We all love a good story. We crave them, we live our lives around and through them — and we love to tell them.
Video games could be the ultimate storytelling medium of our age.
At first glance, Bloxels — a toy conceived by four budding entrepreneurs — is a simple model comprised of colorful plastic cubes and a 13-by-13-pixel grid on which to build pictures. But it doesn’t take long to understand the creative magnitude of the toy.
Bloxels is a revolutionary video-game creation tool that comes in a simple box — but the imagination it spurs definitely cannot be contained by one.
The toy’s concept is the brainchild of Robin Rath, CEO and co-founder of Pixel Press — a company devoted to building the next generation of toys for children designed to bridge the gap between online and tactile play.
Robin spent much of his childhood playing video games and now as a father of two, his children are his inspiration for encouraging the next generation of makers by enabling young people’s imaginations and creativity in a safe and productive way.
“The idea was inspired by one of the co-founders, Josh Stevens, and I — we grew up together on the same street in Murphysboro. He and I used to play a lot of video games and we used to come up with ideas for videos games as kids, sketching them out with paper and pencil. We didn’t really have the tools to bring those to life, so it kind of started and stopped there,” said Rath.
Long after his childhood days, Rath started working with a company leveraging the technologies that turn handwriting into digital text. It was at this time that Rath floated an idea to Stevens, and who would end up being the other two masterminds behind Pixel Press — Rob Bennet and Daniel Wiseman: What if we could bring those paper concepts to life instantly and cut out the hardest part of making games to give kids that ability to make them quicker?
This simple idea took root — and has greatly evolved since. In 2013, the team opened a Kickstarter campaign that ended up raising $110,000 to start the company.
Soon after the Kickstarter launch, the team started getting contacted by many different companies — one of which was Cartoon Network.
“They formed a partnership with us to bring our technology to their highest rated show at the time, which was called Adventure Time. And then in January 2015, we launched Adventure Time: Game Wizard, which was building our own video games, but doing it around the Adventure Time universe,” said Rath.
Finally, boyhood dreams were coming true.
Rath, Stevens, Bennet and Wiseman all analyzed this first iteration of the experience over time and came to the conclusion that kids were looking for two things:
“Kids were looking to build their own characters, and our platform lacked color,” said Rath, “And we were finding that younger and younger kids were using the technology but did not necessarily have the fine motor skills to draw on graph paper — a skill our first product, Pixel Press Floors, required.”
And so the team started to concept the idea of bringing color and consistency into the experience, and the resulting prototype was Bloxels.
I spent the weekend playing with the colorful plastic cubes, and it is easy to see how, when the team debuted Bloxels at Toy Fair in New York a mere one month later, it won Popular Science’s Best of Toy Fair — going up against long beloved brands like Crayola and Lego.
While the game does require a mobile device to upload your creations, what the toy builds upon is imagination; without it, Bloxels just becomes a collection of colorful cubes.
The 13 by 13 game board allows users to create everything they need to assemble entire virtual worlds, from characters to landscapes, to different levels — all through arranging and rearranging the colored cubes. Once, for example, a character is assembled on the board, kids can upload an image to the game’s app by taking a photo of the game board. Once in the app, kids can edit their layout and animate their characters.
Bloxels was launched publicly in 2016 and it wasn’t long before Pixel Press was catching the attention of Mattel. Mattel offered assistance in the areas of toy-making most challenging for a small company to help a product grow, including manufacturing, distribution and marketing. However, Pixel Press still manufactures and sells their product to educators.
“We find that teachers are being pushed, in a good way, to bring coding into the classroom. But with a lot of platforms, coding is a means to an end — and the end is storytelling. When you think about STEAM learning (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics), those are all, for the most part, tools to an outcome,” said Rath. “But when you think about kids — they love storytelling, they love the idea of fantastical worlds like Star Wars and Marvel — and they are inspired to tell stories. And what teachers love about our platform is that it is creativity focused on the STEAM areas.”
And at its heart, Bloxels is a platform for kids to tell a story. It is also centered around video games, so it’s something that they’re excited about.
“Kids are so into video games these days, and with their parents, the video game industry is more validated as a career. We find that when kids cling to the idea of making their own games, their parents like that because it is pushing them to think comprehensively, problem-solve, and collaborate in teams. We get exciting seeing kids divvying up roles and building together from the classroom.”
Pixel Press also offers a platform for kids to share their creations with others (and play games created by other kids!) through their website.
“It’s done in a very safe and friendly way — there’s no commenting — we try to eliminate that bullying factor, and offer privacy and protection that is really important to young kids and teens,” said Rath.
With Bloxels, everyone can be a maker, and everyone can be a creator.