Not That Many Unhappy Returns?

Reporting on whether people online have been returning their headsets says more about the state of tech journalism than anything else

Last week, The Verge and the shambling leftovers of Gizmodo were both eagerly trying to make a news story about the huge wave of unsatisfied customers returning their Vision Pro headsets to Apple stores. It was interesting to watch as it took over the corners of social media that I still follow: apparently, the feverish mass hysteria leading up to release had finally broken, and people everywhere were furious to discover that the emperor had no clothes. It’s just a VR headset. It seems magical… until it doesn’t. Damn!

As far as I could tell, the source for these stories were a couple of posts on Reddit and Twitter, and a smattering of “Apple fans” that weren’t entirely unbiased, and not necessarily the representative sample they’d have you believe. Last week, it was made to sound as if there were an epidemic of returns. This week, I’m hearing that the return rate is actually estimated to be less than 1%, which is kind of low for computing devices.

I will tell you that I am an “Apple fan” who is most definitely biased, but I still couldn’t tell you which version is correct, or even if it does or should matter to anyone outside of Apple. All it tells me is stuff I already know:

  1. VR headsets aren’t for everybody, and a lot of people will find them uncomfortable.
  2. There is not yet a use case for the Vision Pro that makes it a must-have outside of die-hard early adopters and people developing software for it.
  3. A lot of people have more credit cards than they have patience, and they wanted a take-home demo instead of the 30-minute in-store one.

Even though I’m both literally and figuratively invested in Apple, and I am the owner of an infrequently-used Vision Pro, I don’t feel like I need to go out of my way to defend it. Even die-hards like me will acknowledge that it’s not for everyone, and it will need some significant hardware revisions to get traction outside of the die-hards.

So what bugs me isn’t that people are talking trash about my shiny new toy. It’s that if I, a layperson, know enough to have a realistic idea of this device’s appeal, how come the writers and editors of tech blogs don’t?

I’ve repeatedly made fun of The Verge‘s review of the Vision Pro, but because it’s largely irrelevant to me, not because it’s inaccurate.1Earlier I did say that it was misleading, if not outright wrong, to say you can’t share your content in the headset with other people, since you can cast it over AirPlay to a TV or iOS device. But the spirit of the criticism is valid. It is an almost entirely personal and private headset. And it seriously needs to have support for multiple accounts and not just its insufficient guest mode as currently implemented. Screaming “BIAS!!!” whenever I read a review I don’t agree with is something I’ll leave for trolls on YouTube and comments sections. But I do get concerned when it seems like they’re working hard to make something a story when there’s no real story there.

I won’t claim to be entirely high-minded about it, since it’s mostly because I’m a fan of gadgets and devices and computers finally being able to do the things I imagined they’d someday be able to do when I was a teenager. And since Yahoo seems to be hell-bent on destroying Engadget, there’s not a lot of reputable, sufficiently-funded options out there.

But I think it’s worth at least mentioning that the companies that tech sites are covering are the companies that are gaining increasingly outsized influence on everything. There needs to be some real journalistic rigor happening, beyond just product reviews and attempts to turn Reddit threads into news stories.

For instance: I still don’t understand how the hype around Elon Musk every happened at all, much less was allowed to grow to the extremes it did. I’ve seen a lot of comments to the effect that he was misleadingly insightful until he suddenly went batshit insane — the phenomena of those bumper stickers on Teslas that say “we bought this car before we knew he was an asshole” — but I’m not buying it. Every time the guy opens his mouth, a flood of red flags comes pouring out. There were plenty of people writing for papers and blogs who came into frequent contact with him, years and years before he bought a social media site to prove to the world what an asshole he is. So why were they perpetuating the “real life Tony Stark” nonsense instead of calling him out?

Anyway, as I said: I’m not actually trying to draw a real connection between anecdotal stories being turned into “news,” and the rise of our corporate-ravaged cyber dystopia. I’m just saying that the audience for tech journalism is much wider and more relevant than it was even ten years ago, and we should keep that in mind.

