God of War Ragnarök is one of the biggest releases of 2022. It brings us back to the world of Kratos and his son as they deal with the Norse gods and any creatures standing in their path. God of War as a franchise is uniquely PlayStation, with it not only being a major release on the PlayStation 2, but has managed to be a franchise that has been able to evolve and change alongside its audience and the industry.
With the major reinvention of God of War’s 2018 release, the series has only gotten more interesting and engaging. It has moved past being a male power fantasy, and evolved into something much more complex and exciting for players all over the world. Now, with God of War Ragnarök, Sony Santa Monica not only pushed the narrative forward, but has made major changes to make this one of the most accessible games released from the studio to date.
Talking to UX designer on God of War Ragnarök, Mila Pavlin, CGMagazine explored what this latest entry in the series does differently, especially for accessibility, and why the studio put so much effort into achieving this important goal. So many games are released every year, and so few take the time to focus on accessibility for all players. That makes this move an important landmark for Sony Santa Monica and the God of War franchise. With such a major studio taking these steps for such an anticipated project, it can lead the way for more games to follow in its footsteps.
CGMagazine: Could you just tell us a bit about the changes Sony has made to make God of War more accessible this time around?
Mila Pavlin: This is the most accessible God of War ever. We have added nearly 70 accessibility features to the game, which is slightly higher than what we announced previously, and we have added a broad range of accessibility features, everything from hearing accessibility, vision accessibility, motor accessibility, and cognitive.
We wanted to make sure that players from a wide variety of backgrounds were able to play the game. It’s been a core philosophy for us from the beginning to reach out to community members to gather qualitative feedback around key areas of accessibility and to develop that strategy into a suite of options that allow players to customize their experience and be more accessible.
CGMagazine: Is there anything God of War Ragnarök is doing that’s above and beyond what we’ve seen in other games and other systems, and are there any unique challenges you face in accomplishing this?
Mila Pavlin: So when we look at the way we’re approaching accessibility, there are some big challenges with working on an epic fantasy adventure. We’re going over 9 different realms, a huge cast of characters, and a very large story. When we approach accessibility we have to make sure that we are taking all of that into consideration; how can we make the story accessible to the most people possible? The motor and combat accessibility was probably one of the biggest challenges in making sure that we’ve retained the challenges you face in God of War and given people the options that allow them to overcome barriers that might prevent them from continuing.
I think when we look at the way that we’re doing combat accessibility, it’s probably one of the more innovative areas where we have things like our recenter attack swings that are in a combat arena. If you’re swinging your axe, you slowly rotate towards nearby enemies to make sure that you’re keeping on target, or adding in audio queues that allow you to understand an incoming attack for something like an unblockable attack, so you know to dodge out of the way.
This kind of combat accessibility really makes it so that players, whether they’re low vision, or hearing impaired, or whether they have motor difficulties, even one-handed players are able to get through the combat in a way that is challenging and meaningful. So there are a lot of things going on and so it’s hard to break down in a very short period of time. But I think that’s one area that we’re really proud of.
CGMagazine: Did Sony and the God Of War team feel pressured to add explicit accessibility options or was this on the table from day one?
Mila Pavlin: When I was brought onto the project during the end of God of War 2018 my main reason for being brought in was because there was community feedback around accessibility. There were some articles that came out about small text sizes being hard to read from the couch and so, on our day one, we sat down and said “how can we solve these problems and make this game more accessible?”
We completely rebuilt our UI from the ground up to make the text scale, so that you can have a large text size within the game. We completely rebuilt all of our HUD to make sure that you can have high contrast on every element. We made sure that we were in control from the beginning, and that we built things from the ground up.
As we went along we started to understand more about the community. We talked to community members and consultants and did a deep dive with community members to make sure that we were connecting and bringing them into the process, and they informed us more about their frustrations. This was less of a corporate-driven decision and more of a community-driven decision about how we can make this the best for each player.
When you have a play tester sitting in front of you playing the game, and they’re having some kind of frustration, you can’t help but think “I can fix it.” I know how to make it easier for that one low-vision tester fighting a boss with a health crystal right next to them that they can’t see.
At that moment the team wondered why we didn’t have an option that would allow players to automatically pick up a crystal when they’re standing right next to it in a low-health situation. That’s what led to things like the auto pickup solution or the traversal assist solution.
CGMagazine: God of War Ragnarök has brought some amazing features that are sure to make it a much more accessible experience for anyone that might want to jump into the God of War world. But not all the games in the series are accessible. Are there any plans to bring any of these features to past instalments or use these features in other games going forward?
Mila Pavlin: I don’t have anything to say about any past projects right now, but of course, the foundation is now set. These features are now integrated into our core development ideas and the whole culture of the studio has changed. Going forward you will see that the features that are in the God of War Ragnarök Suite are now tools in the box for Santa Monica to work with, and I really look forward to seeing how this grows and develops over time.
Because I think that the way that games are designed now, the attitudes of the developers towards accessibility have evolved so much just like we’ve evolved our story. It’s changing hearts and minds and more developers are on board with it. The whole conversation is different.
CGMagazine: You mentioned this is now part of the Sony Santa Monica suite of tools. Is Sony Santa Monica planning to share that with the rest of Sony Studios?
Mila Pavlin: So one of the unique things about accessibility is that we really love sharing information with everyone. Conferences like the Game Accessibility Conference [GAconf] are places where we can share information not just with Sony, but with the broader game development community. We want to make sure that it’s not just contained to one game or one franchise. Just like The Last of Us shared their information about accessibility, we want to make sure that we’re sharing that information with everyone.
Regardless of whether somebody is an indie developer or AAA developer we want to make sure that everyone can play. We, of course, strive to make sure that Sony Interactive Entertainment has good connections and good accessibility. I think you’ve probably seen that in The Last of Us Part 2 and Ratchet & Clank. We’ve seen games like Miles Morales have more and more accessibility features.
It really brings me joy to think that we’re making a difference and starting to push the AAA design into more accessible content.
CGMagazine: Thank you so much for your time.
Mila Pavlin: Thank you.