Pixel Press: Playing with Magic / by Benjamin Sawyer

It was sunny, and warm. Two things that, together, seem repetitive, but this was October 16th in the Midwest. I rode my motorcycle west on Highway 64, venturing into the heart of St. Louis for an interview with a game studio that I was hardly prepared for. Wadded in my pocket rested a piece of paper on which I had attempted to scribble possible questions, to no avail. My nerves kept me from thinking about this interview almost completely. I was riding my bike to a location to talk to some guys about games. At least that is all I could tell myself.

After the hunt that is downtown parking, and the realization that my quarters had fallen from my pocket mid-ride, I decided to suck it up, expect a ticket, and walk the block to the Studio’s 8th floor, well…studio; A small notepad in my pocket, one of my good pens, and a camera, lent to me by my uncle (see Benjamin Sawyer) strapped over my shoulder.

The building was easy enough to find: cities are grids, numbered streets count off blocks (you know…city planning stuff…), and after a hesitant tap on the “8” button in the elevator I was on my way.

When the elevator opened I was immediately flooded with one thought. What am I doing here? Here I was, an amateur journalist with about as much mental organization (in that moment) as a preteen girl at the VIP door to a One Direction concert, walking down the hallway of a real, operating, developing game studio in St. Louis. I fervently flipped through the scattered papers in my head for the name of the guy I was meeting. Robin. Do I ask for Robin or Rob? Or…Bob? Robby?

When I reached the end of the hall and stepped into the actual studio space the panic only peaked, my heart sat comfortably between my teeth and my collar bone, and I may have begun sweating. I locked eyes with the closest developer when he looked up from his computer.

Hi…I’m uh…I’m sup-posed to meeeet…Robin?

Yeah, and that is a generous recollection.

Then a guy stood up, about halfway through the room, approached me smiling, introduced himself, and then introduced ME. Caleb Sawyer of NerdyBits.com. I had actually forgotten that I was there interviewing them. In an instant (full of hellos, smiles, waves, and “what’s ups”) I remembered who I was, what I was doing, and every question I wanted to ask jumped in my chest for a chance to speak. NerdyBits Community (still working on a cooler term for that), meet Pixel Press, an indie game studio in St. Louis and creators of Floors, a game that prompts players to create their own games.

I met Robin Rath, Co-Founder & CEO, first. He gave me a quick tour, a glass of water, and a genuine sense of security. He seemed to be as glad that I was there as I was. The tour ended in a meeting room, our meeting room for the time being, and I was formally introduced to Rob Santos, Lead Game Developer at Pixel Press. And after a few minutes of downright friendly conversation, I began to ask Rob and Rob (yup) some questions.

 

When did you guys start? When, how, why?

Robin Rath (RR): Rob (Santos) and I worked together probably about five years ago. A lot of us have worked together in the past. We’re a team of ten. I approached former coworkers, Rob (Bennet, the third Rob), our CTO, and Daniel (Wiseman) his business partner, and then a guy I grew up with, Josh Stevens, and we all started to brainstorm this idea in January or February of last year. It was really just an extension of our own childhood.

The four of us put together a video and ran the Kickstarter campaign that we launched in June of last year. That proved to be very successful (they raised $109k with a goal of $100k). And Rob (Santos) joined maybe three months later?

So what is the Game Development environment in St. Louis like? Is it nonexistent, small but growing, or just completely hidden?

Rob Santos (RS): I would definitely side with the “small but growing.” In the Industry as a whole there is this void in the middle [of America] where all of the development seems to be happening on the coasts.

RR: Every industry

RS: Yeah, really. But there is no shortage of new faces and ideas I encounter here in St. Louis. With community events and things like International Game Development Association (IGDA) and Global Game Jam, it’s weird to see St. Louis setting records globally in terms of participation and frequency of those events, yet so few people know about it. It’s like it is happening, yet somehow we’ve kept it under ground.

There really is a lot there once you get involved and you discover where it’s actually happening.

RR: Yeah, Rob and I went to ScatterJam (hosted by another local developer, Butterscotch Shenanigans) recently. Rob (Santos) participated and it was awesome to see, literally forty groups of three to five people build games, and it was probably across ten to fifteen different development tools.