In my opinion, a much better story than “Are People Returning Their $3500 First-Generation VR Headsets?!” is “Is Apple Committed to the Vision Pro as a Long-Term Computing Platform?” Granted, that’s a little harder to glean from Reddit posts and a few tweets, but it seems to me to be far more relevant. You’ve got a lot of people who spend a lot of time seeing every new product that comes out, dealing with companies a lot both directly and indirectly, and overall spending a lot more time immersed in consumer technology more than I’d be able to.2Or would ever want to.

It seems like they’re in a unique position to see trends, make insightful observations about how things fit into company’s overall strategies, and make predictions about where the technology might be headed. That requires making observations that go deeper than companies’ PR, not just in the vacuous gainsay “Apple doesn’t want me to call this a VR headset, but that’s what this is and you can’t stop me!!!” version of “keepin’ it real,” but in having a frame of reference that goes beyond the past six months and actually trying to put new developments into the proper context. That kind of coverage seems a lot more useful than filming a video wearing it on the subway or while cooking or skiing. I’d rather get a clear-eyed and realistic assessment — even if it’s one that I don’t agree with — of what it means for computing in its current state and how it might evolve, than a warning that it might mess up my hair.

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    Earlier I did say that it was misleading, if not outright wrong, to say you can’t share your content in the headset with other people, since you can cast it over AirPlay to a TV or iOS device. But the spirit of the criticism is valid. It is an almost entirely personal and private headset. And it seriously needs to have support for multiple accounts and not just its insufficient guest mode as currently implemented.
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    Or would ever want to.

One Hundred Twenty-Eight Gigabytes of Solitude

I TOLD you not to bother me while I’m jacked into the Matrix! (Thoughts about isolation and VR headsets)

As a chronicler of the hottest tech trends and their impact on our society, I have to warn you that Apple has released a device that threatens to rip apart our social fabric as we know it, forcing humans to keep their eyes locked on screens instead of engaging in meaningful contact. They did this in 2007, and it was called the iPhone.

I was initially pleased to see that reaction to Apple’s Vision Pro wasn’t just concentrating on technical specs and feature comparisons, and instead seemed to have more high-minded thoughts about the social impact of technology, the future of computing platforms, etc.

But I’d been optimistically assuming that those conversations would be based on a realistic look at the technology we have today, and how we use it. Not on some late-1990s screenwriter’s notion of jacking into cyberspace.

I’m not objecting to the notion that technology is isolating. I just object to the claim that the problem is somehow unique to a head-mounted display, or that it’s significantly more ominous than what we’ve got now, or what we’ve had forever. It’s a social problem, not (strictly) a technology one.

Continue reading “One Hundred Twenty-Eight Gigabytes of Solitude”

My Passthrough Era

I have an absolute ton of barely-organized thoughts about the Vision Pro after using it for a couple of days

Well, the good news is that nobody has to listen to my constant debating whether I should get a Vision Pro headset anymore. The bad news, of course, is that now I’m going to be constantly talking about what it’s like to use the Vision Pro headset.

By the time I’d ordered one, it wasn’t scheduled to arrive until the end of February. But as early as the day after launch, I heard that there were plenty of opportunities to make a same-day order, or even to just walk in and buy one. I’m not sure whether that means demand for the device was overstated, or whether Apple had anticipated the rush of early adopters, and I don’t think that it actually matters that much. I doubt that anyone realistically expected this to be flying off the shelves, and anyone outside of Apple who declares this a flop or a hit within the first year and a half (at the earliest) is being foolish.

So far I’ve only used it for about 10 or so hours, and only half of that with the correct lenses (see below). And my early impressions (spoiler) don’t differ all that much from the non-Verge reviews that I’ve seen so far. The stuff that it does well is amazing, it’s easy to imagine1And, obviously, probably much harder to implement all the ways that future versions are going to improve on it, and it really does feel like the start of a new platform, instead of just a failed experiment. With the emphasis on start of a new platform; it’s still absurd to call this a “developer kit,” but it’s also not yet something that will be useful to more than a fairly niche audience.

For context, if you’re stumbling onto this post somehow: I’ve used the Oculus Rift 2, the HTC Vive, the HTC Vive Focus, PSVR, the Quest, and the Quest 2. And I’ve worked on a couple of VR and AR projects. This is my “first few hours impressions” post. (There are many like it, but this one is mine).

