Crank ’em if you got ’em

My thoughts about the Playdate and some of my favorite games for it so far

A photo of the Playdate handheld with the screen showing a New Games Available notification

For the couple months or so, I’ve been obsessively following the release of the Playdate and responses to it. It’s been driving me crazy to read so many people’s opinions about it and not putting my own up on the internet.1Posting unsolicited opinions is what the internet’s for, after all.

I’m biased, of course, but I think the thing is just fantastic, both the actual device and the philosophy behind it. I think that even though I’ve spent so many years working on a game for it, I didn’t fully appreciate what Panic is doing until I saw its release and the response to it.

And it’s been many years. Several times over the past couple of weeks, I’ve marveled at the fact that a relatively simple, silly strategy game with 1-bit art has taken up five years of my life. Then I made the mistake of digging through my emails to find out when I first sent a pitch document to Panic, and I saw that the date was 2015. So it’s been seven years of my life.

To be fair to me, I haven’t spent that entire time working on Sasquatchers. I spent around a year working on the first game that I pitched, which was weirder and more targeted at an earlier conception of the season model, in which a game would last one week. But while I was pretty happy with how that game was looking, it never really gelled into an actual game. I put that one on hold — I would like to revisit it at some point — and switched to a more straightforward concept. After all, “Advance Wars plus Pokemon Snap” is an easier idea to wrap my head around.

Still, there were lots of redesigns and rewrites. The most compelling part of the game wasn’t even in until pretty late in the process, because I didn’t want to overtax my already strained art skills. Plus there were multiple job changes with accompanying crunch modes, and long stretches of time when I just couldn’t work on the game at all. If I’m being 100% honest, the pandemic and supply chain shortages and other delays are probably the only things that gave me a chance to actually finish the thing.

Even up to the point of release, though, I was still thinking of the Playdate — non-pejoratively — as a “hipster Gameboy.” Something that knew exactly what its niche was and which audience it was targeted at, and would attract a bunch of accomplished indie game devs wanting to make weird side projects.2And people like me, who were lucky enough to have a friend with connections to people at Panic!

But it’s only since the device has been released, and the SDK and developer forums have been made public, that I realized the full implication of Panic’s making a truly open platform for nearly-frictionless game development. It reminded me of my freshman year of college, geeking out over HyperCard and making games with it. I knew I was excited to be able to just make something without all the hassles of technical pipelines and production schedules and marketing and monetization and platform integration, but the real power of the Playdate is making that excitement available to everybody who wants it. It feels like it’s inherently not a device just for consumption; the games are cool on their own, but they’re even cooler as inspiration for you to make your own stuff.

Back when I started working on Playdate games, my old annoyances with Lua came back in a big way. Its simplicity and versatility are great for starting out, but gets progressively more time-consuming as the project gets bigger and more complex. Because the language (and the Playdate SDK for that matter) don’t impose that much structure on you, you have to make it yourself, which often means you’re given plenty of rope to hang yourself. I didn’t have a solid and flexible UI system until way too late in the process, for example, so adding new screens and features took way longer than it should. Once I devoted some time exclusively to setting that up, it made everything that followed much easier to development. So that’s my main tip for anyone making a Playdate game: invest in making a flexible UI system up front!3I’m also planning to rewrite the one I used as an open-source one available on GitHub, assuming I ever get the time to do it.

After I had to put my pencil down on Sasquatchers, the ideas for other games started coming fast and furious. I’m currently about 10 levels deep into a stack of game prototypes and proof-of-concepts; maybe one or two of them will turn into something? I was surprised how much the SDK has matured, too — what felt like a daunting blank slate when I started on Sasquatchers now seems like a trivial process. I’ve gone from “hey, here’s a weird idea” to having a few simple screens and UI running on the device in about 15 minutes. That’s absurd!

If all goes well, Sasquatchers will be released tomorrow to the people who got the first round of devices. I’ve already gone through multiple stages of “This is awful and is going to be such an embarrassment and no one at Panic will ever speak to me again” self-doubt, so seeing it get a pretty good response was an extremely pleasant surprise. Here are a few of the nicest reviews:

Edge magazine’s season one game recaps: “Advance Wars meets Pokémon Snap in this winning combination of strategy and photography.”

