Episode 2: Whitewater Wipeout

Christa Mrgan: You know that feeling when you’re fully immersed in what you’re doing? When you’re pushing the limits of your skill level, while staying just within them – so focused that you lose track of time? And then you falter, wipe out and get a game over message, like “fail” or “drained” or even “fart”. That’s the flow state peppered with comedic moments that Whitewater Wipeout draws you into as you crank your way to conquering the waves. Welcome to the Playdate Podcast, bringing you stories from game developers, designers, and the team behind Playdate, the little yellow game console with a crank . I’m Christa Mrgan. This week, I’m talking with some folks from Chuhai Labs, creators of Whitewater Wipeout, the slick and the highly addictive homage to the classic “California Games” by Epyx. Slight spoiler alert: We do talk about the mechanics of the game, with reference to specific tips and tricks for getting high scores. Okay. Let’s meet the team and hear about how this all got started.

Giles Goddard: Hi, I’m Giles Goddard, and I am the lead programmer and CEO at Chuhai Labs.

Charlie March: My name is Charlie March. I’m the sound designer and composer on Whitewater Wipeout.

Peter Traylor: My name is Peter Traylor, and on Whitewater Wipeout, I was the artist and did some game design as well.

Mark Lentz: And hey, everybody, I’m Mark Lentz. I’m the producer over at Chuhai Labs. Yeah. So I first heard about the Playdate from our buddy Nick Suttner.

Christa Mrgan: Nick Suttner helps Panic with game publishing and business development, and connected the Playdate team with some of the indie developers who ended up making games for Season One. Nick has worked in the games industry for years, as a writer and a consultant, and he has some great podcasts you should check out, too! Anyway:

Mark Lentz: I really like Nick Suttner, and the first day I met him, we went hiking for eight hours in uh, Busan, Korea. Like we met the day before, and I was hung over and he doesn’t drink.

Nick Suttner: That’s true. It was Mark, myself, and Chris Hecker, who works on Spy Party. Chris and I were there to like give talks at Busan Indie Connect.

Christa Mrgan: Busan Indie Connect is an independent games festival held in Busan, Korea.

Nick Suttner: And the three of us just ended up going on this, like, long hike around the coast.

Mark Lentz: So I was hung over and and I find him to be just absolutely so charming. Like, he took photos of every spider we saw along the way, and we’re talking hundreds of photos!

Nick Suttner: There were like all these spiders, like really big, meaty, chubby spiders, all around the edge of like the hiking path, but then the sun went down and so we were hiking like pretty much in the dark, surrounded by spiders that you couldn’t see. It was very exciting. And you know, I got to know both of them pretty well, and we were kind of fast friends by the end of it.

Mark Lentz: We ended the night by going to a, a jjimjilbang, which is like a sauna. And imagine this is the first day you’ve ever met anybody, and then you’re suddenly naked with them. You become intimate with them really fast. And, we built some sort of, like, trust really quickly and he came down to Kyoto—

Nick Suttner: to BitSummit.

Christa Mrgan: BitSummit is also an indie games festival, held annually in Kyoto, Japan.

Mark Lentz: Out of nowhere, he was like, “hey, have you ever seen this thing before?” And it was this very small object. It was yellow. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen as far as consoles go. And, almost immediately I was obsessed with it.

Nick Suttner: I got the impression Mark was in love…

Mark Lentz: I took as many selfies as he would let me take. He wouldn’t let me turn the damn thing on. He wouldn’t let me take it around. I had to hold it in his presence, but I was just immediately enamored. When he showed me that, I was just like, man, can I use my trust? Can today be the day that I exploit our friendship?

Christa Mrgan: Well, Panic just didn’t have very many physical Playdate units to provide to developers at that point. And the first season of Playdate games was limited. So it was hard to pick and choose who got hardware to develop games on. But Nick had known about the folks Chuhai Labs for years, and had even worked with some of the team before.

