do not let visually impaired players lose access to Hearthstone

do not let visually impaired players lose access to Hearthstone

Started
November 4, 2022
Petition to
Executive producer of Hearthstone At Blizzard Nathan Lyons-Smith
Signatures: 1,429Next Goal: 1,500
Support now

Why this petition matters

Started by Alec Olson

Dear Mr. Lyons-Smith and concerned gamers,

Today, a passionate, dedicated and valuable player base has learned it will soon lose access to Hearthstone, which to date is one of the only triple A games it can play at a competitive level. "This seems like the sort of thing that would make the front page of every gaming blog with a viewership," I hear you wondering. When this community is visually impaired players, however, it goes without saying why there is little talk of this community. Below, I'll explain how this community came to be playing Hearthstone, its fragile nature which led to the predicament we're in today, and why we need your help to turn it around.

Firstly, you're probably wondering how blind people play video games anyway. The question of how a blind person uses things as inherently visual as screens or mice is a very common but understandable one. For the purposes of this petition, I'll briefly explain how a computer is made accessible to those who can't read print. A screen reader is a piece of software that translates the visual elements on a screen into spoken audio. The user interacts with these elements using keyboard shortcuts, or in the case of smart phones with touchscreens, with a modified gesture system designed to allow users to explore the screen and have elements read to them. In an environment like a webpage, these keyboard shortcuts and elements are standardized, and with the web design world implementing stricter accessibility standards all the time, most websites are, if not user-friendly, at least usable with screen readers. The same standardized framework does not exist with video games for a multitude of reasons. Each game is vastly different, and many require the explicit use of the mouse. Each developer chooses his or her own frameworks for game interfaces, and very few take screen reader accessibility into account. Then there's the matter of some games being inherently visual by nature, such as Geometry Dash, or requiring vast leaps in innovation to be playable for those without site, such as Call of Duty or Forza Horizon. Therefore, until the last few years, accessible gaming has been limited mostly to games designed specifically for the visually impaired. These games were almost always radically simplified equivalents of their mainstream counterparts not because visually impaired people somehow lack the ability to play more complicated games. Rather, the teams and budgets for these games were so small, often consisting of a single developer dedicating spare time and money to a project, that our community has had no opportunity to play games that are as engaging, content-rich and complex as our sited counterparts without serious dedication and a lot of patience for accessibility headaches.

That is until August 7, 2021, when a fellow calling himself GuideDev created Hearthstone Access. GuideDev intended this project to be experimental; a thing he worked on in his spare time to see whether it was possible. I don't think he realized exactly what he'd created. For the first time ever, visually impaired people had access to a game that was previously entirely unplayable for us. One created by a major gaming company with the resources to continually keep us engaged, and with a player base large enough that it was trivial to log on at any time of the day, anywhere in the world, and instantly find someone to play with.

I, being a lifetime gamer, was hooked from day one. I spent hundreds of hours learning the intricacies of the game, grinding gold on ladder, and building my collection. My competitive side had finally been unleashed on the broader gaming world, and I wanted to be one of the best players on ladder. When HS access was patched to make crafting and the collection accessible, I became a whale. I didn't shell out for every bundle blizzard released, but I came close. HS access allowed us to play several modes at the peak of its development, but I was always a sucker for good old standard. I loved the frequent content refreshes, as new content is very hard to come by in accessible games. I was always willing to pre-order the new expansions and make sure I had enough gold to complete my standard collection. Others like me felt the same way, and soon a small community sprung up for HS Access, with a discord server full of enthusiastic visually impaired Hearthstone players. There was even Hearthstone's first ever tournament held for and by blind players by the folks at Black Screen Gaming.

Unfortunately, HS Access has its share of downsides. The mod is essentially a bunch of DLL injections designed to capture events in the game, output them to speech, and translate keyboard shortcuts into mouse actions. It was easily the most user-friendly and effective accessibility layer ever created for a mainstream game. However, the same could not be said for its ease of development and maintenance. With such a complicated testing environment and methodology, a mod like this would have taken GuideDev hundreds of hours to initially develop to the extent that he did. Furthermore, whenever blizzard patched Hearthstone, HS Access would immediately stop functioning, and GuideDev would need to find time to update the mod to get it running again. The complexity of these updates was wildly variable. Sometimes it was merely updating a few lines, like for a balance patch, but for a major feature update or expansion launch, the mod could be down for days or weeks while GuideDev found solutions to new problems blizzard created for him. Often, features that were previously accessible would need to stay broken for weeks so players would not lose access to the entire game. This turned out to be unsustainable for a solo developer, and after GuideDev's initial push to make the core game accessible, he announced he was stepping back from further development on additional features but would continue to maintain the mod. For over a year, Hearthstone continued to be accessible, but the lapses in Access and broken features gradually worsened as Hearthstone evolved and GuideDev's priorities shifted.

That brings us to today. After 15 months, GuideDev has announced the sunsetting of Hearthstone Access just in time for the announcement of a new expansion and the launch of the Death Knight class. This is obviously devastating news. It is extremely disappointing to me, and to all the others who loved the game and dedicated time and money to it, to be left out in the cold like this.

Mr. Lyons-Smith, please remember that visually impaired players, myself included, are paying customers of blizzard. Many of us spend a base $140 every four months on expansion pre-orders, plus $15 for a miniset if we don't have the gold. That's not including cosmetics, of which there are many. Indeed, many have already purchased the new expansion pre-orders and will now be requesting refunds for an expansion they can no longer play. Customers spending so much money on a product and losing access to it every few weeks would be a massive scandal under different circumstances, but in accessible gaming it's seen as an unfortunate reality. Now we are being told that because one person isn't willing to provide us a service for free, we are losing permanent access to what we've paid for. This isn't a slight on GuideDev. Our appreciation for his efforts cannot be understated, and I, for one, support his decision and wish him the best. My admonishment is directed at Blizzard, who is choosing to turn a blind eye to their customers being entirely locked out of the game they've been supporting for the past 15 months. Even those who haven't spent a cent on Hearthstone deserve to be recognized for their appreciation of their product.

Mr. Lyons-Smith, please do not let this happen to your customers under your leadership. GuideDev has made it clear what is possible with a little innovation. The difficult work has been done for you. Please continue to support this customer base by implementing a similar accessibility layer into Hearthstone. If you do not, you are choosing to lock out customers from what they've paid for, as well as denying access to a vibrant and enthusiastic community of players. If you do, Blizzard would become the first Triple A company ever to fully support the visually impaired community, which would be game-changing, so to speak.

To all other readers, please sign and share this petition to push the Hearthstone  team to implement the necessary changes to this awesome game, as well as to raise awareness that our community exists and of our desire for equal access in gaming.

Support now
Signatures: 1,429Next Goal: 1,500
Support now