessible hardware. “To improve the cost of accessibility disabled gamers need a range of choices and an easier way to research and access different accessible solutions,” says Gohil. Something that, arguably, Sony and Microsoft should be doing more to mitigate.

Fortunately, it can also be addressed without them. The onus is currently on charities to do so when a well-resourced, affiliated, and platform agnostic organization would be better-equipped. “A really good fit for this would be somebody like Epic, who has the Unreal engine,” he says. “You have games on the Unreal engine that are going onto PlayStation, that are going on a Nintendo, that are going into Xbox, PC.”

It may sound like a small thing, but simply knowing what’s out there and what it does can stop players wasting money on solutions inappropriate to their experiences. Still, even these specific solutions need to be part of a wider, diverse, and affordable landscape of accessible hardware and not looked upon as ultimate solutions to the high costs of accessibility. Something made exponentially more difficult by the potential of the focus being placed on the idea of a single solution—even if, in an ideal world, we had a cross-party adaptive controller.

None of this should suggest the Access controller isn’t a welcome addition to accessible hardware solutions, but nor should we consider it a panacea to videogame inaccessibility. With its $90 price tag, it does little to mitigate the current cost of accessible hardware, especially as it and other adaptive controllers are brute forced into the position of being the only solution for their consoles.

It’s something that has the potential not just to limit the options for players but also slow down the reduction of costs that remain prohibitive, pushed into inertia by the recommended retail price of proprietary devices. In so doing, stagnating the impressive progress we’ve seen in the last few years and further punishing players with steep costs, simply for being disabled. For, as Gohil says, for all the issues in accessibility, “the increasing financial pinch on disabled gamers is a key factor making gaming inaccessible.”

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