Accessibility Interview with Nikki Crenshaw – Senior Researcher for Warcraft

Interview with Nikki Crenshaw on the Accessibility for World of Warcraft Dragonflight.

After our Accessibility Impressions for World of Warcraft Dragonflight article, Nickie Harper-Williams, our Hard of Hearing editor interviewed Nikki Crenshaw. The video of the interview can be watched here. For those who prefer it, we have (finally) published it with edits for readability. Enjoy it and thanks to Nikki Crenshaw and Blizzard for the opportunity.

Nikki Crenshaw dressed as an elf. Her hair is black with a touch of green, and falls to the sides of her face in two long curls., with Elf ears sticking out of it. Her eyes covered by green sigils make-up. A wooden neclace hangs from her neck as she smiles.

Nickie HW: I feel very grateful that I’ve been given this opportunity by the World of Warcraft development team. We are just going to have a chat today with Nikki Crenshaw, Senior Researcher for the Warcraft franchise who is part of the accessibility team at World of Warcraft.

So, my first question would be, as developers how important do you think accessibility is to World of Warcraft and why?

Nikki Crenshaw: It’s a great question. I think it’s super important and I think a lot of us feel that way. I know for a lot of our developers, WoW has been something for us, personally as players, that brought us together with other people or introduced us to friends that we wouldn’t have made otherwise.

And I think through accessibility, we are able to give those opportunities to more players from more backgrounds. I know how important it was for me personally, and so the idea that somebody can’t have that experience because of the way we design the game or something like that breaks my heart, I love that it’s a key initiative. I love that we have a lot of people on the team who are really passionate about accessibility and it’s something that we’re just continuing to work on. Accessibility for us isn’t a one and done thing.

We do have technical hurdles with World of Warcraft being a game that’s been alive for 18 years that we need to overcome but it’s something that we’re continually working on. The community will continue to see updates from us, but we want to make sure that we get those updates out as fast and responsibly as we can, making sure that it’s working in the best way that it possibly could, that the timing is right, and that it’s going to make sense for the current state of the game.

Nickie HW: That’s really good, thank you. The colorblind settings in the game were some of the very first in an MMO. Are there any other accessibility settings that were first for you as a designer or a first for Blizzard as a company?

Nikki Crenshaw: So, I’ve learned from my time in academia to never say you were the first, because there’s probably always somebody who’s done it before you. But I think some of the most pivotal things that we’ve introduced to WoW are some of the key ones that I think are high impactful ones. Our chat, text to speech and speech to text was our first major accessibility undertaking as a collective.

Accessibility Text to Speech Settings highlighting the Transcribe Voice Chat featuregeneral settings highlighting the Empowered Spell Input set to Press and Tap

And that was something where we were the first Blizzard game to ever do that kind of accessibility feature, which was really cool. A lot of our other teams have learned from that foundational work that the WoW team did, and it gave access to our community to folks who never had it before. So going back to what I said of just like bringing more people into the community so that they can participate, we know that chat was a big one for a lot of our players, and so we wanted people to be able to communicate with people in their party and people in their guild, and not have to go outside of the game for that. I think that was a big one.

And then another one that’s kind of newer, but I think is sort of new in thinking about how you interact with World of Warcraft, is our interact key. That just came out with Dragonflight and, you know, when you think about World Warcraft, it’s a keyboard and mouse game and interact key is really sort of challenging that like, “Well now there’s more that you can just do with the keyboard.” I know I’ve been using it in Dragonflight for my fishing and it’s been really convenient.

I think those are some of the ones for me that I feel like are sort of breaking the ground of challenging what WoW was before and what WoW could be.

Nickie HW: Yeah, that’s understandable. Personally, one of my favorite things is the fact that you can set up any spells on the number keys. You can just obviously tap the number key just like when I started playing back in The Burning Crusade and I very quickly learned that fishing was a bit of a bore, and I learned to put it on one of the number keys so I would just sit there tapping the key all the time. You don’t think of it as an accessibility setting, but it is because it makes the game easier for people.

Okay, question three. Click to Move is one of the very earliest accessibility settings in the World of Warcraft. Could there ever be an option to make it another color but yellow?

Nikki Crenshaw: Yeah, our UI team are some of our biggest advocates for accessibility and, in the UI revamp that just happened with Dragonflight, accessibility was a big focus there. The current UI revamp is sort of the foundation, we have the base there and I know the team wants to continue working on it. It’s going to be a continual process. And so, if the Click to Move is one area, like that still has the old UI, that would be a relevant piece to revamp.

