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Andrew Mills Talks about Bits & Bytes and How to Design Games

Andrew Mills

Started as a software application, he discovered his card game let kids determine the boundaries of the game, unlike board games limited to the board or phone games limited to a screen. Andrew describes how he created Bits & Bytes and the experience of watching kids play his game. The best part? Kids use his game to experiment, think, and collaborate, useful skills for programming, computer science, and really any profession.

Tim: What's the intellectual process to create a game? How do you engage players and keep their attention?

Andrew: I don't know if there is an intellectual process, for me I think I stumbled upon a process that happened to work.

Originally my intention was never to create a card game, Bits & Bytes was going to be an app (on a tablet). But when I was about 25% of the way through the app development I had the notion it should be a card game (for reasons I will go into later). So when it came to transforming the idea from an app to a card game I approached this process from the perspective of creating an app that happened to be a card game. I took the elements of apps that I believe make them popular and put these elements into a card game.

The second part of your question is why I believe apps are popular. Most apps are quick, everything can change in a heartbeat, they become more difficult (new levels, etc), have vibrant graphics, etc. Traditional board and card games have rigid rules, can be dull in appearance, take time to play and so on.

I wanted to create a game that taught children the mindset, the fundamental requirement, for computer coding but at the same time I wanted the children to feel like they were playing an app, which would subsequently engage with them.

Tim: How did Bits and Bytes happen? Where did the idea come from? What steps did you follow (or happened) to make the game a reality?

Andrew: I'm going to apologise in advance and say this is going to be a long answer; after all it's taken over two years to get to this position.

It all started when I was looking for a way to introduce computer coding to my children and I was playing with the Blockly language by Google. I realised that whilst Blockly would be great for children age 8 and over, it wouldn't help my children at their age so I literally sat down and started creating Bits & Bytes. At the same time, I embarked on months of research on introducing children to computers and coding (I love my research).

But I wanted the game to be more than just teaching children the fundamentals of computer coding, I wanted it to help open the world of computer coding to a diverse and creative audience. I firmly believe the computer coding industry desperately needs an injection of diversity and creativity for it to fulfill its future potential — the last thing I want in the future is for my children to be using software almost every minute of their lives that has been designed by Microsoft!

Research complete. The next step was to map out the game on a large corkboard. I started with the ground rules and then started to layer on top what I called the "flexible rules". Once this was done I started building the app.

As I mentioned above, I was about a quarter of the way through development when I had an epiphany (for lack of a better word). My children were already spending far too long staring at screens (whether those screens be televisions, computers, tablets, etc) and the last thing they needed was another reason to stare at a screen (please don't misunderstand, I am a huge advocate of "screens" but as I'm always saying to my children "too much of one thing is bad for you").

What Bits & Bytes does is teach children the fundamentals of computer coding — the mindset, the thought process, problem solving, logical approaches to problems, etc. But all of this can be taught without a computer.

Please allow me to digress for a moment. The UK government has made it compulsory for all children in primary school in England (age 4-11) to learn computer coding. Whilst I applaud this, I also think it's a misnomer as parents and teachers hear that children will be learning computer coding and they instantly rush out to buy tablets and expensive electronic devices (thus stretching already over-stretched budgets), simply to comply with the new curriculum. Yet, we're being told by countless studies that we need to limit our children's "screen time" to no more than two hours per day. By calling it "computer coding" the government have sent the wrong message, for what children are learning (especially between the ages of 4 and 9) is logic and problem solving and this doesn't need a computer or a tablet. But I guess changing the curriculum to say children will be "taught logic" isn't as sexy as saying they will be "taught computer coding".

Anyway"¦ As well as debating whether I wanted to build something that would increase my children's screen time, I was also wrestling with two other problems. First, by building an app version the game would only ever allow as much creativity as I, the programmer, allowed it to have — the app would always have boundaries that the children would never be able to change. In effect the app would stifle the creativity of the children playing it (this is one of the reasons why I think Minecraft is so successful — the boundaries/limitations are few). The second issue is that I set out to create a game that appealed to a diverse audience, not just to those who are already comfortable with technology (1 in 10 households in the UK do not own a computer and 1 in 5 do not have the Internet at home). It is essential for the computer coding industry to be opened up to a diverse and creative population and not just those who are already comfortable with technology. In a way, by relying on an app to teach computer coding, I was reinforcing the existing status quo.

