Episode 3: Casual Birder

Christa Mrgan: Oh, no, it’s only a matter of time before everyone realizes I have no idea what I’m doing.

It’s bad enough to feel like an imposter when you’re trying to break into a new hobby or skill, but gatekeepers and hipsters who mock your street cred make it even worse.

Whether it’s birdwatching, or making video games, or even podcasting: It’s okay to be interested in things and to try them without knowing absolutely everything. And if you just keep doing your best, maybe you’ll fake it till you make it, and even get a glimpse of that rare, contest- winning bird.

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.

Today, I’m talking with Diego Garcia and Max Coburn about Casual Birder, a game, where you’re the new kid in a town obsessed with birdwatching-- and suddenly find yourself on a mission to photograph a rare bird, while dealing with a local gang of birdwatching baddies.

Slight spoiler alert: we don’t get into too much detail about specific puzzles in the game, but we do talk about some of its core mechanics and reference an item you receive in the game. Okay. Let’s meet the team!

Diego Garcia: My name is Diego Garcia. I am the designer and developer of Casual Birder. The game was just me and one other person, Max Coburn, who did the music. And then I got a lot of help from Panic, as well.

Max Coburn: Hey, I am Max Coburn. I made all the music and sound, or at least I believe most of the sound, for ah, Casual Birder.

Diego Garcia: Casual Birder is sort of like a mashup of a photography game and an old-school like Gameboy RPG. So the player is moving to a new town where no one cares about anything except birdwatching.

And you’re sort of navigating this world of learning a new skill, when some people maybe don’t want you to learn that skill. And so it’s a little bit about imposter syndrome and sort of like what it feels like to break into a new industry or a new, a new skill, yeah.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah. So first, how did Diego hear about Playdate?

Diego Garcia: Wow. How did I first hear about Playdate? This was like 2015, I think? I had just graduated from NYU and just released my first game Sunburn on iOS and I believe Playdate approached us. I think they had heard about us from some other developers, and they asked the three of us if we wanted to make games and we decided it didn’t really work for the full team. So I just decided to make one on my own.

Christa Mrgan: Well, not entirely on his own! Diego knew he’d want someone else to help with the sound design and music for the game. Someone like:

Diego Garcia: Max Coburn. Max was my favorite musician at the time. And I had emailed them sort of like out of the blue while working on my thesis at the game center. So they had made a couple of tracks for that, which is a game that never really got released. But I had really enjoyed working with Max and asked them again and yeah.

Max Coburn: I just got an email from Diego. It’s like, “Hey, crazy news. Like, have you heard about the Playdate?” and then the rest kind of spilled over from there. I’ve worked on a couple of games with Diego. When I first heard about it, I was, I was super excited because I had no idea what was coming.

Diego Garcia: Went pretty well! I think the music is among my favorite parts of Casual Birder. So I’m really glad that worked out.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, the music and sound design are really fantastic and are such a huge part of Casual Birder. But where did the idea come from in the first place?

Diego Garcia: My brother had a blog called Casual Birder. It was like a Tumblr, I think like, you know, a few people followed it, but I kind of wanted to make fun of him for, like, being into birdwatching and, yeah I guess this like very casual interest in like what I think, especially at the time it was considered like a very nerdy pastime.

And so I started making this game sort of to poke fun at him. And as I started birdwatching for research for this game, I fell in love with it. And now I like will spend four hours a week in the park, you know, staring up at trees. So. I am a very casual birder in my life now, like I said, I’ll go to the park for four hours and I will keep a list of all the birds that I’m seeing and I’ll try to ID them, but like, I don’t study the book first and I don’t know their calls for the most part.

And what I really like about birdwatching is I take a four hour long walk. That’s great. And like, occasionally I’ll meet somebody really nice or more often I’ll just like end up in a part of Prospect Park that I didn’t know existed, or, or get lucky and see a bird that like, I never thought I would see.

At that same time, I was graduating grad school, like starting making games in general. I attended the MFA program at the NYU game center. Uh, We had just released our first game and I felt simultaneously really proud of that game, and also, like I could only see the faults and there were so many amazing people making games for the app store at that time.

And so it was kind of spun out of that. I went through like, many phases of adult life during the development. And so I think like the writing changed a lot like the like kid moving to a new town is probably it’s informed by like me graduating and needing to like, figure out how to navigate a professional environment.

