The screen went dark for a moment at the end of Grounded’s reveal trailer. A rumbling growl could be heard before a gigantic spider popped on screen. It was a jump scare that was more effective than Obsidian intended it to be.
“We watched through a bunch of reactions there was huge number of people that was not ‘oh gosh, that’s scary,’ it was ‘oh gosh, I can’t play this,'” Obsidian technical game designer Jerrick Flores tells GameSpot. “That was a big red flag.”
It was at that point that Flores and others on the Grounded team decided to build and arachnophobia mode so that players who were sensitive to spiders could still play. It wouldn’t be like the arachnophobia modes other games (Satisfactory by Swedish studio Coffee Stain replaces spiders with a picture of a cats face) or the Insect Begone mod created by the Skyrim community that removes spiders from the game altogether. Obsidian wanted the accessibility option to be client side since Grounded is a cooperative game—it needed to only affect players who chose the option.
“The biggest question when we were looking at this was where do we start? We worked with the research team to figure out what would trigger those fearful reactions,” Flores said. “Anything that could trigger those reactions had to be targeted.”
Obsidian started working with the Xbox research team, who already supports game development across Microsoft-owned studios, to host studies and surveys to help to gather data on what triggers arachnophobia. They built various spider models, some with less eyes, legs, hair, and other spider-like features, and showed them in one in-person study before the pandemic and multiple online surveys once worldwide lockdowns began.
“We looked at different reactions and one of the elements that popped up the most for people was they eight eyes,” Xbox researcher Deanne Adams said. This method eventually led Obsidian to solidify the types of sliders available in the demo of Grounded that was released in mid-June. The number of eyes, legs, fur, and even sounds in-game spiders can make can be adjusted by the players. Spiders can effectively be turned invisible if the player doesn’t want to see them at all.
All studies, surveys, and gameplay tests were done with spider sensitivity in mind. People who participated in the surveys were given the option to opt out midway through if they became too overwhelmed with the models being shown. The research team used this as an indicator for what generally triggers arachnophobia.
“The preview image in the mode is obscured until the player chooses to look at the image,” Jerrick said of how safety is key for people testing the mode out. “It’s in the players control for when they want to view the setting.”
Both Obsidian and the Xbox research team hope that arachnophobia modes get implemented by more studios, especially if their work helps make that possible. Adams and fellow Xbox researcher Blake Pellman added that the research they do would be available to other Microsoft studios.
“I think that the endeavor to make games as accessible as possible is noble,” Flores said, noting that these spider sliders were widely requested by the Obsidian community. “The challenge is figuring out what options to focus on with your limited time and resources.”
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