Valorant: Deaf Accessibility Case Study

Prototypes with Accessible Solutions

Overview

In June 2020, I observed and interviewed d/Deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing individuals to gain insight on potential accessibility options for Valorant. Based on user feedback, pain points were identified, solutions were drafted, and design prototypes are suggested. Riot Games was not a collaborator for this project.

  1. Defining the Problem
  2. Approach & Participants
  3. Pain Points (Results & Analysis)
  4. Solutions & Prototypes
  5. Concluding Thoughts

Quick summary of Pain Points & Solutions:

Pain Point #1: Sound design with little to no corresponding visual cues.

  • Add directional indicators for footsteps, gunshots, and abilities.
  • Subtitle critical voice lines.
  • Visually reflect time for the spike.

Pain Point #2: Visual cues lack clarity.

  • Add more customization options for the interface.
  • Create an additional tutorial.
  • Subtitle the tutorial and let users replay it.

Pain Point #3: Barriers when communicating with allies.

  • Add more pings for allies to communicate with one another.
  • Support Speech-to-Text for voice communication.

Please keep in mind that the following information is summarized. For the detailed case study with complete data and transcripts, please contact momoxmia@gmail.com.


Defining the Problem

Created by Riot Games, Valorant is a tactical, first-person shooter (FPS) game that implements the free-to-play model. The game highly relies on tactical decision-making, aim, and teamwork. Valorant was fully released to the public on June 2, 2020.

Though Valorant includes visual cues, it is clear within an hour of gameplay that sound design is a significant portion of the gameplay. As a result, the d/Deaf community has expressed valid concerns about the competitive game. This study aims to explore and identify accessibility barriers, as well as provide next steps for the design team at Riot Games.

Approach & Participants

With the use of qualitative methods and snowball sampling, I use semi-structured interviews as my primary data collection tool. Additionally, I use users’ stream and/or gameplay footage for observational purposes. Data was transcribed, coded, and analyzed. Personal identifiers are removed to keep users anonymous.

I recruited 13 d/Deaf and hard of hearing users of varying FPS skills, ranging from casual to competitive. For d/Deaf and hard of hearing users, I had them play a couple games and asked them to consider the following aspects of the game:

  • Tutorial section
  • User interface (i.e. map, icons, etc.)
  • Player communication
  • Visual cues during gameplay

Feedback was provided during gameplay or through after the gameplay, depending on the user’s means of communication.

Additionally, I want to include a controlled population in this project. Therefore, I recruited a 3 hearing users of varying FPS skills to assist in analyzing audio cues. For hearing users, I asked them to play one game with sound on and one game with sound off, and consider the following:

  • Audio cues without corresponding visual cues
  • Audio cues with corresponding visual cues
  • The significance of the aforementioned sound cues to their user experience

Current Interface:

A screenshot of the Valorant in-gamer interface. The user is play Reyna and is scoping their gun, waiting for an enemy at a corner. They are the last one standing in a 1v4 situation.
Taken June 2020, patch 1.01

Pain Points:

Though some aspects of the game work for accessibility, this case study aims to only identify pain points. Data was transcribed and coded to identity the following pain points:

  1. Sound design with little to no corresponding visual cues.
  2. Visual cues lack clarity.
  3. Barriers when communicating with allies.

Pain Point #1: Sound design with little to no corresponding visual cues.

To start off, here is an incomplete list of audio cues and/or audio feedback that has insignificant or no corresponding visual cue:

  • Footsteps
  • Gunfire types sfx
  • Ultimate sfx & voice lines
  • Ability sfx & voice lines
  • Shooting sfx
  • Grenades sfx
  • Bomb timer
  • Door opening/closing
  • Tutorial narration

Every single audio cue and visual cue affects a user’s decisions. However, due to accessibility barriers, decision-making differentiated between hearing and deaf users.

Hearing users note that the above audio cues play a crucial role in their decision-making process. When considering the critical sound cues, hearing users find that they heavily rely on (1) footsteps and (2) ultimate voice lines. One user explains that, “When I hear an enemy approach a corner, I get ready and pre-aim.” However, when the hearing user was challenged to play Valorant with the volume off, they were astonished by the gameplay, exclaiming, “Knowing other people have advantages over me right now is a terrible feeling.” A deaf user explains that he will compensate by playing aggressive, stating, “I can’t tell if stealth is actually working in PVP… so that’s why I always go on Rambo mode.” Due to the lack of audio feedback, deaf users adjust their playstyle to compensate for their opponent’s built-in advantage.