We would love to hear from the community on what things they’re interested in having for an update to the Click to Move pad. What would they want to see? What would bring it up to that level of modernization that the other elements of the UI have as well?

Nickie HW: One of the reasons that I obviously mentioned yellow is that I personally struggle to see things like yellow against white and stuff like that. I can’t remember the zone.

Nikki Crenshaw: Bastion.

Nickie HW: Yes! Seeing the yellow on very pale colors is really hard at times. And I also found the same thing with things like Revendreth where I struggled to see reds on browns. Those color combinations are hard for me and one of the things I did was to change the colorblind settings, but I know that doesn’t work for everybody.

For example, I have somebody in my guild who’s colorblind, and even he has asked me if would there ever be the option to change individual parts of the UI colors? So, for example in Overwatch, where you can take different parts of the UI and change that color. But obviously as you’ve just said, a lot of this is based around the old UI so it could be really interesting going forward and seeing the differences on the old UI and the new.

Nikki Crenshaw: Definitely. I know the team had accessibility as a core value when they were looking at the revamp, and I know that there’s more that we can do. But now that the base is there, we can start to do the cool extra stuff, right?

Nickie HW: Yes, that’s totally fine.

Now this is a question that I am convinced I am going to drive myself crazy about because people in the community think that I’ve seen something that isn’t there and it doesn’t exist. But I’m going to check with you. During the Battle for Azeroth expansion, there was a description of the sound effects in the cutscene subtitles, and I swear that I saw things like low pitched murmuring, burbling… those kinds of words, and I’m convinced it was there. But was this ever a thing? Was it cut out of the game? Or am I just imagining it?

Nikki Crenshaw: I can’t speak to Battle For Azeroth specifically because that was be a little bit before my time working with the team, but I know for Shadowlands moving forward, you’re not crazy and that is actually in there. We worked with our localization team to make sure that our cinematics had subtitles for Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and we chose that specifically because we wanted to include all of that extra information you talked about. So you’ll see, you know, “Ominous orchestral music”, or “Stammering” or whatever it is.

Cinematic subtitles

And that was a deliberate decision so moving forward, one was turning on subtitles by default because we heard from some folks in the community that their settings were getting, like, turned off again when new expansions would come out. We were like, “Oh, subtitles are off by default. Let’s fix that so that people can get that epic cinematic right when they come in”.

Another one was just making sure that we had that consistency in our subtitles. So whether it’s our in game cinematics, or videos on YouTube, they’re always going to have the subtitles for Deaf and Hard of Hearing included.

It’s a different community that we’re catering to, but we’re also starting to explore audio description for some of our cinematics. So that’s been more of our out of game cinematics, like announcement trailers and things like that. Those are the things that we consider, like the community hype building videos, and we want everyone in our community to be a part of that so that’s why we started to explore audio description as well and we’re still looking to see kind of where we can push the boundaries on that and do a little bit more with it as well.

Nickie HW: That’s totally understandable. And obviously I saw the audio description work that has been done in things like the recent Hearthstone trailers and I was really excited to see things like that and that those were being put in. That’s really great.

So a little bit of a twist on that subtitle question. Has it ever been of any consideration to the developers to change a lot of the options towards subtitles? So, for example, I’m hard of hearing and more options for the subtitles would be really appreciated. Things like colors, fonts, different opacities of backgrounds, sizes… That kind of thing. So obviously if you look at other studios and their games, they obviously give a lot of options towards their subtitles. And this is a thing very much in the industry now that we are kind of pushing more towards. I was just wondering, if there’s scope at any point, to do that within World of Warcraft?

Nikki Crenshaw: Yeah, so for a while it’s complicated, that’s the answer for a lot of things. But it’s definitely something that the team has on our radar. It’s something that we’re investigating. One of the difficulties is some of our older cinematics have the the text baked into the video, and in situations like that, it’s not necessarily as possible.

But for some of our newer tech, like our in game cinematics where your character is there with some of the other main cast of World Warcraft, those are kind of newer technology that we have now. And I think starting to explore what’s possible with that kind of real time cinematic tech and how can we customize this stuff is something that we can look at moving forward.