And then like, there’s a character, that’s all sad, 'cause he’s clearly gone through a breakup or something. And that’s definitely also inspired by my life. I don’t consider myself to be a writer, but I do really enjoy writing, funny dialogue. And so I definitely had like a cast of characters that I wanted in the game. And usually I’ll just take it sort of like scenario by scenario and, and write off the top of my head, but I think,

you know, I’ve been working on this game for a long time and I’m teaching and working on other games and all this stuff. So I’m sort of like stepping away from it and coming back. So a lot of the dialogue has been revised over and over again. Either because it wasn’t funny enough or because it wasn’t serving a gameplay purpose.

Christa Mrgan: And of course, Diego not only had all of these characters scenarios and a bunch of dialogue to manage, but he also did all of the programming and created all of the art for the game, which was a bit of a challenge., given the limitations of Playdate’s CPU and one- bit, black and white screen.

Diego Garcia: It was definitely hard at times. But mostly it was a blast. Like, I came up with a style fairly quickly. Some of the art that’s in the game was in my first mock-up. And there part of me really wanted to do, like once it came out on Playdate and I, like, there was no more exclusivity window, I was like, I’ll do a color version and like re-release it here or there, but, but ultimately I’m really happy with the art as is, and I don’t think I would change it.

Christa Mrgan: Uh, thing that I keep hearing again and again from playdate game creators is held Playdate’s limitations— it’s tiny screen, limited CPU, and one- bit black and white graphics— are actually really freeing and ended up reading a lot of creativity in their games. Composer and sound designer Max Coburn definitely welcomes constraints, and even finds it helpful to create them for himself.

Max Coburn: Even in my own private creative endeavors, I’m always like placing some kind of limitation, some kind of theme, just to tie myself down. I feel like you get option paralysis a bit when you do so many different things. And probably why I am enticed by the idea of making games on Playdate, because it’s like, okay, it’s not like I can do literally everything possible. I have a ceiling and I can be creative in this room that I’m in.

Diego Garcia: What was more challenging was I guess I was committed to the idea that like every character would have a unique sprite and all of those unique spreads would be animated.

And then also they would have the chat portraits. And so like getting all of that stuff to work and getting like interesting, like everybody has this kind of like at least an up and down bounce when they’re standing there and even getting like that level of movement, at that size, with just those colors, I think it was hard cause to get like any detail or separation that’s when it gets tricky. 'Cause I couldn’t really even dither very effectively at that size. Like there was no real gray scale for me. I really stuck to the black and white.

Christa Mrgan: Well, it really works for the game. Casual Birder has a clean, crisp- edged cartoon look that feels right for the characters and game mechanics, one of which is especially interesting: that is, how you use Playdate’s crank.

Diego Garcia: When I first started working, we didn’t have the hardware yet. And I think actually I’m, I may not have even known about like the ability to test the crank functionality in the simulator that we were working with at that time. So, originally I wasn’t going to use the crank and then I felt like, what a, what a foolish waste that, that would be. Like, I just felt sad, you know, to not, to not use such a fun mechanic. And so I went back and I, at first I just did the inventory is controlled by the crank. You’re sort of selecting your objects by the crank. And then as I was working, I kind of realized that I needed a little bit more for the photo mechanic. At first, it was just point and click.

You’re literally just, it’s an action game and you have to get the bird in the square and take the picture and that’s it. And I thought about like a grading system where it’s like Pokemon Snap style, where Professor Oak says like, “good job, you got it in the middle and it’s doing a cool pose.” But it just seemed a little over- complicated for what I was doing.

And I was just looking through the documentation, you know, just like looking at what it could do, and I saw the blur function and I was like, oh, I could totally simulate focus with this. Which is, I think one of the biggest successes and mistakes that I made in developing this game. It was both, both good and bad.

Christa Mrgan: Oh, no! Using Playdate’s crank to focus the camera is a genius move, I think. It’s such a fun game mechanic and it gets fairly challenging later in the game, but it did make development more complicated.

Diego Garcia: I mean, like I don’t consider myself a programmer really. Like, I’m a game designer and artist and this is the most game architecture I’ve ever done easily. When I started making this, that even the SDK was pretty young, so like, I programmed the animation system.

