I’m excited to write this piece. If you know me, you’ll know that I live and breathe World of Warcraft. I was on a work trip for the last couple of days and I came home and sat in front of the computer. I opened battle.net and there is was. Dragonflight Alpha. This is the first ever Alpha test I’ve been lucky enough to be picked for in the history of me playing World of Warcraft – so thanks Blizzard for giving me the access! I was that excited to be not just playing the new content but bug testing! I love bug testing, I love helping out the developers and attempting to make the game shiny and crisp for the official release. I especially love to look at the accessibility functions within World of Warcraft – and in the Dragonflight expansion, I already knew that there would be some new additions to the already-there options.
Accessibility and World of Warcraft are not two things that people generally put together – but it’s one of the most accessible MMOs still out there to date. As the game has been out for over fifteen years now, the accessibility settings have changed here and there – and upon release in 2005, accessibility was not an interest of developers. It was also one of the first MMOs to have a colourblind mode. Much of the accessibility work completed on this game is used across the whole company, such as Hearthstone and Overwatch. Overwatch is the game that first introduced me to the idea of accessibility in games with their colourblind modes. And from that point on, Blizzard have gone from strength to strength concerning accessibility in their games, including audio descriptions in their latest Hearthstone trailer. But I digress…
As always when testing something that is a work in progress, some of these things I have mentioned can change so please keep this in mind. I generally keep a folder of screenshots for every expansion I’ve ever tested and it’s fun to look back at these and see what made it into the full version of the game and what did not. As always when writing these reviews, I am going to see if there is anything within the game that will directly affect me with my hearing and cognitive disabilities, and I will also mention anything that may be beneficial to people with motor and sight disabilities.
The core accessibility within games are divided between inclusive design features and options. World of Warcraft Dragonflight has a specific ‘Accessibility’ section within their settings menu, which you can find in game by pressing the ESC key. This break-out menu accessibility section is new for Dragonflight, which is very handy for disabled players that may be playing World of Warcraft for the first time. As previously mentioned, a colourblind option has been in the game since Patch 3.9 (April 2009), later coming in with colourblindness filters around Patch 6.1 (February 2015). There are different filters for protanopia, deuteranopia and tritanopia to account for the needs you may have and you can adjust the intensity of the filter with a slider.
Touching briefly on these settings, I use these on the deuteranopia preset as I struggle with how bright the reds and oranges are in game. I also struggle with viewing red against brown and red against black (I believe I have a spectrum of undiagnosed vision issues, but my optician does not agree). With this setting selected, it allows me to see red as pink which stands out much more effectively against dark colours such as black and dark grey. I mention my use of this accessibility function as if a player struggles with the bright, cartoony look of World of Warcraft – this will help make the overall colour palette softer and more acceptable to many player’s eyes.
When looking at the settings menu, I will be comparing the new version of the menu from Dragonflight (DF) and the older version currently seen in the live version of the game (current expansion is Shadowlands – SL). These points will be marked accordingly so the player can see a comparison between the settings where there has been a change and where there has not. Some of the settings or UI changes will be subtle where the changes have been made and others will be new settings. I shall point these out by marking the screenshots with a red digital pen or box, this is mainly so you can see the differences in the settings.
The main difference (and this is a general Quality of Life change I feel) is that when hitting the ESC key to bring up the settings; in SL they are broken into two sections – Interface and System. This made it hard to understand what section contained which settings for the game, whether they be accessibility or just general game settings – leading to frustration when attempting to set up the game as a new player. DF is different. When opening the settings menu in the new expansion, there is now one place where the settings now reside, and these are broken down into:
As a QoL change, this now creates a much-needed set of options to easily customise and set up World of Warcraft to perform exactly as needed for the player in mind. When this concerns disabled players, this is seen as a bigger bonus as it creates a level playing field for the entire player base. It is worth noting too that some options not present in the Accessibility section are helpful in many cases, and I am sure that as time goes those might make an appearance here too. After all, all options can be accessibility for someone.
As previously stated, when the settings are sat in a basic list, it is inaccessible and hard to understand what a player new to the game would be looking at. And in Dragonflight with the new settings layout, this separation of the settings makes it very easy for a player to find the setting they need. Plenty of options have a description for what they do but not all of them which is something I hope gets remedied. This helps whether the player is new or not. As previously stated across the industry, ease of access to a game is also considered an accessibility setting and Blizzard has been putting many QoL changes into World of Warcraft lately that has been enabling this. It’s good to see.
When looking at the Accessibility settings within this menu, it is broken down into three sections, rather than the original two that are currently seen in Shadowlands- these are General, Colourblind Mode and Text-to-Speech.
This last accessibility setting is seen in many modern games and to see this in a game that is fast approaching its second decade in age – shows the strength of the accessibility team that are hard at work at Blizzard.