We’re still figuring out just some of the video pieces of that. So I think working on that alongside the subtitle tech is something that we can definitely explore going forward and hopefully find a way to support that because I know industry standard for sure is moving towards that direction of resizing, color customization, speaker names and all of that kind of good stuff.

Nickie HW: When I was writing the review, I discovered that there. were text to speech differences in the voice options between Mac and PC. Could this be something in the future that is baked into the settings of the game and not reliant on the operating system?

Nikki Crenshaw: Just to clarify, do you mean in like the number of voices or the style of voices?

Nickie HW: Yes, so I was playing on Mac and Antonio was playing on PC, and we found that I had a lot more choices when it came to things like voices, and female, male… Those kinds of things than what the PC has. So, we were just wondering, obviously if there’s a possibility to just put that in the game without having to rely onto the operating system.

Text to Speech Options

Nikki Crenshaw: When we were working on the text to speech there weren’t adequate systems in place for us to be able to support something as robust, purely with the in game functionality. We tried that early on, actually, and had players giving us feedback like “I’ve seen better, you know?” So our engineers were looking at exploring “Hey, how can we do this to a level of quality that our players are expecting and that our players need?”, which was why we chose to go the route of supporting the OS level voices.

I think by default it just adds whatever you have installed on your OS Standard, so if you’re somebody who uses narrator or voiceover a lot and you have other voices that you’ve downloaded and things, it will pull those packs into game. It’s just a little bit of extra work outside of the game. But for us, it was the decision of “Hey, for players who use this, they’re going to be used to this already. This is kind of what they’re comfortable using”. And so bringing that into the game rather than reinventing the wheel or do something that’s maybe not to the level of quality players are expecting is going to provide a better experience, which is why we chose to do the system at the OS level support.

Nickie HW: That makes sense. Thank you.

When looking at the settings concerning movement in World of Warcraft, is there a chance for the move pad to be updated, to be customizable? This would improve the functionality of the pad in the game.

Nikki Crenshaw: So, if I can flip it around and ask you a question, what kind of customizations would you want from the move pad?

Nickie HW: This is actually, and I’m going to be totally honest here and hold my hands up because such a question came actually from Antonio because he has movement disabilities, and it was one that he wanted to ask. I think what he’s trying to say is, at the moment when you look at the move pad in game, it’s just one style. So what I think he was looking at was things like could you have different styles for the pads? Could you have different colors? Could you have the kind of stuff so you could make it more customizable?

And for example, not everybody has a motor difficulty, but they could also have a sight difficulty, a hearing difficulty, or they could have all three. Is there a chance that you could make it more customizable so, for example, if you were to press a part on the move pad and it made a noise or it gave a visual response that could be an option. Or let’s say, a different contrast to the back of the pad so it stood out from the game. You know, that, those kinds of things.

Nikki Crenshaw: I think that’s a great list of things. It totally makes sense. I think going back to what we talked about before with the UI revamp, this is definitely something that could be, based on player feedback, something that we look into, right?

Editing the User Interface in World of Warcraft Dragonflight

I think the action bars are a great comparison where when we first started to look at those it’s like “Okay, action bars. There are small buttons and with UI scaling, you can kind of make them bigger.” But that’s it. And now the new version is like, “Well, what orientation do you want your bars? How big do you want the icons to be? How much padding do you want between the icons?” And a lot of that was taken into account because of accessibility feedback and because of things we heard from players or screenshots that we saw from our community of how they had set up their UI.

I think Move Pad is another thing that could fall into that category, right? Let us help you. What do we need to do to make this better? So, I think hearing from our players is the thing that I would say is top of mind for us. We want to know how to make it the best that it can be for everyone.

Nickie HW: Understandable, yes. Brilliant, thank you.

So, the new UI options have been really welcomed for players that found the old UI cluttered and hard to understand. Has there ever been a consideration for changing the fonts to a plainer version with less flourishes on it, or has there ever been an option to change it? I’ve been asked this question by somebody who’s not just autistic, but dyslexic, so they find the in-game fonts hard to read. So certain fonts, like say Friz Quadrata, which I know is used, and there’s another one as well that I know is really hard for people.

I say this as somebody who really appreciates, obviously, the UI changes because I haven’t used the original UI in over 10 to 15 years because I just find it really hard and cluttered. So things like ElvUI give me the chance to move things, space things, put things in proper boxes, and having more plain fonts, without having to use ElvUI or any other add-ons would be a real bonus to people who needed that in game.