I programmed the cutscenes system. Like I did all that stuff. I think that I probably didn’t rely on Panic enough in those early days. I think maybe that’s part of that impostor syndrome. I just felt like I had to like do it all. And so I, did a lot of my core functionality. And then I was like, I’m going to add focusing and blurring sprites. And, gameplay wise, I think it’s right. Like I think it looks cool. I think it’s really unique. I think you’re right. I think it, like, it makes that mechanic better and more fun, but It was an extreme challenge for me and Dave and Shaun to make this game run, I think at all. Like I think my frame rate was like below 10 frames per second for a long time.

The documentation was super helpful and the like blur functionality, that game wouldn’t exist without the I don’t think I would have tried actually I probably would have drawn the blurred version of each bird before I did that. And so that was a lot of that was where Dave and Shaun had to come in and sort of help optimize that behavior.

Christa Mrgan: Dave Hayden and Shaun Inman were part of the team that worked on Playdate’s operating system and software development kit, and were often pretty hands- on in helping out with some of the early third- party Playdate games.

Diego Garcia: I think what happens is like, whenever you blur a sprite, you’re basically making a copy of the sprite that you then have to throw out. And so, we had to do all kinds of like caching and stuff that mostly Dave knows more about than I do, actually.

There was a lot of garbage collection happening, and actually there’s also, I don’t know if you noticed, but you can’t focus with the crank and move the camera at the same time. Part of that is because it doesn’t feel good to do that, right? Like it’s just like the D pad and the crank at the same time or hard to, to manipulate, it’s like tapping your head and rubbing your stomach or whatever.

But part of it is also because that’ll dip the frame rate, big time. 'Cause you’re like changing what sprites you need to blur as you move the camera and stuff. So yeah, it added like a lot of technical complication.

Christa Mrgan: Working with Diego and other developers on their games, actually led to changes and improvements to the SDK itself. Seeing firsthand, what people were missing and having to build for themselves, meant that Dave, Shaun, and Playdate OS developer Dan Messing could fill in the gaps in the SDK, almost on demand.

Diego Garcia: it was a lot of, “oh, I need this. So I’m gonna make this, I’m gonna make this, I’m gonna make this.” And then like, I put the game down for awhile because I had other stuff going on and come back and be like, “oh, they made that!”

Dave came in and did like a lot of custom stuff for my game, like just helped me specifically with my game, which I think that did change some stuff in the SDK, like the way blurring is handled and cached or whatever. For the most part, it was a really positive experience.

Christa Mrgan: And while Diego was hard at work writing, designing, and just getting the game to run on Playdate, Max was developing the music and sound design for Casual Birder.

Diego Garcia: I approached Max and I asked for a couple of songs and a package of sounds. And so I gave like a list of inspirations-- games that I wanted to think about. I actually probably have that somewhere.

Max Coburn: Diego, somebody who went to my shows a lot at the time. Me and Diego were always like running into each other, and so we’d have a lot of conversations about like game music and all these like crossed influences. So this was a little while ago, so I, I gotta dig a little in my memory banks. I’m pretty sure we had a conversation to the tune of like, “oh, hey, I love Animal Crossing music.” So I think when the time came, he was like, oh, I’m working on this like birding game. It was probably very much like “oh, say no more.” Like, I know what you’re looking for. kinda And it being a very casual game, I kinda went in the more Animal Crossing, like have a chill time, kind of direction.

I think getting to make a really catchy title theme, and a really catchy, just main looping theme. it feels like not as much pressure as making a big like long-winded soundtrack. So I had like a little whistle-y synth that kinda, you know, a certain range sounded sorta like a bird call. And I think like with the theme of the game in mind, the way I wrote that was like, all right, you know, I have this really cute whistling, catchy melody, and I want it to be able to break off into these little birds, like ornaments at certain times in the melody.

Christa Mrgan: The main theme is so fun and catchy, I kind of enjoy just hanging out on the title screen. The chiptune-y trills in the song echo the bird calls you hear later, as you progress through the game, and there are some real bird calls peppered into the background music and sound design, as well.

Max Coburn: I did include some, like, real bird samples, just in like little places, like in the title screen, I think there’s a few, I kind of just like play with those in those, in the track itself. I ran with that and I love being able to kind of toe that line a bit instrumentally as well. I like to be able to kind of like thread the needle between the two a little bit and kind of have them inform each other. I didn’t really know I was going to be doing the chiptune bird calls at that point, but it was cool to have like, that bird feeling kind of just in the DNA of the music too, and I love being able to kind of just, Put a little world building in little places. I mean, so It’s my way of like kind of stealing a little creative control, like, oh yeah. I contribute to the world building too, even though it was not requested of me. I kind of just like, yeah, let me just sneak a little seek a little thing in there.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah. The main theme dovetails really nicely with the bird calls that Max ended up making for all of the different birds in the game. And there turned out to be a lot of them! And they all had to be fairly unique and distinct from one another.

