Episode 6: Pick Pack Pup

Christa Mrgan: Congratulations! You’ve just landed a job at Fetch, the massive e-commerce company, where you’re ready to sort pack and ship items as fast as you can. Sure, the hours are long. The wages are low, and the bathroom breaks are few and far between. But the work is exciting and fast paced and you’re an optimistic cartoon dog. So how bad could it be?

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 Nick Magnier and Arthur Hamer, the creators of Pick Pack Pup, a narrative match three puzzle game, full of story- inspired challenges and intensifying stakes as you navigate life as a new warehouse employee.

Slight spoiler alert: We talk about the overall concept, mechanics and modes of the game, a few of the specific puzzle challenges in the game, and one easy to find Easter egg, but I’ve tried to avoid spoilers to the main storyline.

Okay. Let’s meet the team and find out who would put an adorable dog to work in a giant e-commerce warehouse.

Nic Magnier: Hi, I’m Nic Magnier. I am the designer of Pick Pack Pup. And I did also like programming, a bit of story, with Arthur who was the artist, basically, behind the project.

Arthur Hamer: My name is Arthur Hamer. I am the artist and writer, I guess, of the story for Pick Pack Pup. Nic did all the coding; he is the genius. I just did the artwork and the pictures and the animation.

Christa Mrgan: "Just!"

Nic Magnier: Pick Pack Pup is a match three game, I would say, but it’s a bit trickier because the match you are doing stay on the board. So as you match tiles, it gets trickier and trickier to find more matches.

Christa Mrgan: If you’re not familiar with the term “match three game,” it’s a genre that includes games like Candy Crush, or Bejeweled. Modern match three games evolved from earlier tile based games like ChainShot! and Tetris. There’s a ton of variation across the genre, and even a lot of variations in gameplay within Pick Pack Pup itself, but with match three games in general, you’re moving randomly generated tiles around on a grid, trying to align them in such a way that they’re cleared from the board. You’re constantly creating order from chaos, essentially.

Arthur Hamer: It’s a very lightweight puzzle game, I think I’d call it. We weren’t trying to make it super complicated. We’re not trying to make the “Dark Souls” of puzzle games. It’s just like, it’s fun. It’s quick. You can play five minutes or you can play for half an hour, like whatever you want. And it’s a game where you’re a little pup, you work in a big kind of shipping factory. And you have to match all the products that are coming in and box them up and send them out to keep up the demand for this huge, like horrible factory that you work in. And as you play through the levels of the game, you unlock the comics and you’ll read the story about this little pup who’s trying to find a job. And then what it’s like when he starts working at the big factory.

Nic Magnier: Basically you are like a puppy and you just ship a lot of packages like if you’re in in a warehouse, let’s say.

Christa Mrgan: Aww, poor pup. So where did this idea to put a cute dog into a warehouse come from and how did Nic and Arthur end up making it for the Playdate?

Arthur Hamer: So me and Nic have made a few games together over the years. We basically got together through the Game Maker’s Toolkit game jam, which is like a huge YouTube channel. If you know it, the GMTK game jam, it’s like one of the biggest game jams on itch.io. This British guy runs this YouTube channel and he set up the game jam and it’s always great. It’s like thousands of people make games for every year. But yeah, through his like his YouTube channel’s Discord, me and Nic got together.

Nic was doing the coding. I was offering artwork services. We made , I think three games over the years, just like over the course of like a weekend, you know, the game jam would only last a weekend. So we’d make like really small little games. And the second to last one we made was a game called Fish, which was like a match three game. The idea was that you’re working in a fish processing pond, like fish were coming in from the sea and you had to like salt all the fish and when you match three, they would freeze into like ice blocks and then you would ship all the ice blocks into a truck. But they–it was all like really gruesome stuff like penguin heads and like old fish heads and like, weird dead sea creatures and stuff. But it was this like weird little match three game and it was really fun.

