Episode 17: Saturday Edition and Star Sled
Christa Mrgan: Welcome to the Play Date podcast, bringing you stories from game developers, designers, and the team behind play Date, the little yellow game console with a crank. I’m Kristin Merkin. And this week’s episode has a special format. instead of creating an episode for each of the games, in week eight of Play eight, season one, I asked Chris Makris, the developer of Saturday Edition, and Greg Meletic, who created Star Sled, to play each other’s games and then interview each other about them.
This conversation was recorded back in November of 2021, and I mostly tried to stay out of it, but you know me: I did edit it a bit to tighten it up and remove some of the filler words, and of course I pipe in here and there! And slight spoiler alert, there are some references to what happens in the later stages of Star Sled as well as to a scene at the beginning of Saturday Edition, but no major reveals for either game.
Okay. I’m going to turn it over to them now and let them introduce themselves and their games. Enjoy!
Chris Makris: I’m Chris Makris. I made the game Saturday Edition, and I’m spending a lot of time trying to make games. So like I, professionally, I guess I, I, I work for Major League Baseball and I, I make tools and do graphic work for them. And then I also teach a class at NYU on visual art for games, visual design.
And I’m just kind of personally obsessed with real time graphics and just always pursuing that in my free. When I’m in front of a computer, that’s what I’m doing.
Saturday Edition’s just a graphic adventure and it’s a bit of a strange story. And basically you get pulled into a narrative that involves a little bit of light puzzle solving. You play the character, John Kornfield, who is a funny character. I think he’s in his forties. He was abducted by an alien race and taken to a planet where he lived for four years before he was taken back to. And the game starts 10 years after he was taken back to Earth.
So he is kind of settled back into his life and there’s something happening in his town and that has suddenly reawakened an interest in him first with the media and by the police, and, and you get involved in a story.
Greg Maletic: And, My name is Greg Meletic and I work for Panic when I’m not making games. For Playdate, I did the Game Star Sled and I am the Project Lead on Playdate. I’ve been working on it for about five years now, and that’s what I focus on.
My game is Star Sled and it’s kind of a throwback to the games I grew up with in the seventies in the arcades. It’s sort of a vector graphics style which was common back then, and it’s very arcade-y. You’re flying a spaceship around, you have this lariat, that trails behind you, and you’re trying to capture these little sparks that are floating around in space.
And that’s pretty it. I wanted a game that was really easy to pick up and play and, and without a big learning curve to it.
Chris Makris: I have no shortage of questions. I can ask a question first. I’d like to just ask a question about your development process in general. Could you give us like a, a broad breakdown of how things went, the whole thing from start to end? How would you kind of summarize that in some broad terms?
Greg Maletic: Let’s see, the development process. Well, I mean, the game has gone through several phases. It started off as, as sort of a dynamic of just, gosh, can I fly something around on screen and kind of encircle things. I kinda like that dynamic. It reminded me of this game called Qix that was out in the, I guess, early eighties where you kind of move around and try and capture areas of the screen with your little cursor.
So I started doing that and as kind of an experiment, but I initially envisioned it as kind of a puzzle game where it was almost like a needle and thread where you’d go around and sort of capture certain things, you’d have to avoid other things and, and make sure you didn’t entrap the bad stuff.
And it was just gonna be a single screen, but it evolved. So the screen started scrolling and the play field got much bigger. It moved into outer space and then it developed all sorts of stuff like missions and bosses and things like that. So it kind of started small and got much bigger.
I started working on it actually, when I was in Malaysia on a trip there to work on Playdate. I was visiting the assembly line there, and we had a lot of downtime. It was, I remember it was just like raining cats and dogs this one week, and I was stuck in my hotel room and started working on it.
It was probably three years ago, I guess. And I got the basics working and I was kind of impressed I could get the, the lasso part of it working. I didn’t know that I could do that. There was some math involved. And so I was happy about that. And then the game kind of sat dormant for a long time. So, but off and on, you know, it’s been three plus years I’ve been working on it.
Chris, what’s your background in video games?
Chris Makris: As a player? Or like–
Greg Maletic: as anything?
Chris Makris: General? Just very generally general. Oh, like,
Greg Maletic: yeah.
Chris Makris: Oh, man. I don’t know. I feel like there were a handful of instances when I was very young. I don’t know how young, maybe like between like five and eight years old or something where I just was exposed to video game screens, like video game technology, like, a weird tabletop arcade somewhere, or someone’s.
Atari system or something. And I just remember that thing, speaking to me. Like whatever it was, whatever was happening that was different than like regular tv, and something about the way people even referred to the machinery, the way it had, it had like a mysteriousness around it and like definitely what was happening on the screen, like the weird shapes, just wondering how it worked.
Having like, nothing close to an, an idea of how it worked. Just even as a kid, I was like, what the, what the, what’s going on? So that was the beginning for me, I would say. But then, I think something I should always like account for and I forget.
I was very lucky in that my, my dad who worked for a newspaper, he was a photographer. He kind of got into tech. He became like the tech writer for the paper, just through his own interest in computers. And because of that we got sent computer stuff. He brought computer stuff home.
