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 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!

May the Chip Shortage Be With You

A mysterious message from someone at Raspberry Pi that seemed interesting enough to pass along

This blog is too low-traffic for me to get anything resembling press requests, but I did get a short, intriguing message from somebody at Raspberry Pi today. They were responding to my posts about building a Star Wars-inspired Raspberry Pi setup, and my nerdy marriage proposal, with the enigmatic comment “you should keep an eye on RaspberryPi.com on May 4th.”

I’m a huge fan of the whole Pi platform (especially the RP2040s and the whole Pi Zero line), and obviously a big Star Wars nerd, so this all seems highly relevant to my interests. My projects are on hold at the moment both because of limited time and because it’s very, very difficult to get Pi boards because of the global chip shortage, but I’ll be paying attention to whatever they’ve got in mind. It seems like anybody reading this blog is likely to have similar interests, so I thought I’d pass along the message!

Edited 4/4/2020: Seppo’s guess below was correct, and they were very kindly celebrating Star Wars-themed electronics projects instead of announcing any new collaboration. I think my cold, hard heart just immediately when to “product announcement” because my engagement ring box didn’t use a Raspberry Pi. I’d forgotten how the whole environment of hobbyist electronics on the internet tends to be a lot more supportive and non-competitive with each other as opposed to the world of “branded consumer products.” In any case, it’s encouraged me to get back into those electronics projects!

In addition to the products pages on RaspberryPi.com and Adafruit.com, a good channel I don’t believe I’ve mentioned before is The Rebel Base Builds. He’s a British CG artist and builder who takes on a lot of themed projects all themed to Star Wars, usually focusing on the modeling and construction aspects but still bringing in electronics (because duh, Star Wars needs LEDs).

Project Diary: Tanuki Clock Part 2

Redesigning my tanuki taiko drummer

Quick update on my project to make a Raspberry Pi-powered taiko-playing tanuki clock: I redesigned the character into a seated position, both to give more emphasis to the clock, and to make it a little bit more ambiguous where he got the taiko drum from.

I’m happier with this version, but while it makes some things theoretically simpler, it introduces a bunch of new problems. The most obvious is that it’s just so much bigger. It no longer fits on my printer, and it’s not immediately obvious how to cleanly break it into smaller components. Plus the test prints will take forever — a quick test of just the taiko drum was predicting a 15-hour print time.

Also, having the taiko oriented horizontally means the arms have to rotate at an angle, and I haven’t yet figured out exactly how I can make that work. In addition to wishing I’d had some electronics classes in school, I wish I’d taken some mechanical engineering.

(I did a quick test having the taiko vertically oriented, and the tanuki standing behind it, but that would’ve made the thing even bigger).

One thing I’ve realized trying to redesign the model is that I follow some depressingly talented artists on Instagram. I’ve been hearing for years the complaint that Instagram is bad for people’s mental health, but I’ve never understood that. I can’t remember ever seeing an “influencer” and feeling inferior or wishing that I had any single aspect of their life. (Unless they’re making me sad that I’m not at Disneyland, which is something that it usually pretty straightforward for me to correct). But seeing some artist post a photo of their “sketch” that’s still infinitely better than I’ve been able to make after hours of work, just makes me feel extremely amateurish. And I am an amateur, so fair enough, but it’s still kind of dispiriting.

Project Diary: Tanuki Clock Part 1

Start of a hopefully ongoing series about my process making an expensive and over-complicated version of a cheesy novelty item

I’ve always been ambivalent about developer diaries, for a few reasons. First is that it always seems cooler to preserve the mystery and wait until I can say, “look at this thing I made.” Second is that I’ve got a lousy track record in terms of actually finishing projects, and it’s a lot more demoralizing to have to abandon something once you’ve talked about it, rather than letting it drift off unmourned by anyone other than me. And finally, there’s a question of expertise. I hate the idea of presenting anything I do as the “right” way to do it.

But that’s kind of selfish. Any time I’ve tried to take on a new hobby or skill, I’ve used tons of online tutorials, blog posts, YouTube videos, and GitHub repos, all from people who’ve taken the time to share what they’ve learned. Plus, I’ve often run into a frustrating disconnect when looking for information online: tutorials often skip over the details I need, presumably because they’re assumed to be so basic as to be common knowledge.

So I’m going to try to detail my progress making my current project, which is a Raspberry Pi-enabled clock, with a taiko-playing tanuki.

Continue reading “Project Diary: Tanuki Clock Part 1”

Blender Sculpting Experiments

Revisiting some earlier attempts at sculpting and modeling in Blender

Back in 2020 I started in earnest trying to learn Blender’s sculpting and modeling tools. Last night I was reminded that I only posted the results to Facebook-owned platforms, and I should get them up on my own site.

The one I had the most success with was a simple version of one of the dogs from P.D. Eastman’s Go, Dog. Go!, which was my favorite book as a little kid. Another one I like, although I didn’t get very far at all, was a sculpt of Cousin Eerie from Eerie magazine, designed I believe by Jack Davis. (Even if he didn’t design the character, his version is my favorite).

I’ve been playing around with Nomad Sculpt for the iPad quite a bit lately, and having a ton of fun with it. The other night was the first time I tried importing a model from Nomad Sculpt into Blender, and it was eye-opening for just how forgiving Nomad is to people new to sculpting. Probably just because of the material and default lighting it uses, it hides all the blobby imperfections and rough patches and mistakes that Blender puts into full relief. (As it should, as it’s all stuff you need to catch in a more professional environment).

It’s less accurate, and possibly even reinforces bad habits, but it’s a lot more fun and a lot more encouraging to keep practicing, since it seems to do everything it possibly can to give you a good-looking model. At least in screenshots. I could stand to keep practicing with Blender’s sculpting and modeling tools, obviously, but I’ve got a feeling my first drafts are going to be coming from the iPad from now on.

Yukon Cornelius

My experiments with Nomad Sculpt for iPad continue. Here’s Yukon Cornelius, lickin’ his old pickaxe (so to speak).

I’m not going to lie, I’d originally thought this would be my first attempt at animating one of these models, and I’d do a constant loop of him just licking the pickaxe for infinity. But of course, when I went onto YouTube to look for reference — and I still haven’t found any good reference for his back, even if I hadn’t omitted the backpack — one of the very first videos was exactly that. Never change, The Internet.

Cute Felt

Might delete later, idk. (Heads-up: the “present” is just a bunch of seeds and a dead cricket, but it’s the thought that counts).

Made with Nomad Sculpt on iPad and textured in Blender, using a tutorial by Southern Shotty. I also cheated and added some tint to the final render in Procreate, because it was a lot easier than getting decent UVs on the model. Retopology is definitely a subject I’m going to have to tackle later, but for now I’m just having fun.

Monday Cat

Here’s another experiment learning Nomad Sculpt for iPad. The cliche that cats are grumpy and mean-tempered is lazy and inaccurate. This cat, for instance, loves Mondays. That’s the day he gets to go to his job at the bank, foreclosing on people’s homes.