Continue reading “My Passthrough Era”
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    And, obviously, probably much harder to implement

The Design of Everyday Obsolete Things

In honor of the Mac’s anniversary, a new appreciation for things that have outlived their usefulness

Two things that I do a lot on this blog (and elsewhere on the internet): reminiscing about getting my first Mac, and desperately trying to justify expensive purchases. With the Macintosh’s 40th anniversary, and last week’s pre-orders for the Apple Vision Pro, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few days doing both.

A few days ago, I replied to a Mastodon post in honor of the Mac’s anniversary, listing my first Mac, my favorite Mac, and so on. For my favorite, I picked my current one, a 14″ M3 MacBook Pro. And I chose it without hesitation, which kind of surprised me.

The introduction of the M1 got Apple back on track, and they’re once again on a streak where every new Mac is the best computer I’ve ever owned. This one has everything I want, and it’s powerful enough to run docked but light enough to take just about anywhere I’d need a computer. The screen, keyboard, trackpad, and speakers have gone through enough revisions to be just about perfect. And — the best part after being burned, literally, by the last few Intel models — it runs cool and silent.

But my favorite? When the classic Mac is so innately appealing that just seeing a photo of one has me back on eBay looking to get a used one in good working condition? When there’ve been so many unique designs that instantly provoke nostalgia for the exact time in your life when you had it? I like this computer for its functionality, and for the fact that the design has been iterated to the point that it does exactly what it needs to without drawing any attention to itself. But in 10 years or so, I’m unlikely to have many fond memories of this (space) black slab itself.

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If you see a virtual joystick, they blew it

Killer apps, creativity, and how bad things happen to good computer platforms

This is a tangent off of my previous post about Apple’s apparent plans for the Vision Pro, and some of the follow-up comments.

Back when Apple released the iPhone, it was quickly apparent that it had tons more potential than was realized in its first iteration. The company had nailed the design, and now millions of people had portable touch screens packed full of sensors, a camera, and an internet connection. As a game developer, I was excited at the prospect of entirely new types of games that would be made possible by the technology in this device.

And there were a few games that took full advantage of it. Flight Control is still the standout; it felt as if it would only work on a touch screen, and only on a touch screen of that size.1Which I think is still the case. I tried the VR version, which seemed like a no-brainer until I actually played it, and discovered that the magic wasn’t there for me. Before the Match 3 genre got milked dry and became synonymous with exploitative monetization strategies, it was pretty novel: Bejeweled was a lot of fun, and it still works best with touch input. Device 6 doesn’t depend on tech demo-like game mechanics, but it’s a story-driven game that feels as if it can only work on a smartphone.

But it also didn’t take long for developers to fall back to one of my most hated things in mobile games: the virtual joystick. Whenever I see one2Or worse, have had to implement one, it just feels like the devs have shrugged and said, “that’s it, we’re out of ideas.” It’s not just that it throws out everything that makes the platform unique, in favor of a much older and more familiar interface; it’s that it’s a shittier version of that interface as well.3I should mention that the screenshot attached to this post is from an Apple developer presentation explaining how virtual joysticks can be a fallback for players with accessibility issues, or if a physical bluetooth controller isn’t available. So I’m not necessarily complaining about that presentation in particular.

And yet, using the Apple Pencil with an iPad feels so natural and just plain enjoyable that it’s become my preferred way of interacting with it. Even though the company had repeatedly insisted that the device was specifically designed for touch input, which is why iOS and MacOS were kept separate, and why the company had never developed its own stylus among all of the third-party options.

So it would seem that it’s a good thing for a company to insist that its products be used the way they’re designed and intended to be used, where the unique abilities and constraints of the platform encourage new ways to solve problems and sometimes invent entirely new categories. Except for the cases where it’s not a good thing.

Continue reading “If you see a virtual joystick, they blew it”
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    Which I think is still the case. I tried the VR version, which seemed like a no-brainer until I actually played it, and discovered that the magic wasn’t there for me.
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    Or worse, have had to implement one
  • 3
    I should mention that the screenshot attached to this post is from an Apple developer presentation explaining how virtual joysticks can be a fallback for players with accessibility issues, or if a physical bluetooth controller isn’t available. So I’m not necessarily complaining about that presentation in particular.