RS: It was only the second game jam I have done, and they tried a different technique. Most are set up sort of like high school lock-ins and you get there and brainstorm and code and create all in one sit-down. This one they wanted us to plan out stuff beforehand so you can come out and just make the game. It ended up being one of the most productive events that they had held. So not only are developers in St. Louis holding events more frequently than a lot of other places, but those events are increasingly productive.

What demographic do you guys aim for?

RR: We’ve got an interesting demographic because part of our software is great for younger kids and part of our software is great for older kids, with the motor skill components. Its complex, because we aren’t a programming platform but we are still teaching pretty advanced concepts.

Most of our users fall into either the 8-12 range or the 24-35. And we are looking for ways to make it accessible to even younger kids.

It makes sense then that you guys would be partnered with Cartoon Network and currently developing an Adventure Time game. What does that feel like? You guys are really young, and they are such a big company, how does that impact your decisions moving forward?

RR: The Cartoon Network deal is a huge project for us and it has challenged us to figure out how to make it all work. It’s been a really great experience. For a young studio like ours, to have that project and our own project at the same time has really taught us how to work with different challenges.

The format that we are working with is really focused on making game creation accessible. So you will see some more from us in terms of exactly how you create, but it will still be about enabling creation. With filmmakers and so many others having so many different tools on hand, we want to open that kind of opportunity to gamers.

And Rob (Santos), how does it feel developing these types of games? Do you feel it restricts you more than normal or does it have the opposite effect?

RS: I sort of ride the fence between game development and creative interface, so I get a little bit of both perspectives: How does it play? And How does it make sense (like in terms of a level editor). I think when making a game that expects players to make their own with your tools, you have to be a lot more deliberate about what you put into the game and its engine. A lot of games that are fun, when you dig deep enough and ask enough people, you find out that it was an accident. The game’s mechanics just happened to be fun. With our thing we can’t rely on accidents just happening. So I wouldn’t necessarily say that it is harder, but you definitely have to be more deliberate about what you put into the game.

Did you find that to be limiting?

RS: At first yes. But once I began to understand the “language” that was creating the game I began to create my own words, in a sense, allowing more and more possibilities to open up.

Do you see potential in your game as an educational tool?

RR: Yeah definitely, similar to how Mahjong figured out how to make Minecraft an educational game, we are trying to do the same. We want it to be entertainment first, but there is always the potential for learning: problem solving, design thinking, motor skill development. To create a game you have to be empathetic to your user right? You have to understand ‘how hard should it be, how fun should it be, what are the challenges?’ And that’s what we’re forcing our users to do. Think about why they are building what they are building, even if it’s in a simple environment. So there are a lot of learning pieces, and some of our biggest advocates are parents and teachers.

And, in closing, how does it feel to see kids play your game?

RR: Ah man it’s great. Really it’s what fuels us. We get a lot of kids who look at what we do and say, “Oh man that sounds like the best job ever!” And in reality it’s still challenging sometimes to stay motivated. There are definitely ups and downs. But the best part is definitely going out to schools and working with kids and seeing them get excited. Just the idea of, “Hey I can create it myself and someone can play what I created.” Not many products create that magic. It’s really cool to be a part of. Watching kids ask themselves, “How do I build? Why do I build?” Then watching them see the kid next to them smile as they play the game they created is magic, and we want kids to get that magic.

Robin Rath and Rob Santos were a blast to talk to. It is still amazing to me, nearly two weeks later (sorry about that…), that Pixel Press, a legitimate Game Studio is here in St. Louis. And they aren’t the only one. Others like Hive Jump, Happy Badger, and Butterscotch Shenanigans are in the area, and NerdyBits is going to do its best to shed some light on more of this blossoming community. Pixel Press opened our eyes. Here, in St. Louis, the gaming community is alive and growing. The Robs (heh) at Pixel Press, started just like so many of us. Rath in marketing and Santos in film and web development. They are proof that you don’t have to live on the east or west coast, or have hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are involved in this growing, albeit slightly underground, community and they are only helping it grow. How appropriate that their game Floors teaches it’s players to make their own games.

Connect with Pixel Press. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook. Invest in their games. Support the St. Louis game development community.

@CalebTSawyer 
~Caleb 

Follow Robin Rath and Rob Santos on Twitter
@RobinRath
@RobMSantos