Diego Garcia: I think one of the things that I struggle with as a designer the most is one thing that many designers struggle with, which is just like scope creep. It was very tempting for me to make every bird have unique behaviors. And I definitely still kept the scope. I mean, I like I added blurring and there’s all these items and all this, like one-off mechanics in the game, but yeah, it was, it was difficult to make them feel interesting and different from each other.

Max Coburn: I was pretty much given a list of the different birds. It’s like, okay. Like do little like chiptune bird calls for all these little guys.

Diego Garcia: I basically gave a list and so that list was like, I need a low bird call. I need a medium bird call and I need a high-pitched bird call. And then I need. Crow bird call because that’s not really going to fit into one of those. And I need an owl and a Pelican. So some of them were sort of separated out.

And in most cases I tried to write in text what that sounded like. So like, sqwark or, you know, whatever sound the bird might make. And in some cases I gave visual references as well, just to sort of get a sense of the tone I was going for. Like one of the weirdest sounds in the game by far as later on in the game, spoiler, you get a a bird call and the bird call does not sound like any bird you’ve ever heard at all, or any bird in the game, but also like lots of the birds respond to it for some reason.

And that was just sort of like, Max making a very weird sound for a funny bird I had posted, and it was actually too funny. Like I thought like it didn’t, I actually wanted the bird to look really stupid, but sound really intense. So we like repurposed it for the bird call and it’s way funnier. It works better.

Christa Mrgan: So how did Diego and Max make so many different birds and keep them individually identifiable?

Diego Garcia: Mostly what I did was came up with like a set of base behaviors. So like there are birds that sit, there are birds that run from you. There are birds that. Perch. And then there are birds that have like hideaways. And so I was just kind of playing with those variables along with like their speed. And some of them are kind of gimmicky. Like there there’s a bird that like just goes too fast for you to take a picture of it until late in the game.

Christa Mrgan: Oh, I’m not going to tell you how long. I tried to take a picture of that bird before finally giving up and moving on because it’s kind of an embarrassingly long time, but the birds really do feel distinctive due to their behaviors, their designs, and their individual bird calls.

Max Coburn: I didn’t have to do two similar themes for I believe the Pearly-eyed Threshers is what they’re still called. And I have a chill version of that and a more action-oriented version. So I think the biggest challenge might’ve just been differentiating the two, because they are pretty similar. So finding ways to differentiate the two while still keeping that theme, like pretty much recognizable and the same was the biggest challenge. I feel like that’s something I have a lot more experience doing now.

Christa Mrgan: The chiptune sounds work so well with the one bit art. The birds all just feel right. But I know next to nothing about birds, so I found myself wondering if any of them were real or if they were all invented for the game.

Diego Garcia: They are almost all made up. The ones that are specific at all are made up. And then I think you’ll run into a few that have like more realistic names, but it’s kind of a joke that they’re not made up.

Max Coburn: So I found some online encyclopedia of birds and different recordings of their calls and I pretty much just went into chiptune tracking software and sat down and just like, all right, like what can I do to just emulate this? One-to-one as best as I can. Obviously I’m not going to do a super convincing job because the medium is not going to match up. But I can tell I was having a lot of fun with it, really I was getting as much idiosyncrasy from each of those respective bird calls as I could. Honestly, I would love to do something like that again. I think if I’m going to make sound effects for anything, it’s a great medium, too, 'cause working in chiptune tracking software, you have a ceiling pretty much like you can’t, it’s not like I open up a standard DAW and sky’s the limit.

Christa Mrgan: DAW stands for digital audio workstation. It’s a general term for software for music, production and sound design, like Logic or Pro Tools. And a chiptune tracker is software that specifically emulates programmable sound, generators, and synthesizers. It’s used for creating eight-bit music, using just a few different wave forms and a noise generator or two. Think of music you might’ve heard on the Nintendo GameBoy or Commodore 64.

Max Coburn: I’m working with like two voices tops and I have a very limited range of texture. So getting to make those creative decisions, I’m like, okay, a duck is a pulse wave or like little decisions like that. I think. Really clicked with me. And then hearing it in the game itself was just like, oh, this really worked well, because again, like doing it a little bit blind to initially like, all right, well, I hope these are good. But then getting that build-- love being able to get builds of the games I work on!

