Why The Spyro Reignited Trilogy’s Lack of Subtitles Backlash is Important
A look at why subtitles are important, how hard they are to implement into games, and why they should be industry standard.
Following on from yesterday’s news regarding Activision’s statement on the lack of subtitles in Spyro Reignited Trilogy, I saw the comments flooding with anger. There was a mass of people showing support for those that need subtitles from both users with hearing difficulties, and without. The statement from the publisher appears to have sparked a conversation that needs going forward with the focus on “there’s no industry standard for subtitles”.
I wanted to reach out and find out why subtitles are important to individuals, and just how difficult they are to implement. I mean, Activision consciously choosing to not implement them must mean it’s fairly hard right?
Firstly though, this is going to get factual, so get ready to read.
Video games are a large part of our lives, and in 2017 UKIE (the Association for UK Interactive Entertainment) reported that the UK games industry market value was set at £5.11 billion with a collected total of £3.56 billion in sales. From Statista, the market value for video games in the US was set to $18.4 billion.
According to the Entertainment Retailers Association, in 2016 and 2017, the sales for video games were more than video and music sales. 2016 saw music sales at roughly £1.00 billion, video at £2.50 billion, and games at £3.00 billion, with 2017 only growing higher.
In 2017 it was reported by UKIE that in the UK alone, 32.4 million people play video games. According to a study run by Electronic Entertainment Design and Research and reported by Variety, 211 million people in the US play video games.
So why am I telling you all of this? Well given that video games are a huge part of the industry, and given how many people play video games, it still baffles me that subtitles are “not an industry standard” for video games. Especially when you learn the statistics behind deafness and hard of hearing people.
Approximately 15% of Americans aged 18 or over reported having issues with hearing in 2014, with 9 million people in the UK reporting to have a hearing loss of some form as reported by Deaf Aware. So it goes without saying that those are a large chunk of the different populations, and that’s not even including other countries.
Additionally, other mediums cater to disabled people, and in the UK there are rules and regulations in place for television and broadcast media with the Broadcasting Act of 1990, Section 35 stating,
The act required public broadcasting stations to “provide minimum amounts of subtitling for deaf and hard-of-hearing people and to attain such technical standards in the provision of subtitling as the ITC specifies.” ITC is a Technical Performance Code that governs technical standards for subtitles.
In the US there’s a Rehabilitation Act, with Section 504 that states:
“No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States […] shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service.”
Section 508 of that Rehabilitation Act states:
“When developing, procuring, maintaining, or using electronic and information technology, each Federal department or agency […] shall ensure, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the department or agency, that the electronic and information technology allows, regardless of the type of medium of the technology, individuals with disabilities […] to have access to and use of
information and data that is comparable to the access of [those] who are not individuals with disabilities.”
So it’s obvious that there’s a standard for subtitles out there, allowing more people to enjoy the developed product. However, Activision might be correct that there isn’t such a standard for video games, at least not legally. However, given the stats of just how many people play video games, and how many people within a population have difficulties with hearing, it’s a huge thing to just…willingly choose not to implement.
As the news spread, Twitter was ablaze with many people voicing opinions on the matter, and a large majority were in favor of having subtitles, calling Activision’s statement bull****, and other colorful words. I reached out to a few people and asked about why subtitles are important, why they need to be industry standard, and how easy subtitles are to implement.
“Subtitles are essential for me because not having them in any form of media blocks my access to it as a Deaf person. They’re important for me in games because, unlike television that just kind of exists and I can consume it if I want to, games are a hobby I’m passionate about and one I’ve invested a lot of money in. Given my investment, I feel like I have the expectation of being able to play them and have my experience as a Deaf player be as close to that of hearing players as possible. Even Spotify’s app now plays song lyrics as a song plays, it’s well past time for video games to be held to the same standard as television (as it is in the US at least, where subtitles are required for TV). They should be an industry standard no matter how easy or difficult they are to implement because isn’t the entire industry about progress? Games constantly seem to be trying to one up both themselves and each other and there’s no reason the same effort shouldn’t be given to bringing access to disabled people wanting to play games.”
Speaking with Mark Brown (@britishgaming), the host from Game Maker’s Toolkit who previously talked about how game developers can make games better for deaf and hard of hearing players, Mark said,
“While there’s no industry standard for doing subtitles, that hasn’t stopped almost every modern game from putting them in. Developers can look outside games, to places like the BBC and Netflix, which have established (and published!) clear rules for subtitles. Game makers should also look to the recent Tomb Raider games and Assassin’s Creed Origins for good practice examples of subtitles done right.”
