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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.