Draw Your Own Video Game! An Interview with the Creator of Pixel Press

Posted by @ 11:00 am on May 28th, 2013

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I first stumbled across Pixel Press via a Fastcodesign article that described Pixel Press:

Even as games have adopted incredible graphics and physics, we still love to play 2-D side scrollers. One reason is that, for independent programmers, they’re now relatively simple to code. The other, bigger reason is that they’re still fun.

Pixel Press combines the best of both of these worlds: creation and play. It’s a Kickstarter-backed iOS app with hopes to allow anyone to draw their own Mario-esque sidescrolling levels on paper, then photograph those levels to play on screen. Once digitized, users can add textures and preset skins. They can even tweak the hero, the music, and the level’s general physics before sharing the levels with friends. And it’s all easy enough to do without ever learning to code.

I was immediately sold. I was already feeling nostalgic about drawing our own side-scroller levels on paper and navigating through them with paper cut-out characters. And too I was thinking of possibilities of using such an app in the classroom.

The app is currently seeking funding through Kickstarter. The Kickstarter page and their website have tons more information on the app, but here’s also this video that gives an overview of what Pixel Press is all about:

I recently had the opportunity to pose a few questions to Pixel Press creator Robin Rath. Here are his responses:

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JL: In your video when you talk about drawing video game maps as a kid with your brother, I was brought back to memories of my own childhood when my little brother and I would draw these elaborate Mario-like maps. We’d even make little paper cut-out characters that we’d act out navigating through the levels, complete with our own sound effects. Can you talk a little bit more about the inspiration behind Pixel Press and how you hope it will function today?

RR: We’re finding so many people telling the same types of stories as you told above. When we started the project we weren’t sure if there were others – but after launching Pixel Press on Kickstarter it’s pretty clear that most people that played games as much as us growing up also spent time drawing them – it seems to have gone hand-in-hand.

The inspiration for Pixel Press came 100% from our childhood experience. We’ve found people went about it in many different ways (what you’ve described is unique, and you can see another’s take here), but no matter what the approach was, it always came down to drawing a video game and imagining actually playing it. There are lots of ways to go about translating this into a game making platform, but above all our goal is to build a system that makes it as easy as possible to just draw and play.

JL: Though there is a lot of recent fear about the potential disappearance of paper and books and analog technologies, it’s been interesting to see these projects that marry analog and new technologies in really interesting ways. For example, Pixel Press begins on the page, with pencil and paper, which seems really radical in today’s technological climate. Drawnimal too is another app that creates interactivity by combining paper and the iPhone. What are your thoughts on this trend and what seems to be a hesitance to let go of these analog technologies?

RR: Most of us, especially those with a knack for art, know there are things that you simply cannot accomplish with a digital capture system (computer) compared to analog (non-computer). The amount of control and the experience is just different between analog and digital.

We’ve found many people understand this at their core and other’s don’t think that way. Both are fine, and we’re finding ways to acknowledge this and explore different options – but we do feel that once users have Pixel Press, most will prefer drawing because creating a well designed video game requires thinking in real time and making constant changes. The finality of digital versus a pencil and eraser can inhibit that creativity, which makes drawing it during the early stages of video game design preferred. If you ask most video game designers, most will say it always starts in pencil.

I’ve personally learned this first hand throughout my years as a web and mobile designer creating user experiences, and the same has been true as I’ve been designing levels over the last through months during Pixel Press development.

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JL: Besides the obvious and immense fun this app is going to be to play with, I’m also interested in the educational potential of Pixel Press. Video games are increasingly being utilized in the classroom (Minecraft, being a great example), and I see a lot of potential for Pixel Press too. I myself am excited to utilize Pixel Press in my undergraduate class on Interface Culture next school year. How do you see Pixel Press as an educational tool for students of all ages?

RR: We’re inspired to spend most of our waking hours on Pixel Press because we want to play it ourselves, but we’re driven by the educational value it can bring to students of all ages. Video game creation has the potential to teach students real world skills; computer graphic & audio engineering, complex logical thinking, architecture & layout, patience, acceptance of feedback & criticism, and most importantly teamwork. Many schools are already taking advantage of this to an amazing degree with tools like Scratch and GameMaker – but we’ve seen that not all students are interested because they don’t have a mindset for code. Pixel Press changes that paradigm. By removing the challenge of code, and building an experience around the universally loved idea of games, the gamut of people interested in playing Pixel Press is not limited to any age.

The only restricting factor is motor skills plus the users depth of the creative comprehension, so we’re actively working on making Pixel Press agnostic to all age groups by customizing the experience appropriately. We’re doing this through a combination of the size of the squares in the drawing system (addressing motor skills) combined with the type of content that is available to work with (making sure its relevant and appropriately challenging). Very similar to how Lego separates their products between Duplo, standard Lego sets, and finally Lego Mindstorm which involves computer manipulation.

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JL: Henry Jenkins, and many others, have talked about the uniqueness of video game narrative & storytelling, often returning to the unique importance of space in the construction of narrative versus other storytelling forms. Pixel Press both exaggerates and simplifies this idea of spatial narrative. What are your thoughts on the storytelling potential of Pixel Press?

RR: Now we’re talking! Outside of our own experiences, a big part of the inspiration for Pixel Press was what is going on with the immensely popular game Minecraft, where people are taking a platform that’s completely wide open and creating their own stories with it. By removing code (in both Pixel Press and Minecraft) you are giving creative people the power to come up with their own stories. We talked about this a little bit with the guys over at Forbes, as it applies to marketing, but in essence the discussion was that most digital mediums have progressed greatly over the years so that now anyone can tell a story – websites, video, blogs, etc . However games haven’t quite got there because they are so complex, but interestingly enough they are the ultimate digital story telling medium.

We want to be a part of changing that, and Pixel Press is the first step towards reaching that goal. It’s basic now and the story telling capabilities are therefore limited, but we’re only getting started.

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More on Pixel Press here. Back Pixel Press on Kickstarter here.

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