Priced to Play? Hardware Cost for Disabled Gamers a Barrier for Some Users

Prices for controller rigs can range up to $5,000. For a community that can struggle with economic hardship, some feel that they are being "penalized" for their condition.
The Xbox Adaptive Controller's $99.99 cost makes it prohibitive for some in the disabled community as much of the functionality comes from add-ons that can range from an additional $50 to $500 on top of the price tag.   |   Courtesy of Microsoft
Prices for controller rigs can range up to $5,000. For a community that can struggle with economic hardship, some feel that they are being "penalized" for their condition.

Since its release last September, Microsoft's Xbox Adaptive Controller has been heralded as a major step forward for inclusivity in gaming, allowing players with disabilities to customize their own personal controllers with add-ons, joysticks, buttons and more to cater to their own abilities.

The product has been lauded by Microsoft's competitors, such as Sony Interactive Entertainment chairman Shawn Layden and outgoing Nintendo of America president and COO Reggie Fils-Aime, and was named one of the 50 best inventions of 2018 by Time. During this year's Super Bowl, Microsoft ran an ad titled "We All Win," showcasing disabled children using the Adaptive Controller, that has accrued over 29 million views on YouTube.

Despite all the accolades, the product's $99.99 cost makes it prohibitive for some in the disabled community as much of the functionality comes from add-ons that can range from an additional $50 to $500.

"The Adaptive Controller is a wonderful piece of technology, but it’s not really a controller. It’s a hub," says Joshua Straub, found of DAGERSystem.com, a video game review website for disabled gamers. “In order to get full functionality out of it you either have to couple it with an additional Xbox controller or with additional switches. That is pricing people out of the market, especially when you consider that many physically disabled people are on limited incomes."

Straub was born with severe cerebral palsy and has been wheelchair-bound since age 4. His disability results in a mild speech impediment and limited functionality in his hands which, he says, is the "ultimate source for many of the barriers" he faces in gameplay.

"It’s a great piece of technology that helps a lot of people, but it doesn’t help everyone, and one of the easiest ways for it to help more people would be for them to adjust the price," says Straub.

Bryce Johnson, inclusive lead of product research and accessibility at Microsoft and one of the people who spearheaded the creation of the Adaptive Controller, says that making hardware that's accessible for everyone is a big challenge. "We worked with a variety of individuals and organizations to build this controller, and part of the challenge we recognized — and still continue to face — is that everyone is unique. We designed the controller to be as adaptive and customizable as possible, but the uniqueness of people also requires uniqueness of setups," he says.

While Microsoft did not disclose internal sales figures for the Adaptive Controller, Johnson says they are "very happy" with the reception the controller has received from the community. "It is not easy for gamers with limited mobility or their caregivers to find, assemble and pay for custom gaming rigs," he says. "The Xbox Adaptive Controller aims to remove these barriers by creating a first-party device that is easy to find, has a plug-and-play setup, and is lower in cost than what is available elsewhere today."

Microsoft recently posted a specifications guideline to help third-party hardware developers design add-ons that will work with the Adaptive Controller.

"There is a large variety of hardware partners who create accessories that are compatible with the Xbox Adaptive Controller, and we have also waived the Xbox licensing fee for peripheral devices that meet accessibility and quality guidelines," says Johnson.

Gaming accessibility advocate Paul Amadeus Lane, who works as a consultant for major gaming companies such as Sony, has been dealing with high prices for his hobby for years. Lane was left a C-6 quadriplegic after a multicar collision. He is currently the bureau chief of ABC News Radio, KMET 1490-AM, in the Inland Empire.

"Being a disabled person for over 26 years, one thing that frustrates me is when we get penalized for being disabled," says Lane. "When it comes to adaptive controllers, those are incredible, but when you look at that price, many people who are disabled are on Social Security Disability, their parents don’t have a lot of money, et cetera."

According to the most recent U.S. Census, 19 percent of the country's population (roughly 56.7 million people) are disabled. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's son, Zain, has cerebral palsy. Nadella has stated in the past that raising his son has helped him "better understand the journey of people with disabilities."

Over a three-and-a-half-year period from 2015-18, Steve Spohn, chief operating officer of AbleGamers, and his charity organization worked closely with Xbox to develop the Adaptive Controller. Spohn still works with and consults with Microsoft and has been happy with the product's reception, but he does have certain issues with how it has been marketed. 

"Unfortunately, as much as I love my Microsoft partners, they are not presenting that this needs as many aftermarket adaptations as it does to be a fully functional kit," he says. "Primarily, and particularly for people with profound disabilities, you need a lot of exceptionally expensive equipment to plug into it. This was specifically designed to help a specific segment of the population to be able to play video games, and it will help some people, but it will not help everyone."

The Adaptive Controller is far from the only controller on the market for disabled gamers. There are dozens of companies that offer their own products for the disabled community and prices for the hardware can often total in the hundreds and, sometimes, thousands of dollars.

Other major gaming companies are also taking the disabled community into account when creating their products. "Nintendo’s software and hardware developers are always looking for ways to be inclusive of all gamers, and are actively evaluating different technologies to expand accessibility options in current and future products,” a spokesperson for Nintendo of America says.