Nick Suttner: When Chuhai were called Vitei, they worked on several like small second-party Nintendo games. So they worked on like the submarine game for the original DS, I think, the launch game. And they would make like these smaller-scale games that had a well-developed take on, like, a unique mechanic or angle. And they just had a history of these types of things. And I had signed a game of theirs – again, when they were called Vitei – called Paper Valley, a really cool, sort of VR paper airplane exploration game. And, you know, they recently released a really beautiful snowboarding game for Oculus that they were working on for a long time. I also knew that Giles, their co-founder, worked on Star Fox and other things. So, they had like this great lineage, but they also had a lot of like new, exciting, unique ideas and they just seemed like the perfect kind of company where, you know, if they were excited, we definitely wanted to equip them with hardware to sort of experiment and explore some ideas.

Mark Lentz: And sure enough, he sent us a unit like maybe a few months later and we didn’t know what to do with it. We were absolutely nervous, 'cause, um, suddenly we’re like, oh no, what do we do? We’ve got this thing. It was like almost too exciting.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, the Chuhai team was delighted to get some hardware to develop on. But there were so many possibilities and game ideas that they realized they needed some kind of organized way to decide what to even make for this new device. Here’s Giles Goddard, lead programmer and CEO:

Giles Goddard: So we got hold of some Playdates from Panic, and we immediately had a game jam because everybody wanted to do a prototype or something on the device. We just sort of got together for a week and everybody came up with one idea for a game and made a little mini presentation.

Mark Lentz: The pitch jam was bonkers. We had every single person come up with a pitch. They had three days to do it, and then they had to pitch it in front of all of the company. I think that every single person used the crank in some method, because you want to! It’s a new peripheral, so you have to use it. It was really inspiring to see fantastic ideas, not as fantastic ideas. Everybody, as soon as they hold it, as soon as they see it, they’re immediately inspired to make something that maybe no one else had thought about. Except for fishing. Everybody comes up with fishing on their own, like they’re a, they’re a genius. I didn’t mean to be snide. But the fact is, like, everyone does come up with it. That doesn’t mean someone can’t make the best fishing game, because I’m sure there is a fishing game. I’m sure of it.

Giles Goddard: It’s quite easy to think of an obvious crank game, like a fishing game or, or something like that, but it, the idea behind the game jam pitch jam thing was to think more of the fun side of it, rather than just trying to get the crank into the game play. So at the end of the week we had like 10 or 15 of these ideas. And mine was Whitewater.

Mark Lentz: It was actually an absolute blast. We had all these limitations to the pitches. So, okay, you’re only allowed to use three slides. You only have three minutes to do the entire thing. And at the end of the day, we’re going to do a vote. And, the idea was we’re going to make the top two games. Well, there wasn’t top two. It was Whitewater Wipeout by a landslide.

Giles Goddard: I won. Not because I’m the boss, because it was the best idea, cause it was instantly, you could tell that it would work with the crank. 'Cause everybody knew the California Games already. So it was quite obvious that it was going to be so much fun to play. The crank and the screen is the star of the Playdate. So the first game, I really wanted to make something that you could only really use with the crank, you know what I mean? I mean, you can do surfing with, with buttons, but, it feels very, very different because you don’t have the immediate control over the board.

Mark Lentz: We felt that it maximized on the crank in a way that you could immediately understand it. There was no uphill battle to why you would be using the crank. If you turn the crank left, you go left and like a lot of ours, mine, especially like was a really complex and doesn’t expose how cool the crank really can be. And so it, it just made the most sense. And we just thought, you know, let’s put all of our eggs in this one basket because this really is, uh, something special. I’m not saying it’s the most unique game ever invented, of course not. But it’s such a callback to California Games and the California Games is really special to uh, Giles. That’s one of his favorite games as a kid. He would play that with his brother. So it like really means something to him.

Giles Goddard: My brother had a Atari LYNX which is a sort of a handheld, like a Switch, basically, but 30 years ago. It wasn’t – it didn’t sell very well. It wasn’t very popular, but it was great fun. And the best game by far was “California Games.” And the best game within that was the surfing game. It was me and my brother’s favorite game for, for ages.

