Episode 14: Playdate Mailbag #1

Christa Mrgan:

Welcome to the Playdate Podcast, bringing you stories from game designers, developers, and the team behind Playdate, the little yellow game console with a crank. I’m Christa Mrgan.

Today I’m doing something a little different: answering your questions! Some of them, anyway.

A while back, I collected listener questions via Twitter, Reddit, and the Playdate Squad Discord. Some of them, like the ones asking for more details about Catalog, or Panic’s long term plans for Playdate, are too big for a “mailbag” podcast episode like this and will be addressed in future announcements instead. I’ve also saved some questions for a future episode about Playdate Support and QA.

But there’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get into it.

First up, a listener asked, "What design elements go into play for every unit to be a developer unit? Was this the initial idea, and did it make it easier or harder to create the Playdate?"

I would say making development accessible is deeply embedded in Playdate’s DNA, and I don’t think it would ever have occurred to us not to build it this way.

The idea of locked-down developer kits is still kind of new in terms of the world of computing. Like, there’s no dev kit for a Mac or a PC, and since Panic was primarily a software company, it always just seemed obvious that Playdate would be built for development. And it does make it easier for us in some ways. For instance, we don’t have to provision hardware units just for people to make things for Playdate. And I want to quote part of this awesome post that Panic co-founder Steven Frank wrote when Playdates first started shipping on April 18th, 2022.

This is an excerpt from a bulleted list of what Steven calls, "my own personal, decidedly retro perspectives:"

Platform owners need not be the gatekeepers of all content and money. A platform can thrive without needing to have their finger in every single pie. This is, in fact, the way it used to be by default in the industry for a very long time, and everyone did quite well.

Anyone can make a Playdate game and distribute it or sell it however they choose. Technically, you don’t even need a Playdate to do it. Just our free tools. Self-distribution is not a radical or new idea, but one that has perhaps been forgotten or so consistently derided by major platforms, that it’s falsely seen as no longer viable.

When you buy hardware, you own it and have the right to do what you want with it, including developing and installing your own software.

You shouldn’t need millions of dollars of funding and a thousand person team to build and distribute an excellent video game.

Learning how to write games can be easier and more inclusive than it is. Playdate’s developer tools are an order of magnitude less complex than any other current game platform I can think of. Dare I say It’s even fun? In elementary school, I learned BASIC and Logo in the Apple ][ lab and there’s a direct line, albeit long and squiggly, from that to me writing this missive today.

Playdate date programming is something teachers can easily teach and kids can easily learn. I’m excited about the possibilities that could open for a whole new generation of programmers.

End of quote. The piece is a great reflection on Playdate, and you should definitely read the whole thing. In True Stephen Frank form, though, he originally posted this on his Gopher site, which means it can be kind of hard for the average person to access.

Gopher was an early internet protocol that eventually lost out to http. In the show notes, I’ll post the original gopher link plus a link to the post in a browser based Gopher server, so mere mortals can access it, too.

Next question! Were there thoughts of a left-handed model or other left-handedness considerations?

Looking at other game controllers that are also asymmetrical, and talking to left-handed people, it just didn’t seem like a big enough problem to necessitate an entire left-handed device. But if you do want to use the crank with your left hand, you can enable the upside down mode via settings> accessibility. This will allow you to use Playdate flipped upside down so you can crank with your left hand and use the d-pad and buttons with your right hand.

Another listener wrote, “Seeing that the Season one takes one gigabyte in the storage worries me a bit. Of course, I don’t think that the four gigabyte limit will be crossed tomorrow, but what if we have to uninstall games in two, three years to free up space for next seasons or games? Is it technically possible to propose some kind of additional storage, which would plug into the USB port on the console, for example?”

Since Playdate has a fully custom operating system, it doesn’t come with things like drivers for peripherals or additional storage devices. Similar to a modern smartphone, though, it does come with plenty of space, relatively speaking. So yes, it will be a while before the hard drive fills up. And we also tried to make it as easy as possible to offload games when needed and keep it easy to re-download them on demand, which is pretty much how smart phones handle this problem, too!

And this answer kind of correlates to another question, which is, "Will we be able to get audio via the USB-C cable with a future update?"

And again, it comes down to how Playdate’s system is architected. While it is possible, it’s not a simple update on our end, as it would involve a maybe surprising amount of code. We’ve looked into it previously, but haven’t found a great way to do it yet. So, the answer is: maybe someday!

While we’re on the subject of audio, we got a question about Bluetooth and why it’s not available on Playdate yet. Here I’m going to blame Bluetooth technology itself! With things like music or spoken word, a bit of lagginess between pushing play and hearing the audio isn’t a huge deal. But to create a good experience with games, you really need the audio to sync up with what’s happening on screen in real time. And so far third party Bluetooth devices just have way too much latency. Playdate will support streaming audio to the Playdate Stereo Dock, which is coming soon.

But if you’ve ever used Bluetooth headphones with, say, the Nintendo Switch, you’ll understand the pain of unreliable, laggy audio And why we don’t feel like Bluetooth is ready for prime time on Playdate just yet, but we’re still researching it.

