Thoughts (so far) on the Playdate

Some thoughts on Panic's indie handheld gaming console.

A yellow Playdate sits against a black and orange mat in a cyan colored case, still on its lock screen.
Panic's Playdate

We live in an age where technology is omnipresent. An age where we keep seeing companies claiming they are going to usher in a revolution - ditch the screens they say, the HMD (head mounted display) is the next step in our technological evolutionm then the smart glasses, then the smart contacts, then... I don't know a chip in your brain? Ditch those even - an AI companion we clip to our clothes can reduce even the need for a visual HUD altogether.

It all feels kind of forced. Sure, some of it's early - the tech is too expensive for the average consumer... but so much of this current tech world we live in feels unnecessary. The people building these things seem inspired by cautionary tales, only ... the cautionary part goes right over their head. In 2019, a tech CEO who will remain nameless basically espoused how we could "live in the Matrix" while explaining the potential of their product.

The Matrix, as in the virtual simulacrum of a world humanity found themselves in in said movie of the same name, was not something to aspire to. That's the text of the movie - you don't need to have taken a critical studies course to understand that... or you shouldn't. Our heroes fight to free humanity from the binds of a simulation built by the machines. The machines we built, gave sentience to, and then oppressed.

It's easy then to just say... "well maybe we should just shirk technology altogether". To become a "luddite" (in quotes because that term is over-used and perhaps oversimplifies what the luddites actually believed). But technology has a role in our lives and while we should be critical of it, that doesn't forego the positive things it can bring, even as it reshapes us, our world, and our perception of said world.

And so! Sometimes, you just want a little device that doesn't really claim to be revelatory. That doesn't really want to transform how you live your life. Sometimes you just want something like a GameBoy... but with a crank.

A Playdate with the game "Forgot Something?" shown on screen. The crank is undocked.
FORGOT SOMETHING, A game by Amelia H and Mike F

Harkening back to the monochromatic days of Nintendo's original handheld device, the Playdate is ... well it's a little more sophisticated. There's the fact that it's a device built in the 2020sm for one. There's the fact it has a much nicer screen. That it has a crank. This thing has an OS. You go through an OOBE (out-of-box experience)- one that's simply exuding personality: Mash the d-pad, then the a-button, then the b-button, undock the crank and a sound plays - then twist it to learn how it works. You learn the core affordances the device offers in a fast, fun way.

You update the device and get your first game or two. By default, games are offered weekly, encapsulating a "season". Season One has finished, and at the moment I don't know if there is any word of a Season Two.

Right now, I've only got two Season One games:

  1. Casual Birder, a 2D Pokemon Snap esque adventure game about bird watching, among other things??
  2. Whitewater Wipeout, a surfing game reminiscent of handheld extreme sports games from the era when Tony Hawk Pro Skater was king, at least on the console side

Casual Birder is neat, and it's photography based so bonus points there. Whitewater Wipeout is interesting in that it is built around crank-based controls, but so far, I don't really love it.

Though, like any modern device, you can download or sideload other experiences. I've sideloaded some additional games:

  • FORGOT SOMETHING, a hamster-wheel ad-libs experience made by my friend Mike Flood during a gamejam
  • Biotopico, a mindfulness and "breath-based" game based around the crank
  • Super Corporate Tax Evader, a tax-evasion game based around quickly docking and undocking the crank to avoid getting caught
  • Rainblocks, a lo-fi Tetris game

They're all neat little experiences.

You can also buy games from the "Catalog" app - though I haven't done this yet. There's also an official Playdate SDK for developing your own titles as well as a drag and drop web-based game builder called Pulp.

This is all made by Panic (though the industrial design of the device is by Teenage Engineering). Panic makes a lot of great MacOS software I use in my day-to-day, and they're a company I associate with one word: polish. Nova is my preferred MacOS text-editor, Transmit is my go-to for FTP. Oh and they publish cool indie games now, too. Firewatch is fantastic - go play it if you haven't already.

And yeah, that's the same word for this device. It's polished. It's joyful in a way that even the Switch isn't. Unlocking your Playdate has personality. The UI interactions have that juice to them. It's a niche device, one not intending to take over the world, but simply to exist. To bring joy where it can. To give people a platform to play, to create.

The design of the device is great, look at the photos I shared above to get a feel for it. But one thing that stands out in particular to me is the case. It's an additional purchase (though there's a bundle) but compare to the clear encasement for say an Analogue Pocket and this thing is leagues better. It's a soft case that attaches to the device with magnets. You flip it down to cover the screen when not in use, and it just stays put. It makes carrying the Playdate on the go friction-free.

The teal playdate case set against a black mat.
The Playdate in its case.

And we need more of that. It's a little expensive (and much like the Xbox Series X or the PlayStation 5 the price went up after release) clocking in at $199. I don't know yet if it justifies itself at this cost, but I also don't know that the market it's attracting needs it to. If you know what a Playdate is already, want one, and intend to buy one - you probably love interesting devices to game on, and the price tag probably isn't prohibitive.

I want to try and build something for it myself. I might find a game jam, try out Pulp, and build something in the SDK in the future.