The more I thought about this the more it became obvious that Bits & Bytes had to be a card game. A card game is portable and affordable. The very nature of a card game encourages creativity and flexibility. Children could put two decks of cards together to make it bigger and thus more challenging. They could change the effect of the cards. A board game would have limited them to the size of the board, an app would have limited them to what the programmer allowed them to do, but a card game was only limited by their imagination.

I abandoned the app and proceeded to create a proto-type of the card game that I then demonstrated to friends and family. Tweaked it based on their feedback. And went through three iterations (printer ink was costing me a fortune at this stage). Then once happy with the game I paid for a professional print run of 10 decks — I decided to have them professionally made, as I wanted the children to focus on the gameplay and not the card quality. Once these were done I approached a primary school and asked them if they would trial it. Initially I only had in mind that the game would appeal to children age 4-7 but the school insisted on trialing it with every year. Over three months later I was invited into the school to see the results and it was fantastic. Children, age 4-11, playing it together — everybody was enjoying it. Boys and girls were playing together. They were changing the rules. They were experimenting, thinking, collaborating. It was fantastic to watch. Best of all, the teacher only had to watch them, answer questions and occasionally keep the peace — the kids were doing it for themselves. As my children are fond of saying "it was awesome!"

I again went through another round of tweaking the game based on the feedback from the trial and I was ready for production.

First production runs for any game are expensive, so I decided to fund the first production run through crowd funding. And I also decided that if I was going to go down the crowd funding path then I would use it as an opportunity to give copies of the game away to primary schools in the UK. So people could contribute to the campaign and also donate a copy of the game, and depending on how much money was raised I would also donate games. At the time of this article we have close to 150 games to donate, which is something else I'm proud of.

The whole process has been non-stop learning. From understanding my market, the audience, marketing, crowd funding, through to production (i.e.: what card material, production method), government rules and so on. It's been fun but lots of hard work.

Tim: What's your experience creating games? Had you created games before, and therefore, knew the process? Or did you hack your way to a game?

Andrew: I hacked my way through to the end result, though I would probably prefer to describe it as the game evolved. I remember seeing interviews with authors who say the characters wrote the book, and in some respects I think my experience was very similar. I had the idea and as that idea evolved it started to direct me.

I've created computer games and apps before but never anything on this scale. You might think that creating a computer app is far more complex than a card game but my experience has been different. And one thing is certain, I've never created anything tangible like this.

Tim: What advice would you give to a teacher who wants to turn part of their curriculum into a game for their students? What works and doesn't work, based on your experience with Bits and Bytes?

Andrew: Through going through this process I have such new found respect for teachers. There are so many passionate teachers out there who literally get a buzz from teaching children (it's like teaching is their drug). So my first piece of advice to any teacher is to demand more pay. No government should underestimate what you do and the benefits you provide the future economy.

As far as turning parts of your curriculum into a game — or as I prefer to say, the gamification of your curriculum.

I think the simple answer is play apps and study those apps. Why is the app popular? Why do kids enjoy playing the app? Then take that essence and inject it into your curriculum.

But I don't believe the answer is giving children a computer, tablet, or electronic device — I think in some cases technology is becoming a crutch. Personally, I think children need to explore, their minds need to roam and the best way to do this is not to put artificial boundaries in place around a subject but to give them freedom to explore that subject. And I believe children (especially when they are young) learn best through play-based learning — and they're only children once so let them play and enjoy playing. If they learn at the same time then great.

Tim: I'm also curious about your professional and personal background, how you got to Bits and Bytes?

Andrew: My background is technology. I've held Chief Technology Officer (CTO) positions, founded (with varying degrees of success) three start-ups in London and I have children of my own (which helps).

Yes, I can code. I am passionate about technology and I find coding incredibly creative (I have no doubt an app version of Bits & Bytes will appear one day, but it was important for me to create the card game first). I also love to write and I think that has helped.

How did I get into Bits & Bytes? By giving myself the time to think and create, which I could only do by taking breaks from technology (a digital detox so to speak) and appreciating what's around me. I think that allowed me to focus.

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Bits & Bytes


Andrew Mills