Nikki Crenshaw: So this is another one where we’re definitely looking at trends in the industry and what some of the other games that are coming out are doing. I can’t say anything right now. It’s definitely something that the UI team has on their radar. But again, with the UI revamp sort of rolling now, there’s a lot more opportunity for us to explore things like this.

Nickie HW: Concerning character design, I know that there were options with the Mechagnomes to add or deduce arms and legs, but have you ever considered this for any other race? I love the option of the blindness on the elf races.

Nikki Crenshaw: I think at this point actually all of our races have a blindness option, but it’s two different degrees. And I know for Dragonflight, the Dracthyr sort of reset the bar for what character customization in WoW is, so using the blindness as an example for Dracthyr, you can select which eye, it will match with every color option of the eyes. It’s got this whole thing that’s tied together. And so as we go back and look at our existing races for what character customization things can we advance, I think we’re gonna be using the Dracthyr as the frame of reference for that, to add that additional customizability and make sure that people can represent themselves the way that they want in the world.

A female mechagnome in the character creation screen. She has robotic arms and legs.

Nickie HW: I really liked the idea that with th, Mechagnomes you could like to take off an arm and put on a metal arm and things like that. And obviously it’s because, you know, we think of them as robots. They’re like, you know, half robot, half flesh. So obviously I understand that this doesn’t fit into the other races, but I just love the idea of having this, I think it was really clever how this was done and how it was such a nice idea to bring people into the community and they could look at these and they could go “I lost an arm and now I can play a Mechagnome who’s also lost an arm” and it was this idea of seeing yourself in game. And I love the fact that you’ve just started putting glasses in game as well now, so people like myself could now wear glasses. For example, my elf is a Blood Elf. She has red hair, she has glasses. She looks a lot like me, and it’s just for so long after playing the game that I feel like “Oh wow, I now have a character that looks like me and it’s just so cool!”.

Nikki Crenshaw: That’s awesome!

Nickie HW: The last question that I have is, as a developer, if there is one accessible feature that you would like to put into the game, what would it be?

Nikki Crenshaw: This is so hard to pick one because it’s like, what’s your favorite child? Right? There are so many things that I want for World of Warcraft. If I can cheat a little bit and say two, a big one for me would be controller support in game. We have a little bit of that worked in now with some of the controller support stuff that we do. But I think opening the game up to full controller support so that you can navigate menus, you can fully move your character, all of that kind of stuff like we’ve talked about, is just going to bring that game to so many more people who can’t use a keyboard and mouse or find it more comfortable to use a game pad, all of that kind of stuff.

I think another piece of that is I know, and I hear from players like this all the time, of people who want to use the game pad for one part of their control and a keyboard for another part of their control. And I can hear engineers screaming right now, but the ability to have that still interface well, and that you could use multiple input devices. That would be one for me that I think would be huge.

The other one is, it was so cool to see all the positive response for things like the text to speech for chat, but I would love a world where we had text to speech for quest narration. And I know that there’s some really robust voices out there that have kind of more of the fantasy inflection and you know, can we make it a little bit more immersive?

I know even for able bodied players, not everybody reads quest texts because it’s just a lot and having somebody who’s reading it out to you might make it a little bit more approachable, might help you get involved in the lore a little bit more, is going to help people who just aren’t able to read that text for whatever reason, get involved in the story and figure out what’s going on. That would be another one for me that I would just be like “Ah, this would be so cool!”.

Nickie HW: Oh yeah, that would be incredible. For example, say like you had like one of the main characters like Jaina or Khadgar and they were reading to you? Or any of the other guys, and it would just make it so immersive. You’d be bringing so many more players into the game and I love that. I’d flip if that happens.

A dragon with purple scales and yellow horns flying with a view of mountains behind.

Well, that’s it. I just want to say thank you for giving me this opportunity. It really does mean a lot to me. This is huge. I feel like I’m going to wake up in the morning and it’s all going to be just like a really funny dream. I appreciate this this a lot. So, thank you very much for your time.

Nikki Crenshaw: Of course. And thank you for the write up that you did on WoW. I shared it with people internally and so we were all talking about the article and everything. Having the opportunity to chat with you folks and get some of this out there is awesome for us too. I love that I get this chance to do this. I was in the same boat as you, just being like “Oh my gosh!” so thank you for taking the time.