Getting to Know 7-128 Software

7-128 Software LogoA small group of long-time friends is quietly producing some of the most accessible video games in their four-family home in Salem, MA. 7-128 Software was itself born from a game; a Dungeons & Dragons session that was created over two decades ago helped to forge a tight-knit group that is serving an often neglected corner of the video game world.

Through the regular D & D meetings, the group began to discover that the co-operation and innovation required to play the classic pen and paper role-playing game would lend itself well to designing games of their own. The eclectic group of artists, engineers, professionals and educators eventually ended up owning a home together and their name was born from who they were; Seven people living and working inside the traditionally high-tech area of Route 128 near Boston, MA. Read More...

The People

John Bannick, who serves as the Chief Technical Officer of 7-128 Software is a former US Air Force officer with expertise in user interfaces. John once worked for Kurzweil Music Systems, during which time he developed a keen interest in software accessibility.

He and VP of Literary Arts David Brown act as the group’s primary storytellers. David is a published author and professional speaker. He also has experience as an educator and has even worked as a social worker. Elanor Robinson is a former US Marines officer, college instructor and healthcare consultant that acts as the Chief Operating Officer, Chief Financial Officer and also works on graphics for 7-128 Software titles.

Also on the artistic side of things is Marcia Morrison, VP of Audio Arts. Marcia is an accomplished professional musician that has toured extensively and graduated from the Berklee College of Music. Cynthia “Cyndi” Geller is a professional actor and active fundraiser that serves as VP of Sales and Marketing at 7-128 Software in addition to playing the role of “Inspector Cyndi” in some of their game titles.

Sadly, the team has grown smaller since they began their work as 7-128 Software. John’s wife of 31 years, Barbara Bannick acted as researcher, historian and archivist at the company’s inception. She passed away before the enterprise was fully launched in 2007. “She raced cars, shot a mean game of pool, and gardened. She is missed.” notes the 7-128 Software website.

Earle Robinson, Elanor’s husband of 49 years passed away in 2008. Earle was the company’s Chief Financial Officer because of his background as auditor for the State of New York. Earle also was a former military officer in the US Army and had worked with the Red Cross, in addition to being a Harley-Davidson enthusiast.

I recently had the chance to ask Cynthia Geller what it was like to move on from these losses in an e-mail interview. “Not having their companionship is difficult everyday, and does not get easier over time.  We all took care of both Barbara and Earle as a team during their illnesses.”

I also asked if they thought of calling it quits. “We have never considered stopping our work. 7-128 Software was a shared dream, and the interesting and absorbing work we have to do helped to get us through the really rough months after their deaths.” This unique, family-like atmosphere and singular vision has allowed 7-128 Software to become one of the leading accessible game makers despite their relatively small size and scope.

The Games

The Game Book is a proprietary engine that runs many of the games 7-128 Software produces. It can store up to 100 titles and allows them all to be controlled using the same method. There are currently more than 20 titles available for the Game Book. It is available in two editions; Standard and the Perceptions Edition. The latter is specifically designed for players with visual impairments.

Both editions come with five games and are available as digitally distributed packages or on CD-ROM for $25 USD from the 7-128 website. The Game Book is compatible with both Windows and Macintosh and free demos are available for all of the Game Book titles. 

These titles are intended for players age 10 and up. 7-128 Software also provides accessibility ratings on their website indicating, for example, when a game can be played by someone who is blind or motion impaired. I recently had the opportunity to play the Game Book demo.

Upon launching the Game Book demo I was greeted with the game voice. This feature allows vision-impaired players to “read” what is on their screen in order to navigate menus and play the games. This option can be toggled on or off at any time with the push of a button. I also immediately found options to adjust the size of type on-screen, an option to add captioning to in-game videos and even voice control capability. This is game accessibility without parallel.

I started by playing Death Nell; a title in the Inspector Cyndi in Newport series. A live-action video introduction explains that you play as a detective with the Newport police who is being aided by Inspector Cyndi of the Vienna Metropolitan Police Department.

This adventure game tasks you with questioning witnesses in order to find the culprit of a recent murder, as well as their motive, opportunity and method. An in-game history keeps track of all the questions you have asked and the answers you receive. If you get stuck, you can ask Inspector Cyndi for advice and she will also inform you when you’ve gathered all the clues in an area.

Next I played Kim’s Game; a simple memory game. In this game you are given 30 seconds to study a series of flash cards. Once you feel you have memorized the cards, you can then attempt to select them from a larger group. More cards to memorize will appear as you progress through levels and extra study time is awarded for correct answers in addition to points.

Definition Game is just that; a game in which I was presented with a word and four possible definitions for it. A series of ten questions is scored out of 1000 points. I played through this game a number of times and was pleased that I did not see repeated questions.

Finally, the Popcorn Games section allowed me to randomly select from available games in the series by “popping corn” in an old-style kettle. I played Crambles, which is a word jumble game and Completion, another word game that asked me to fill in missing letters to complete a given word.

The Game Book demo provides a great variety of games and does an excellent job of showcasing what 7-128 Software is about. The demo also provides the ability to easily purchase more titles by taking you to the company website.

The PizzaGames Box line is intended for children from 2-9 years old and includes Here Comes the Duck which is quite possibly the only game that can be played by a blind two-year-old. All of the titles in the PizzaGames Box series are extremely accessible and are designed with not only the blind in mind, but motion and hearing impaired children as well.

The PizzaGames Box is also available in two editions. The $15 Baby Bear Edition is intended for toddlers 2-5 and comes with three games. The Mama Bear Edition is for children 4-7, comes with four games and costs $20. As with the Game Book, free demos of the PizzaGames Box titles are available. Additional games for both the PizzaGames Box and the Game Book are available for $5-10 each.

7-128 Software also provides many free resources including information for educators interested in using serious games through the Accessible Learning through Entertainment and Recreation Tools (ALERT) project. ALERT is an effort in which they are joined by volunteer members of the International Game Developer’s Association Game Accessibility Special Interest Group.

Members of the SIG will also have copies of 7-128 Software titles on hand for demonstration when they attend GDC 2009, providing the company with some high-level public exposure. In addition to providing development resources “Many [SIG members] have tested our games and helped us to hone our accessibility features and to make the games more fun for players with special needs. We’ve also made some lasting friendships among SIG members.” explains Cynthia Geller.

The Future

The fact that the principal 7-128 Software staff members belong to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) doesn’t seem to slow them down one bit. The company was recently commissioned by a national fire safety organization to create a serious game designed to teach blind children about fire safety and how to escape from a burning building.

They are working with the Perkins School for the Blind to expand their PizzaGames Box line-up for use in educational and institutional settings. 7-128 Software is also wrapping up the planning stage of an accessible interactive travel game which they expect to ship later in 2009. Aside from these projects, they continue to chip away at Sinister Cities, an adventure game series.

“As odd as it seems, even to ourselves, we appear to be the only company in the industry that produces mainstream games that are accessible across all accessibility modalities: blindness, vision impairment, deafness, motion impairment and cognitive impairment.” explained Cynthia Geller.

I’ve never come across another game company quite like 7-128 Software. Their vision, small family-like atmosphere and methodology are truly unique in the industry. This is a group of people in it for all the right reasons and they have an enthusiasm for their work that many larger software companies probably wish they had. “Some of us still have day jobs. We still have so much to learn and so much to do. That’s what makes it fun!” Cynthia concludes lightheartedly.