PlayStation 4 controller

How button remapping helps gamers with disabilities (and everyone else too)

This year’s Summer Games Done Quick started with an inspiring run. One of my favorite runners, Clint "Halfcoordinated" Lexa, ran one of my favorite games, Nier: Automata, in just over an hour. And he did it all one-handed.

In Halfcoordinated’s own words, “it’s not just a gimmick.” He has a physical disability called hemiparesis, which lowers the feeling and coordination of his entire right side, giving his right hand very limited mobility. Yet he still managed to blow through Nier: Automata with incredible time using only his left hand, a slightly modified controller, and an Emil plush on his right hand as a tribute to Yoko Taro’s absolute madness.

When the run was over he thanked Platinum Games, both for being generally awesome and for opening up their games to people with disabilities. He cited a surprisingly basic reason, too: button remapping. All PC Platinum Games allow you to remap literally every single button and function in the game. This allows gamers, especially gamers with physical disabilities, to remap the controls in a way that feels comfortable to them. For some this means using the triggers more extensively or mapping button combinations to a single button press, for others this means using the right analog stick for movement instead of the left analog stick.

This seems like a no brainer. After all, PC games have been letting users remap their controls for ages. However, the creation and distribution of the Xinput API has also created an unfortunate new trend of PC games with controller restrictions. In fact, by ratio, fewer PC games allow you to remap buttons today than they did in the early days of flight sticks and 15 pin controller ports.

Why don't all games allow button remapping? 

Button remapping is a very important issue for differently abled gamers. Game Accessibility Guidelines, a website dedicated to helping designers make their games accessible to all sorts of gamers, lists it as the top priority for basic features that aid gamers with impaired motor functions. Further recommendations including allowing basic game functions to be accessed through different methods of input, an option to adjust input sensitivity, the ability to support multiple different controllers, and even the ability to support windowed mode so gamers can use virtual keyboards.

With all of these guidelines accessible to game developers everywhere, why would any developer refuse to allow gamers to map buttons, or otherwise restrict access to their game? There are a couple of possible reasons.​

They don’t care or just didn’t think about designing their game to be accessible to all gamers.

This isn’t a particularly flattering explanation, but it holds true in many circumstances. Many games aren’t accessible because developers simply didn’t think about making them accessible, and by the time they do the game is so close to being finished that adding any of the aforementioned accessibility options might just break or delay the game.

They don’t have the resources.

This is a questionable explanation at best for AAA titles, but it certainly applies to indie developers. Adding any feature to a game requires time, and time is money. Most indie studios operate on very strict schedules and budgets, and adding accessibility options could simply not be financially viable. This can be mitigated, however, by considering accessibility options in early stages of design. Button remapping, for example, is easier to integrate if you start coding for it at the beginning of your project.

They want to curate your controller experience.

This is a tricky one. As we become more and more experimental in our game design we start to look at controllers as more than just an input device, but also a storytelling device. Quantic Dream, for example, loves to make you tilt and turn the controller to create a sense of immersion. In Heavy Rain the player was asked to twist the controller much as they would a steering wheel in order to seize control of a car that was spinning out. It’s hard to create immersive experiences like that while still allowing for controller remapping

However, there are always solutions. Making the “immersive” experience the default control scheme and allowing for a remapped secondary control scheme is one. Sure, the remapped control scheme probably wouldn’t be as physically immersive as the first, but it doesn’t have to be. 99% of gamers will use the default control scheme and will experience the game as intended. The rest will use an altered control scheme, but this altered control scheme will allow them to experience the game when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

“But what if gamers without disabilities use these accessibility options?” some skeptics will say. My answer to that is…so what? Ian Hamilton, accessibility specialist and contributor to the Game Accessibility Guidelines, said in an interview with CNET that many physically normative gamers do use accessibility options. He brought up Uncharted 4 as an example. One third of Uncharted 4’s users use its one-handed accessibility options, even though only one percent of the U.S. population needs it. For whatever reason, that alternate control scheme appeals to many. 

Keeping things fair

A question that often comes up when discussing button remapping is: “What if remapping the controls gives someone an unfair advantage?” But as it turns out, this much less of a problem than some people assume it would be. 

First we have to ask ourselves what we mean by "unfair advantage." If you are talking about an unfair advantage against a game’s own A.I. in single-player games, then doesthat matter? Isn’t button remapping, at that point, just a variation on your standard difficulty options? Allowing a wider range of people to experience the game at the cost of some people getting to choose to make the game easier if they want to seems like an price everyone should be willing to pay.

If you are talking about an unfair advantage against other human gamers then what’s unfair about it? Both players will be able to remap their buttons in exactly the same way. Setting up your own custom control scheme then just becomes an extension of a game's skill factor. Nothing unfair about that.

In fact, the professional e-sports community has been letting players remap buttons for ages. Pad players without disabilities have been mapping button macros (most notably a “dash” button for games that allow it) to their triggers for years. It’s this very ability to remap buttons that has allowed gamers with disabilities to compete on the professional stage. In fact, BrolyLegs is a professional Street Fighter player that uses the game’s button mapping capabilities to play with his face!

This fear of an “unfair advantage” usually comes from a strange desire to see all gamers play exactly the way we personally do. We covered this a bit in our article about “scrub fallacies” where we examined why veteran fighting game players seem to want newcomers to have to work as hard as they did, and not take advantage of things such as easy combos or simplified move execution. The worry that remapped controls might offer some advantage comes from the same mental place, a desire to create a gaming community where everyone plays, practices, and suffers in the same way. But the fact is, simply giving gamers more options is not unfair. It’s the total opposite. It allows more gamers to play and compete on the same level, despite whatever physical limitations they might have. 

Everyone benefits

Many of us have benefited from accessibility options. I, myself, have minor hand tremors, but they are enough to make double-tapping a joystick in a fighting game quite frustrating. This is why I insist that developers include the ability to “button dash” in their games. For those of you who don’t know, button dashing is a style of input that allows a character to dash by pressing a combination of attack buttons rather than double tapping a direction. Pad players have sworn by button dashing for ages, and many say it’s necessary to play high-speed fighting games like Marvel vs. Capcom. But as much as you or I may benefit from button dashing, imagine how much this would benefit someone who literally cannot double tap a d-pad or joystick. It’s a simple mechanic that benefits everyone and makes games more accessible at the same time.

Unfortunately, many AAA titles have no accessibility options to speak of. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a good example. The only button you can remap is jump and dash, and you can only swap them with each other. This is immensely frustrating, since it means that Nintendo has the resources to let gamers remap their buttons but simply chose not to do it. By making that choice, they also chose to exclude gamers with impaired motor functions from properly enjoying their game.  Remappable buttons would have made a great game even better in this case.

If you think about it, most of our common complaints about game controls would be addressed if developers kept these accessibility guidelines in mind. Controls make no sense? The accessibility guidelines say you should be able to remap them. Controls are too stiff? The accessibility guidelines say you should be able to change your control sensitivity. Can’t use the controller you want? The accessibility guidelines say that games should be designed for easy controller switching. In the end, designing a game that can be played by gamers  with disabilities everywhere should be its own reward. But if a call to altruism isn’t enough to motivate designers, then take the additional benefits of button remapping as proof that games as a whole benefit when we address the needs of the less fortunate.