And then about the time we made that you guys announced the Playdate and we were like, oh my God, this is really exciting. Have you seen this thing? We–me Me and Nic were talking about it. We’re like, oh, great. Look at this amazing new console! Wouldn’t it be so cool if we made a game for it?

Nic Magnier: When it was announced, I fell immediately in love with the console to the point of like, I contacted multiple people on internet to try to figure out how not just how do I get one, but how do I make one also? So I contacted Dave

Christa Mrgan: Dave Hayden is an engineer at Panic. He created the first prototypes of Playdate, and has been integral to its development from the very beginning.

Nic Magnier: And he was like, oh, these are various parts you can use. And so I built my own Playdate with NES controller to make one. So that was pretty cool. I’d never did the electronic before, but I was really motivated to, to get one. So I have my own fake Playdate, yeah.

Christa Mrgan: I love this. And if you wanna check it out, I put some links to Nic’s tweets about his process in the show notes.

Nic Magnier: So when I got the SDK of the console, I immediately wanted to make a game, but I didn’t know when the console will be released. So it could be in one month it could be in one year or even more. So we did a small project with Arthur and we wanted something small that we can do in short amount of time.

Arthur Hamer: Nic just said, oh, well, let’s, let’s pitch them an idea and let’s see what we can do. So he started making like a Playdate version of this fish game that we’d made. And because of that, then like, as me kind of translated it to black and white, we realized like, okay, this is none of this is going to work. We’re going to have to redo it all. So that’s where we kind of like, that was like a starting point for the game.

Nic Magnier: The theme was totally different. It was about like packing frozen fish that we were shipping. And so we were like looking at maybe a different theme and we looked and putting items in boxes kind of fit quite the bill. So this is why we started using the SDK to make Pick Pack Pup as a small game, and we started to share it on the forum and I’m the response was really good. So this is how we picked it.

Arthur Hamer: Yeah. We just kind of alighted on the idea of like, okay, you’re like shipping packages, I guess there’s like a hold over from the fish thing. Whereas like, you know, you’re in a factory and you’re like processing stuff. I liked the idea of like trucks taking things away or something.

I kind of set it in like some sort of big factory, like a fast paced work environment and it might have something to do with like my day job. When I’m not being an artist, I work for a company that sells their products on Amazon. And I have to deal with Amazon, like at my job. And I don’t like Amazon at all.

Like, I don’t think they’re a good company. I don’t enjoy it. So maybe there’s inherent dislike for that sort of big, massive business model, that sort of came through in the story I was making. So it’s the story is like a thinly veiled allegory to Amazon. And yeah, and and I don’t want to spoil what happens in the story, but you know, it’s not a good company to work for. And the pup finds that out.

Nic Magnier: We had the idea of the mechanic, but we didn’t know for sure how to adapt it for the Playdate. So we did a lot of prototype, a lot of variation of the same gameplay. And at some point we had so many ideas, so we were like, oh, we can do a story mode.

And packing them in different levels. With a story in between between to merge everything together as a single game, basically.

Christa Mrgan: In story mode, you get a variety of packing and shipping assignments from your capitalist overlords, and these mini games are interspersed with comic book chapters that illustrate what the pup is going through in their new gig. The cartoon illustration style makes the gameplay fun and easy to decipher. Since you’re grouping different items like sunglasses, soccer balls, and toilet paper together, and generally as quickly as possible, it’s really important for each item to be distinctive and easily recognizable.

And of course the cartoon style works especially well for the comic sections. The panels are dynamic and fun. I figured Arthur was already well- versed in pixel art before he started working on Pick Pack Pup, but…

Arthur Hamer: I’ve done very little pixel art before. It’s not something I have ever like done on a, on a job or anything. Like obviously I’ve kind of dabbled in over the years being a, being an artist and someone who likes video games, you always kind of try out a little pixel at somewhere, but mainly I don’t work in pixel art.

