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From Paper to iPad, Pixel Press Turns Drawings Into Videogames

If you've ever dreamt of designing your own videogames, get this app.

I loved playing videogames as a kid, but I can’t say that I ever spent any time sketching out ideas for my own games like my brother and his friends did. (My doodles usually involved cute animals or spelling out my crush’s name in bubble letters — oh, to be young again.)

Yet, this week, I found myself spending hours hunched over my desk, drawing and redrawing different game levels, and I had a heck of a lot of fun doing it, thanks to an app called Pixel Press Floors.

Created by a couple of friends who grew up in the ’80s playing and dreaming up videogames together, Pixel Press Floors is an iPad app that transforms drawings into actual, playable games. Using special graph paper provided by the company, you sketch out your ideas with pencil. Then you snap a photo of it with your iPad’s camera and it’s imported into the app, where you can add finishing details, test out the gameplay and share it with others.

Pixel Press isn’t perfect, by any means. For now, you can only create “run-and-jump” platformer-style games (think Super Mario Bros.). And many times, it didn’t scan all my designs correctly. But I still think the app is worth it. It was amazing to see my ideas come to life in an actual game. It’s fun and challenging (in a good way), and I’d recommend it to any gaming fans, young or old. It would even make a great family activity.

Pixel Press Floors is free for now, but eventually it will cost money. The company is still deciding on pricing. It also plans to bring the app to other devices and platforms, including the iPhone and Android.

In order for the app to work, you must use specific symbols and the aforementioned graph paper when sketching your games. You can print the paper, as well as a symbol guide, from the company’s website for free. (The company also sells sketchpads and kits, starting at $8.) The graph paper can be printed in color or black and white. If you’d rather save some trees, there’s also an in-app editor where you can create games right on the iPad.

Curious to see if the app actually delivered on its promise to convert paper drawings into digital games, I went the pencil-and-paper route. I actually had to go out and buy some pencils, since I haven’t used one since college (which was a long time ago). You’ll also need a ruler.

Each piece of paper lets you draw three different levels, but you don’t have to complete all three. You can do just one or two if you want. There are 14 symbols in all to represent different elements in the game. For example, a plus sign represents a coin, while an “x” translates into spikes. It takes a while to remember them all, and many are similar to each other, so I’d recommend keeping the guide close by.

My first level was pretty basic. I definitely have a new appreciation for game designers after testing Pixel Press Floors. Organizing elements that flow and make for good gameplay takes a lot of time, and it’s a lot more challenging than I thought it would be. I spent a bunch of time redrawing parts of my game because the layout didn’t work. If you do make a mistake, be sure to erase as much of the pencil markings as you can, as not doing so can cause problems later on.

Once I finished sketching out my game, I launched the app and then captured it using the iPad’s camera. On your iPad’s screen, you’ll see small black-and-white boxes that you’ll need to line up with the corresponding ones on the paper’s border. It took me several tries, but eventually the app recognized it and started analyzing all the symbols, converting them into digital form.

To do this, the company uses a technology that’s similar to how certain banking apps recognize a check when you take a picture of it for deposit. But as I mentioned earlier, Pixel Press Floors didn’t always do a good job of accurately transcribing everything. Sometimes there were elements missing, or it picked up erased markings. Pixel Press said that it is continually working on the technology to improve its accuracy. Luckily, the in-app drawing tool makes it quick and easy to make corrections.

Once you’re satisfied with it, you can tab over to the Design section to add different backgrounds, colors, music and more. It’s not immediately clear, but you have to first tap on the Book icon to choose from one of two story lines for your game before you can do anything else. But this is where you can really see your game go from just a bunch of symbols to a real-life game. It’s pretty darn cool.

Anytime during the editing process, you can test the gameplay to make sure everything looks and works the way you want it. When you’re ready, you can publish it to the Arcade, so other Pixel Press users can play your game, or you can just keep it to yourself. The Arcade is actually a great place to see what other people are doing and get some inspiration, though it was definitely a blow to my ego when comparing skill levels.

As with a lot of iPad games, controlling your character’s movement can be tricky using just the touchscreen controls. That said, the app supports all iOS 7 Bluetooth controllers if you want a more traditional gamepad.

I had fun playing and creating games with Pixel Press Floors, and the company is continuing to add new features. One upcoming feature is Story mode, which will offer mini-games and a backstory on the different characters and environments. Pixel Press also plans to release two other apps, Quest and Tracks, that will let you create puzzle and racing games, respectively.

If you’ve ever dreamt about designing your own videogame but don’t know how to code, or if you’re simply a gaming fan, Pixel Press Floors is an app you definitely want to check out.

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