ROCHESTER, Minn. — A broken promise made 15 years ago was recently mended for Randy Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald, a former professional video game player now turned Facebook Live streamer in Rochester, helped develop one of the first major accessibility features in a video game for people with disabilities for the 2007 game “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.” While testing the game, his disability, arthrogryposis, which makes him unable to use his legs or arms, made it difficult to use the button layout.
Changes were made and the company, Infinity Ward, named the layout after his gamer tag “N0M4D,” but he was never credited by name. Raven Software, the main studio behind the development of “Call of Duty: Vanguard” that released on Nov. 5 reached out to Fitzgerald with a free copy of the game and recommended he check out the end credits.
“I was really excited … That’s pretty cool,” Fitzgerald said. “Of all the games I’ve worked on over the years, this is the first time I’ve been credited.
“It was validating. I almost wanted to be like ‘Finally!’ But I didn't want to be ungrateful either.”
Fitzgerald first started playing video games when he was a kid growing up in Iowa. When his family took him to a bowling alley, his dad helped him get close to the Pac-man arcade game so Fitzgerald could play with his mouth.
That started a love for video games that only grew in high school.
“There’s that phrase: every man has to have competition. I couldn’t play basketball. I couldn’t play football,” he said. “Even when I was a little kid, I knew this was going to be the next big sport … It was something I could do that was an even playing field.”
After graduating college with a degree in game design and interning at the video game studio Activision, which has developed several Call of Duty games, Fitzgerald became a well-known figure in the gaming world after attending a video game convention in 2006.
His style of play, which involves using different facial features and muscles to operate the controller, was the first time anyone had seen a video game played in that way.
“I played Sonic with my mouth on the controller, that was the first major media frenzy. I just remember turning around; all these lights were flashing,” Fitzgerald said. “It was like paparazzi. That’s what it felt like, a celebrity paparazzi and I was just like ‘what is going on?’ And next thing I know there’s like 800 microphones in my face.”
How Randy Fitzgerald plays Call of Duty:
From that convention onward, Fitzgerald grew a massive following for being the world’s first quadriplegic professional video game player as well as an advocate for creating accessibility features in video games for disabled players like himself.
This following played a key role when he was playing a test version of “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare” in 2006.
While playing the game, he found it difficult using the available button layouts on his Xbox controller. He left a message on Infinity Ward’s forum page voicing how he enjoyed the game, but struggled to play it. The response back was overwhelming.
“Twenty-five thousand people replied,” Fitzgerald said. “(Infinity Ward) called me and said ‘We’re going to take your suggestions, put them in the game and name it after you,’ and I was like ‘Wow!’”
The button layout became one of the first major accessibility features in a video for people with disabilities and was a staple feature in most of the Call of Duty versions that were released in the next 15 years. Fitzgerald’s actual name, however, was never credited in the following games after Activision took over Infinity Ward and ousted the development teams that promised Fitzgerald credit.
For Fitzgerald, whose livelihood revolves around playing video games, especially Call of Duty, it hurt not receiving the credit.
“I was disappointed they lost contact with me,” he said.
But earlier this year, Raven Software, the lead developer for “Call of Duty: Vanguard,” was wondering who was responsible for the “N0M4D” button layout and reached out to Fitzgerald.
“I told them the whole story and they said ‘that’s messed up,’” he said. “They asked me what I would like, probably thinking I would ask for money, but I just wanted to be credited. I wanted what was promised to me.”
Fitzgerald had a virtual meeting with the company shortly after about the situation and other accessibility features that could be added into the game. After the meeting, however, he didn’t hear anything back from Raven Software for months.
“I was like, ‘Here we go again,’” he said.
But the studio did reach out again, and now Fitzgerald’s name is officially credited in development, signifying the impact he’s felt he’s spent his career in the gaming industry trying to make.
Fitzgerald hopes this kept promise will open more opportunities for him to continue game development in the years to come.
“It means everything,” he said. “I think everybody’s goal on earth should be to leave a mark and make the world a little bit better, and I feel like I kind of did that.”