Apex Legend’s ping system has set a new standard.
From cognitive disabilities to physical ones, there are a lot of reasons someone could feel uncomfortable or be incapable of engaging in voice chat. Sometimes, this isn’t a huge deal, but in this era of team-focused multiplayer games, it’s getting harder and harder to effectively communicate with your teammates without directly speaking to them. Yet Apex Legends, the latest addition to an ever-expanding landscape of Battle Royale shooters, is changing that.
Apex’s ping system allows for more universal types of communication. Through simple button inputs combined with thoughtful audio cues, it creates an environment where virtually all relevant in-game information can be relayed to your team without uttering a single word. The system lets you place various markers on the map and battlefield, such as enemy locations, where to loot, and the direction you want your team to go next. Once the marker has been placed, your character will verbally express the type of marker you chose, establishing visual and auditory indicators simultaneously. But it isn’t just a neat way to save time, it is a huge step forward toward inclusivity for gamers with disabilities.
Communication systems in video games aren’t a new concept. Voice and text chat options and communication wheels have been around in some form for over a decade. These systems have laid the groundwork for better team planning and cooperation, but often times aren’t designed in a way that allows people with disabilities to utilize them fully – or even at all.
Ben Bayliss, a staff writer at DualShockers who was diagnosed with severe deafness at the age of four, often encounters problems in the way team communication and accessibility options function in online games. “I usually rely on subtitles to follow cutscenes and in-game audio,” said Bayliss. “Some titles either don’t have the option, or their subtitles are designed so badly they’re hard to read and result in me needing to sit nearer the TV or squint if the subtitles blend into the scene.” There’s also the issue of games that heavily rely on voice chat, he continued. “There have been moments where I’ve been unable to hear the team barking orders, and cost them the match resulting in anger on their part.”
These types of problems affect a significant portion of the gaming community, and some studios aren’t particularly conscientious when it comes to developing accessibility tools within their games. Thankfully, Bayliss believes there is currently a push in the industry for more accessibility. “Not only myself but many others have been talking more and more about making games accessible. Companies such as Microsoft are opening doors with the Xbox Adaptive Controller and Subpac recently worked with Beat Games to help deaf players enjoy Beat Saber. Charities such as AbleGamers and SpecialEffect are also constantly working on ways to involve more players by building tools for gamers”
There are other reasons for this wave of change. New laws and regulations, for example, hold companies accountable if games don’t meet a set of standards for accessibility. One of these is the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, or CVAA for short.
“CVAA has been around for a long time, it was signed in 2010 but due to a lengthy series of waivers granted to the industry by the FCC to allow for R&D time, the final compliance deadline has only just hit,” explained accessibility specialist and consultant Ian Hamilton. “This means that communications functionality in all games launching from January 1st, 2019 must be as accessible as reasonably possible.”
The net result of this progress is Apex Legends’ ping system, which is drawing in people who normally steer clear of the communication-reliant genre.
“The ping system in Apex Legends has absolutely blown the doors wide open to this kind of gaming for me,” said Cherry Thompson, a disabled accessibility consultant and streamer. “I’ve been watching friends and my favorite streamers play Battle Royales for years now and I never thought they’d be a game I could actually play, even though I really wanted to.”
Thompson said that despite being a streamer, sometimes it can be extremely difficult for them to engage in voice chat and process what their teammates are saying while simultaneously concentrating on fast-paced, intensive gameplay. The ping system allows them to communicate practically everything they need with another player and lets their squad do the same in return.
The ping system isn’t the only forward-thinking feature in Apex Legends – there are a number of settings and tools that work in tandem with it that make Apex one of the most accessible games to date.
“A ping system alone doesn’t quite cover it, as there’s still a degree of communication that can’t be carried out using it”, said Hamilton, “but the game also has real-time text-to-speech and speech-to-text to allow people to enter and receive voice chat messages via machine transcription.”
Still, for all the positive steps Apex takes, it’s not perfect. “There’s never been a game that hits every aspect of accessibility,” Thompson said. “Game developers know too well that nothing is perfect, and everything could be improved – this is true whether we’re talking about accessibility or any other aspect of making a game.”
Even for Apex itself, there is a long list of changes that could be made to improve on the solid base it has. “The most significant, I think, are vision and motor,” Hamilton said. “The cursor-based menu navigation required to turn on and configure the chat functionality is a hard block for people who can’t see cursors and requires a way greater degree of physical effort and coordination than regular digital menu navigation.” Beyond that, there is still plenty that could be added, updated, and expanded on in Apex Legends such as HUD resizing, more colorblind options, controller customization and much more.
That said, what Apex Legends does accomplish – and the potential impact it could have on the industry as a whole – is astounding. Even Fortnite is taking notes. Just weeks after Apex’s launch, Fortnite has sneakily introduced a rather similar ping system in one of its recent updates. Apex clearly has a strong influence, and it’s likely we’ll see more systems like this grow out of it.
Whether due to a reluctance to dedicate resources to it or simply a lack of technology to create these complex systems, there has been a shortage of developers being proactive about accessibility in the industry for a long time. But good, accessible game design benefits everyone, and they’re beginning to realize it. We’ve seen the state of play improve by leaps and bounds in the last year alone – and things can only get better from here.
Grady Penna is a freelance writer based in Southern California. You can follow him on Twitter @ufofriend.