Read the Room, Apple

Trying to make sense of Apple’s plans for the Vision Pro, while simultaneously trying to talk myself out of wanting one

I was innocently watching YouTube when I happened upon a clickbaity video warning that Apple Vision Pro has a PROBLEM, and I was powerless not to click on it. Inside, a man was furiously screaming that the company had limited the VR experience to ten feet by teen feet and you had to be sitting on an [expletive deleted]1I promised my mom I’d stop swearing so much in public. couch.

My third response (after “why did I click on that?” and “take it down a few notches my dude”) was that he must be mistaken. He must’ve been taken in by a rumor, or maybe misinterpreted the public documentation.

But then I found an article by Samuel Axon on Ars Technica from last June, confirming that the documentation explicitly says that a VR experience (“fully immersive experience” in Apple’s retina-means-high-resolutionspeak) will be interrupted if the user moves more than 1.5 meters away from their starting point. In other words: the Apple Vision Pro won’t support room-scale VR.

Quick aside for anybody who’s unfamiliar with the terminology: “room-scale VR” just means that you can walk around your own space to move around the virtual space. Other types are seated (on your #@$%&! couch or otherwise) or stationary (standing but not moving from your starting position). All of the current major consumer-level VR headsets support room-scale tracking.

It’s entirely likely that I’d already heard this, and either misinterpreted it myself, or understood it and completely forgot about it. I’ve spent the time since then assuming that of course it must support room-scale tracking, since the device seems entirely capable from a technological standpoint. AR tracking on the last few models of iPhone — which aren’t purpose-built AR devices — is excellent, and you can place a virtual object in space, walk around the room a bit, and return to find it still sitting where you left it.

That Ars Technica article says, correctly, that the “limitation” shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to how the company is trying to position the device2No pun intended. Apple’s been insistent that this isn’t a VR headset; in fact, they refuse to use the industry standard terms like “augmented reality,” “virtual reality,” or even “mixed” or “extended” reality, in favor of their own “spatial computing.”

The general idea is that the Vision Pro is meant to enhance and extend the way you use Macs and iPads already — watching TV and movies, looking through photos and video, browsing the web, telecommunications, and I guess making keynote presentations? They’re emphasizing that this isn’t some entirely unfamiliar type of computer; it’s the same stuff you’re already doing, but bigger and in 3D.

Continue reading “Read the Room, Apple”
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    I promised my mom I’d stop swearing so much in public.
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    No pun intended

Our iPads, Ourselves

Dumb thoughts about obsolescence, both planned and unplanned

Apparently I’m firmly in the phase of my life where I get sentimental about computers of my past, and the one that’s been on my mind lately is the iPad mini.

That may seem weird, even by the inherently weird standard of getting sentimental about computers, because the whole idea behind the iPad is that the device disappears and puts all the focus on the content. But the form factor of the mini just got everything right. I remember seeing its initial announcement and thinking the whole idea was absurd: too big to be as pocketable as a phone, too small to be as practical as a full-size tablet. But then I went to a Best Buy, picked one up, and said, “okay, now I get it.”1No one at the store seemed all that fazed by my sudden announcement; I guess people at Best Buy are used to strangers having sudden epiphanies about gadgets.

I’ve “upgraded” to a bigger iPad, which is a lot more useful for the things I use an iPad for, but the mini is just ineffably more satisfying to hold. It’s also the form factor that feels most like living in the future. The larger ones might provoke thoughts like “I could draw masterpieces on this!” or “I could write a movie on this” or “I could watch a bunch of YouTube videos I’ve downloaded for a long plane flight,” but holding the iPad mini makes you2Okay, just me think, “I could scan the atmosphere for alien particulate matter with this!”

Last night, I dug my old iPad mini out of its resting place, found a lightning cable to plug it in, and quickly felt a pang of guilt. This is a device that had been perfectly happy in whatever Valhalla beloved computers are rewarded with after their short lifetimes of usefulness, and I’d cruelly yanked it away from the light, into the cold reality of late 2023.

