One thing that gets the Pixel Press team excited is visiting area schools and showing off our product. Even in its current state, we’re able to demo the beta and let children start drawing their own levels. Watching that “wow” moment happen when the kids realize that they can draw a video game on a piece of paper is priceless.  We’re very fortunate here in St. Louis to have several programs and individuals who have set out to teach kids the beauty of technology, coding and the “maker” culture. At Pixel Press we understand and embrace the value of these programs, and take every opportunity we can to go lend a helping hand

This particular visit took us to Ladue to speak to an awesome group of 7,8 and 9 year olds at Reed Elementary School. Who I have to say, were the most polite and well mannered kids I’ve probably ever met. It was part of Code Red, a computer language education program with the goal of creating a curriculum that teaches computer language and coding skills to students from 1st grade all the way up 12th grade.  The classroom size was fairly small. There were about 20 students with a pretty even mix of boys and girls. We started with Robin, or Mr. Rath as they called him, presenting a pretty thorough overview of the product and how it works. It’s pretty amazing that even at this early of an age, children just seem to “get it”. They were already pretty stoked about Pixel Press even before we let them play through a few levels. Once a couple of iPads were handed out though, all bets were off and there was a mad dash to be the first one to play.

Robin showing the class how the capture process works
Robin explaining the semantic “Mario” view during the capture process.
The guys climbing over each other for a chance to play some Pixel Press Beta levels

Because of the state of the beta at the time we were not able to allow the children to capture or play through the levels that they created, but that didn’t matter. We handed out some sketch sheets, pencils and rulers and let them go to town. They were excited about creating from the get-go, and of course that made us happy. With a group of this age-range and the limited time frame of the class (about an hour), we had to field a lot of questions. It was great however, to see how quickly some of the students caught on to the process of drawing the levels and envisioning how they would work on a digital device. Some of them had trouble staying in the lines, but with the help of Mr. Rath, Mr. Stevens and myself we had them drawing like pros in no time. Frankly, we didn’t know how “into it” they’d be without being able to play their creations, but we were pleasantly surprised at the enthusiasm. Some of them teamed off and collaborated on levels, while others decided to get head down and focus by themselves. It’s always great to see how different people take on the task of sketching their levels out. One major theme we noticed among them was that most were dead set on creating “the hardest level in the world”. We weren’t anticipating that, and it made for some funny results. One boy even named his level “Game Over”.

Mr. Wiseman explaing that while you can make and entire levels out of fireballs it probably won't make sure the best player experience.

At the end of the period we posed a few questions and asked for advice on how to make our game the best it can be. One of my favorite responses came from a girl who said that if we really wanted our game to be cool we should “…add a dragon egg that you can crack and then a baby dragon comes out and then you can fly around on him.” Obviously we’ll take this advice into consideration, but I’m afraid Nintendo might have a problem with us ripping off Yoshi!

Mr. Stevens, our level design guru, showing the guys how to make the ultimate video game.

Seeing the excitement kids display about Pixel Press is a driving force behind doing school visits, but it’s not the only reason we do this. Getting our product out and in the hands of children is a perfect way to see how different demographics take to the idea of drawing a video game. We can find out things we are doing right, and things we could stand to make better. It’s basically a built in focus group that helps us make Pixel Press the very best product possible. At Reed we found that kids were enthusiastic about drawing, and didn’t mind the time away from the device that drawing requires. However we did find that some of the younger ones struggled to stay in the lines or grasp the concept of keeping all of their glyphs in the designated boxes. That’s why we’ve created sheets with larger squares for the younger children. Big Square Mode! Seeing these problems that some of the children had helps us come back to the office and focus on the machine learning part of our software, a piece that makes the system smarter as we load more drawings into it over time. That way we are able to anticipate the way that all ages draw, and we can deliver a working level no matter who draws it.

The girls getting excited over Pixel Press.

All in all this visit was a major success. Not only were we able to see the enthusiasm the children had for Pixel Press, which is always validating, but we were able to gain some insight into how children will take to our product. Eight year olds are pretty much known for being the most honest people in the world, so if we can get a room full of them to like what we’re making then we must be doing something right…right?! At the end of the day if what we’re doing makes a bunch of children happy, more intelligent and more creative, then we’ll be a team full of extremely excited nerds.