Christa Mrgan: I used to play “California Games” with my brother, too! We had the NES version, plus this kind of weird board game version called “VCR California Games.” It involved a VHS tape. I don’t know. The Atari Lynx version, the NES version, that weird board game, and all of the other versions of “California Games” were published by a video game company called Epyx. The game was initially available for the Apple II and Commodore 64 in 1987, and then eventually ported to lots of different computers and gaming consoles. It was a big hit, and California Games was basically a bunch of different mini games for different sports that were associated with California, like skateboarding, roller skating, foot bag, (also known as hacky sack in real life), BMX biking, flying disc, and of course, surfing.

Giles Goddard: It almost felt that each mini game within California Games was made by a different team. And the surfing part of that was just such a tight, well-made game. We didn’t want to make a straight copy. We wanted to make a better version of the surfing game. So like a homage, but sort of fix a few things that I thought they could’ve done better, and sort of introduce a few more techniques. And also I added some, some better physics because the physics, they were great for the time, but I just added more sort of details to the physics, as it were. So it was kind of almost a no brainer that the crank was going to be the, way to control the surf board. It was surprising how easy it is to develop on. I mean, with, Nova…

Christa Mrgan: Nova is Panic’s native code editor for the Mac! So of course, it works seamlessly with Playdate’s software development kit.

Giles Goddard: You know, editing text, hitting the button and seeing the thing instantly change is, you know, that’s kind of… I’m so used to sort of like five minute turnarounds for things like Oculus Quest on Unreal.

Christa Mrgan: Unreal is a game engine that runs on various 3D gaming consoles, including the Oculus Quest, which is a crank-less virtual reality headset.

Giles Goddard: So to have that sort of quick back and forth between, you know, editing and getting it playing on Playdate is, it’s so nice. I mean it really is such a nice thing to develop on. Another nice thing was the fact that it’s surprisingly powerful, especially, you know, even using a high-level language like Lua, it’s you don’t really notice any sort of, slowdowns just because you’re using Lua. And I think maybe for Whitewater, because there’s obviously there’s no GPU—

Christa Mrgan: GPU is short for graphics processing unit, a separate specialized processor for rendering graphics.

Giles Goddard: It’s quite slow at making, you know, big sprites rotate. So what we actually did is before you start the game, it pre-renders all the rotations for the board. So that we can have it sort of in a 30 hertz without any slow down. You kind of know your limitations when you go in. So you’re not trying to sort of cram all this stuff that you don’t really need into the game. What you see is what you get with the device. So it’s a great way of sort of, concentrating on the gameplay. It’s a challenge, but it’s a really nice challenge. You know what I mean?

Christa Mrgan: Yeah! So how did the rest of the Chuhai team rise to the challenge?

Mark Lentz: When we started to develop the game, we basically pulled the entire studio in. I think we were at full capacity on this game. We just, absolutely really wanted to work on this. Our 3D animator Peter Traylor uh, is classically trained in 3D and he started with 3D models and then, down sampled them to pixel art . And Giles had a great plan on how to execute that because we knew that it would take longer for a 3D animator to learn how to do pixel art than to just use this skill that he already has and he’s good at. He had no experience in the 2D world, and for him, it was probably the most exciting 'cause he, I think that he learned the most in the development process over anybody else. He is constantly tinkering and always trying to figure out ways that we can go back to the Playdate.

Peter Traylor: It was really fun working on the Playdate. I mean, no doubt it has its limitations, but I think as an artist, especially like when, when you’re given limitations, it kind of breeds creativity. Like you’re thinking with these limitations, what can I make? How can I use the tools that I have to make something that feels bigger than what the limitations seem to impose? I think one of the best things about this game is definitely like the giant wave that’s chasing you the entire time. It was definitely a lot of fun and a massive challenge to kind of figure out how do you get like a giant animated wave, present it on this tiny screen with one-bit pixel art. I mean, that it’s key. That thing has to be epic, has to be terrifying, and it has to chase you, cause it’s basically motivating you to keep going. And so kind of breaking that down and figure out how to get the frames animating correctly, like which frames animate when and how do you get the curl to come over, on the wave and as it chases the player. Like, getting all that right, was so key to the experience. It was a ton of fun, as well. I really, really enjoyed that. And it, I think the effect that it has is dramatic. Like you are under pressure to keep moving, but keep moving quickly. But all at the same time, like it really shows how big that wave is and it feels like it’s larger than the screen.