Text-to-Speech should not be confused with audio description, as they are two completely different aspects and in this game it’s not related to menu narration either. It basically reads everything in the text chat, although we can filter it to avoid sensory overload.
I had a look at these settings recently with the help of Antonio and we found some interesting options together such as different voices, so many different languages and even languages spoken by feminine and masculine voices, as many as are installed on our system. Of course being dependent on our machine’s Operating System they differ between Mac OS and PC Windows, with Mac users having greater variety in the selection of voices.
Many of these voices help blind and those with visual disabilities by using these pre-set sound options to audibly describe what is going on in the game chat game and what NPC’s are saying and also help those with other disabilities such as dyslexia. The speech speed can also be adjusted here. I can only see this as a win for this community and I really look forward to seeing them tested effectively by blind and visually disabled content creators and gamers.
Sound Description is something I first saw around Battle for Azeroth, I vividly remember it in cutscenes such as crashing waves, dark murmuring and strange whispering. Further work was completed towards this and Blizzard Entertainment have recently been using this research into creating audio descriptive trailers. AD made large waves recently in the Hearthstone community when it was featured in an expansion advertisement – although I believe this was due to the audio description being a new and novel option in expansion trailers as up to this point, I do not think that the attempt to use this in social media and marketing had been used by Blizzard.
Which leads me onto subtitles. Being Hard of Hearing, I have used subtitles in game since I received my hearing aids in 2016. When there are loud noises mixed with quiet noises and often accents you’re not entirely sure about – (I’m looking at you Bwon’samdi!), subtitles help a heck of a lot. I find the sound descriptions are helpful also as I can’t always hear things in a cutscene. Unfortunately, these descriptions do not apply to sounds when playing the game and I’d really like to see Blizzard change that and add a feature to make that a thing for those of us that need it. Unfortunately, as we know by now, it’s harder to retro-fit accessibility settings into a game – rather than building a game around them. But I live in hope. Much of the time when a setting is not in the game, there is often an add-on out there that a member of the community has created. At this point, I’m not sure if one exists but I’ll be happy if someone could point one out if there is!
The subtitles within World of Warcraft are sadly not customisable and this makes me sad somewhat. As a game that is trying so hard towards audio description for blind players and options in the game for cognitive disabilities – it feels like subtitles is very much an afterthought. There is no way of changing the font, the size or the colour. I am grateful that the subtitles exist at all, but some varieties within the game would have made the game so much more welcoming to d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing players. It’s just…frustrating.
When concerning the UI in game, the fonts are a particular headache at times. Fonts such as Friz Quadrata and Morpheus are hard to read for even those of us that don’t have dyslexia, so I can’t imagine what it’s like for those that do. Thankfully, there are add-one available to replace the fonts in game. But should this be the fix? Accessibility doesn’t just extend to how the game is played – but how the game is seen. Options such as colourblind modes and the ability to increase and decrease sounds are all good, but when it is sad to see that something as simple as fonts in game appear to have been forgotten. A good solution to this add font options for the game. This would be an easier fix than having to rely on an addon just so the game could be played effectively considering how text heavy this game is.
In a game such as World of Warcraft where there is often a lot going on within the game and on the screen, camera shake is often a presence. The accessibility settings to control the camera shake, camera movement speed and how it will auto-adjust its position while moving, certainly help control the effect it may have on a player that suffers with motion sickness. These settings were introduced recently to World of Warcraft around the beginning of the Shadowlands expansion– showing that the company were taking less common disabilities seriously, other than the standard audio and visual disabilities. In a game as old as this, it is a shining beacon within the community and tangible proof what can be done with older games when the dev team really cares about their product.
It was seen also when redesigning old content for modern players, such as the dungeons Grimrail Depot and Maw of Souls – both which have moving backgrounds. Towards the end of Shadowlands – patch 9.2.5), there is an NPC at the beginning of the dungeon called the Motion Sick Peon (or the Motion Sick Peon Soul inside Maw of Souls) and his job is the Junior Accessibility Advocate -which I have to say made me giggle. This peon sells a special potion called ‘Motion Sick Peon’s Magical Elixir’ – which is a bit of a mouthful. If the game is played without the nameplates turned on, this NPC appears as an orc character wearing a helmet and no shirt. The potion is not a one-use item, but a permanent item that sits in the player’s bags until needed. This potion enables the constantly moving backgrounds within these two dungeons to become static and prevent motion sickness issues that this causes for some players. Even with this being a small fix, it was a nice inclusive design feature that the dev team realized needed to be front and centre when creating the new content in Dragonflight – even if it was reused content from previous expansions. As this is in an item that is available forever once purchased, it leads me to believe that this could be a path the team might take and use to add more accessibility in future content.
