I am a lover of constraint. Ok, maybe rephrase that. I think constraints are cool. Wait, don’t leave, I promise we’re still talking about video games here. Earlier this week, there was a pre-E3 conference that may have flown under your radar for a hot new gaming device called the Playdate.
This bright yellow gaming handheld has been designed by Panic and OP-1 synth design demigods Teenage Engineering. The Playdate has a little 1-bit screen, a D-pad, two buttons and a crank on the side.
And that’s it! How refreshing. It fits in your pocket and you get two free games every week for twelve weeks after you buy it. What are the games? It can be a surprise if you want, but they’re being made by some of the most creative game designers on the planet.
Lucas Pope of Papers Please is working on a game where you peer into windows and speak to monsters. Sweet Baby Inc is creating a marble platformer/visual novel. Xalavier Nelson Jr. has a game called Recommendation Dog on there. What’s it about? I don’t want to know until it lands on my Playdate, but I trust that it’s going to be brilliant.
How do you play with it? Keita Takahashi of Katamari’s Playdate game has been front and centre in the device’s marketing. You turn the crank to manipulate time and ensure a rickety robot isn’t late for a date with his girlfriend. Writing that sentence made my heart want to explode. Who else is doing it like this? Point me towards anything with a more charming elevator pitch than that in the AAA space. You can’t because there’s always someone breathing down their neck.
With such interesting constraints to work with and no expectations to meet, it’s open season for creativity with the Playdate, and I think that’s beautiful. Most of all, I love the freedom it seems to be providing developers to simply fool around and find the fun. Lucas Pope said, “There’s no timeline and it’s still pretty early … It’s not much and I can’t say I know what I’m doing”. This really made me smile, as this is the bedrock process for most creative endeavours, something we can all relate to. This is likely how all game developers felt when they tried to make their first game. Imagine if AAA developers were that honest about their ambitions in major conferences? I think we’d have a more healthy industry.
More than games though, I feel the Playdate speaks to a different era that we’re now deeply nostalgic for. The advent of the smartphone has meant that we don’t really make handhelds anymore, and that sucks because they were always rich and reliable hubs for zany creative ideas. Hardware gimmicks like the Nintendo DS’s dual-screen and stylus led developers down interesting creative paths, rather than focusing too hard on fidelity and market research. But even the DS was somewhat consumed by the all-encompassing touchscreen input scheme. Buttons are bygone nowadays, never mind the Playdate’s crank. Teenage Engineering wanted to “break people out of their touch psychosis,” with the Playdate, and I feel this is a noble ambition.
I anticipate that the title of this piece may summon questions from you, like “well, don’t you have a Nintendo Switch?” and of course I do, I love it, but I wouldn’t class it as a handheld. I can’t fit it in my pocket, and it has an NVIDIA graphics chip inside of it. It can play The Witcher 3! It’s trying to dance with the big boys at the disco. Meanwhile, the Playdate is in the bathroom, doing some interpretative wiggling. When I’m fatigued from all of the prestige, that’s where I want to be.
I could play games on my iPhone, but again, it’s just so capable. I could also stream AAA games on it or emulate old ones. It’s not solely been built for play, there are several other criteria it wants to fulfill. So there’s no constraint there, and this is where the Playdate excels. I’m feeling confident that because of this, it’s going to make me cherish the wonder of handheld gaming once more. The last time I remember truly engaged with a handheld that didn’t have touch controls was the Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP, which came out 18 years ago.
In another beautiful twist, the Playdate will also feature an accessible development toolkit so that everyone can get in the action. Known as Pulp, this is a browser-based suite for Playdate development that doesn’t require coding skills. It is directly inspired by Bitsy, another browser-based door-opening creative tool where you can make little stories and narratives. Of course, experienced coders will be able to get more out of the Pulp toolkit, but setting the bar so low is great for folks who want to get into development at the ground floor.
Engines like Unity and Unreal have massive amounts of documentation and tutorials on the internet, but they’re still daunting at face value and might get in the way of a beginner’s creative vision. I can’t stress enough how exciting it is to be able to develop and share a game on an actual handheld without jumping through several hoops. Given that it’s already backed by some big names in game development, the community creative scene behind Playdate is something I’m going to keep a close eye on.
That’s if I can get my hands on one. Panic intonated that they were prepared for the demand, but I don’t want to jinx it. Pre-orders open in July, and it will cost $179. See you in the queue!