"To be honest, $100 for the Xbox Adaptive Controller is pretty fair to me, if not generous," says Rocky Stout, a paraplegic gamer and streamer who goes by the online handle RockyNoHands. "If you look at prices for good arcade sticks that don’t even have the ability to plug in switches or buttons, it’s a deal, especially considering the Adaptive Controller is not a highly sought-after device that Microsoft is selling out on."

Stout doesn't use the Adaptive Controller to play, opting instead for the mouth-controlled Quadstick, a device that sells for upwards of $500. "Anything that’s medical or used for handicapped people costs an arm and a leg in America. That’s just the way it is," he says.

Fred Davidson, who creates the Quadstick controllers as a "one-man operation," is a former Cisco hardware and software engineer who first came up with the idea to develop a mouth-operated game controller when he came across an NBC News article in 2011 highlighting a similar product for quadriplegics. 

"It was like getting hit in the head with a two-by-four," Davidson, who had previously helped his mother find tech to communicate while she battled ALS, says of reading the article. He launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2014 and now has roughly 1,300 Quadsticks in use worldwide, he says.

"At my level of production, there isn't much economy of scale," Davidson says. "This is such a niche market, it is hard to achieve a low unit cost. The parts for the original model run about $200, then there are about six hours of work in each one. I probably average one per day."

AbleGamers offers a grant program to help players who can't afford the pricey equipment to play. Although the organization has relationships with Microsoft and other major gaming companies, it largely depends on individual private donations to fund the program. 

"We hit almost $1 million in 2018, largely by individual donors giving $5-$20 at a time," says Spohn. "There has not been an amazing outpouring from any of our industry partners handing us money hand over fist. Unfortunately, there’s not yet a funding source for people with disabilities to go to and it takes us about 10 months to get somebody through the grant program right now because there are so many people who need controllers."

Spohn says his organization fields around 10-12 applicants a day for its grant program and the funds needed to adequately meet a chosen applicant's request can range from $350 to upwards of $5,000. Despite the financial constraints of his own organization, Spohn admits he's a "little gun-shy" about appealing to government legislators for help on the issue. "We've had limited dealings with the government," he says. "Some of these people who are making laws don't understand what video games are."

Oliver Koerber, an avid gamer from Germany who was born with a genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease, has been playing video games since he was 6 years old, but using a traditional mouse, console controller and keyboard presented many issues.

“I would try to use the keyboard with my left hand and the right half of the controller with my right hand," Koerber says. "I can’t get my hands together far enough, so I can’t take the standard controller in my hands."

Through Windows Central and Microsoft, Koerber was given an Adaptive Controller and additional peripheral devices — including joysticks and switches — to craft his own customizable gaming rig, making the gameplay experience much more comfortable for him. "With the Adaptive Controller, we could rip apart the left and the right stick and this was perfectly usable for me,” he says.

While the new setup changed the way he was able to play, Koerber admits that the overall price for the hardware was very high (nearly $500, according to Windows Central). “I was pretty stumped by the price for those little switches," Koerber says. "It’s incredibly expensive, I have to admit."

"On the other hand," he continues, "it’s better to have an expensive option than no option to play. I’ve been using the Adaptive Controller all the time. I even replaced my keyboard with it. It’s sitting in the corner together with the mouse,” he says with a laugh.

Luckily for Koerber, he wasn't footing the bill. For the majority of disabled gamers, however, the reality is different.

"Do I have an issue [with the prices]? Well, yes, because obviously when you’re handicapped money isn’t as easy to come by, especially since everything someone like me needs cost tenfold," says Stout. "But I understand companies need to make money on a product only a small portion of people need."

Hardware is not the only technology that makes gaming more accessible to those with disabilities. Software, too, allows for more inclusivity as many games (such as last year's Marvel's Spider-Man from Insomniac Games or Sony Santa Monica's God of War) now allow for gameplay settings customization related to accessibility.

"When you think about inclusive design, from its onset you’re thinking about ways that players can immediately interact with the product without any assistance. Our philosophy is that we want our games to be accessible right out of the box," Sam Thompson, senior producer with PlayStation, says.

Features such as the ability to skip quick-time events (in-game prompts to hit a button at a precise moment), increase the size of subtitles or even skip entire puzzles that would be a barrier to finishing a mission are offered by games that promote accessibility through their programming.

Lane likens the varying approaches to inclusivity between hardware and software to dining at different restaurants. "You know when you go to a nice restaurant and it’s pretty pricey, you’re going to have a great time. But then there’s that restaurant in the hood that will take care of you and answer your beck and call — that’s how I can kind of explain things," he says.

Developing new hardware is still an important issue to Lane, and the recent strides in virtual reality technology have meant a lot to him. "With VR, when I first had this helmet on — I haven't stood up in 26 years. When I put on that headset, I had the feeling I was standing up," he says.

Johnson sees Microsoft's hardware as just the beginning: "As we’ve said before, the Xbox Adaptive Controller is a step on our journey to making gaming more accessible — not the end. We plan to continue to explore new solutions and hope to encourage the gaming industry to do so as well."