We Were Wrong About the Playdate

Nearly a year after it was released to the world, developer Panic’s first piece of hardware isn’t a revolution, but it’s still a revelation.

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The Playdate.

We got the Playdate wrong. The little yellow handheld with a crank was breathlessly covered like the second coming of the Game Boy leading up to its April 18, 2022 release date, but nearly a year later, the impact hasn’t been as profound.

Chalk it up to the pandemic and the natural manufacturing issues of a first-time hardware maker if you want. It’s hard to compete in an oxygen-starved marketplace with the likes of Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft. And it’s certainly wrong to expect a little indie device to be able to. It is, however, easy to see why people might have expected big things. New, dedicated gaming hardware is a rare thing and it's even more unusual to get some with such distinct ideas about how games should be played and distributed.

Panic — a veteran Mac developer and recent game publisher — took a big gamble on the Playdate. And in 2023, the company seems to be doubling down. Catalog, a boutique app store for Playdate games, just rolled out. The Playdate is also seeing its first price bump from $179 to $199 on April 7. Panic is setting up the Playdate for the future — here’s what got it here.

Strong Opinions

Nothing looks quite like the Playdate.

Photography by Ian Carlos Campbell

The Playdate was born iconic — you have the color yellow and Teenage Engineering to thank — and inherently limited. There might not be any other game consoles with a crank and black-and-white screen, and that’s for a good reason. It’s unproven, and likely unpopular. But those limitations are also what helps the Playdate stand out. It can’t be overstated how polished a product the handheld is considering how small the team behind it is.

The use of the crank itself hasn’t been universally adopted among developers, arguably even less so than the titles Panic highlighted in its first season of games, but it’s a novel input method that will always be more delightful than pressing a button. The rest of the Playdate’s layout — the part that makes it basically a Game Boy — is more popular, likely because it fits into pre-existing ideas about interfaces and input methods.

The decision to curate and deliver a “season of games” was a similarly big idea that Panic ultimately wasn’t able to pull off. The idea of a weekly game drop seemed like a natural way to generate conversation, but because the Playdate was ultimately released in batches and technically still hasn’t made it to everyone who pre-ordered, Panic chose to have the season start when you first turn on the device, rather than on an arbitrary date. It removed the direct communal aspect of the handheld, but did keep some of the surprise.

Panic hasn’t committed to a second season, and suggested in interviews last year that it’s mainly waiting to see how people react to the first season before committing to anything else. When asked by Inverse, Greg Maletic, Panic’s Playdate Project Lead, said that the first Season was a big hit, “but organizing a Season is complex, and we’re working now to see what it would take to make it a reality.”

Maletic suggests players interested in “some sort of Panic seal of approval” could turn to Catalog, the company’s recently launched store. Catalog, as an app store (really an app boutique given the size) lets the company publish a curated selection of games every few months and allows users to choose what they decide to pay for and download. Any developer can apply to have their game considered and according to Maletic, developers keep 75 percent of Catalog sales revenue minus the cost of processing a transaction through Stripe (around 2.9 percent + 30 cents). It might not be as fun as a season, but it offers a lot more flexibility for Panic and Playdate developers in terms of price and release date — a solid option to turn to after Itch.

Community Support

The limited availability of the Playdate has certainly hurt its ability to create a large community, but it’s definitely created an enthusiastic one. There are over 400 projects in — the Steam alternative with a better cut for developers — designed specifically for the Playdate, and plenty more games shared on personal websites or linked in social media posts that haven’t been collected in one place yet.

Most Playdate games are relatively small in terms of file size and the easy access Panic’s offered to the Playdate SDK and the company’s custom game-building software Pulp means it’s pretty easy to get started. You could have a game idea one day, and start building it in your web browser a few hours later without much effort at all.

Community efforts to document, curate, and share information about games have also been a big boon to the Playdate’s underground cred. You might not think there could be an entertaining live show devoted to dissecting new game releases on Playdate, but Tiny Yellow Machine pulls it off with an obsessive level of panache. This is the one way the Playdate's unavailability works in its favor. Not everyone has one and it’s not clear the handheld will ever recapture its brief time in the limelight, so the people who’ve stuck around are here for the long haul.

Openness is Rare

You really can sideload any game.

Photography by Ian Carlos Campbell

The biggest advantage of the Playdate, and one of the reasons it could have a real sense of staying power well after Panic stops finding games for it, is its openness. Since launch, you’ve been able to sideload games and apps, either by uploading them through Panic’s website or connecting your Playdate over USB-C to your computer and dragging files over.

It’s exceedingly rare to get hardware as polished as the Playdate that can also sideload just about anything. New Android handhelds come out every month, sure, but they don’t feel like the Playdate. The platform is just open, without any need to reverse engineer anything to try out games. That fundamental difference means it will always be a place to experiment. And when it comes down to it, that’s always been what the Playdate is. I’m not sure Panic is making money hand over fist with the Playdate, but it has created an even bigger and weirder canvas to try things, and has done so in a way Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo likely never will. It’s not the Game Boy, but in the right hands with the right game, it could be a gem-filled device even if it never breaks sales records.

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