He brought like software and then like from the very beginning, games. I started playing like all the classic graphic adventures. Even at a young, I’m like comparing Sierra style versus like Lucas Arts. And like, I noticed those differences.
I thought about them a lot. And then not just like graphic adventures, like played Doom, like all the computer games, like of the early nineties era, I would say. So like, I just felt like I got to witness an evolution. And I had a, like NES. And so like, I got to witness this amazing evolution of this new technology.
And it was interesting to be a kid and to see that, like I had questions about it, but so did everyone else. Like no one else knew where it was going, really. And, and so like now I just feel like I’m an adult. I went for that ride. And as an adult, I like naturally could just get into that industry cuz I, I went on that ride and I had all that information and I could just try and get my hands in there.
So like, yeah, it was always just, it felt like it was a part of me, like it lured me in.
Greg Maletic: Awesome. You mentioned Lucas Arts and Sierra and so on. What was your inspiration for this game in particular?
Chris Makris: I’ve long wanted to make a graphic adventure and write a story, and I think part of what happened is I got this opportunity from you guys inviting me to make a game. And I was working on a very abstract graphic side scroller that had no story and I was resistant to even make a story for it.
But like, so all I had to, I was just operating with like all these minimal design ideas and like pretty extreme minimalism and, and really just purely, practically purely graphic work. And it was just building up in me to like, oh, I wish I had more to play with. Minimalism was like making me sick.
And so I took this opportunity to like write a story. I, I wanna write a story, I want real content to work with, and I have very little experience writing stories, so I knew that would be part of the experience, was learning about writing and taking that on. And I meant to make a much shorter game and a much smaller game.
And because I have no experience as a writer I couldn’t control any of that. And it just became what it was. And I just spent as much time as I had available to spend on it over five plus years.
The original inspiration came from things like movies and books and playing like those early graphic adventures and thinking about the things I didn’t like in them.
Even like I kinda like a linear game. as a creator that gives me power. I wanna write something. I wanna create an experience that someone doesn’t just experience like a small fraction of it cuz of choices they make, but it gets the whole thing because the whole thing’s really important.
So I try to operate around a lot of like the. The decision tree stuff that you got in, like those old games, I’m like, well, how can I make that process less tedious? Like, where can I make like enough exploration that you don’t feel totally trapped in a box as a player, but also tell a relatively rich story.
I had fun exploring that and I feel working with like a small screen and minimal sort of like graphical power just like a, the limitations of the system really helped me focus on the narrative and on creating like, What can you do with like little bits of text?
Like in the game? It’s just like one line at a time, which I feel like is digestible and I’m extreme like that. I can’t retain a ton of information. I don’t necessarily love a super long sentence. Like I don’t want to be faced with a wall of text, nothing will push me away quicker.
So I just responded to all of my natural, like feelings about stuff and just threw it into the game.
Greg Maletic: That’s great. I mean, I’m surprised that you said you hadn’t written a story before because the story I think is one of the really strong aspects of the game. It’s really well written.
Chris Makris: Thanks for saying that. I think because I put so much blood and sweat into it and, you know, I got feedback from, from close friends who, Did play throughs when I felt like not self-conscious enough for, for someone like, first of all, my wife who played the game first and like I was able to just like try and read her.
And then we talked a lot about it. And so like, then I opened it up to like a couple of other close friends . and like. You know, I got some feedback and all of that, but like I was only able to open it up to anyone after I felt confident enough and that that just took time.
was, I did this cuz I know that it’s true about anyone. If you wanna do something, you spend enough time. If you have the time to like really face it, you can do it. No problem. And so like told myself that and I just like tried to take it seriously.
I tried to take all the same sort of judgment I applied at things I feel more confident in and just apply it to writing and story. And also like, I mean the name of the main character is John Corn. Like I, I gave him a dumb name so that I felt less self-conscious writing. I’m like, ah, here, we’ll, I’ll introduce everyone to John Cornfield and thus expectations will be set in a certain place where that, that work in my favor.
Christa Mrgan: Cornfield. Crop circles. Aliens.
Chris Makris: Yeah, exactly. There’s suggestion in that. It’s just like there’s stuff there that’s just like, yeah, this works. This feels like the right thing.
Greg Maletic: Yeah. Good. And the graphics are really, really good also. I mean, you did a lot to exploit, you know, what’s capable on a one bit screen. Have you had experience doing those kind of graphics before?
Chris Makris: Not, not like this. I love pixel art. Have always loved pixel art. I loved ANSI and ASCII and like grid art and minimalism
Christa Mrgan: A quick aside for folks who might not know: ASCII are also known as text art is created using just the alpha numeric characters from the ASCII set, that is, the original 128 characters of the American Standard Code for information interchange. Artists can create tonal variation, et cetera, based on the size and shape of the different characters. And ANSI extended the ASCII set, allowing artists to add color and patterns to their text art creations. Anyway!