And then I love the being able to categorize them and keeping up like the little bird catalog and just keeping your diary. It was just like a feedback loop that I love in games of just like I’m a huge collector. So I’m going to be pouring in the time into my own game. And that feels really great.

Christa Mrgan: The final output ended up being a really nice collaboration between Max and Diego.

Max Coburn: Diego’s great to work with I love his art style. He’s super, like very, one-to-one like totally has an ear for music and knows how to communicate ideas. Like I’ll work with him any chance I get.

Diego Garcia: Max is really great to work with. It was really collaborative.

Max Coburn: There’s a lot of just like walk into this area. Just absorb. Sounds that are happening. Even if it’s just little bird calls, you have a little bit of directional mixing, which that, that was all Diego. Like the programming itself was Diego. I think it really lends a wonderful hand. I mean, you have like the stripped down visual style, obviously like play date. You’re not working with any colors. So I feel like there’s so much that’s reliant on. Just capturing the environment with it. I think Diego did an incredible job. Just like knowing when and where to dip out the music, how to like operate the directional stuff and just. Giving you a sense of a vibe. Not that I’m a birdwatcher myself, but um, I did, I did take a one bird-watching class one time in college. So they use my one semester of expertise to say that I think that he captures the feeling and soul of it very well. And it’s a very peaceful, very almost contemplative kind of gameplay experience.

I want people to just like, have a good time and relax, and I think a big element of birdwatching is kind of just connecting with what’s around you and just absorb. What happens in like getting this sensibility where it’s like, you’re tuning into a layer of sound that exists around you. That you know, If you’re somebody like me and you spend all your time in front of the computer and the inside and doing work all the time, I think the platform helps with that too, where it’s like, you have. Little portable friend, you have a physical mechanic and you could really just like cut yourself off a bit, just isolate a little bit in your head and just like have this serene experience.

Diego Garcia: Mostly, I want people to laugh and think it’s cute and not be bored. You know, I think it’s very much my sense of humor. And in some cases, the game like is me like a lot of the characters, just are me. And so I’m kind of making fun of my own anxieties or, or Yeah. I mean, like the whole imposter syndrome thing, it’s like me.

Max Coburn: And Even if other people are like, “oh, hey, I like your music,” that’s a, you’re always your own worst critic with that kind of stuff. Cause you know, yourself the best and all that. But yeah, I’m really excited to release that and just have it out there for everybody.

Diego Garcia: I hope it resonates with people and that they find it fun.

Christa Mrgan: Casual Birder is fun. It’s a relaxing game that’ll remind you it’s okay to try something new without necessarily having all the answers. You might decide it’s not even about getting that prize winning shot of the elusive bird. Being ready to dive in and asking questions and getting help made Diego’s game better, and even ended up improving the playdate SDK itself. I hope you enjoy exploring the forest meeting, funny characters and tracking down some interesting birds as much as I did.

Diego Garcia: I really liked this project. And I think Panic gave me so much freedom to really just like make a weird game that’s full of bad jokes and like, you know, goofy one-off mechanics and, it’s very rough around the edges in some ways, but also kind of the most polished thing I’ve ever made in some ways.

Max Coburn: I’m super happy with how it turned out.

Diego Garcia: I’m really glad that Panic included me, especially as part of this like first season of games. I think it’s super exciting to be like featured as part of a group that was trusted with. Like representing this device, which is so like unique and different. I want to say that it has been really valuable.

Max Coburn: I would love to be involved in any other project on playdate. It’s a really cute platform. And I love just like the overall idea of like creative limitation and making more out of less. That’s just like a love letter to my heart. Pretty much. So any opportunity I get to work on something I I’d be happy to take.

Christa Mrgan: Max Coburn recently scored the animated series Battle Kitty, which you can find on Netflix, and you can listen to more of his music on Bandcamp and SoundCloud, where his username is Maxo.

You can check out Diego Garcia’s other games, including Damaged in Transit and Swap Sword at radstronomical.com

Thanks so much for listening and we’ll be back in your feed with more Playdate stories soon.

Max Coburn: Thank you.

Diego Garcia: Thank you later.

Max Coburn: 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 Max Coburn and come from Casual Birder. 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 .

Diego Garcia: So yeah. I don’t know. The game surprised me finishing it surprises me. I tried to like be as specific as I could without pigeonholing to make a bird pun.