So it was a bit of a challenge. It was kind of exciting. And the fact that it is just one bit is like that’s a whole nother whole nother world. But what I find really exciting about the project and the game is that there are all those limitations, these like huge, huge limitations, like great big concrete walls coming down that say it’s black and white only.

These are the dimensions. Like you only get this many pixels. And that for me as a designer is really exciting. Cause like, once you have these rules, then you can start playing with it and coming up with something amazing. Once it’s just black and white, you’re like, right. I can’t just have everything black, white, how are we going to get some grays in here? And you can use like dithering, you know, one pixel on one pixel off like sort of patterns to kind of give the illusion of these like tones of gray.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, you can think of dithering as similar to hatching and crosshatching in other forms of art, like wood cut engraving, or even just pencil drawing where an artist creates parallel lines or lines that cross each other at angles. And the closer those lines or cross hatche s are together, the darker the shading is, and the further apart they are, the lighter it is. Techniques like hatching and dithering allow you to create a wide variety in tonality.

So, despite being limited to just black and white, you can actually have a whole range of values from light to dark. In addition to lines, a pixel- based dithering pattern can be anything from a dense checkerboard to a diffuse scattering of black pixels on a white background or vice versa.

And once you’ve created some patterns, you can do things like assign them to brushes in Photoshop!

Arthur Hamer: I made loads of special brushes in Photoshop, which I use to sort of draw the comics and all the animations that add the tone. To kind of give a bit more life to these images to give them a bit of gray. And once I have all those different brushes, then it was just like, right. That’s my paint palette. Now I can just go crazy and I can add like shadows and shading and dramatic lighting behind the characters and all things like that.

Yeah, those like limitations were really exciting for me as an artist. And usually my work is very colorful and like, you know, bold. So it was quite exciting to do something new and different. That’s like at a totally different scale, really zoomed in. Every single pixel counts, you know?

So yeah, I loved it. It was amazing, really fun.

Christa Mrgan: The design is really cute. Arthur makes pixel art look easy. And in the comics, the juxtaposition of this sort of Orwellian monolith of capitalism with an adorable, naive, but optimistic cartoon dog is really striking, and it ends up underscoring the darkness of this kind of company and of worker exploitation in general.

Arthur Hamer: yeah, I dunno. I care about these things. It’s what’s in the news. It’s what I read about. You know, I’m concerned about the world. I want things to be better. I worry about these these horrible things and and it kind of looms over everyone.

So I am an illustrator by trade. I do like kids books and little animations and stuff for young young audiences. And my style is just generally kind of quite cutesy and happy, so it’s just like how I ended up translating it. That’s my style. I can’t really change it. It’s just, I just draw cute things. But but yeah, I think it’s, it’s nice that it’s that it has like that juxtaposition because it’s. You can, you can read into it if you want, or you can just play a cute game about a little puppy matching things together.

Nic Magnier: In previous jams, we did, also with him, I wanted to explore maybe some darker stuff and he was more like being very humorous. But when we nailed as a theme of like a warehouse and like packing it in the warehouse, it was like, oh, there is something darker to me to explain.

It’s still a funny game. Like the tone is quite funny, but yeah, it’s like there is some dark condition. And it’s funny during the development and afterwards, like, all the news about like crying booths. And having this type of reflection on the work condition and Amazon was interesting. And it was kind of interesting to see how it reflected in the game, basically.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah. Working for Fetch, the fictional e-commerce giant, becomes increasingly intense as you get assignments like picking as many bananas as possible, or clearing the bottom row as fast as you can before items get trashed and their value is docked from your pay. The various mini game modes tie in really well with the rest of the story as a whole, as suspense builds and the stakes keep rising for the pup.

Arthur Hamer: A lot of that is Nic, I will have to concede that he is like the genius when it comes to the game design. But we did, you know, we did brainstorm a lot of it together. As we were making it, we ended up making like so many different modes to the game, like, There’s like a chill mode.