Chris Makris: I knew that one bit art can be like so powerful. And I, I was coming off working on a vector game and I was thinking like, I could really naturally get into something victory here.
And, and that’s a very inviting idea. but I wanted to take this opportunity to, to do pixel art cause I wasn’t sure if I would face it again. I think it’s hard to do pixel art if you’re faced with like the regular computer processing, like there’s so many areas to like start playing around that feel fresh.
It’s hard even though pixel art I think will live on eternally, pixel art will always be amazing and beautiful and a method you can use, a path you can go down to like find something fresh and new and, and make something cool. I don’t know. I’m often pulled another direction, so I felt I wanted to do pixel art here, and this game absolutely started with just some scenes, like before I knew story, I was just starting to make scenes. I needed to get a sense of like, scale, like how is this gonna present? I did printouts of early, early drawings of early scenes at the screen size, the device was meant to have, just so I could see, okay, what is the, what’s the player size like?
What kind of area do I have for text? How readable, like just establishing the size and scale stuff like right away because I knew it would inform everything else. Like how long does it take to navigate space? Rare, is there a case in the game where you’re actually going three panels across and even in that scene, it’s like boring.
There’s all this stuff that I felt needed to be established right away. And so, yeah, pixel art and some particulars of the stylization and the like abstraction and stuff, that kind of, it all came really quickly, but some of the ways it was finessed took a bit of time.
I had to find like exactly where I wanted it to sit and then this sort of established a bar for where I had to just make everything, any new scenes I added and all that stuff. But a lot of it got to evolve, which helps a lot, like iterate over time. And finally it ends up sitting in a place that you feel happy.
Greg Maletic: Awesome.
Chris Makris: So I wanna ask you some questions about let’s keep this in the, in the visual realm. I noticed in the game that you have a nod to Tim Skelly, who’s not someone I was aware of, but I, I started researching after I played through your game and looked at a bunch of the games he had made, which were just wonderful.
And I could immediately see that connection. And I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about that inspiration and any other inspirations that inform the visuals, which I think are extremely beautiful. And just like really well handled. Like I love a lot of the effects that you use.
I think they’re perfect for like the screen size and setting, and they add like a lot of nice sort of texture and variety to to just the whole experience. So I’m wondering if you could just talk about the visuals of it.
Greg Maletic: Sure. Well, thank you for the, the kind words about it. I mean, so I, I grew up in the seventies and a lot of the video games back then that were in the arcades were done in these vector monitors.
They didn’t have like a lot of memory to do really rich pixel art. And so the way you could pull off kind of complex shapes wasn’t through pixels, but was through these vectors. But they were very sparse looking, very geometric. And that’s been kind of lost now. I mean, people know that, look, when you think of like the game Asteroids, most people, I think most people know what that game is even today.
But there were a lot of games that looked like that back then. And I don’t know. I kind of miss it and I sort of was intrigued by doing it, you know, this was a black and white device and most of those games were black and white also. So that seemed like a good fit. The resolution seemed sort of just high enough to pull it off in a satisfying way.
Part of me thought, well, you know, 400 by 240, that isn’t really good enough to draw lines in a satisfying way. But they, they actually worked, you know, well enough, I think. And I dunno, I thought it wouldn’t look like anything else on Playdate in Season One. Everybody else does really, really, really nice bitmap graphics that look great.
But I thought this would be something unique. And so that’s kind of why I pursued it.
Chris Makris: That’s awesome. I was so happy when I started getting to the levels that had like structure, like physical structures that you move through and move around, because I just desire to see that like early on, like as you’re learning the ropes, which takes a little bit of time.
You just start to wonder as a player, like, where’s this gonna go? Like, what’s gonna happen? You have all these questions and like I, because I was already really just feeling all the, all the vector art and like the lines you were making and the shapes, and I just like desire to navigate structure. So I was so satisfied when that actually happened.
I don’t, I guess I don’t wanna spoil much about the game. But some of that was a real treat and I just loved the way you, you represented like walls and, things like that. It just had a great vibe with the music.
I have a kind of, I guess a segue from even thinking about the structures and sort of the elements in your game. What’s sort of your internal model for judging the difficulty and progress and just making those decisions. Like how, how hard you wanna make the game versus sort of like more welcoming and like “we’ll kind of bring you in,” because I found the game quite difficult. I found the ramp to be quite steep.
Greg Maletic: No, a lot of people do. And that’s been my biggest challenge is this is, it’s really the first game I’ve ever written. I mean, I’ve written lots of pieces of games in the past, but never really written a full game that’s gonna be published.
And so this is my first experience. And because of, again, where the game came from at the arcade those games are really hard. And that was where my gut was at the beginning, was to make it about as hard as that. I didn’t want people to kind of rip through it in the first hour. I wanted it to feel like there was, you know, more to do.
But the whole process had been one of making the game easier and easier. And I still have a ways to go on it. I think it still needs to be, be cranked up so it’s cranked down, I guess, so to speak. So it’s a little more approachable. Initially the game, you had three lives and then you were dead.