Nick Suttner: It was kind of like stunning for us to see on Playdate the first time, I think, with this kind of quasi-3D wave effect, use the crank really well.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah. The wave is beautifully rendered and definitely gives you that sense of urgency that I think really helps you stay focused and in the flow of the game, because it’s just relentless. And for me, there was a lot of trial and error at first with doing the tricks and figuring out the scoring. So I asked Giles and Mark if they had any tips or tricks for newbies.

Giles Goddard: There’s actually quite a few little sort of tricks you can do while you’re surfing in, for instance, sort of, head off a wave, you can sort of boost up, you can lean back on the board and get a kind of boost. There’s lots of those little things that I’ve kind of added to make it just a very, quite deep gameplay experience. You’ve got to get speed up quite quickly. And the best way to get speed up is actually to do a trick. So basically go down the wave, go up, do you know, 180 or 360, whatever, and then come back down and then do another one. And then you’ll immediately get enough speed to be able to be doing sort of triples or quadruples every time. You have to try to do tricks as quickly as possible, basically.

Christa Mrgan: Whitewater Wipeout features a global leader board that shows you the highest scores. So there’s always something to work toward, or just feel kind of humbled by.

Giles Goddard: You need to be doing combos all the time to get the high scores. And the way the combos work is you have to get the same or better trick every time, unless it’s a quadruple or a triple. So if you do a 360, then you have to get a double or 360. If you do a double, then you have to get a double or triple. I think that’s how it works. Then once you’re doing triples, quadruples, you can sort of alternate between either of those. But you have to be doing the combos to get the big scores.

Mark Lentz: I’ll tell ya, the best way to improve your score is to not be me. I am literally the worst player at Whitewater Wipeout. But not every game has to be for everyone. Like, it doesn’t click in my brain, but I watch other people at our studio and it’s just, it’s the best. It’s magic to them. And I like seeing their joy more than knowing that I’m frustrated that I suck at it, haha.

Giles Goddard: There’s a kind of rhythm you get into once you start doing the triples and quadruples where you, don’t really have to think about how many times you’re spinning the crank, where you get into a kind of flow state. I’ve seen people play with this for hours, actually. Well, it’s almost quite worrying how addicted people get to it.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah. I’m definitely one of those people for whom it is super addictive. It’s hard to describe why – there’s this feeling of wanting to do bigger and better tricks while constantly being right on the edge of almost messing up, while this massive wave is barreling down on you. And then other obstacles pop up randomly. So you have to stay agile! I think it’s that perfect blend of challenging and fun that, along with the soundtrack, puts me in this zen-like state where I just want to keep surfing. The sound design is simple and classic, and it’s the music that really ties the beautiful art and animation together with the challenging gameplay. It manages to feel nostalgic and modern at the same time, with a killer title screen theme, and the main game play loop just really helps create that immersive flow state for me.

Mark Lentz: Yeah, The music was made by Charlie March. He’s a musician from the UK and he kind of pivoted to being a sound designer here at the studio. And he really knocked it out of the park because he’s an old tech guy and he brought over his Game Boy, and everything was made on a Game Boy, and everything was made like as naturally and as limited as possible.

Christa Mrgan: I was just going to assume that if you’re listening to this podcast, you know what a Game Boy is, But since we may have some young folks in the audience: the Game Boy was an eight-bit handheld gaming console released by Nintendo in 1989. Its screen had a beautiful palette of four shades of green, and the sound system featured four channels. There were two square sound waves, a triangle wave, and a white noise generator. But you would not believe how much people can do with a few basic sound waves and some white noise. So to give Whitewater Wipeout that late eighties/early nineties vibe, composer Charlie March created the sound design and music using the classic Game Boy.

