Games consoles are fun. Board games are fun. So what could be more fun than a ‘programmable game console and board game’ aimed at families, then? Not much, hopes British company Technology Will Save Us, which has just unveiled its new Arcade Coder kit on crowdfunding website Kickstarter.
The kit’s centrepiece is a tablet-shaped board of 144 LED buttons, arranged in 12 rows of 12. Each of those buttons can be programmed using an iOS app called Games Studio, with drag-and-drop coding that will hopefully be familiar (to children and adults alike) from Scratch and various other kids-coding apps.
As inspiration, the Arcade Coder will come with some famous old games: Pong, Snake and Whack-a-Mole included. However, the idea is that children will learn to make their own games for the device, using the app’s system of tutorials.
“Each level is more challenging than the next, which means coding and creative problem-solving skills are tested at every turn. Once all of the skill badges have been collected, you’ll be crowned Games Master. Kids also learn the foundation of game mechanics, like speed, levels and point systems. They can customise games using pre-coded projects or invent brand new ones, totally from scratch in Sandbox Mode.”
There’s also a ‘Painter Mode’ which is more about creating animations. Tech Will Save Us says that the device’s rechargeable battery will last for around six hours before needing more plug-juice, which means it should be good for even longer journeys.
The Arcade Coder will cost £129.99 (that’s $159.99 or €139.99 in other parts of the world), although this being Kickstarter, there are several ‘early bird’ offers to get a discount and some extra freebies, for people ordering early. At the time of writing, for example, the ‘Super Early Bird’ option costs £80, and gets you a kit plus the iOS app. There’s also an ‘Early Bird Plus’ option which costs £112 and adds a carry case. The kits are expected to ship to buyers in October.
(The app being iOS-only means you’ll need an Apple device to use it. Perhaps if it does well, there’ll be an app at least for Amazon’s Fire tablets, which are quite popular for children.)
I like the family aspect to the Arcade Coder. “We believe that this will drastically change how people are spending family time because it is not just an individual gaming experience on a screen, but a multiplayer gameplay experience for friends and family,” said Tech Will Save Us boss Bethany Koby, as the Kickstarter went live. It sounds like the kit will also encourage children to think about some important game-making concepts — the speed/levels/points aspect — which will serve them well when they start using other ways to program other devices.
That’s one of the potential concerns around this kind of product: that it’s a ‘walled garden’ where children are programming for one device only — this 12x12 LED board that they own — rather than something more open, like creating a Scratch project and sharing it publicly, or using a Raspberry Pi or micro:bit computer for all manner of tasks. That said, using something like the Arcade Coder could help children gain the confidence to go on and do those other things too, if it’s good.
My only other worry is about how something like the Arcade Coder compares to some of the competition for children’s time that’s out there. Can the idea of making their own games tempt kids away from Fortnite towards something like this, if their parents buy it? Or perhaps more relevantly, for kids who are interested in making games, will this kit tempt them away from something like Roblox, with its ‘Roblox Studio’ tool?
There’s a risk with any coding-for-kids device that it’s something their parent buys and enthusiastically recommends, only to find their children prefer to stick with their consoles — not least because ‘enthusiastic parental recommendation’ can sometimes be the kiss of death for any new thing’s cool-factor! Or is that just me and my children…
If all this sounds a bit pessimistic, it’s not meant to. The Arcade Coder looks fun, and that 144-button board should have potential for creative kids beyond the obvious retro arcade games and pixel-art animations. I also think there’s a bigger opportunity here: for companies to think about ways families can learn and practise programming together, that we’ll hopefully see more of. Anyway the Arcade Coder has reached nearly £30,000 of pre-orders in its first few days, with 28 days to go to hit its £50,000 minimum goal.