And then you had to start over again from scratch. And then after Cabel–Cabel Sasser at Panic had done some play testing, he recommended, well, what if you do it sort of like a Mario structure where there’s different, like lands you go to and different missions you go on and you can kind of like, you don’t lose your progress you know, all the way back to the beginning every time.
And so that’s where the mission map came from, where you can kind of attack the different missions and just kind of explore each one individually, not have to go start from the beginning. So that was part of making it easier as well, because it just kind of dawned on me like halfway through the process that like, it wasn’t about making it challenging, it was about making it fun.
Challenging is, I guess one tiny aspect of fun, but persevering and actually experiencing the whole game is probably a much bigger aspect of fun in this case. So, it’s been a challenge for me, but I need to bias more towards kind of making the entire thing approachable. And it’s been a slow, steady march towards that.
Chris Makris: That’s so interesting to hear. I’ve gone through that same experience with a game I was working on for a long time. It started quite difficult and it just slowly as people were playing I was realizing like very, very slowly that wow, like I, I’m kind of like disconnected from what other people feel. I’m too close to this or I have sort of weird feelings about, maybe not weird feelings, but just sort of natural feelings about how much time I expect anyone to spend on something or the reward that might come with a certain challenge. But with that game design experience, I kind of experienced this transition from making an arcade like game, and thinking about games from that way, from that sort of perspective, 'cuz it’s so common in the game world, to an entirely different one, which is really just about adventure-- going on like an adventure, having like a graphic or sensory experience.
And none of this is to say this is what you should do or anything like that. It’s just something that I feel very close to, like that it’s like a big difference. It’s like, who is the game for people who wanna like really be punished? Or is it for sort of more casual users? And and I think there’s a way to address both and everything.
But I wanted to hear a little bit about how much of that is intentional on your end or sounds like you have some interesting, like, evolving thoughts on that and you’re like, you’re softening it up a bit, but maybe you’re withholding some softness on it, like you wanna and punish?
Greg Maletic: Yeah, As you bring that up?
I’m thinking of, of the game Super Hexagon, which was pulling me in the other direction. That was a game that was popular on iPhone several years back. And I’m sorry, I can’t think of the developer’s name right now. But that game was insanely hard.
Chris Makris: Terry, Terry Kavanaugh.
Greg Maletic: yes. Yes. That game was insanely hard.
But people loved it. I mean, certainly a lot of people couldn’t play it, but the ones that did just played it incessantly. And so there’s, I’m like, Gosh, maybe really hard is good. It’s, it’s tricky to, to figure it out.
Chris Makris: It’s absolutely on the, on the other end of this.
Like, it’s like a way you can go. I had a friend who just like was obsessed with that game and was very good at it, and there’s a deep reward that comes with that skill. But it’s a kind of entrancing experience, but it’s, it really wouldn’t ever be classified as like a, I don’t know, like a, like a very rich, deep sensory experience.
Whereas I think your game starts going more in that direction with the music and with seeing new worlds and experiencing new spaces and it feels so good to control that ship. Like experiencing structure stuff and the further levels.
So like guess anyone listening should know that Greg passed me a version that was unlocked so I could start jumping around cuz I got, stuck. I think I, I don’t know if it was early in sector C or late in sector B somewhere, but early enough that I felt like, oh I can’t get good enough at this game in time for this, meeting that we’re doing.
And I wanted to see the whole thing. So you’ve passed me a version that let me skip around and I ended up playing every sector, not beating every sector, like maybe half of them or something. But I was just thankful-- like it kind of made me sad to think, oh man, I don’t know if I would’ve seen half of this stuff.
I don’t know if I’m good enough, like,
Greg Maletic: That’s what ultimately pushed me in the easier direction is part of me. I was, I was working on some of those later boss levels and I was like, this is actually kind of cool and like, I want people to see this.
Chris Makris: Yes.
Greg Maletic: And it’d be a shame if like, nobody saw this.
Chris Makris: Yes.
Greg Maletic: That was my nightmare. So that’s kind of what ultimately moved me in the direction to kind of loosen it up. And like I said, I still have a ways to go on that. I think .
Chris Makris: Yeah. And it’s become clear that I’ve just, put pressure on you just now. I I didn’t mean to do it here.
Greg Maletic: That’s okay. I, I want that pressure. That’s good.
Chris Makris: But it’s beautiful though. I love it. I like, yeah, I don’t want to talk too much about certain things that should probably remain a surprise, but it’s just all the vector stuff is like a pure delight and so different from the game I’d spent five plus years in front of. And my game doesn’t touch the crank, so suddenly getting to use the crank on this device was like a real treat too, after all this time
Greg Maletic: That was actually one of my questions for you is, did you think about using the crank?
Chris Makris: I did, but I pretty, quickly I was too pulled in by the story idea and the classic graphic adventure, and because I wanted to do my own release down the line. And that’s still a plan. Like I have an idea, I have an interesting approach for how I would like to actually colorize the game and ultimately do my own release. And, I even think it looks better big screen. Like it looks better to see all the pixel art kind of blown up.
