Kyle Derksen has built worlds most other 11-year-olds have only seen in their dreams or on cartoons. His imagination and skills have allowed other children to hunt monsters in a lush forest and battle robots in far-off, undiscovered planets.
The fifth-grader at Maple Creek Elementary in northeast Fresno probably isn’t the youngest video game developer in town, but he may be one of the most accomplished. Kyle has already created about a dozen video games in the past few years, and his most recent – an action-packed space shooter akin to the original “Metroid” games called “Techno Planet” – won a national design contest held during the massive Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
The naturally shy but articulate boy beat out a few dozen other young game architects in the Kids as Video Game Makers 2016 development competition, held on March 16 at the Children’s Creativity Museum. “Techno Planet” impressed the three judges of the 11-14 age bracket, netting him the grand prize of $250 and a professionally designed promotional poster for his game.
A few weeks after their triumphant trip to the Bay Area, Kyle and his father, Phil, showed me “Techno Planet.” We met at Phil’s office in Bitwise’s new South Stadium location, where he runs Moonstone Media – a WordPress software development company. The pair are not the only technophiles in the family, as Kyle’s 9-year-old brother, Drew, also dabbles in game design. Drew designed some of the animations seen in “Techno Planet,” but he decided not to enter the younger bracket of the Kids as Video Game Makers competition.
The Derksens led me into the Zelda Room – one of four video game-themed conference rooms sprinkled throughout the three-story Bitwise building. One wall depicts “Legend of Zelda” protagonist Link with his new blue outfit and brown hair – an affront to all true gamers who remember him only as a blonde with an iconic green tunic and hat – but I keep my mouth shut as we sit down.
Kyle first shows me a set of tiny colored blocks and a 13-by-13 grid. This is a unique feature of Pixel Press’ Bloxels, a game development software platform designed for children. The blocks each represent a section of gaming code – bad guys, coins, terrain elements like grass or water – that can be mapped in the physical world using the grid before being converted into a video game level. Kids can take pictures of their grids and import them into their games, or simply design the levels using only the software.
How Kyle used this simple tool to create the complex world of “Techno Planet” – I will never know.
It’s a basic platformer – think “Sonic” and “Donkey Kong” – with traditional goals: Shoot the bad guys, jump over the lava and collect the coins. But the 11-year-old has somehow managed to create a complex, multi-tiered world in which a colorful little guy must hop through what feels like miles of changing terrain. It’s as if he designed four of his own “Super Mario Bros.” levels and stacked them on top of each other. He weaves them together with collapsible floors and “special lava” that you can walk through – a concept that 20 years of gaming taught me was quite impossible.
“It’s fun to design these games and play them and show them to friends,” Kyle said. He didn’t create “Techno Planet” for the contest – it was just the best of the games he had created, so he decided to enter it.
Kyle also wrote the game’s story. Each checkpoint allows you to unlock a story bubble. They explain what you’re doing on “Techno Planet” and how you’ve managed to make it to one of the world’s moons. I wish I knew more of what happened, but my platformer skills aren’t what they used to be. I couldn’t make it past the second checkpoint.
Writing the “Techno Planet” story came easy to Kyle. In addition to game development, Kyle also reviews books and self-publishes his own novels through his website. Although Bloxels requires users to choose from five premade game soundtracks, he probably could have written his own – the young pianist also records and uploads his own music to the website.
In fact, Kyle is one of the central San Joaquin Valley’s most over-achieving kids by most measures. Although this was my first time meeting Phil, I have met Kyle before. I interviewed him and his mother, Cori, when he was selected as The Bee’s third grade Academic All-Star in 2014 – the highest student achiever in the area as voted on by a panel of local leaders. He’s a tennis player, a straight-A student and often participates in summer programs geared toward technology, such as Kids Invent at Fresno State and the game development workshop at the Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART).
Kyle plans to use his contest winnings to invest in more advanced game development tools. He has not learned to write his own code yet, but that’s on the way.
“It’s part of the education process,” Phil said.
Kyle gave me an intrigued look when I asked if he planned to turn any of his novels into video games.
“That’s not a bad idea,” Phil said. His son nodded silently while thumbing through Bloxels on their iPad.
- Available through the free Bloxels Builders mobile app on iOS, Google Play and Android. Access Kyle’s game by navigating to the -13,-19 coordinates on Bloxels’ in-app marketplace, the Infinity Web
- Developed by Kyle Derksen, with animation help from Drew Derksen
- Winner of the 2015 Kids as Video Game Makers competition at the 30th annual Game Developers Conference
- Other games available at kylederksen.com