What if you could design a video game simply by drawing it on a piece of paper? That's the goal behind Pixel Press, an upcoming app that aims to make game design a much more approachable task. It's still in the prototype phase, but Pixel Press could potentially be a revolutionary tool for game development. All you need is a printer and an iPad to become the next Shigeru Miyamoto — no coding required.
"Anybody that's willing to spend the time to do it is going to be able to make a level."
The process starts with a PDF. The two-page document includes a graph paper-like page where you can draw out your fantasy level, along with a second page containing instructions — that way you'll know that drawing an X represents a spike, for instance. During this part of the process you can add platforms and obstacles like lava pits, all by sketching them out with a pencil. Once you're done, you take a picture using your iPhone or iPad and your artwork is transferred to an app using optical recognition technology, turning your creation into what creator Robin Rath describes as "a sketch of a level." The process can take around an hour or more, and once it's on your device you can then flesh out your level by choosing from pre-created visual skins that customize the look and color. You can also choose from different character designs, sound effects, and music, and the plan is to allow users to upload their own sounds and sprite sheets as well.
Pixel Press has been in the works for about three months and is still in the prototype phase, so we weren't able to check it out for ourselves. But Rath believes that, if everything goes well, the app could be completed in the next six months. It also appears to be remarkably simple — he says that the prototype has tested well with 12-year-old kids, turning it into a potential gateway drug to game design. "Anybody that's willing to spend the time to do it is going to be able to make a level," says Rath.
As a child of the 1980s, Rath says the concept was inspired by how he and his friends became obsessed with games like Super Mario and Metroid. "We would play the hell out of those games," he explains, "but beyond that we would design our own levels. So something we'd do is take a piece of paper and divide it up into different sections and draw the typical elements of the game, like the platforms and the spikes and the lava pits, and imagine ourselves jumping through that level. We never really thought about programming our own games at the time, it was really just us in school, taking the opportunity to extend our passion for video games."
"I think this is going to create a microsystem of platformers that you don't have to design at all to enjoy."
While it's much easier to build your own game simply by drawing it, Pixel Press will require users to do at least some experimentation in order to create working, playable levels. For instance, it's entirely possible to build gaps that are impossible to traverse — and such problems will need to be fixed before the level can be completed. And as with most games with user-generated content, a big part of Pixel Press will be sharing your creations. You'll be able to send levels to friends and upload them for the community to see and play. There will likely be some form of curation — if 12-year-olds are playing, you don't want user-created levels full of offensive content — but, if it catches on, there could be a lot of content even for those who just want to play, and not build, new and interesting levels. "I think this is going to create a microsystem of platformers that you don't have to design at all to enjoy," says Rath.
When the app does finally launch, it will have plenty of room to grow. Rath envisions Pixel Press as a free download, where users can buy packs of level skins, sound effects, and possibly even new game-changing abilities and genres. Right now Pixel Press only lets you build side-scrolling platform games (think the original Super Mario titles), but future updates could include features like guns and enemies, or even entirely new types of games, like racers.
And, much like games like LittleBigPlanet, Rath hopes that eventually all of this downloadable content will include licensed assets. After all, when you give players the option to build whatever they want, many will fall back on franchises they already know. With the right partners, this kind of content could help Pixel Press reach more players. "If I can get a lot of different licenses to draw people in, that's going to help it scale and reach a larger audience," says Rath. While no partnerships have been made so far, he cites properties like Iron Man, Wolverine, Spongebob Squarepants, and even Monkey Island as names that could work well.
"There's a lot of possibility."
To make all of this happen Rath is launching a Kickstarter campaign on May 7th, with the goal of raising $100,000 to fund development. Stretch goals will add new content and potentially even the ability to alter in-game physics, as well as a "big squares" mode designed for younger players. And if the campaign manages to reach $350,000, Pixel Press will also be coming to Android and Ouya — and Rath sounds particularly excited about the latter. "The idea of being able to play this on a screen with a controller and actually allowing this to hit a console, that's a big focus for us." He's also hoping that the idea of drawing your own game will have the same kind of "wow" factor as other Kickstarter success stories like the 3Doodler 3D-printing pen, which had a highly-sharable concept that aided in its success. "I think our platform may have that," says Rath, "but we'll have to find out."
If the campaign is unsuccessful, Rath says he'll still push forward with the project, but the crowdfunding will help Pixel Press come to market much faster. It's an intriguing concept, and there's a lot that could be done with Pixel Press, but nailing down exactly what the app can and will do is a tricky thing. "There's a lot of possibility," says Rath.
Update: the Kickstarter is now live.