You can like, Look around it, you can sort of like appreciate some of the patterns and some of the graphic stuff. Though I, I love the way it looks on device and everything, but it just happens to be true that I think it looks maybe a little more interesting big. So because of that, because in the back of my head I thought like, you know, if I’m gonna spend a bunch of time learning how to write a story and build this game, I should probably think I have my own release in mind. and that means the crank is a tough sell for me because where do you find a crank? And that’s, that’s the sad state of the world of games, isn’t it? that that cranks are actually rare, rare utilities.
Greg Maletic: So many crankless systems out there. It’s a tragedy.
Chris Makris: What’s with that? They should at least have dials like.
Greg Maletic: Yeah,
Chris Makris: like make the thumb sticks on the, on the Xbox controller dials or something like, such a wonderful control, which is part of what’s so brilliant about the Playdate, I think.
Greg Maletic: In a way, I’m glad you didn’t use it just because we, we had this discussion early on should we encourage or even force developers to use the crank in the season, just because that’s what’s unique about the Playdate. Should everybody be using it? And my fear was developers would be cramming it in there in like the most uncomfortable ways that would make players really resent having the crank.
So I’m actually well I was working on probably three or four different games at one point, and this was the one that really used the crank. The other ones didn’t use it at all. And that was one of the reasons I went with this. It was also just a more fun game I thought. But but yeah, I, I appreciate games that don’t use it and I’m happy that we have plenty that, that do not.
Chris Makris: It’s a wonderful input. I think anyone who maybe sees the Playdate at first, or if you describe it to them, The idea of like a fishing game or some obvious comparison would come to mind, but then you, when you really think about what the crank can do, like the opportunities are so cool.
Like it’s just amazing the stuff that you could feed that input to and suddenly you have like, Really engaging sort of control mechanism.
Greg Maletic: Yeah. We sort of joke that we don’t want to hear everybody’s first Playdate game idea. We wanna hear their second one because the first one’s always fishing or music box or something like that.
Chris Makris: Yeah,
Mark Lentz: Everybody comes up with fishing!
Christa Mrgan: Had to throw that Mark Lentz quote in there. And interject with some questions of my own: I wanted to know about the sound design and music in both games
Chris Makris: For sound design, I got some help from a Shell in the Pit, two guys from a Shell in The Pit, which is a sound design studio. Gord and Alfonso over there
Christa Mrgan: Gord McGladdery, and Alfonso Salinas.
Chris Makris: Did all the sound design work. They did all the sound effects, basically, all of the in world sound effects that occurred. And then I did all the music and sort of I like the character speech sounds. Sort of a few miscellaneous other things. And so that’s, that’s the main divide though, probably like the, the score and the speech. And then those guys who are incredible sound designers who did like wonderful work for me and I never expected that to happen. I, I wanted to do the sound on my own and cause I have a little experience with that, but I had to face certain reality about time and stuff which was good for me. It was good for me to work with other people like that, who are so talented, who could like help something I’m working on be better.
And it was wonderful working with them. They did a great job, all of their sound work, I think elevates the game a great deal and makes the world you’re in feel quite immersive and sort of just like it works with the visuals quite well. It kind of helps fill some of the space. 'Cuz even though it’s very visual, it’s minimalist in its own way.
So like, you do have to kind of slow down and expect to play out a story. It’s And I think a lot of the sound work that they did that was so good that you’d hear just periodically you’d hear like the footsteps and opening doors and shutting doors and stuff like That really helps a player stay in that world and not get too agitated and too antsy.
So and then the music part of it, my sort of side of it part of why I make games I think is to have a reason to get involved in other things like, like writing and making sound and music and exploring stuff that basically is sensory and, and fun. And even if I’m not good at it, it’s like this is my game, so I’m gonna do it. And so I had to have that attitude with the music too. I played music growing up, like throughout my life. But nothing close to, like, professionally, just always dabbled. Like I played guitar, played a little piano, grew up playing drums. I’m not gonna be confident, but I, I want to do it. So, like, it was fun to do that. It was fun to just like, what’s, figure out, how’s this gonna work? And even with limitations of the system, like, Dealing with file size limitations, things like that. It’s like all based on loops.
And also realizing that like I wanted a lot of the game to be quite silent too, and slow, very, very slow. Like any music that’s gonna be in there is gonna help to basically manage the players, like emotion a little bit, but also like sort of what speed they’re operating at. And so like but it was fun to do that. I’m not totally satisfied by the music, but I’m happy that I took it on as a personal challenge. And I feel like it, it works well enough in the game that, that I can let other people online say mean things about it.
I can try and, and I won’t be too depressed about that.
Greg Maletic: Yeah, I don’t think they will. I think the music is incredibly good. It works really, really well in the context of the game. It’s kind of moody and atmospheric in all the right places. And just the sound design in general, I thought has been really good. I’m not done with the game yet, but I’m, I’m, you know, I’m well into it.