“The hearing players clearly can hear the footsteps right away. They will prepare to fight, always be ready, and know where the enemies are. I can’t hear the footsteps so I have to keep the guard up all the way and look around regularly.”

-Deaf user, experienced FPS gamer

Deaf and hard of hearing users note that it is important to “match the ratio of audio awareness to visual awareness as to keep the playing field level.” Doing so will provide an equal amount of knowledge during the decision-making process. For instance, one user explains that they “can’t tell if that abilities are from enemies or allies,” whereas hearing individuals have less of an issue because they “can hear where abilities are coming from, for the most part.”

Gears showing: visual cues, audio cues, and decision-making being intertwined
In Valorant, users find that decision-making heavily relies on audio cues and visual cues.

A more specific example is the spike timer. Right now, the spike timer’s cue is a visual blinking and a corresponding beeping noise, both of which become more rapid the closer to detonation. For hearing users, they listen to the beeping noise while simultaneously playing the game. However, deaf users spend their time actively watching the timer which, to deaf users, means they are wasting precious time during the most critical point of the game. One user reflects that while playing Valorant, “I had to keep a keen eye on the blinking icon when the spike was planted… more than my environment sometimes – especially when defending the bomb-site.” Deaf users found that though there is a visual cue, it not only lacked impact, but also hindered their gameplay.

“I can only spend so many milliseconds analyzing my icon and UI because I have to perform intensive visual environment scanning to overcompensate for no audio.”

-Deaf user, CS:GO fan

Pain Point #2: Visual cues lack clarity.

Users, whether deaf or hearing, unanimously agree that a number of visual cues lack clarity. For example, examine the following screen shot from a user observation:

A screenshot of in-game. An arrow points to the minimap, highlighting a gray circle around the user's icon. A circle encloses a gray arc. A bracket highlights two user icons, one that is yellow and another that is colorless.
Taken June 2020, patch 1.01

Example 1: Deaf users have a difficult time deciphering the meaning of the gray arc surrounding the cursor (circled above). One deaf user says that when they noticed the gray arc, they realize that they have “to watch out and get ready to fight.” Another user agrees, providing their perspective that when the gray arc shows up on their screen, it means that “very bad stuff is going on in that straight direction, [at an] unknown distance.” One deaf individual did not notice the arc due to its subtlety within the interface, pointing out, “The firing curved lines really should be obvious… where are the colors/textures?”

Though some users speculate what the arc could mean, none (including hearing participants) feel confident in their guess. Many were close, but only one individual made an accurate guess—and they are hearing and happen to be a game designer for a AA studio.

“The lack of visual feedback is astonishing.”

-HoH user & experienced Fortnite player

Example 2: When considering the interface, many deaf users utilize their maps. However, deaf users are unable to identify the meaning of certain visual cues within their maps; specifically, the ring around their agent. The ring assists with letting the user know if they are making a substantial amount of sound (i.e. footsteps or jumping). However, given the lack of feedback, most deaf users in the study are unable to comprehend the meaning and understand the significance. A deaf user explains that they are confused by the ring, questioning: “What is that? Should I be paying attention to that?” When consulting with hearing users, they note that the meaning is apparent to them. One user jokes, “It lights up whenever I hear myself running, so obviously it means I’m probably being too loud… enemies can hear me too and that isn’t good.”

Example 3: Deaf users are unaware what it means for the agent icon to change color (pictured below). One user expresses that “some players have yellow backgrounds on their avatars on the top… I never knew what that meant. Are they dead? Pretty sure yellow doesn’t mean dead.” A hearing user says that this has never been a problem for them because when they are using in-game voice communication, they immediately relay information to their teammates (i.e. when the ultimate is ready). Deaf users, however, state that with the current system is not ideal. Sure, they could type out every significant piece of information, but “every millisecond counts…I have to make sure I’m making the most of my time…typing is just time-consuming.”

Screenshot of the agent icons, some with yellow in their background.

Pain Point #3: Barriers when communicating with allies.