There’s a, like a danger zone mode or something with bombs that come down. There’s like a time attack mode where you’ve got only a certain amount of time. So we were like really having fun, like coming up with all these different parameters for how to play the game. And so the story mode kind of was like a showcase for all those different features.

It’s like, there’s all these different levels where like different little parameters come in. And, as we were doing that, the story is kind of like developing as well. And I was kind of thinking of the story and then I was kind of getting ideas for levels at the same time. And I would pitch that to Nic, and say, “what if we did this sort of level where these things happen?”, you know, and then he would say, no, that’s ridiculous. It would, that wouldn’t work or this, this is so, so complicated. So we, you know, it was like a bit of a back and forth like that. But a lot of the kind of story ideas I would have would then inform like one of the levels that we would do.

And it’s really cool to be able to see that in the final game where like, you know, there’s like a level that you play. And then that then feeds into the next page of the comics and helps to tell the story. So yeah, that’s really neat, really exciting for me as, as an artist to like see that like come together.

Christa Mrgan: One awesome and kind of surprising thing about the comics is how you interact with them, to read them.

Nic Magnier: When we, we thought about the game for the Playdate, we didn’t get the console yet. We just had the SDK. And so the crank was super interesting, but we didn’t know how it felt, how to leverage the gameplay with the crank. So, okay. Like the main game players should be without the crank, because we know about that, but well, let’s try to add stuff with the crank and it’s it’s more on the side.

Arthur Hamer: Obviously when you see the crank, it’s like, we’ve got to, we’ve got to use this. This is the biggest thing. It’s so cool. Everyone wants to like, try the crank. You know, when I show it to people, they’re like, oh, cool. What is this thing? That’s like, you know, it’s so exciting.

So, when we, when Nic broke the news to me that we weren’t going to be making a fishing game, obviously I was very sad, because that’s obviously the game everyone wants to have on the Playdate.

Mark Lentz: Everybody comes up with fishing!

Arthur Hamer: But after I got over that, it was like, right, how are we going to use the crank in the game?

And because I knew I wanted to have these comics in it, and because of the screen, it’s only a very small screen. So I was like, how can we, get a bigger image onto the, onto the small screen? And I was thinking about, how do you see these images?

How do you move between them, sort of thing? So the crank seemed like kind of the obvious thing and it’s that, sort of manual input. That you know, brings it closer to something like reading an actual comic in a newspaper or something where you’re like turning the page by hand or like running your finger up and down the page or something like that, rather than just like looking at a static image on a screen, which I feel like could be quite boring sometimes.

So I feel like it makes it a bit more like vibrant and exciting. And you can like, kind of feel it in your hand a bit more with the crank. Also, there is a there’s an Easter egg when you’re playing the game. If you use the crank, you can pet the dog. We’re trying to get onto the uh, “can you pet the pup in this video game?” Twitter account. That’s what we’re doing

Nic Magnier: So yeah, we have the comic book, which is a nice interaction to have, like the petting the dog is like something we had to do and just kind of a secret. And we have other secrets using the crank the bits everywhere in the game. So I’m excited to see if people can discover everything.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, turning the comic book pages is the main way that Pick Pack Pup makes use of Playdate’s crank. And I figured out during the tutorial that you can also use the crank to pet the dog, but there are some other crank related surprises as well!

And while building a game for a console before actually having a physical device to test it on sounds daunting, Nic said that the software development kit or SDK was actually really friendly. And the hard part was figuring out how to turn all of their ideas for different match three game modes into one cohesive game that made sense with a storyline.

Nic Magnier: Working with the SDK was great. So I have already a bit of experience with Lua

Christa Mrgan: Lua is a scripting language that’s considered kind of cleaner and less overwhelming than something like C, which is a classic, lower level procedural programming language.