And speaking of the Stereo Dock, when we have any major news about it, we’ll share it via Twitter and email, and probably a Playdate Update video, too.

A listener also wrote, “I vaguely remember there was going to be a radio station for Playdate. Is there any update on that?” Yes! We’re still exploring unique audio content for Playdate, so stay tuned.

Multiple people asked how many Playdates can be made and shipped in a given day. As a team, we decided not to reveal those specific numbers right now, since they can fluctuate, given a wide variety of factors, and and we don’t want people to start extrapolating shipping dates based on them. But I wanted to give you some general insight into the manufacturing and shipping process. So, each Playdate is assembled by hand, tested and inspected on site at our partner factory in Malaysia. You can hear more details about the actual manufacturing and QA process in the episode, “The Story of Playdate.”

But someone asked if the finished Playdates then moved from the factory to the Panic office in Portland, and the answer is no. Once they pass final inspection and are ready to go to their owners, pallets of finished Playdates are sent to our shipping partner who fulfills our orders. That makes it sound easy, but it’s actually pretty complicated. The Playdates all go to a huge warehouse where they’re assigned to order numbers and shipped out accordingly. And there’s an intermediary company that handles our international shipping and duties logistics, too. We’re hoping to expand shipping to even more countries, but it turns out that tariffs, taxes and duties are complicated and we want to make sure all of those are covered up front, so Playdates don’t end up stuck in customs limbo anywhere. So we’re continuing to work on that.

And one number I can provide that we’re pretty proud of, is the percentage of shipped Playdates that are returned to us. It’s currently at 3.6% and dropping. That’s already significantly lower than other gaming consoles. And I think it speaks to the excellent work and attention to detail of our manufacturing partners.

These next two questions are related, so I’ll read both, and then answer.

One, "Have you thought about releasing some CAD files or other documentation to help accessory designers? It would be useful for precisely positioning magnets and items that interface with the screws or ports.

And two, “Is there any kind of mods or customizations that you’re excited to see the community build? I just got my Playdate today, but I’m already planning to 3D print a magnetic case and dock.”

Yes! Panic Engineer Dan Wineman released a pretty detailed “Playdate Dimensions” document on the developer forum a while back. So I’ll link to that in the show notes. And there are some cool projects on printables.com if you search the “Playdate” tag, including stands, cases, a magnifier, and a crank paddle adapter. I’ll link to that as well.

We love to see the cool things people are making for Playdate, especially, of course, when it comes to games!

Someone asked, "How has the response and creations from the community been compared to what everyone expected and hoped for? Understand the whole thing has probably been a roller coaster, but keen to hear what surprised you positively about the reaction post-launch?"

Well, we continue to be blown away. When we were working on Playdate, we thought it would be a struggle to even get 12 games for Season One. Now there are twice that number and we can’t even keep up with all the cool games people are making using the SDK and Pulp! It was wild to see the excitement and the variety of things people are creating for this little console. And it happened so fast after we released the tools. There was way more enthusiasm than we ever could have imagined.

And someone else asked, “have there been any games or apps released that have surprised the team by doing something that they didn’t think would be doable on it?”

The answer is yes, absolutely. So many things! Too many to name, really. But two that stand out off the top of my head are Daily Driver, an upcoming game that Matt Sephton began working on during the Playdate Developer Preview, which is incredibly polished and has a super high frame rate, so it looks fantastic on Playdate. And then there’s what seems to be a pretty robust 3D engine created by Zachary Snyder that even includes an on device level editor. Seriously, you have to see this thing. So I’ll put links to both of those in the show notes as well as a link to our ongoing Twitter thread of cool Playdate games that people are making because there really are just so many!

Overall, we’re just so thrilled by how much people love Playdate and the amount of enthusiasm we’re seeing from both game developers and players.

Well, that’s all for now. Thanks so much for joining me for this first mailbag episode of the Playdate Podcast.

Stay tuned for more episodes coming soon to the Playdate Podcast Feed.

The Playdate Podcast was written, produced, and edited by me, Christa Mrgan. Cabel Sasser, and Simon Panrucker composed the theme song. Additional music is also by Cabel Sasser. Huge thanks to Tim Coulter and Ashur Cabrera for wrangling the podcast feed and working on the website. James Moore for making me an awesome Playdate audio extraction app, and 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.

I didn’t really have anything for after the credits on this episode, so I decided to bring back this bit from season one of the Panic Podcast where Steven Frank made fun of podcasts, and then Panic friend Jon Black, of the band Fort Atlantic, made this amazing faux podcast theme song.

Enjoy.

Steven Frank: You know, there’s always some nerd’s podcast that has some intro with like 10 seconds of intense, heavy metal. You know, electric guitar raging: durr durr durr durr. And this nerd comes on like, “Oh, hey, welcome to my podcast. This is Star Trek News.” And I dunno, that always makes me chuckle. And again, I’m very sorry to all the podcasters out there.

[Thrashing guitar music plays]