ArsTechnica‘s run-down of the 24 season one games: “…the absolute chocolate-and-peanut-butter combo to put Playdate’s library over the top. […] I’m always looking for fun games that prove challenging and engaging without any killing required, and Sasquatchers does that with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and cool, hand-drawn art design. What’s more, the further you get in the game, the more you have to adjust your crew to favor abilities like attracting beasts or opening up field vision, and this tactical spice keeps the game engaging from start to finish.”

The Verge‘s review of the Playdate: “My favorite part is how Sasquatchers uses the crank: it serves as your camera, so you have to turn it around to nail the picture or video you’re attempting. It’s very satisfying.”

Eurogamer’s Playdate review: “That same ambience permeates a game called Sasquatchers, which is basically Advance Wars but with people who want to photograph cryptids rather than deploy tanks and soldiers. Played out on a grid, regularly interrupted by moments in which you chat with your crew and turn the crank to line up pictures, it’s a playful, handicraft thing. I love it and I want to play more.”

People on the internet and in game review contexts actually being nice and supportive is such a weird and unusual experience for me, it’s yet another one of those aspects of the Playdate that reminds me of why I wanted to work in games in the first place: being able to experiment with weird ideas and focus on the merits of the game itself, instead of its value as a purchasable entertainment product.

I’m particularly grateful to my friend Seppo for playtesting the game, both for making suggestions4His suggestion led to the choose-your-own-title screen to differentiate save games, but especially for giving me the last boost of encouragement I needed to go from “this is an embarrassment” to “I actually feel okay releasing this into the world.” I’ve had so many ideas percolating and started so many projects over the years that the biggest achievement of Sasquatchers is that I actually finished it.5More or less. There are still plenty of things I’d like to add or rebalancing I’d like to do. Maybe at some point? What I love about the Playdate is that it makes that possible for more people; there’s an implicit assurance that you can do this too.

Lots of people already have, the Playdate category on itch.io has dozens of entries from developers, several of whom just used the free emulator without having an actual device in hand! Some of my favorites:

And those are just out of the ones I’ve had a chance to play. Looking through the entries reminds me a lot of looking through listings of HyperCard stacks back in the late 80s. Weird, hyper-specific ideas not necessarily intended for marketability but just on the hope that at least one person out there might find it cool and useful.

Also, a few of my favorite games from Season One:

  • Star Sled by Greg Maletic
    Near-perfect rendition of the 80s Atari aesthetic, with some really cool glitch effects. This one hits exactly the right difficulty level for me — I’m still terrible at it, but every time I crash I immediately want to try again, instead of bouncing off in frustration. I’ve probably played this more than anything else.
  • Pick Pack Pup by Nic Magnier and Arthur Hamer
    A twist on the Match 3 game that actually changes how you think about the puzzle. Great presentation that keeps throwing new ideas at you, and the music is absolutely fantastic.
  • Inventory Hero by Steven Frank, James Moore, and Neven Mrgan
    A frantic RPG where you’re just in charge of managing your character’s inventory. This one captures “the spirit of the Playdate” because it starts with a weird twist idea, keeps riffing on it, and then nails the execution.
  • Omaze by Gregory Kogos
    This elegant game makes perfect use of the crank, wordlessly teaches you how to play, and its sfx plus simple but evocative graphic design make it feel like it was delivered fully-formed onto the device by an alien civilization.
  • Demon Quest ’85 by Crooked Park
    A very well-written visual novel/logic puzzle about a bunch of 80s teens summoning demons in their house. Kind of sells itself, really.

I hope people get their Playdates soon and love them. And I hope a lot of people are inspired to make their own stuff for it, and share it6And/or sell it! on the internet! Personally, I’m looking forward to finishing unpacking and finding my Apple Pencil so I can get back to work on my next game.

  • 1
    Posting unsolicited opinions is what the internet’s for, after all.
  • 2
    And people like me, who were lucky enough to have a friend with connections to people at Panic!
  • 3
    I’m also planning to rewrite the one I used as an open-source one available on GitHub, assuming I ever get the time to do it.
  • 4
    His suggestion led to the choose-your-own-title screen to differentiate save games
  • 5
    More or less. There are still plenty of things I’d like to add or rebalancing I’d like to do. Maybe at some point?
  • 6
    And/or sell it!

2 thoughts on “Crank ’em if you got ’em”

    1. Thanks! The nature of the thing means the “release date” is going to keep rolling indefinitely, but I’m at least happy to be able to say I’m done with it more or less!

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