A while back, when I tried something similar by recharging my old Nintendo handhelds, I was surprised at how easily most of them came back to life. They made a pleasant chiming sound and seemed to say, “Hey, welcome back! Let’s play a game!” The iPad mini just showed a dead battery icon before grudgingly stuttering into its home screen, as if to gasp, “Why won’t you let me die?”3The heat pouring off of its right side made it seem even angrier.

I looked it up, and I bought the iPad mini 2 in 2014. I hadn’t realized it’d been almost 10 years! It informed me that 154 app updates were available, and the installed apps were like a snapshot of ages past. Games that were never played, apps that had fallen out of favor and been replaced by newer versions, or ingenious ideas that the creators had simply abandoned. I’d forgotten about a book-in-the-form-of-an-app (remember those?) about Disney animation, which was touting the technological advancements of its newest feature, Frozen.

When I tried to place 2014 in my own lifetime, I couldn’t remember what was going on back then, even though it wasn’t all that long ago. For the record: it was right at the time of my disastrous second stint at Telltale Games, but the more memorable events were going to the British Isles for a wedding, and having parties and events with friends.4I also had pretty sweet sideburns for a while there.

I realized that that was a transition period in my life overall, where I’d stopped dividing up time in terms of projects I was working on and companies I was working for, and started using more personal landmarks like travel and social gatherings.5And my hair. It was the start of a shift to where I stopped thinking about my life in terms of productivity, and more in terms of just plain enjoyment.

By my old standards, that would make it seem like I wasn’t accomplishing as much. But by any really meaningful standard, it meant that I was starting to be able to enjoy all the rewards of hard work, instead of just working hard for the sake of some vague payoff in the future.

And back to using the iPad as metaphor: ten years of gradual improvements. If you read the tech blogs and watch the gadget videos, you could get the sense that the tech industry as a whole, and Apple in particular, has been stagnating. Just churning out variations on black rounded rectangles year after year, with incremental changes instead of revolutionary ones. But I can look at this device I got almost ten years ago, and it almost seems like a product of a different time. Things have gotten so much better since then, without my taking notice.

(To be clear: I do wish that ten years wasn’t “ancient” by modern computer standards. But I also have some stock in Apple, so the capitalist in me is glad they’re regularly selling more stuff).

So this iPad mini is unlikely to be that useful for anything apart from being a time capsule to not-that-long ago. But it also feels more like a kindred spirit: pretty slow and clunky, doesn’t perform as well as it used to, gets overheated with just a little bit of exertion, still mad sexy though.

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    No one at the store seemed all that fazed by my sudden announcement; I guess people at Best Buy are used to strangers having sudden epiphanies about gadgets.
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    Okay, just me
  • 3
    The heat pouring off of its right side made it seem even angrier.
  • 4
    I also had pretty sweet sideburns for a while there.
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    And my hair.

Santa in Space

Experimenting with Nomad Sculpt for Christmas 2023

It’s been a while since I’ve devoted some time to playing around with Nomad Sculpt for iPad, and I’d forgotten how much fun it is.

More than any other 3D tool I’ve used, it’s very intuitive, forgiving of mistakes, and seems designed for translating your intention into 3D instead of making you force what’s in your head into “proper” topology and such. Plus it’s got a ton of post-processing effects built in that feel like cheating; it almost seems like I know what I’m doing.

Here’s a model for Christmas 2023: Santa in Space. He’s so excited to deliver gifts to the ISS that he didn’t check whether his sack could survive the explosive decompression.1So to speak. The original intent was to give him a big glass space hemet (with his hat on top, of course), but I found out halfway through that Nomad doesn’t support transparent materials, as far as I’m aware.

Edit: Nomad does support transparent materials; they’re just not where I expected them to be (since it’s not where you set all other material properties). You can change them in the top-level material menu when you have an object selected, choose “blending” or “additive,” and set a transparency value. It does everything except auto-fit a globe around a long beard, which is why I haven’t updated the image.