Voice communication is an obvious barrier for those who are deaf and hard of hearing. When the topic was brought up in an interview, one deaf user jokingly said, “Oh no, not this again.” Both deaf and hearing users agree that “team communication is really important for shot calls” and therefore, voice communication is helpful. However, deaf users state that they felt that they are isolated from their allies and as a result, are placed at a disadvantage. During one observation, a deaf user was lashed out by one of her teammates for not joining the voice communication channel, calling her inappropriate slurs in the text chat. “This is pretty common,” she said.

“What is the point for me as a deaf guy who can’t use [my] voice or hear the teammates talking.”

-Deaf user, experienced FPS gamer

Users believe that the ping system needs improvement. One deaf user explains, “I can’t really memorize the buttons for the pings. I always focus on the screen and I can’t look at the keyboard. The ping system could be helpful. Maybe, they can try to add the wheel.” Other users agree, stating that “there are only four to five [built-in] pings, so our options are limited.” When observing a hearing user, who heavily relies on voice communication, he explains that though his teammates will use the ping system, the limitations are evident. To compensate, he will often use the voice communication system to clarify the meaning of his pings (i.e. “enemy is using their ultimate over here” or “fall back, there are too many”). Whether it be the ping system or voice communication, deaf and hard of hearing users felt frustrated by their current options.

The current ping system, featuring 5 varying pings to alert allies.
The current ping system, featuring 5 built-in pings to alert allies.

Solutions & Prototypes

Pain Point #1: Sound design with little to no corresponding visual cues.

All three suggestions are designed so that deaf and hard of hearing users can optimize all in-game information during the decision-making process.

1. Add directional indicators for footsteps, gunshots, and abilities.

This is a quick and easy way to create visual cues for the already existing sound cues. By adding directional indicators for certain sound cues, deaf and hard of hearing users may gain equal access to the combat chatter. Thus, both player groups will have an equal opportunity while making in-game decisions. Other games utilize a similar system, such as Fortnite and Destiny 2. So far, these games have been a huge success in the d/Deaf community, so it is worth exploring as an option.

Screenshot of user interface. A footstep icon is visible at the center, indicating an ability is in use.
Prototype: A potential interface that includes directional indicators for abilities and footsteps.

2. Subtitle critical voice lines.

For hearing users, they will know when their enemy or ally casts an ultimate based on an agent voice line. Keep in mind that voice lines differentiate between enemies and allies. Subtitling voice lines will assist deaf and hard of hearing users, as they will gain equal knowledge as their abled counterparts.

Screenshot of user interface. An ab
Prototype: Subtitles added to gameplay.

3. Visually reflect time for the spike (rather than the blinking).

A more clear way of indicating the proximity to detonation for deaf users is by changing the color (from light red to dark red, from yellow to orange to red, etc.), by adding a numerical timer, or by changing the size of the spike icon.

A gif showing the spike timer going from a light
Prototype: The spike timer becomes progressively darker as it approach detonation.

Pain Point #2: Visual cues lack clarity.

1. Add more customization options for the interface (everyone wins!).

Many users, both deaf and hearing, find that they heavily rely on their peripheral vision during gameplay. However, given the current interface, users notice that some visual cues are more subtle than others. One suggestion is to allow more customization options. For instance, as of right now, users can customize their crosshair, including the color, shape, and size. Adding the same customization options for other aspects of the interface will allow users to adjust the visual cues to their individual needs. Here is an example of allowing users to customize the gray directional indicator:

In fact, when a hearing user was challenged to play with his volume turned off, his first instinct was to open his settings and look for customization options. He was only met with the ability to customize his crosshair:

Screenshot of user settings, showing
Current crosshair settings.

2. Create an additional tutorial for users who want to learn more about the exact meaning of visual/sound cues.

The Range is a great way for users to practice their aim and spike-planting abilities. So why not add an additional tutorial for users who want to learn more about Valorant’s user interface? Doing so will allow all users, whether deaf or hearing, to take their gameplay to the next level. For instance, one user wrote the following:

“There really should be a second tutorial that players can enter after the initial one… that allows them to explore the nuances of the game, like the so-called ping system I was totally unaware of.”

