Anthony Lawlor

My Experience Using Assistive Technology as an Indie Game Developer

I’ve been an avid gamer since I was about three years old, playing Super Mario, Zelda, and Duck Hunt on my Dad’s original Nintendo. I’d eventually graduate to Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and the Nintendo 64 when it first came out in the mid-nineties.

Onset of vision-related issues

When I was seven years old, I started having trouble seeing what was written on the chalkboard at school. I worked with an optometrist, trying to get a prescription for glasses that would help, but with no success.

I’d eventually go through a series of ophthalmologists before winding up with the diagnosis of Stargardts, a form of Macular Degeneration that causes loss of central vision. “Wait, so not everyone has a little blob of light in the middle of their vision that acts like a targeting reticle in a first-person video game?” was a sentence I recall uttering when all this was explained to me.

Vision services and assistive technology (AT) at school

I received vision services at school right away. I started learning Braille, assistive technology, and screen readers. Little did I know at the time I’d one day make a career out of this. I’d continue these kinds of vision services throughout my school years. Single-digit JAWS versions faded into double-digit JAWS versions, bulky magnification equipment became smaller, and I’d dabble in GPS navigators and OCR devices like the good ol’ KNFB reader.

My gaming experience

I still continued to game. My vision has stayed relatively stable my entire life, even if my youthful focus and reflexes have waned. One day, my Dad brought home a Playstation 2. This was a big turning point in gaming. 

Final Fantasy X, Tony Hawk’s Pro-skater 3, Armored Core, Splinter Cell, Star Wars Battlefront 2, Spider-Man 2, Madden NFL 2004, just to name a few. Turn-based games were particularly good for me since I could take all the time I needed to see what was happening and read menus. 

I discovered my interest in stealth action games like Splinter Cell during this period. The ability to sneak around and take my time to strategize works well for me. Additionally, the contrast of colors while using thermal or night vision makes the game more enjoyable.

I also recall Runescape&—a medieval fantasy MMORPG (massively multiplayer online RPG)—being a big part of my middle school years. All my friends were hooked. As soon as we got home from school after talking all day about what we planned to do in the game when we got home, we’d all hop online and start playing together. 

This was perhaps the first time I had to use assistive technology to play a game. 

I don’t recall using any assistive technology for console gaming (because there wasn’t any assistive technology at the time for this). I remember getting into cheat codes a lot to even the odds in certain games. I needed more time to complete a timed mission, and Gameshark (a cheat device to hack console games) was my friend. I needed infinite health to pass a difficult part of a game so I could continue the game. The internet provided me with ways to adapt the game to my ability. 

Windows Magnifier

As for online computer games, I used magnification, specifically Windows Magnifier, which I still use today. I’d dock the magnification window in the upper right-hand corner of the screen to read and more accurately click on UI elements in the game screen. Also, with games like this, my friends and I would work together to accommodate my vision issues. 

For example, we’d use third-party voice chat software to coordinate in real-time. This way, I didn’t have to keep reading the group chat in-game, which is what most people did. I believe this gave us a great advantage when competing against other groups of players. This is an excellent example of how making adaptations or accommodations can help not only the person with a disability but everyone involved.

After I graduated high school, I went to college. Like many college students, I didn’t know what I wanted to do as far as a career went. I kept gaming. The Elder Scrolls IV: OblivionFallout 3, and New Vegas were my favorites at the time. And then, the big one, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I started playing this game on Xbox before moving to PC gaming. 

This allowed me to use Windows Magnifier and other assistive technologies to play. I could zoom in with Magnifier to read, and this was when I started using the OCR (optical character recognition) built-in to screen readers to have NVDA read menus, inventory lists, and spell lists to me rather than straining my eyes with magnification. I ditched JAWS in favor of NVDA around this point, as NVDA can read whatever is under the mouse cursor, which has been a major game changer for me ever since.

Becoming a game developer

One day, I thought, “I have a lot of ideas for games; why don’t I give making one a go?” I started with RPG Maker 2000 and GameMaker.

I was intimidated by coding, so I used pre-made assets and scripts. Eventually, my creativity reached the point where there was no way to progress in game design other than to learn to code.

I started teaching myself GML (GameMaker Language similar to Python) and RGSS (Ruby Game Scripting System). After a couple of years of this, I thought, “Why don’t I get into software development as a career since I already have some experience?” I started an associate’s degree in software development at Minneapolis College. My programming skills grew by leaps and bounds. I focused on web development since web apps weren’t device or platform-specific.

After I graduated, COVID-19 hit, and I found myself with a lot of time on my hands while I searched for a job. This is when I published my first game, Omega Protocol: Sole Defender. This is a spaceship shooter roguelike (a procedurally generated genre of games that presents extra challenges). This started me on my idea for a trilogy of Omega Protocol games. I’m working through the prequel, Omega Protocol: S.T.A.R Squad set many years before the first game. 

I think I’ll make the third game a first-person game similar to Deus Ex (a series of first-person RPGs about transhumanism), another of my favorite games. I’m also hoping to publish a demo for another game I’ve been working on, RoboCore.

My journey with Allyant

Eventually, I joined Allyant as an accessibility engineer. I attribute many of my technical skills to the immense amount of programming I’ve done as an indie game developer. I’ve had to make things that are not made for people with vision issues accessible to me through various means or find alternative software that is more accessible.

For example, creating graphics and animation sheets is rather difficult for me. I’ve recently started using AI image generation to create graphics, which has opened up a world of possibilities for me in game design.

The main message I want to convey is that people with disabilities can accomplish anything they set their minds to. Where there is a will, there is a way. I had a strong passion and drive to create games, ultimately leading me to become a software developer.

If you want to check out the games I have made, you are welcome to visit my website: