GamesBeat

Meet the 12-year-old boy who makes games instead of going to school

Above: Sam Smith, 12-year-old creator of Spacepants for iOS and Android.

Image Credit: Boxface Games

Sam Smith is a 12-year-old game developer. That’s rather young, sure, but that’s not even the strangest part.

Sam makes games instead of going to school.

Spacepants is Sam’s latest game, available for $1 on iOS and Android devices. It’s a brutally tough “endless runner” — like Jetpack Joyride or Flappy Bird — set in a single room, which sees you avoiding lasers, space caterpillars, and other nasties for as long as you can while constantly moving.

My Spacepants record was 75.73 seconds when I spoke to Sam last week — although I’ve beaten it since — and he seemed reasonably impressed with my efforts. “It’s above average,” he told me enthusiastically, before sharing some background on his journey into game development.

Making Spacepants

Sam has been making games from his home in the south of England for “about a year.” He started out playing around with a programming language called Small Basic, a simplified version of Visual Basic, mostly making text-based adventures that are all words and no graphics.

It was Sam’s dad who introduced him to GameMaker: Studio, the creative resource suitable for programming novices that Sam used to build Spacepants. “He’s a programmer himself,” Sam told me. “He actually introduced me to how to make a game and how to read the [Game Maker] manual.”

As with many great ideas, Spacepants started out with a simple concept. “I wanted to make a game where you could walk up walls because walking up walls is fun,” said Sam.

He began with a free program called Aseprite to design the art and animations for the main character, Spacepants guy, and the space caterpillar that’s his enemy. After that, he tested various controls schemes, finally nailing the beautifully simple two-button method that made the final game. Then came a lot of tweaking of movement speed and jumping heights and the addition of other enemies, all while using GameMaker: Studio “for the coding and making the things work.”

In total, it took Sam two months to create and test the game — with a little help from his dad when he got stuck — and he’s continuing to support it with updates based on feedback.

Game design lecturer Sean Oxspring recently called Spacepants “The Dark Souls of infinite runners,” referencing the brutally tough action role-playing game from publisher Bandai Namco. But this wasn’t an intentional part of the design. “I wasn’t trying to make it hard when I made it,” Sam told me. He did admit, however, to taking some inspiration from Super Hexagon, the notoriously tricky twitch-action game by Irish developer Terry Cavanagh.

A gaming education

Sam’s family took him out of school about three years ago. It was a tough call to make, but they decided it was their only option.

Unlike his two brothers, Sam had really been struggling with school life. He explained that he’d had difficulty keeping attention and found school “very difficult to cope with.”

“I fell asleep in class at points,” said Sam. “Eventually, I just started hiding under the table a lot of the time.”

Sam has been home-schooled for nearly three years.

Above: Sam has been home-schooled for nearly three years.

Image Credit: Boxface Games

Taking Sam out of school wasn’t difficult in terms of paperwork and bureaucracy. All it took was was for the Smith family to complete a single-sheet form, assuring the authorities that they would look after Sam and give him an education.

What was difficult was adjusting family life to make sure that Sam had someone to look after and educate him.

In the U.K., where home education is still relatively rare, home-schooled children have no set curriculum to follow; parents just need to provide an education suitable for their child’s age, ability, and aptitude. And while most local education authorities in the U.K. make contact with parents of home-schooled children once a year, they have no statutory requirement to do so.

At first, Sam had a range of people to keep him learning at home. “I had a tutor come round to teach me art for a while,” he told me. “I was also taught geography by my mum, science by my [grandma], and math by my grandad.”

Fast-forward three years, and Sam is now predominantly learning by making games. “I pretty much learn things every day by being around my family and being around other people and with the Internet,” he told me. “But I am spending a lot of my time figuring out things and making games. You learn things through that as well.”

I asked Sam’s dad, who was in the background during our chat, if he was confident that crafting games would give Sam the education he needs. He joked that we’d find out, adding that games are, in his opinion, the best learning tools for humans. He pointed me to recent comments by entrepreneur and Eidos life president Ian Livingstone, who says that playing and making games are great ways for children to learn and that schools should change the way they work to reflect this.

Success

Sam had a small goal when he released Spacepants on iOS back in May. “I’m too young to have a job,” he told me, “so I thought I’d see if I can get £5.”

Sam has bought Mario Kart 8 with some of his Spacepants earnings.

Above: Sam has bought Mario Kart 8 with some of his Spacepants earnings.

Image Credit: Boxface Games

He’s now smashed that goal, making enough money to buy his younger brother a PlayStation 4 and giving his older brother a gaming fund to spend how he wants. As for Sam, he bought Mario Kart 8 for the Wii U “so I could shoot red shells at my brothers.”

The level of recognition that Spacepants has got has clearly blown Sam away. “It’s quite amazing to think how many people have discovered SpacePants,” he told me. “According to the leaderboards, there are over 1,000 people playing,” he added. “Even my score has been beaten!”

And, looking at the leaderboards, who is better at it — Android or iOS players? “Android players, it would seem,” he said.

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28 comments
Katrina Filippidis
Katrina Filippidis

Good on him! It's especially nice to see that he is still learning things through games. Game development itself draws on a whole subset of other learning skills (coding, artistic expertise, knowledge of storytelling and literature, and so many more) and is still a good way to keep the brain stimulated. That's what education is all about, making us curious enough to question, making that knowledge alive and in active use on a daily basis.  

Luke Tonkin
Luke Tonkin

I love the title of this story 12 year old kid leaves school to make games... He's made one game... To me just sounds like a advertising stunt to get more sales... What parent in there right mind would let there 9 year old not go to school just because he doesn't like going. The game is crap i wasted $2 downloading the game... I think he should go to school then college or what ever you call it over there and learn to program properly..... Don't get me wrong its not bad for a click and drop style game develepment program which requires very little skill... If you want to brag about being a game develeper then at least learn to do it properly...   (I know my spelling sucks) 

Fill Fill
Fill Fill

It sounds like he's being home schooled and not just simply going without an education, which is good, but hopefully he's still spending a lot of time with other kids and not just family.  A large part of going to school is interacting and cooperating with others.

Anthony Alexander
Anthony Alexander

I'm all for supporting my kid in whatever he chooses, as my parents did for me.. but he BETTER like computers

Paolo Gambardella
Paolo Gambardella

great start! Hope that the successful moment will not distract him from make new games! :)

Ale Ssio
Ale Ssio

He looks like a little Pete Doherty

Mohamad Abu Ali
Mohamad Abu Ali

Sorry your life turned out "badly" the way it did. Well, about a billion other people are in the same boat :(

John Louie
John Louie

With all the apps out there all they can do is make apps and do coding.

Steve Messina
Steve Messina

12-13 yo was zx81 basic and assembler days for me

Serious Dude
Serious Dude

This article should be titled "12 year old school drop-out creates a crappy-art, simple game with the help of his rich parents and programmer father, who also has the industry connections to turn this into a story"

Will Smith
Will Smith

Must be nice to have no home schooling regulations.

Tian-Yuan Zhao
Tian-Yuan Zhao

Fuck! It's kids like this that make me dread my life! I wasn't doing that when I was 12... I wish the circumstances in my life allowed me to be like this kid, but unfortunately they weren't like that. Well, fuck, thanks for ruining my day by making me feel like I wasted my life up until this point. thank you VentureBeat, thank you!

Arthur Delongue
Arthur Delongue

All these complimentary words and not a single mention of who Sam's high-profile 'programmer' dad is or the hugely successful video games he oversees? Curious. Did the author not know, did the PR withhold it, or did someone choose to omit this fact along the way?

Joy Bliss
Joy Bliss

@Fill Fill And absorbing their learned limitations and dutiful and sacrificial role in society and the competitive attitudes of nonacceptance and the misinformation and immature labeling of people in racial, appearance and sex

Dylan Wilson
Dylan Wilson

@Serious Dude I sort of got that feeling while reading the article too. However, as a programmer father myself I can assure you that this could be done without being 'rich'. Having connections in the industry is probably very helpful though, but not required. Sometimes these stories just get picked up on twitter. I think every parent should do what they can to give their children opportunities, I mean, who else is going to do it.

Fill Fill
Fill Fill

Zing!  Probably a grain of truth there.  There does seem to be a lot of 'genius child' stories that sound more like parents were actually the ones doing the research, spending the money and figuring it out so their child can follow some instructions to produce something 'amazing'.

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