This isn’t a spoiler, at the very beginning, there’s a scene with a dinner party kind of in the distance, and I can hear the dinner party in the distance in that first scene. And I had headphones on and it just sounded great. Perfect, really. So I, I’ve been super impressed with the music.
Chris Makris: Yeah. That’s all, that’s all sound designed from Alfonso and Gord. It’s fun to create these little impressions, like these little scenes, basically. I mean, And it’s a major advantage ultimately to be working with these limitations, like, because a lot of magic comes from abstraction. And so like, not having everything be perfectly clear, just like creating impressions that are a little bit fuzzy and distorted and I think. if either sound or, or graphics, one of the two is like realistic and the other is like abstract. Like that is always gonna work really well together, I think. So having these more abstract visuals with very like realistic sound I think creates a surprisingly immersive feeling and situation and I don’t know if I ever would’ve gone this abstract if I didn’t have these limitations forced on me.
And so like, I dunno, limitations are always great. And so I, I appreciate that.
Greg Maletic: Yeah, I like the sounds you used for the dialogue. Each person that speaks has sort of a different tone that goes along with them. There’s John and then there’s the people he talks with and there’s like the police and they all have a different tone that announces the dialogue they’re speaking, even though you don’t ever hear the dialogue, it’s just written.
But those tones were really evocative and really did a lot to kind of sell the idea that it’s multiple people speaking. It, it worked really well.
Chris Makris: Awesome. Thanks Greg. Yeah, that’s kind of like a, a funny, like a conceptual idea. Even though it’s common to hear just like an abstract tone, I guess, in a game like something Nintendo would do all the time. It’s cool the way we all have a bit of a different sound, like just the, this sort of like timbre I guess, I don’t know what word really describes that, but like the quality and characteristics of our voices are unique and it’s part of who we are.
And so it’s cool to sort of capture that an abstract way and present it so plainly with just like a single note that has a sort of certain quality alongside the text. And those both come in at once and it’s just like you kind of get almost like a reassembled version of what it’s like to have someone speak to you.
It was cool to have a solution for that because part of what it offered is also just hearing sound, like hearing something over time. So like, I wanted sounds over time. I didn’t necessarily want to make like a, a music that you hear throughout the whole game.
I think a lot of game designers take this approach. You have this opportunity to have like your game be sort of like a procedural music generator and song generator just by the sounds that occur. Like if it’s Mario, like Mario jumping and hitting his head and collecting a star and all that stuff ends up being like the weird music of the game.
And so like, I think always trying to see what you can do there first is, is a good start for game sound design and then if you feel like it needs anything in the back.
Let’s talk about your sound for a little bit though. What, what involvement did you have in that? Cause I thought the sounds were great and they totally suited the presentation style.
Greg Maletic: That’s great. Yeah, I didn’t put nearly enough effort into it as I, I probably should have the, the game is sort of a weird kind of tortured path where at the beginning it was just me kind of screwing around.
Like there was no sense it’d be a game that would be part of the season certainly, or even be released. So it was just kind of me messing around and then it became, we’d probably release it, but maybe it’s sort of like a grab bag of games that was kind of off to the side, not part of the season, but a bunch of other stuff that just kind of would be stuck on the device somewhere you could play with.
And so because of that, I didn’t wanna increase the budget for the game. I felt like if it’s just me working on it, that was already plenty of enough budget for the game. And so I’ll just make my own sounds. And gosh, it’d be nice to have music, but I don’t know about that.
And so, anyway, my sound ambitions were very low at the beginning. Then it became clear that it actually, maybe it would be as part of the season. And then all of a sudden I had to worry about this cuz we needed music and so on. And got very lucky in that there’s two guys in our office, Aaron Bell and Jesus Diaz, that were writing music for other games in the season.
Specifically B 360 is one of the games that they’re writing music for. They did a lot of great music for that. And their style is sort of, you know, very electronic and, and I thought it was a good fit for Star Sled. So, gosh, maybe I I’ll have Aaron and Jesus write this music. And so they wrote the music that you hear in the game.
For sound effects, it was me just running this little app called I think it’s BFXR it’s a tool for creating very sort of eight bit type sound effects.
And that was me just creating things like for, you know, bonus scores and capturing sparks and warping and all the things you do in the game. I wanted something that sort of felt old school, sort of 8- bit, but also wasn’t constrained by those. So maybe I would add some echo to it or something that you couldn’t really have done back then to try and make it feel old, but also, you know, fleshed out more than you could have back then.
So if I had to do it all over again, it would’ve been great to ha actually hire a real sound designer, cuz I think we could have gotten probably better things than I did. But I’m pretty happy overall with how it turned out.
Chris Makris: It’s great. No, you’ve made the right choice. Explore that stuff for yourself. I mean, you did all the other stuff on your own and like, I think our sensibilities come out through like these different mediums. we limit ourselves a little too much if once we’ve explored one medium, like you’re, you’re doing all this graphic exploration, you’re programming it, you’re thinking about structure, thinking about like the play, experience and design, and you’re just like dealing with space.
And so like you can, I think, apply those same things to sound and I think the sound effects are great. I’m glad you did them.