The coolest accessibility setting that is brand new for Dragonflight (other than text-to-speech of course) is something referred to as the Empowered Spell Input. Evoker, which is the new class in Dragonflight, uses spells that require either a constant tap on the mouse or a long press. Originally, the spell was a timed long key or mouse press and this caused a lot of conversation around the time of the presentation. For people that don’t have the greatest of reflexes or may have motor disabilities – this was bought up when the trailer for Dragonflight was revealed in 2022. Our Editor in Chief Antonio was one of the many community voices talking about this and I’m very proud to think that the Nexus team had a say on the accessibility settings within Dragonflight. Therefore I’m very proud to be writing this piece about the Alpha and so very grateful that I was given access.
But it’s not the only one, as later a feature was added to cast spells constantly by holding down a key instead of having to repeatedly spamming it.
Concerning physical button pressing and mouse clicking, I have recently found the Click to Move function – I am happy to report that this is still in Dragonflight and I am sad that I have only just discovered it! I started playing World of Warcraft in my early 20s and as my body has aged and my dexterity has lessened – I am finding that it’s hard for me to play for hours at an end without my hands and fingers not aching. Click to Move has been in the game since the 2005 launch and it isn’t well mentioned (which is why I believe I didn’t discover it until now!). When selected, it enables the player to control a character without using the keyboard or having select keybinds. This creates an option for gamers with motor disabilities or even people that may have conditions such as arthritis or fibromyalgia. When used in game, it creates a yellow circle on the floor which your character will then run to. In raids and dungeons it will still be more beneficial for me to use the keyboard to move – but it is an accessibility option that I’m going to use going forward when concerning more casual content like mount farming or questing. This, added to the classic mouse and keyboard controls, the move pad, auto-run and the ability to use on-screen keyboards and controller support offer great flexibility in how to play and thus open the game to players with a greater variety of needs.
User Interface/Head-up Display
Typically, the HUD is not mentioned here at Games Accessibility Nexus and generally the gameplay is mentioned instead. But in an accessibility piece that concerns how the game functions – I’m not sure I can even mention the gameplay at this point.
I do however, want to mention about the new pieces of the HUD that have been implemented within the new Dragonflight expansion. The first is the new microbar. This is where the following options are found:
• Character Info
• Spellbook & Abilities
• Specialisation and Talents
• Quest Log
• Guild and Communities
• Group Finder
• Adventure Guide
• Game Menu
In the Shadowlands version of World of Warcraft, the microbar is a different design to the new one – and I think I prefer it. It is colourful, easy to understand and stands out from the background. The new visual design to the bar in Dragonflight blends into the background and while there is an option to adjust its transparency, the new maximum still looks different. This makes the bar hard to view effectively and this is an accessibility barrier to those that may have a variety of visual conditions.
On the other hand, there is an edit mode in the settings which allow customisation of many aspects of the HUD. Action bars can be easily repositioned, adjusted in size, number of buttons, rows, and the padding between buttons can be increased helping to gain clarity and avoid accidental clicks.
Talking to my Editor we found this very helpful for players with motor disabilities as now he could simply rearrange the buttons in a pattern surrounding the move pad. This saves players with reduced mobility energy moving the mouse all over the screen. Less time moving the icon allows him to play for longer. It is for this that I strongly believe this UI feature can have benefits for everyone, beyond organizing and clarity, which are important too.
The minimap has also been changed for Shadowlands. It is now larger than the old version, more clear and generally easier to read. It can be set to rotate as we move and also we can now zoom into the minimap – which I can see as being a definitive QoL win. Some things never change though, and map pings are still as confusing as they’ve ever been. When pinging the map, there is nothing to tell you who pinged the map and unless they mention it in chat or maybe in a voice chat though Discord – you’re not going to find out either. Generally map pings are used to guide lost folks in a group – a quick ping of the map will enable others to understand where to go. The minimap once upon a time allowed you to customize the icons shown on the map for NPC’s and farming nodes. At the time of writing, I cannot see an option to change the minimap in anyway. Clicking either of the mouse buttons seem to just ping the map – but I wait with bated breath on a possible accessibility map update.
During the Beta phase a few there additions were made to how to play that make me very excited for the future. First is the addition of keys to switch what we will target to interact with as well as a key to interact. Why does this feel important? Because now this can help players with visual disabilities interacts with items and NPCs in a way that doesn’t require mouse usage, a long-time barrier. And to complement that, we have a new option to play a sound when the player is close to an interactive object.
I might be daydreaming, but these feel to me like the first but important steps to make this game way more accessible for many, but specially for low vision or blind adventurers. There are many things that still need to be done but who knows where this journey is going? And speaking of going places, between the follow and new flight with someone interactions traversing the world is best than ever. Share a dragon mount and go with a friend to new places? Sign me up for this!
With all this, Azeroth is surely going to receive a fresh batch of adventurers and make the stories we all share better for everyone, no matter your level or faction, because we all stand united under the banner of inclusion.