Charlie March: The soundtrack itself was inspired by the California Games composer for the Lynx, Bob Vieira, who I was a huge fan of when I was a kid. So to get a chance to sort of emulate that was really fun. When we came to work with the Playdate to begin with, I was really surprised 'cause obviously it’s sort of one bit graphics, but the sound capabilities are really high on it. So I decided to actually compose all the stuff on a Game Boy using a program called LSDJ and all the music and sound effects were composed on that for the game.

Mark Lentz: You look at the Playdate and you see the limitations. So it’s kind of like, why not lean into the limitations and go forward with that because, it almost makes it so you can just focus entirely on creativity rather than technology.

Peter Traylor: It was really fun working on the Playdate. I think as an artist, especially like when you’re given limitations, it kind of, it kind of breeds creativity. Like you’re thinking with these limitations, what can I make? How can I use the tools that I have to make something that feels bigger than what the limitations seem to impose? It’s a lot of fun. I can’t wait to work on something else.

Mark Lentz: We want to work on Playdate titles, like indefinitely. It’s kind of our, our perfect platform. That said, we do have a couple of demos already whipped up for the Playdate.

Giles Goddard: Watch this space because we have some really cool stuff coming out soon.

Mark Lentz: We’re developing a pseudo sequel, a prequel to one of our mainline games, called Carve Snowboarding, and it’s called Carve Jr.

Christa Mrgan: Just want to jump in here and say that I’ve played a beta version of this game, and it is so fun. I might like it even better than Whitewater Wipeout. So it won’t be part of Season One, but keep an eye out for news on when Carve Jr. will be available to play.

Mark Lentz: I’m going to say this from the heart. And I actually mean this: my name’s on the credits for a few games now, but the one that I’m most proud of is actually Whitewater Wipeout because I got to help see this from the very beginning to the very end. It was so cool to see it grow and become something that a lot of people are going to like, and on a console that it’s going to have legs. And then people are going to love this thing for a long time, because it’s so quirky and it’s so limited.

Giles Goddard: Given the choice, I would only work on Playdate from now on. And thank you to Panic for making such a brilliantly cool device. I mean, I’ve been a fan of Panic for ages, since Transmit, I think? And Coda.

Christa Mrgan: Oh yeah. Until pretty recently, Panic, mostly made Mac and iOS software, primarily tools for software developers. It’s a long story.

Giles Goddard: And also I’m a huge fan of Teenage Engineering. So those two combined is a dream product, I think.

Charlie March: I really hope everyone enjoys the Playdate in general and definitely Whitewater Wipeout when it comes out.

Christa Mrgan: I really love getting into the zone with Whitewater Wipeout, and I hope you enjoy playing it, too. You’ll probably beat my high score. That’s fine. Thanks so much for listening and stay tuned for more episodes, coming soon to the Playdate Podcast feed.

Giles Goddard: Thanks very much.

Mark Lentz: Thanks. Bye!

Christa Mrgan: The Playdate Podcast was written, produced and edited by me, Christa Mrgan. Cabel Sasser and Simon Panrucker composed the theme song. Additional music and sound effects were composed by Charlie March and come from Whitewater Wipeout. Huge thanks to Tim Coulter and Ashur Cabrera for wrangling the podcast feed and working on the website, as well as to Neven Mrgan, who created the podcast artwork and site design. And thanks, as always to everyone at Panic. Playdate is shipping now, and available to order at play.date.

Mark Lentz: So the game over messages, we’ve got, I think, fifty in there, all told.

Giles Goddard: A lot of those were Mark Lentz’s words. I think you can probably tell.

Mark Lentz: I was the writer on those. Cause I’m oddly the silly one of the company.

Giles Goddard: But they don’t—yeah, they don’t mean anything. The game over messages are just silly messages. They were a lot worse to begin with. All the offensive ones basically were deleted.

Christa Mrgan: I did get "fart," though.

Mark Lentz: You didn’t get fart. You might have, but if you did, I didn’t write that. That’s all I’m saying.