Greg Maletic: I’m glad, I’m glad they worked for you.
Chris Makris: Christa reminded me that you kind of had a bit of an inverse sort of history. Coming from sort of like more the engineering and and programming side, then getting into art and whereas I kind of started off with visual art and learned to program.
Greg Maletic: Yeah, I did it all sort of backwards where I, I was always into software. But then I got a weird opportunity. I started drawing art as a hobby. And I’m a huge Disneyland fan, so I started basically creating. Artwork for Disneyland, basically posters that they put up in the park.
I loved these posters and so I wanna mimic that style. And so I did that and they were found online by the guy in charge of Hong Kong Disneyland, and he asked me to create new ones for Disney. And so I totally kind of worked backwards into the art field by working for Disney on this project. It was the first thing I’d ever drawn for anybody before. And so this was probably 15 years ago, I guess I’ll say. And so I started drawing about that time and got into it.
So it’s been sort of a hobby for me even though I’ve, you know, had some professional work. Did that work influence this? I don’t know. I mean, I guess I have a visual sense. But I guess I’m, I’m good at mimicking things, as maybe part of it. And so we talked about Tim Skelly earlier you mentioned him.
He’s the guy that did a lot of these cool vector graphics games that I’m emulating. And there’s a very distinctive style for how that looks. Just the way they’re all pointy, but they’re all kind of shaped in a certain way. And like the explosions kind of burst out and then kind of slowly recede.
There’s sort of a tempo to the animations that I was emulating also. So I’m maybe a better mimic than actually a good artist, I would say. And that’s probably what the game reflects.
Chris Makris: I think it always starts with mimicry. Like It has to kind of start there. And if you were to just keep making stuff, your voice would just come through all of a sudden. 'Cuz I think a lot of that stuff is kind of universal, too. Like some of the star explosion effects. It’s like, you know, we’ve seen those elsewhere, we’ve seen them in movies, we’ve seen that kind of frame rate and like flashy kind of stuff.
It has a wonderful feeling and vibe and depending on what else is on screen and whatever’s happening at the same time and how like all the space is used. Like, I think your own voice starts to come through.
And so, like, it’s hard to see that with just a single product sometimes. But I, I do think, I think basically it always starts with mimicry.
Greg Maletic: Yeah. I agree with that. So yeah, it is the right place to start on a lot of things.
One of the things I was curious about is in Saturday Edition, one of the things that happens is you get little notes as you go around and the notes have something, you can look at your inventory and see the notes that have something scribbled on them, and then you can pass those notes to a character and use that as a way to initiate dialogue about that topic.
Is that something that has been done in other games? I’m not super familiar with graphic adventures in general. But is that done elsewhere?
Chris Makris: I don’t know, I’m just gonna assume that it has been done elsewhere, but not that I’ve experienced. It seems like a very natural idea.
Though it can often be surprising when something has never been done. And I tend to not research these things 'cuz I have this feeling that if I start going down the path of researching every little idea I have, I’m just going to, I’m not gonna ever build anything. I’m just gonna be too afraid to.
I like to assume that like, you don’t look at what, what anyone else did. You will probably do something kind of new with it. You’ll do it your own way, and in the end it will be actually surprisingly fresh. So like, that’s a part of my process I think is like important to me, is I don’t, I don’t wanna expose myself too much to the gigantic world.
And it was otherwise inspired by a certain constraint that long felt that it would be fun if there’s a graphic adventure where everything the character has with them would actually fit in their pocket?
Like, it kind of like lends itself to it feeling a little more like believable, like, despite the whatever graphic limitations and stuff, the mental image that you carry of the situation is one that is actually convincing. So I, I like that idea and I like what it might say about the character, too.
It’s like, oh, okay. So like, you have topics basically, and like, like subject matter that’s written on these notes. It suggests something about a character. His coat pockets are stuffed with notes and other junk and like they’re kind of reminders cuz maybe he doesn’t have great memory. It starts to add something.
So I liked that and it was a way to suddenly open up a lot of story possibility cuz it’s like, now you can work with these sort of like broad subjects. And bring those to a character and see what happens. That became a pretty important design element combined with the idea that there’s other stuff in your pocket.
It’s not just notes, it’s a mixture of notes and other things that might fit in the pocket that that player, I guess players will see.
Greg Maletic: Yeah, I thought it worked really well. It took me a, a minute to figure it out, but once I figured it out, it just, it made total sense.
Chris Makris: And you’re not the first one, which really surprised me. Like, at that point for me, by the time I had anyone else play, I just thought like, oh, what more obvious idea could there be.
Like, but then everyone who’s playing like, like, it wasn’t obvious at all. Thinking of these notes as like conceptual nuggets that you use. So like that kind of stuff as, as a developer that you discover when people play your game is like really mind blowing. I mean, it’s, it’s actually really mind blowing process to make something like a game that’s, I got a little complexity to it and put it in front of people and see how they react.
It’s like the surprises you experience there are, are just endless.
