Episode 4: Crankin's Time Travel Adventure

Christa Mrgan: Imagine: every afternoon, you wake up on your couch, look at the clock, and realize you’re late.

You were supposed to meet Crankette, your robot girlfriend, for a date at three o’clock, and it’s already 3:01. So you leap up and rush out the door, desperate to meet her—only to be blocked again and again, by new and ever more confounding obstacles.

It feels like a “Groundhog Day”- style anxiety dream. But you’re a robot, and you can control time. With a crank.

Christa Mrgan: 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 Keita Takahashi, Ryan Mohler, Matthew Grimm, and Shaun Inman about Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, the very first game ever designed for Playdate by someone outside of Panic, Inc., the company that makes the device.

Slight spoiler alert: while we won’t go in- depth on specific puzzles in Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, we do talk about the mechanics and the overall gist of the game.

Okay. Let’s meet the team.

Keita Takahashi: Hello I’m Keita Takahashi,

Matthew Grimm: I’m Matt Grimm,

Shaun Inman: I’m Shaun Inman,

Ryan Mohler: and I’m Ryan Mohler.

Keita Takahashi: We’re working on Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure.

Ryan Mohler: In Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, you are avoiding obstacles while trying to get to a date on time, over the course of a perilous time travel journey.

Matthew Grimm: From what I know, the premise of the game is kind of autobiographical for Keita. It’s kind of about him and his wife.

Christa Mrgan: You might know Keita Takahashi from his quirky, innovative games Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy, and more recently, games that he and animator Ryan Mohler worked on together at independent game studio Funomena, and their own newly formed studio, uvula.

Ryan and Keita have been working on Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure since late 2016 or early 2017. The timeline’s a little fuzzy. Panic Co-founder and CEO Cabel Sasser reached out to his friend and asked him to make a game for Playdate, before he’d even shown him what it looked like.

Keita Takahashi: He told me that device has, like, a crank, but he didn’t show me exact image or any actual device. Just told me as an information.

Christa Mrgan: But let’s back up. How did Cabel, Co-founder of Panic— primarily a Mac and iOS software company— come to know beloved weird- game creator Keita Takahashi in the first place? It started back in the late 2000s, when Keita was working on Katamari Damacy at Namco.

Keita Takahashi: When I was at the Namco, I made the game Katamari Damacy. Then, somehow, Cabel loves my game? Then, I don’t remember exactly, but he wanted the merchandise of Katamari, but I didn’t want to make any silly merchandise. It’s kind of wasted.

But he wanted it so he asked to Namco if Panic can make Katamari t-shirts.

I think that’s around 10 or 12 years ago?

I heard that thing through the Namco that some strange company asked Namco if they can make Katamari t-shirts — and that was not like a t-shirts company. That’s a Mac software company. That sounds stupid, like silly, which I like it.

So we started having the conversation about the t-shirts thing. That was the beginning of our relationship.

Christa Mrgan: Weird side projects are a big part of Panic’s DNA. Playdate itself started out as a weird side project. In fact, if you haven’t heard that whole story, this season’s first episode, “The Story of Playdate,” will tell you all about it.

But yeah, producing the Katamari Damacy shirts for Namco back in the late 2000s is just one more example of something starting as a funny idea for a quirky side project leading, eventually and tangentially, to something even cooler: Keita Takahashi creating the first third-party game for Panic’s unconventional new game console. And it was Playdate’s crank as an input device that gave Keita the idea for his game.

Keita Takahashi: The input device reminds me of the old film, like… machine? I just thought. “Oh, maybe he can be going back and forth in the image.” You can control the time by rotate your crank, like going forward and backward in the time, also moving forward and backward. Then, avoid obstacles by rotate the crank; that’s the core mechanic.

Ryan Mohler: It was really cool to have a new opportunity to work on a device that has a non-traditional input. Working with the crank was really fun. We had a lot of interesting ideas about that right away, and how we can use that for time travel manipulation. Like that was the core idea from the start but we played with a lot of different ideas, and what Crankin’ could do.

Keita Takahashi: I was very worried if I could have any simple game idea that works on the simple device? But I I I got the idea that works very simply, but a kind of very deep gameplay.

Christa Mrgan: Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure is deceptively simple on the surface, but can actually be pretty challenging to play. The obstacles and timing become increasingly difficult as the game progresses, at least for me. You play as Crankin, the perpetually tardy robot, whose movements follow a specific progression on each level. You move him forward and backward in time to avoid enemies, but the enemies themselves only follow time’s arrow in one direction. So, you have to time Crankin’s movements to avoid them, and the game play becomes increasingly difficult and ridiculous until you reach the story’s conclusion, which I will not spoil here.

And for a one- bit game with stylized geometric characters and 2D animation, the process for creating graphics for Crankin was surprisingly complex. Ryan Mohler is a 3D animator who works mainly with Unity, Maya and other 3D tools.

So that’s what he used for Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, too.

Ryan Mohler: For Crankin’ we actually started with 3D assets and rendered everything out as sprite sheets at a lower resolution, so that it would fit onto the device and we can play it back at variable frame rates.

Christa Mrgan: And the variable frame rates are key because you’re constantly slowing down and speeding up both the animation and the audio, depending on how fast you turn the crank. And that was no small feat when it came to programming.

Shaun Inman: Just figuring out how to get the animation smooth when it could be running at two frames per second and 240 frames per second, depending on how fast the player is cranking-- everything was challenging about this.

Christa Mrgan: Keita and Ryan teamed up with Shaun Inman to bring Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure to life.

Shaun Inman: I did the development. it was an interesting project because all of the design was being dictated by Keita, and so he solves problems in different ways than I would, in game play. I think a lot of times when I’m programming a game, Half of me as the designer and half of me as the developer, part of me is thinking, “okay, what’s going to be fun?”

And then the developer side is like, “okay, well, what’s not going to be too hard to implement?” And Keita was thinking purely about fun and interest. And so it was challenging, but it was like the good kind of the fun kind of challenging, figuring out how to turn those ideas into what’s essentially an application that has to run within the confines of memory and at a certain frame rate, with so much going on.

For the audio, we did a trick where we don’t play back the audio at a variable rate, it plays back at a rate that’s set when it starts playing. So if you’re cranking very slowly, when you start the sample, and then speed up really quickly, it’s still going to continue playing very slowly. That was just a way to keep everything in sync with the timeline and everything else that was going on in the game at any given point.

And so you can have a lot of fun, just kind of going back and forth, just slight little adjustments on the crank at different paces to hear the different ways the sound effects sounds.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, the sound design is a huge part of the gameplay, because hearing the audio reverse when you reverse the crank direction, and seeing the animation reverse simultaneously, just really sells the idea that you’re rewinding time. And the sounds themselves are quirky and hilarious, and work really well with the art style.

Sound designer Matthew Grimm had a lot of fun creating them.

Matthew Grimm: I was inspired by early like PlayStation 1/ PlayStation 2 era of games, when stuff was really weird and quirky and so that’s kind of the feeling that I went for. All the sounds had to be able to read backwards and like still be noticeable.

The majority of the sound effects in the game are done with my voice. That includes even like footsteps and things so I made a really weird noise with my voice and then I would use software to like modify it and make it almost indistinguishable from a voice but really and I think 90% or more of the sounds are from a voice. I think my favorite sounds are the Crankette sounds, like the endings and just how crazy she gets.

Didn’t really know how to time this stuff because I didn’t have access to the game engine so I couldn’t like throw it in the game and see it happen. So would work on a set at a time and Shaun would actually export video of the game and he would do it at 100% speed and 50% speed and as an action would start, he would have the screen flash, and he would also have the screen flash at the end so I could get a feel for the timing and so I would let those videos like loop on my desktop while I was making things and just tweak things until it felt right to me and it got it close enough. Then I would send it to Shaun. He would put in the game and like we would trim the ends and like make things work.

Christa Mrgan: Since this was the first game to be developed for Playdate outside of Panic, it was actually a while before most of the team could see Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure running on a Playdate device in real life. Like Matthew, at first neither Keita nor Ryan had a working physical prototype that they could use, though they did have access to an emulator, and they found ways to make it work.

Keita Takahashi: They had a nice emulator that was working on the Mac, and also I could use the PS4 controller stick as a crank so it was not so hard but it’s two years ago when I came here. And Panic gave me a prototype of the device, which was super buggy.

Christa Mrgan: Whoops!

Keita Takahashi: So even I got the prototype, I couldn’t play my game with that device so it was kinda useless, but I got a feeling of the device finally.

Christa Mrgan: Early on, there were a lot of bugs to be worked out, on both the hardware and the software sides. AndCrankin’s Time Travel Adventure really pushed Playdate’s limits at the time.

Shaun Inman: We were dealing with a really big game and lots of assets. And just trying to get it off of disc as fast as possible. And the garbage collector couldn’t keep up

Christa Mrgan: Garbage collector?

Shaun Inman: So it’s memory managed. There’s a garbage collector who runs around trying to clean up after you.

Christa Mrgan: Okay. Sounds like me with my kids. Go on.

Shaun Inman: So the, the garbage collector couldn’t keep up and so I actually wrote an intermediate language, that transpiles down to C, and it’s like a super set of C. So you can have raw C code in it. But it only uses like a single source, instead of headers and actual implementations. So it’s much quicker to write in.

And then it’s all transpiled down to see before compilation. So it’s like a preprocessor. And that didn’t make it any clearer.

Christa Mrgan: No, it totally did. Mostly. Developing Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure actually led to a lot of optimization like this, including within the SDK itself. Oh, I should mention that Shaun Inman also works on playdate . He works for Panic. Okay. So it was a great learning experience all around, and help make Playdate even better. But even just finding time to focus on Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, it could be challenging. Like the playdate itself, the game was a side project, though an exciting one.

Keita Takahashi: So right now there’s a mobile game. On the other side, there’s a very complicated console game. I wanted to make something in the middle. So that was perfect.

Ryan Mohler: Definitely the hardest part was just balancing working on Crankin’ and other projects that we were working on at the same time.

Christa Mrgan: But they did finish the game. And when Panic finally announced Playdate in 2019, Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure was the game they featured on the website, in a cover story for Edge Magazine, and at PAX West, a gaming expo in Seattle, Washington. Cabel was thrilled to show it to people who were also experiencing the Playdate device for the very first time.

Cabel Sasser: We were really excited to be able to show Crankin to people, Crankin being basically, the first third-party Playdate game. It was super fun and interesting to watch people play this game for the first time. Expos are hard, because there’s a time limit and it’s crowded and you waited in a line and there’s people all around it’s really hard to sort of focus, and Crankin’ in particular, there’s not really any instruction text. It just sort of jumps you in and sort of guides you into the game, but it was fun to watch people. From getting frustrated to then overcoming that frustration, feeling a sense of accomplishment, laughing at the game. It has like-- it’s a pretty funny game with some really funny animations. To watch that happen felt great. It was awesome.

Shaun Inman: it was kind of intimidating, but I was also honored at the same time.

Matthew Grimm: I feel really honored to be a part of the project. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Shaun in the past on other games, but I never in my wildest dreams imagined I’d get to work on a game with Keita. That’s mind-blowing to me.

Christa Mrgan: I asked Keita and Ryan, if they had any plans to work on more games for Playdate in the future.

Keita Takahashi: I don’t like to make a sequel game. But in the one season there’s so easy goal of the Crankin’ that was funny, but I still like the idea and I have another idea of the Crankin’, so I would like to keep making new game for Playdate.

Ryan Mohler: Yeah, I would love to work on more games for a Playdate.

Christa Mrgan: Personally. I would love to see that happen and with Playdate, I feel like anything is possible. For now, I’m really excited for you to play Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure.

Thanks so much for listening and stay tuned for more episodes, coming soon to the Playdate Podcast feed.

Keita Takahashi: Thank you!

Christa Mrgan: The Playdate Podcast was written, produced and edited by me, Christa Mrgan. Cabel Sasser and Simon Panrucker composed the theme song, and additional music is also by Cabel Sasser. Sound effects are by Matthew Grimm, and come from Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure.

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.

Christa Mrgan: As you were working on the game, was it hard to keep Playdate itself a secret?

Keita Takahashi: Oh, no, I don’t think that was hard because I don’t have any friends, so I didn’t have any opportunity to show the secret.