Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Bloxels Review - Make Your Own Game

Bloxels is a physical pixel board with an app that kids can use to design their own computer games. We backed the Bloxels Kickstarter project. The campaign was original due to ship in time for Christmas, but we weren't surprised when there was a short delay until after Christmas. Our set arrived recently and we've now had chance to try it out.

My kids are 7 and 9 and both enjoying playing games and they love creating worlds whether it's with physical LEGO or virtual Minecraft. My youngest in particular is obsessed with pixel art in all its forms. Bloxels looked like just their kind of thing.

They both code their own simple games in Scratch too, so we weren't drawn to Bloxels for its ability to make it 'easy' for kids to create games. More for the chance to focus on game design and the opportunity to create games on their tablets and sitting on the floor surrounded by their toys, rather than using a laptop with Scratch.

The Bloxels Builder App

The Bloxels Builder app allows kids to create their own platform games. I was surprised by this as I was expecting a dungeon style game with connected rooms as described in the original Kickstarter. This is explained in a response on the Bloxels Kickstarter page though. The new approach allows children to design a lot more game assets than just room layouts and a side-view platformer is easier to design art for. This does make sense though I'd like to see the original concept too, but that may be partly nostalgia for playing so many games like that as a child! My kids had forgotten the original concept by the time Bloxels arrived and have been very happy with the platform style.

Bloxels allows creation of characters, layouts and other game objects
You don't need to create an account to get started which means kids can get creating immediately. The overall game creation concept is fairly straightforward to understand. We seemed to find it harder than we felt we should have to work out how to create our first game, but after a couple of hours (much of which was spent designing characters) we had got the hang of it, watching a couple of tutorial videos definitely helped.

Accessing the help from within the app requires you to go through an annoying validation check, every time,  to get to the web hosted content. We have no idea what this is validating, certainly not age as any child old enough to play Bloxels would be able to get past it. We ended looking at the help on another device.

My kids loved the idea of creating their own games. They started with creating their own characters. Once they had mastered the basics they enjoyed the freedom of being able to place as many ogres as they wanted on the board and create huge areas filled with lava.

Then they started to think about creating more meaningful games. I love the way they are thinking about a game having a player (who might not be them) and having to make the game work for their player. This is great for design thinking and starting to understand usability.

The Bloxels Builder app is available for iOS, Android and Amazon Fire. This is great to see as it's frustrating for families when their tablets aren't supported.

Using the Bloxels Board

You create characters, terrain, game layouts and other objects by placing coloured cubes into a 13 x 13 black game board. You get your creations into a game using the camera on your device. This is a slightly tricky process. The board needs to be on a white background and you have to avoid any glare on the board. Sometimes there are mistakes in how the app sees your creation and you have to rescan it a few times. We've always succeeded in the end though. 

The Bloxels app is free and you can create games without the board. I was a bit concerned that the board would have been a waste of money and my kids could have just used the app. However, they have both preferred to create on the board rather than in the app.  I think the board will give the app longevity as my kids will use the board to create some pixel art and then want to bring it into a game. 

The board and coloured cubes are nicely made and a good size. The box is divided into compartments which encourages my older son to organize them by colour. The younger one would rather just chuck them in!

The board works really naturally for creating animations which are used a lot in Bloxels. Just physically moving the pixels you want to change works well. Unless you want to shift the design by one pixel in a particular direction. 
But for simple changes it works well and my kids quickly understood the concept and started creating animated characters.

Game Mechanics

If you play my game you have to be careful not to fall in the lava. 
Bloxels games are platformers with power ups and coins to collect, enemies to attack and dangers to avoid. You can also include textual information to add a storytelling aspect to a game.

Having the basic game mechanics in place means that kids can concentrate on game design, and optionally, storytelling.

Design Thinking and Education

It's not exactly playing, it's creating.  
Bloxels is a great tool for kids to learn design thinking. There are lots of great options for kids to learn to code, which is of course important. But the tech industry needs design thinkers too.

When my partner asked the kids what they were playing, my younger son replied "It's not exactly playing, it's creating."

Design thinking is creating products with a focus on end-users. It involves trying out ideas and improving them based on feedback. Getting kids to think of potential users other than themselves is a big step and an important one.

There are even some great free lesson plans for teaching design thinking to students using Bloxels (sign-up required.) This is an excellent resource for teachers, but it could be used at home too.

See also: Develop a creative designer with the Extraordinaires

You can also some find some cross-curricular educational activities on the Bloxels website with more planned for the future. The availability of the free app makes Bloxels very appealing in a school environment.

Bloxels Codeboard

Mum, do you get if statements in this? I want to say if all the enemies are dead then you win. 
 After building his game for a while my 9 year old asked "Mum, do you get if statements in this? I want to say if all the enemies are dead then you win."

That prompted me to take a look at the Codeboard feature. This allows you to code the behaviour of blocks. You can specify behaviour that applies to all blocks of a particular colour or that applies to a specific block. There's a lot of stuff in Codeboard that allows you to create games other than platformers.

If you use Codeboard then you have to code all game behaviour - it doesn't just add on to the basic behaviour. So it's quite a bit of work to get a functioning game. There's not much information available on Codeboard, just one tutorial of an Arkanoid/Breakout type game.  We couldn't seem to find the Game Over block it mentions though.

We did try and implement my son's request but struggled to get stuff working quickly. Codeboard does look really promising though. The idea of having a tablet-based game development environment with commands and the right level of abstraction for creating simple games is very appealing. We'll be keeping an eye on Codeboard.

Bloxels Infinity Wall

Can we share characters between our tablets? 
My younger son's tablet needed an OS upgrade before he could use the Bloxels app. So my kids started working together on a game. Then my younger son wanted to get his work onto his tablet and use the animations he had created.

It turns out that there is an approach for sharing games and assets called the Infinity Wall. You need an account to use this feature. Unfortunately it says that "Logging in means you are 13 years of age or older ..." Hmm I imagine my kids will have moved on to other things by the time they are 13. In fact the Bloxels FAQ says "Bloxels is generally recommended for children 8-12 years of age."

In the post for a recent competition requiring uploading to the Infinity Wall it says "If you are under 13, be sure you get permission from your parents first." This implies that under 13s are expected to use this feature with parental permission.

It would be preferable to specifically allow under 13s to create accounts with parental permission and have the app login text updated accordingly. Ideally it would be good if parents could get updates on what their children are doing with Bloxels.

If kids are investing a lot of time in creating a game they really need a way to be able to save it to an account.

Bloxels Tips

  • To create a new enemy, first create it as an animation. Then in your game choose decorate and select your enemy animation and then tap on a purple enemy block. Now the enemy will appear using the animation. 
  • Try and avoid light bouncing off your Bloxels board when you create photos as glare can make black (empty) squares turn white and other colour can get mixed up. 
  • Don't panic. You probably haven't lost the thing you just created. You're just looking in the wrong place. (Happened to my 7 year old at first!)


My kids really enjoyed the Bloxels experience. The board isn't necessary for making games but the physical board is enjoyable in itself and my kids use it to create pixel art which then prompts them to take their creations into a game. 

As a parent and kid tech educator I really like the focus on design thinking. Those skills are going to be very valuable for today's children. The story telling aspect is a great addition too. 

The Codeboard feature also looks really interesting. We'll be keeping an eye on that and trying it out more when we have some spare time. 

We'd like to see accounts for under 13s with parental permission.

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