-Deaf user

An additional tutorial could be added to the range in, for instance, the below vacant location:

A photo from The Range, showing an area that
A vacant location on the right-hand side. Perhaps Riot Games has plans for this spot.

3. Subtitle the tutorial (and let users replay it!).

One of the more obvious solutions—at least, to deaf users—is to include subtitles in the tutorial stage. Though the tutorial notes are helpful, including subtitles will not only improve deaf players’ understanding, but also create a more inclusive environment. For example, one user explains that “hearing the difference between [the tutorial notes] and what was being said—which was much longer—bothered me.” The impression of the tutorial made the user “already hate the game because then I figured there’d be just zero accessibility on anything after that.” Additionally, one user points out that the tutorial cannot be replayed, which is an easy solution that would make the game more accessible to those with cognitive or attentional disabilities. This is a simple quality of life improvement.

Pain Point #3: Barriers when communicating with allies.

1. Add more pings for allies to communicate with one another.

As of now, here is the current, built-in ping interface:

Showcasing the ping system: one alert ping, a location ping, a flag ping, and a clock ping.
Current ping system.

Due to the nature of the game, communication needs to be quick and efficient. As it stands, voice chat is not the most ideal means of communication for deaf and hard of hearing users. To improve on the current interface, designers can add more beginner-friendly options to the already created built-in ping system. Though there is a way to customize pings (i.e. canned chat), new users are unaware of this feature. By adding built-in ping options, users can quickly and precisely relay information to their teammates as early as the tutorial. Another option is teaching users about customized pings through an additional tutorial With this universal solution, everyone wins.

2. Support Speech-to-Text for voice communication.

This may be the toughest, but most impactful addition to Valorant. We’ve seen other games do it in the past, mainly Apex Legends by Electronic Arts. With this feature, voice communication is transcribed into text so that users can read along while they play their game. Unfortunately, the technology is not perfect, but as competing companies have proven, it is good enough to show a substantial benefit for the deaf gaming community. At the very least, it is worth exploring as a long-term solution.

Concluding thoughts

Valorant is an upcoming, competitive FPS full of potential. However, deaf and hard of hearing users found that there are some accessibility barriers that prevent them from obtaining equal access to the game. With over 40 million people in the United States with a hearing disability, it is worth our time to consider how we, as designers, can make the game more accessible.

The aforementioned solutions and corresponding prototypes are just the beginning. Riot Games has always been a pioneer for innovation, so why not take this opportunity to delve into the world of accessibility and make their games enjoyable by all players. I look forward to watching Valorant grow as a game and am optimistic for the game’s very accessible future.


A (very brief) Reflection

Things I learned: Coming up with pain points that refer to a general problem allows room for a multitude of flexible solutions. However, for video games, it is difficult to create a prototype and perform a usability test with the lack of developer support. Still, I am satisfied considering the finite resources.

Improvement for the future: I hope to be more mindful of how these potential solutions may prohibit the creation of other accessibility features (i.e. colorblindness, etc.).

An Afterthought: I would like to acknowledge the fundamental nature of a competitive FPS game. In the past, there has been some pushback for creating accessible options in competitive video games. Would promoting accessible solutions give disabled individuals a competitive advantage? Irony aside, I do understand the concern—it’s a logical thought for someone who has not thought about the world through a Disability Studies paradigm. However, a deaf friend of mine once wrote that accessibility is “an opportunity to think more flexibly about our own orientation in the world, to embrace perspectives and embodiments different from our own to try to make a more inclusive place for everyone.” I challenge traditional users to critically reflect on what is essential in a FPS game. Does hearing matter? Why or why not? And if it truly would fundamentally alter the nature of the game, is there a way we can find a middle ground? I think traditional users and designers may be surprised by what they might learn.

Acknowledgements: First of all, thank you to the many deaf and hard of hearing users for taking the time out of their days to partake in this case study. You are a vital piece, and this study would be nothing without your dedication and support. Another big thank you to Chris, Zero, and Channing for helping me tap into the d/Deaf network & always having my back. Couldn’t have done it without you! I would also like to thank William, Anthony, and Dylan, who put up with my deaf shenanigans during these past two weeks. Thanks for lending an ear when a deafie needed it most. Lastly, thank you to my mentor, Debbie, for always supporting my love for accessibility and inclusion. Go Team! 🙂

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