The free Playdate Software Development Kit has APIs for both Lua and C, and you can switch between them in any given project, too, depending on what you need. Anyway:

Nic Magnier: What that was the most surprises, like how clean and finished everything is basically it was super, yeah nicely documented. It was super clean. So like making the game was kind of the hard part, not understanding how to make the game, like on the console. So that was very, very good. Basically the main difficulties, like what is the end of the game? So we had actually a lot of ideas of all the various changing and we had to sort out what was the best one. So we had more than expected, but we didn’t know where the story would go. Yeah, so that was the main challenge.

Christa Mrgan: But Nic and Arthur did manage to find a satisfying to the game while keeping the gameplay feeling fresh and exciting. And they did it all while working remotely in different countries.

Nic Magnier: So, yeah, like, he is living in UK and me, I live in Germany, so we work remotely and it was very, very smooth because we had some thing like just weekly meetings of like, what’s going on, what can we add to the game, having some discussion? And that was, like, super smooth. So this was really nice.

Arthur Hamer: I’m sure me and Nic will work together in the future. You know, he’s a great guy. Great, great to work with him.

Nic Magnier: And we worked with Logan Gabriel, like for the music. And it was like a brief discussion of like, can you make the music for the game? And hear a brief for it. And I gave him some reference the tone of the game, what it to be. And he gave us a track that was amazing because we didn’t want the game to be so big. So we wanted to have mainly one track and something that is very challenging is something that you don’t get tired of that. It’s on repeat all the time and it’s super challenging to make a track like that. And he just nailed it. I’m still not sick of the music, even if I’m listening to it all the time. He did amazing work with the music, so yeah, like that’s was really nice for the game.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, the music works well in the game, and it’s interesting and varied enough that I honestly don’t even notice when it loops, most of the time! So how are Arthur and Nic feeling now that the game is about to be in people’s hands?

Arthur Hamer: It’s just really cool. It was such a fun project. I loved it. And I’m like so excited. It’s like a dream come true that I have a video game that I’ve made. People would always say to me, “Oh, Arthur, you love video games so much. Why don’t you go and work in video games?” And I would think, “Oh, I can’t do that. It’s way too complicated. I don’t know anything about coding.”

But these days I have to pinch myself sometimes and remind myself, like, no, you made a video game. It’s coming out. People are going to play your game. Everyone’s gonna get to play it. So it’s really exciting for me. It’s like, I love it so much. It’s a dream come true.

Nic Magnier: I will just simply hope that they have fun because it’s the main goal of the game. And I hope some people will get hooked to it is that the game play is interesting enough so that it’s not just that they finish the story mode, but they keep playing the game. I always picture people like waiting in line to get their coffee and they just take the Playdate, switch on and play the game immediately.

Arthur Hamer: I’m excited to play Season One when, when all the games drop and when everything comes out. Cause I can’t wait to see what everyone else has done with it. And I’m really excited to like get some crazy new ideas and then like yeah, think of something new to do. I would love to make another game for the Playdate. It would be an absolute dream come true. And I need to start learning how to make one myself just from scratch all on my own.

Christa Mrgan: Well, I would love to play more games by Arthur and Nic, because Pick Pack Pup is a lot of fun and something that’s really easy to just pick up and play casually for a few minutes here and there, even after finishing the story mode. You can see more of their work and find them on Twitter via the links in the show notes.

Thanks so much for listening, and I hope you have a great time working your way through the warehouse in Pick Pack Pup!

Arthur Hamer: Thank you so much

Nic Magnier: That was a pleasure. Thank you. 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 was composed by Logan Gabriel and comes from Pick Pack Pup.

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 for pre-order at play.date.

Arthur Hamer: Before I was on like the game jams that I was on, I’d made some games through the like Idle Thumbs people, if you know them?

Christa Mrgan: Of course, Panic goes way back with those folks!

Arthur Hamer: And so like there is that like lineage through my career with like Idle Thumbs, Firewatch, Olly Moss! Now Panic and you guys are just like, you know, it’s all there. The blueprints are there.