Making video games is hard. Like, really hard.
That’s the issue that almost every toy or tool designed to help children create games runs into. There’s only so much you can do to boil the act of game, or even character, creation down into chunks that are easy enough for younger folks.
Bloxels is a strange product. It’s a free app that helps you and your children make games. It’s also plastic board that fits a collection of plastic pegs of multiple colors. There’s a helpful site with tutorials and videos explaining how it works. It’s almost a platform for simple game creation more than it’s a single thing, and there are different ways to approach the act of game and asset creation using that platform.
I spent the weekend testing Bloxels with my children — the product is suggested for ages eight and over — and it’s very good at what it does, although you’ll need to temper your expectations and those of your children. Acts of creation take time.
The fun thing about Bloxels, which is out now for the reasonable price $49.99, is that it turns the act of asset creation into a physical act. The plastic board allows you to use the eight colors of pegs to design items and characters up to 13 by 13 pixels in resolution. These can be then mixed and matched to create levels up to 13 by 13 screens in size.
Each plastic square is essentially a pixel so, for instance, you can create characters up to 13 by 13 pixels, by hand, using a physical object. You then scan the board using a phone or tablet — both iOS and Android versions have been released — and use your creation in your game.
But it gets cooler, because each character has three different animation states: ideal, walk and jump. This is where things start getting interesting, and pretty informative. If your character was going to walk, what parts of it would move? What pixels would you need to adjust? You can add multiple frames of information by changing the physical pixels on the board, or use the digital version on your phone or tablet, or even a combination of both depending on how you’re working together.
A constant loop of your potential animation runs in the lower left-hand section of the screen, so you can see, in real time, how the changes to each frame will impact your character. Should their legs move? Is it OK if just the head bops up and down? Should they blink? Try it, see how the animation looks, and then iterate. Or bring up one of the pre-made designs in the app or build one from the examples in the instruction manual and discuss with your kid how you’d change it. Adjust things and see what happens. Don’t be afraid to mix it up.
It’s not easy, by any stretch. I’m in my 30s and realized very quickly that creating an effective run cycle for my little dog-thing I created wasn’t as natural as I thought it was going to be. But that’s part of the fun of the process; once you have a character with every necessary animation you can put it right in a game and see it come to life. Doing so can take a long time, and it may be hard to keep the attention of younger kids who just want to play games, but the rewards are great.
There’s no coding required, which is positive, but you are learning the very basics of character design and animation. Working within the constraints of a 13 by 13 pixel resolution will make it simple for kids while challenging older folks like myself to pare down their design ideas to the barest minimum. It’s a great way to learn basic pixel art, no matter your age. And I guarantee you’ll get a new respect for great pixel art after just a few minutes of trying to figure out how a skull with legs would jump.
What’s interesting is that you don’t need the board at all, you can create these characters using a digital version of the 13 by 13 grid on the free app. You can do so right now, in fact, even without purchasing anything.
And that’s just the character editor.
Creating a game
Designing an entire 2D scrolling game using Bloxels is kind of a fractal experience, and it took me a while to understand how it all works. I want to stress again that this is a toy you’re going to want to play with alongside your children at first, before they get their heads around what’s going on.
You can design a very basic level using each colored block as a predetermined but generic item with a certain purpose. So red blocks? They kill the player. A yellow blow? Those are coins, to be collected by the player. Green blocks are terrain, the basic environment the player walks over and jumps across. Purple blocks are enemies.
Simple, right? You can use those colors to create a very simple, one-screen level that is easy to understand and to jump into and play. You can discuss the basic elements of level design and makes a game “fun” with these basic elements. It’s all very simple, at first. You can even jump in to try your level with every aspect being just a block in order to playtest your design.
I want to stress: This is, in many cases, how games are actually made. The very basic ideas are sketched out, an often visually bland version that you can play is created, and the basic designs are tested. Bloxels may look like a fun toy, and it is, but it is also teaching basic game design.
But then you can go down a level deeper and have to design each element using the 13 by 13 grid. What does a coin look like in your world? What object do you want the player to collect if you decide to not use coins at all? When you designed a level with red “hazard blocks,” what was the hazard you saw in your head? Can you design it on the board? Is it as simple as a literal red block of “lava,” or would you like to try your hand at creating simple spikes? Or something else? What should your terrain look like?
The act of physically creating each character or object using the plastic squares is fun, especially since it gives you and/or the kids something to hold and touch while working together. You can talk about how changing the look in the terrain changes how the game makes the player feel. How does your game look with a dark background? How about a blue background with some nice fluffy clouds?
Change the terrain to see if you can make a game look unique, or maybe even inspired by another game you or the children enjoy playing. It’s iterative and the results are often unexpected, just like actual game design.
Then start creating different one-screen areas and snapping them together on the larger map, creating games up to 13 by 13 screens. You can make things as simple or as complex as you like.
It’s a neat idea, even if there’s a lot to wrap your head around at first. But the price is low for a toy that allows you so much experimentation, and the lessons it teaches are actually helpful for anyone who wants to take their first steps into game design. Creation is a fidgety process, and it takes time. This is a great Christmas idea for the budding game designers in your family, but I would advise younger kids to take frequent breaks and be ready to spend a lot of time honing their designs before they make something that’s as fun to play as it was to design.