Steve Williams an Australian game developer veteran responded to our Twitter post about the news with:
I put subtitles in The Legend of Spyro: A New Beginning in about a day or two back in 2004. It was standard practice that all of our games had subtitles. We wouldn’t release a game without them. Large font. No more than two lines. It’s not hard.
— Steve Williams (@KonajuGames) November 19, 2018
Todd Colby, a UI artist who has previously worked at Telltale Games and 343 Industries stated:
UI Artist here. Subtitles take 3-5 days to implement with cross development using someone from the writing staff. This is a slam dunk in usability, and there’s no excuse NOT to include them unless your UI people are literally lazy/crunched.
— Todd Colby (@tccolby) November 19, 2018
Even Game Workers Unite joined in with the conversation saying:
Unions can demand and establish standards for accessibilty. https://t.co/waN8RZQM6q
— Game Workers Unite (@GameWorkers) November 20, 2018
I spoke with Ian Hamilton about the cost of implementing subtitles and how easy it is. He responded telling me that because there’s no standard way of doing it, there isn’t a standard cost, and the Unreal Engine —That Spyro Reignited Trilogy was created in— has a basic subtitle system built in. I went on to ask him why subtitles should be made an industry standard in video games, his reply was,
“They already are, If including them is standard practice across the whole industry then their inclusion is a decent facto industry standard. Unlike other industries there isn’t a widely adopted standard for how they are ingested or how they are presented, but the latter is starting to change.
After years of advocacy you can see the change staying to happen now, games finally starting to take into account things like toggleable speaker names, configurable size, configurable background. You can still count the number of games taking things like that into account on two hands, but when they include games like Assassin’s Creed, Spider-Man and Tomb Raider you can be sure that others around the industry will notice, and you can be sure that other games will follow suit. Hopefully not just follow suit but build upon and exceed those efforts.
The good news is it isn’t an R&D job, there’s a ton of good info and practices in other industries’ standards than is directly applicable to games, for example the CEA-708 spec that formed the foundation of the legal requirements for broadcast TV subtitle presentation in the USA.”
He went on to link me to his guide on how to do subtitles well that’s available over on Gamasutra. I then asked him about the legal requirements, Hamilton’s response was:
“They are not legally required, or required by platform level certification. Some publishers require them, like Ubisoft and BBC. They have become standard practice across the industry voluntarily. Activision’s statement is pretty vague on what they meant by “standard”, but the response from gamers has been pretty universal: that it is standard practice for subtitles to be included in games and that failing to include them isn’t acceptable.
Ultimately it’s down to the publisher. If the work for hire studio is struggling to complete within the time and budget and hard decisions need to be made about what to cull to get it out the door, it’s the publisher who has the say on that and the ability to say that some things aren’t on the table for consideration. I’ve been in those conversations lots of times, that used to be my role.
Activision could even go further and introduce subtitling as a certification requirement, i.e. introducing a policy that no Activision game goes out the door unless it has subtitling. That was Ubisoft’s response to the uproar over the first Assassin’s Creed not having subtitles back in 2007. I hope the current uproar spurs Activision to do the same, that would be a good positive outcome benefitting many games.”
Furthermore, there are guides, such as Ian Hamilton’s Game Accessibility Guidelines and AbleGamers Includification to help developers ensure they’re ticking the right boxes. There’s even my very own guide right here at DualShockers!
Recently we’ve seen some incredible work with subtitles in video games, Life is Strange offers various types and sizes of subtitles, the same goes for Marvel’s Spider-Man, and even Assassin’s Creed Origin’s. Hell, even Half-Life 2 had subtitles for both dialogue and sound effects! Ubisoft themselves back in 2008 as shown by this press release on Gamasutra launched a new initiative to include subtitles for all of their titles produced in-house.
From all the evidence I’ve seen, and the sources telling me how easy it is to apply subtitles into games, I’m convinced that it’s not a hard task. Even adding subtitles to YouTube videos is an easy task. I won’t lie, Activision’s statement to Gamepitt was an incredibly poor response, making themselves appear as if they didn’t even encourage Toys for Bob to add subtitles simply because they just didn’t want too.
Instead, the publisher became part of the problem and excluded a large number of gamers. Why not be part of the solution and keep subtitles and their various features going strong and putting in a little extra effort? As a Deaf person myself, I already feel it’s a lot of effort for someone to just talk to me, so reading that a large publisher possibly feels like it’s too much effort just solidifies that feeling for me.
Maybe Activision sees this, maybe they see the backlash on socials, and maybe they decide to actively strive to include subtitles in future games. Let’s hope the possible patch arriving to Spyro Reignited Trilogy isn’t just going to be applied and then hope the situation has blown over by the next title to release from the publisher.
At the end of the day, subtitles benefit not only deaf people, not only hard of hearing but also hearing people have been openly stating they use subtitles a lot of the time.