I’d still rank myself as very much an amateur — I have trouble with getting sharp details without its turning into a big, lumpy mess — but I can already tell I’ve improved since the last time I played with the software. I think modeling cartoonish, chubby, white-bearded guys is playing to my strengths, since I always have a model at the ready.

Merry Christmas to everyone who celebrates!

Edit 2: Because it was bugging me, I went back in and gave Space Santa a helmet. (And tweaked a couple of other things like his teeth). Merry Christmas, Space Santa!

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    So to speak.

Peaceful EV Feeling

I’ve been a bad evangelist for electric vehicles, but mostly because owning and driving one is almost never a problem.

If I remember correctly, the reason I started an EV Diary was to give other people the kind of resource I wasn’t seeing anywhere else online: a realistic, practical idea of what day-to-day life is like using an electric car. Everything I’d been seeing was from reviewers who’d only tried the car for a week at most; evangelists who’d ignore any glaring issues for the sake of promoting electric vehicles; or nerds who were not just willing but happy to devote a significant chunk of their life towards achieving maximum efficiency.

I haven’t updated in almost a year, but simply because there’s not much to report. I’d say at this point, the honeymoon is over between me and the ID.4 — it’s still the best car I’ve ever owned, but I’m more acutely aware of the little nuisances that I used to overlook. Regardless, I’ve decided to buy the car when its lease is up next year.

Continue reading “Peaceful EV Feeling”

My Five-Year-Old (Computer) Could Make That!

Supply, demand, and how the Steam Store helped me feel less anxious about the threat of machine learning

Featured image is a weird portrait of me as a barbarian or something, generated by one of those Midjourney-style AI toys

There’s a style of character design that I used to like a lot, until recently. It’s that exaggerated-but-still-kind-of-heroic cartoony style that I most associated with games like the Torchlight series. It managed to be appealing but not too simplistic, somewhat painterly but still approachable, bringing a novel and intentional, artistic, interpretative design to a medium that for too long seemed to prize photorealism above all else.

Now, though, I associate it with cheap, exploitative, pay-to-play games. It more or less became the de facto art style for every one of those mobile- or Facebook games that were advertised incessantly, but still managed to do absolutely nothing that I could recognize to distinguish themselves. That style of character design went from something that I aspired to, to something that I viscerally disliked, just because the market became flooded with it.1Ironic, since so many of these games seem to involve trying to save a character from a flooded, trap-filled room.

Continue reading “My Five-Year-Old (Computer) Could Make That!”
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    Ironic, since so many of these games seem to involve trying to save a character from a flooded, trap-filled room.

Unleash the Basilisk

Thoughts about old computers, emulators, and the difference between idealized memory and practical reality

Every couple of years, with relentless regularity since the late 1990s, I become overwhelmed with the need to bring my beloved college computers back to life.

Throughout my freshman year, I had a Mac Plus that was given to me as a graduation present. I loved this computer about as much as it’s possible to love an inanimate object. I still vividly remember the story of when my parents gave it to me, and it’s easily one of my top 10 memories. It was everything I wanted after years of reading Mac User magazine, getting excited at screenshots of simple utilities that looked like pure magic, running GEOS on my Commodore 128 and dreaming of the day I’d finally get “the real thing.” It was the focal point of my friendship with my best friend that year, as we’d spend a lot of time on the Mac running Dark Castle, Beyond Dark Castle, and Uninvited, and it was likely the thing that really made me want to work in video games.

After that year, I “upgraded” to an Amiga 500, which was clearly better in every possible way. So many colors! Such better sound! So many more options for expansion! So much room for activities! I ended up using it for all my school work, and spent a lot of time running Deluxe Paint, but somehow it never captured the same magic as that compact Mac.1It was, however, my introduction to The Secret of Monkey Island, so I’m grateful for that. Every time I get overcome with the desire to bring these computers back to life2Or more likely, find functional ones on Ebay, I’m reminded of that feeling of barely-definable, irrational disappointment.

Continue reading “Unleash the Basilisk”
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    It was, however, my introduction to The Secret of Monkey Island, so I’m grateful for that.
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    Or more likely, find functional ones on Ebay

Crank ’em if you got ’em

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

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 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!