Forza Motorsport is arriving later this year with all the usual improvements in visual immersion and fidelity you’d expect from the latest Forza. But it’s also going to let players who are blind or have low vision race around tracks by listening for beeps and boops. These clever audio cues make Forza Motorsport the most accessible Forza title ever created.
Turn 10 Studios has teamed up with accessibility consultant and blind gamer Brandon Cole to tune these audio cues and make racing blind in Forza Motorsport a reality. In the past, Cole has worked with Naughty Dog to improve accessibility in The Last of Us on PlayStation and has been pushing for game developers on this issue for more than a decade.
Prior to this work, Cole wasn’t super impressed with Microsoft’s Xbox accessibility work, and he decided to make that clear. Microsoft invited Cole to talk directly to Xbox developers in 2020 about the state of accessibility for people with total blindness. “I felt that, at the time, we had been kind of left behind by Xbox, and here we were with The Last of Us on PlayStation that was fully accessible to the blind, and we had nothing on Xbox that was alternative to that, so I said so,” says Cole in an interview with The Verge. “That way of speaking and honesty got me the job. I said games are not for everyone until they are.”
At the time, Turn 10 Studios had been working on an initial concept for what’s now known as Blind Driving Assists (BDA) inside Forza Motorsport. “We took that and put it in front of a user research panel, and we got some really good feedback,” recounts Todd Helsley, senior sound designer on Forza Motorsport, in an interview with The Verge. “One of the people said if this was in the game right now, I’d be playing it, and I wouldn’t be here doing this blind research panel. It was our greenlight that we were onto something cool.”
The team at Turn 10 Studios started working with Cole to figure out how audio cues could allow a blind gamer to navigate around the track without any extra help from automatic braking or turn assists. It wasn’t easy, though. After all, Turn 10 was trying to do things that have never been done in a big-budget racing game before.
“At the beginning, it was very slow going, and we were basically pushing builds to his kit, and on his side, he’d play it and send us feedback,” explains Helsey. “We found out immediately that wasn’t gonna work, so we sent him a PC and were controlling his computer for him and hooked up to the game and made changes live. That went way faster.”
“We made a change and saw him crash into a wall and do this really cool reverse spin and get back onto the track and started following it.”
The team began playing around with various audio cues, but for the first few weeks, Cole kept on crashing into walls. After more than a month of testing, though, the team found the right formula. “We made a change and saw him crash into a wall and do this really cool reverse spin and get back onto the track and started following it,” says Helsey. “We were all kind of holding our breath, and Brandon goes, ‘Wait, is it happening? Is this really happening right now?’ and we’re like, ‘You’re driving! You’re doing it!’ From then on, we knew we were heading in the right direction, and we then spent a long time iterating and tuning it for all the different situations you could get in.”
Forza has a complex soundscape, including audio for tires, engines, and other objects, so Turn 10 had to find sounds that wouldn’t conflict. After experimenting with sounds like wind rushing past you to indicate where you are on a track, the team found this was confusing and opted for something far more simpler.
“Beeps and boops are actually what worked,” says Helsey. “A lot of the cues you hear in the game… are actually more tonal beeps and cues just so nobody is going to confuse them with what they represent.”
The system then adds in audio cues and voiceovers. You might approach a turn and hear “left three,” which means it’s a left turn and medium sharpness. The callouts will be familiar to anyone who has played rally games like Colin McRae or its modern DiRT equivalent.
Three countdown sounds will help blind players prepare for these turns, and the panning of the car engine will head in a direction so you move the car on a controller to re-center the car engine in your stereo field. “It helps you find the racing line again and get back on it,” says Cole. Track limit sounds will beep to let you know how close you are to the edge of the track, and these will increase in pitch as you get closer to the track limits.
All of the sounds are unique and customizable, so they can suit a wide range of needs. “We have a very large suite of various audio cues that build up our blind driving assist system,” says Neha Chintala, gameplay and accessibility producer at Turn 10 Studios. “We also have the ability to change the volume and pitch of each of those audio cues, and players can try them out in the settings menu prior to jumping into the game.”
That should help with any potential confusion, as sounds can be manually changed here. But with a number of audio cues to learn, there’s obviously a learning curve. Players will have to learn the cues for track limits, deceleration, turn countdowns, and even the particular audio beeps that sound if your car is facing the wrong way.
“There are things that I didn’t know about how cars work.”
“Pretty much all of us, as far as the blind community goes, have never driven a car before, so there are things that I didn’t know about how cars work,” explains Cole. “I had no idea that you’re supposed to slow down to go into a turn in a racing game. That’s part of the learning curve, too, so we have to find little ways to teach the blind player this new information they may not have or may not know.”
Blind and low-vision players will also get feedback through haptics on the controller so they can feel when the ground surface changes to grass. All of these audio cues are available to sighted players, too, and don’t require any special hardware.
All told, Forza Motorsport will have a range of accessibility features: screen narration, one-touch driving, dynamic audio descriptions, and text-to-speech and speech-to-text features. There are also colorblind modes, filters, subtitles, text scaling, and controller remapping to make the game as flexible as possible.
“From my perspective, what I wanted to offer was control,” says Cole. “What I strive to do when I work on a project is to give the blind community the closest thing that I can to the sighted experience. I wanted to offer them control and full control of the vehicle… make their own choices, brake when they wanted to brake.”
Forza Motorsport is coming this year to Xbox Series X / S consoles, PC, and Xbox Cloud Gaming.