This story is over 5 years old.


What It’s Like to Develop VR Games When You’re Legally Blind

Unable to see in one eye and legally blind in the other, Hayden Else is making a game built around his own impairments.

One of the last missions in Rockstar Games' cowboy drama Red Dead Redemption asks the player to scare some crows away by firing a gun a few times. For most players, it's no big deal, but Hayden Else was incredibly frustrated. Else kept trying—and failing—to shoot them. A friend looked over, laughed, and asked why he wasn't using the game's auto-aim feature.

"I had no idea you could auto-aim," he said, "and that's something you learn pretty early in the game. [laughs] I'm like, 'This scarecrow thing is impossible! This cannot be done!'"


Despite being dozens of hours into the game, Else missed this seemingly obvious mechanic because he's blind in one eye and legally blind in the other. As you can imagine, it's not the first time something like this has happened, and frustrating it may be, Else can't help but laugh.

One of the few multiplayer games Else feels comfortable with is Halo, thanks to the stark blue/red coloring. Image courtesy of Microsoft

Born with optic nerve hypoplasia, a visual impairment with no known causes and precious few treatments, his parents were first told Else would end up completely blind, and only able to tell the difference between night and day. Given that prognosis, Else considers himself fortunate.

When it comes to games, it's better when things are bigger. It's why fighting games are easier to play—the characters are enormous. Multiplayer games are usually a crapshoot, though he's found some success navigating Halo because the teams are given bright, standardized colors.

"I wouldn't say I'm good at it," he said. "I'm not, I'm always last on the team! But I do find that a little easier because of the red-versus-blue thing."

Else isn't just a fan of video games—he's a developer, too. His most ambitious project yet is a mech action game called Mech Skeleton, currently available on Steam. Mech Skeleton requires a VR headset, and the VR piece is crucial: VR has proven a revelation for Else.

Image courtesy of Heavy Kick Studios

Whenever Else interacts with a monitor, whether to watch a movie, play a game or simply to answer emails at work, he has to place his face as close to the screen as humanly possible.


"I've got a relatively large screen," he said, "and I kinda sit right on top of it. I don't need a wireless controller, that's for sure. I'm not very far back from the machine."

The combination of visual impairment and sitting so close means it's very difficult for Else to truly take in what's around him in a video game on a flat screen. (While watching movies, where he tries to sit back a bit, he often confuses the heroes for the villains.) But in VR, the display is right next to your eye, and it's possible to physically bring objects closer to you.

"I know that everyone says VR is immersive, but I really do," he said. "I can get up on things, I can pick things up and have a look at them."

In making Mech Skeleton, Else designed around the issues that plague him in most games. Reading text is always a problem, for example, so Mech Skeleton doesn't have any—the game communicates entirely through audio. (Inventory systems, especially crafting, are particularly annoying for him.) The game beeps faster and faster as an empty clip approaches. Else said he was inspired by the way pilots are relayed information in the cockpit via sounds.

"I know that everyone says VR is immersive, but I really do. I can get up on things, I can pick things up and have a look at them."

Though he's developing the game so that it's playable for him, Mech Skeleton is meant for anyone. Due to his unique situation, though, he makes decisions that would baffle most. For example, he'd originally set the draw distance incredibly close, which meant little of the game's world was visible at once. Because Else couldn't see far anyway—his eyes aren't capable of depth perception—it seemed like a reasonable compromise to increase the game's frame rate.

Else's brother is a big help in moments like this.

"I put him in the headset," he said, "and he goes 'Oh, I can't see a thing. That light's too bright.' Mostly visual cues, guiding people through levels and placing lights and things and stuff like that. He was great for that because it turns out I have no idea how bright to put a light."

The plan for the future is to add more levels to Mech Skeleton, while tinkering, based on feedback from players. Else is hopeful the fidelity of VR devices continue to increase, so the joy he's getting out of playing games could enhance other parts of his life. If the screens get sharper, maybe he finally could stop pressing his face up to a monitor to read email, too.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email here.