Panic’s Playdate handheld is unlikely any other video game system. It has ample storage and supports Bluetooth, but also has a 400 x 240, 1-bit monochrome display and a crank on the side of the system. New platforms are always a risk to invest in, especially when they are as weird and gimmicky as Playdate.
Despite that, Panic attracted some top-tier indie talent to make games for the system’s launch. From the man who created the iconic interactive Mario face in Super Mario 64 to the studios behind great titles like The King’s Bird and Backspace Bouken, plenty of developers are already testing the limits of what this cranky handheld can do.
Digital Trends spoke to three developers who created Playdate games ahead of its launch to discover what drew them to the system. I learned that making games for this quirky handheld is just as weird and fun as it seems as developers break new ground on a platform that’s unlike anything before it. Whether it’s figuring the right way to use that peculiar crank or finding out what being a third-party developer for the Playdate looks like, early adopters are writing the system’s first design rulebook.
Getting invited to the Playdate
Giles Goddard, the CEO of Chuhai Labs, helped create some iconic Nintendo games like Star Fox and Super Mario 64. Still, he was surprised when he first learned about the Playdate at BitSummit, a Japanese indie game event. When Nick Suttner, head of publishing at Panic, “discreetly” approached Goddard with the device, he was instantly intrigued.
“It was such a unique and cute-looking thing that we all became quite enamored by it!” he said. “The crank, super-crisp screen, and size make it the sort of device that you want to just pick up and play with all the time. So we wanted to make a simple game that you could pick up and play a few minutes at a time.”
Now that Goddard was on board with creating a game for this crank-wielding handheld, Chuhai Labs had to decide what to make. The Japanese studio held a Game Jam where its developers would come up with ideas and then vote for the game they wanted to make. During this process, Goddard recalled a surfing minigame called California Games for the Atari Lynx that he and his brother loved.
“It was the sort of game that you couldn’t really put down — it was wickedly addictive and very well made,” Goddard recalls. “The surfing game became a kind of obvious choice to use the crank on as it let you do something completely unique with the controls. I doubt we would have made it if it wasn’t for the Playdate.”
“When the opportunity to be truly hardware-driven presented itself to us, it was a brand new challenge that really intrigued us.”
Goddard would ultimately serve as lead programmer on this game, titled Whitewater Wipeout. It’s a simple, arcade-style surfing game where players perform tricks with the crank as they dodge a shark and try to get a high score. Players will get it as part of season 1 of Playdate’s game releases, which Panic recruited other notable developers for.
A fresh challenge
Suttner also approached Serenity Forge, a boutique indie game developer and publisher behind titles like The King’s Bird and Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. Chief Business Officer Kevin Zhang said Serenity Forge agreed to develop for Playdate because they liked Panic and saw this as a way to experience the challenges of an era in which Serenity Forge did not exist.
“We’re a relatively young studio compared to ones out there who have been around for many decades, so we never really had to deal with immensely difficult technical restrictions to the scale of what developers in the ’90s and early ’00s had to deal with,” he explained. “When the opportunity to be truly hardware-driven presented itself to us, it was a brand new challenge that really intrigued us.”
Serenity Forge was particularly interested in the Playdate’s crank, but had trouble coming up with an idea for an entire game as “a lot of these ideas were only good for mechanics, not an entire game design,” according to Zhang. Ultimately, the team became attached to an idea that “revolves around the frantic yet precise movements of the crank,” as players shuffle characters up and down elevators.
While the game initially featured humans, the idea came into its own when Serenity Forge decided to change the characters to penguins that Zhang says are a better fit for the “quirky, fun nature of the Playdate.” This game would become Flipper Lifter, a Playdate season 1 title that Zhang produced. He also provided the voice of the penguins.
While Panic invited Chuhai Labs and Serenity Forge into the Playdate development ecosystem, RNG Party Games started developing for the Playdate after seeing a viral tweet and filling out a form to voice their interest. Like Zhang, the three-person team behind the typing dungeon-crawler Backspace Bouken was intrigued by the retro-like hardware.
“The fact that they were making a piece of hardware that was similar to retro hardware but not restricted by the same technical limitations was appealing,” programmer and designer Jake White says. “There’s a bit more processing power, but it’s still black and white with simple controls. I have always been interested in making retro games, so that really drew me in.”
“No one really knows how to publish games for this thing, so why don’t we just try and be the first?”
Once RNG Party Games games got access to development tools, it prototyped lots of ideas but scrapped many of them. Eventually, RNG Party Games returned to an idea it’d had for a while: A real-time idle game where players tend to a garden. This concept became Bloom, a narrative-driven game that plays out in real time where players manage a flower shop, garden, and text their family. Bloom is one of the most ambitious launch games for the Playdate as it asks players to return to it day after day. Writer, musician, and artist Ben Bushe also believes that Bloom’s real-time setup “works really well in conjunction with the season of games since they’re both encouraging you to check the Playdate regularly.”
Bloom isn’t part of Playdate’s season 1 lineup. If someone wants to play Bloom, they’ll need to buy it on itch.io and sideload the game. There’s no guarantee of success, especially since the team didn’t know about the Playdate’s upcoming in-system store until it was announced on April 19. However, RNG Party Games was still excited to create something for the Playdate and help set the standard for what third-party games on the system can look like.
“It’s been like the Wild West for the past couple of years,” White asserted. “No one really knows how to publish games for this thing, so why don’t we just try and be the first? Maybe we’ll stick the landing; maybe we won’t.”
Now that these indie developers had ideas for games, they had to follow through with making them based on Panic’s Lua-based programming language. Because of the Playdate’s aforementioned technical oddities, Goddard says he was “focusing more on the gameplay aspects” when prototyping and developing Whitewater Wipeout. He says the first prototype for Whitewater Wipeout “was just a single line acting as the wave with a simple board sprite being controlled by the crank” because he knew he wanted the crank to be the primary input. That definitely wouldn’t cut it for the final release, though, and Chuhai Labs had to find a way to make the game run smoothly on this handheld.
“It can be hard keeping the frame rate fast enough for the action to be smooth, especially when you have lots of sprites appearing on screen, so sometimes you have to think outside of the box when it comes to how to do things,” Goddard explained. “For instance, because the surfboard is quite large and can be rotated to any angle, we actually prerender all the orientations to separate images when the game boots up. That frees up tons of CPU to do other things like physics or drawing sprites.”
It’s a throwback to design considerations that developers haven’t had to account for since the Game Boy. Still, these hurdles make the games that ended up on the Playdate all the more impressive. In fact, Serenity Forge’s Zhang called these limitations “freeing” while discussing the development of Flipper Lifter.
“Flipper Lifter would have never been made without the crank.”
“There’s a lot of interesting technical challenges that apply to handheld consoles, and even more so when it comes to Playdate in particular,” Zhang explained. “But in a way, it’s also really freeing because we have a much more clear idea of what is and isn’t feasible for a device like this, and it allows us to concentrate on distilling the best ideas to their purest concepts, which is always a great creative exercise.”
Like Goddard and the Chuhai Labs crew, Zhang admits