Greg Maletic: Yeah, it’s astonishing. The things that you think are gonna be hard are easy. The things that you think are gonna be just trivial are just impossibly hard.
Chris Makris: Yeah, totally.
Greg Maletic: It’s amazing.
Chris Makris: The intro heaven sequence of Saturday Edition I had to refine so much and it operates as like a tutorial zone, obviously. Like it’s very minimal, very few elements.
I thought I was holding people’s hands too much with like the first or second iteration and no, it’s just there’s a lot of like guiding that kind of needs to occur and, and sort of like cornering off of possibilities. You don’t want a player to get too bored, but you want them to discover something so that they feel that reward and they continue and they connect with the idea a little more deeply.
And so, for anyone listening who makes games, like it can be really hard to put your games in front of people, and I think you should maybe just wait till the right time to do it. But don’t ever not do that. You really do need to do that, ultimately. you need to like become strong and face the difficulty.
Just accept that there are things that are probably gonna have to change. Accept that ahead of time and and welcome it ultimately, cuz ultimately it makes what you’re making better and more approachable and you learn a great deal. So it’s hard to do, but yeah.
Greg Maletic: Excellent. What about your questions, Christa?
Christa Mrgan: well, of course, I always like to ask people about their experience working with the Playdate Software Development Kit!
Greg Maletic: Speaking from my perspective, I have loved writing a Playdate game. I mean, it’s been way more fun than I anticipated. It’s really nice to write an app slash game now that can actually take over the device in a meaningful way. That isn’t really possible on a Mac where you have kind of a window or even on an iPhone.
There’s so many notifications and stuff coming through that it doesn’t really feel like the phone is totally yours. But Playdate does kind of feel that way. So I found that really pleasurable and the SDK is really, really quite good, I think. And it, although it’s certainly gotten better over time it started out good.
I think when I, the first time I touched it was, you know, like I said, probably a good four or five years ago. And Dave Hayden, I think was the only one who had been working on it. Maybe, maybe also Dan Messing. There was a lot of functionality in there and they did a really good job, kind of specking out what people needed, and it’s just been a really pleasurable experience from the get go.
So I’ve, I’ve loved it.
Chris Makris: I’ve loved it too. I thought it was well designed from the start. Like I, I guess I started using it pretty early on and I was happy that a lot of the core functions didn’t really have to change very much over time so that it didn’t disrupt the development process. And you guys had like a really solid emulator, at least one for the Mac.
I was suffering a little bit without a, a Mac or with like a Bad Mac laptop for a while. And hoping that the Windows one would come out of the Windows aor and that took a little while, but you guys were amazing and sent me a Mac computer. So in case you forgot, I currently am holding a Panic Mac computer that has helped me so much with the development that it really made it possible for me.
Christa Mrgan: Yeah. Until pretty recently, Panic primarily made Mac and iOS software. So of course the first emulator for Playdate was made for the Mac. We do have SDK tools for Windows and Linux these days too.
Chris Makris: But the SDK and the process was amazing and it’s so fun making a game for a device that you know is gonna feel good in people’s hands. Like Just seeing that you guys had like a quality bar expectation that I just knew that it was high and that you would make something really wonderful and so you experience that even through the SDK and the design of all of the functions that you are going to use to control the screen.
And you guys considered all the useful things that you’d want, the controls you’d want to have for a black and white, like sort of like binary pixel kind of like development process. You want control over that process. And I think it was a very like, well considered SDK.
Greg Maletic: I’m glad. Are you doing your development on Windows now or still on the Mac?
Chris Makris: I’m still on that Mac. For all of the coding and writing of the story, pretty much was all on Mac and then I would move to my PC laptop to do all of the pixel art and animation. And I guess on the subject of tools, I will add that, like, I mean my main thing is real time graphic stuff.
So like, I like making little tools for myself. I had a handful of little tools that helped me. With this game, like exporting animations from Photoshop and then bringing those animations, like just folders that I could drag into a tool I made that would create the right animation format.
And I had also built a tool that let me navigate all the story files without any graphics, so I could like go to a scene and open a story file and read what it said. And I could edit it in a text file and like refresh right away and see updates. So I had so little experience with like creating something like this, I just didn’t even know where to start.
Like I started with HTML at first, like which was a nightmare, and I quickly stopped that. And then I wrote everything in like a giant file. I’m like, oh, this doesn’t, I can’t navigate this. Scroll up and down. Like, so I had to create like a little tool, which was absolutely worthwhile that just let me jump around these files and gave me a sense of what it was like to have this interaction with this character followed by going to this environment. Or maybe you do it the other way around, right? Like I needed to get a sense of like, what is the order that people might approach this stuff? I, I have to like basically control, carefully control that whole process for the player.
And and little tools if you have an ability to like, make little tools in a, in the game development process, they can be the difference between making a game that feels like you don’t, you’re not controlling the process you don’t know what you’re making and something that you feel like, okay, I’m on top of this. And with something as complex as a game, you kind of have to feel like you’re on top of it.
I had a question for Greg real quickly, which is I was wondering about some of those like distortion effects and glitch effects. Like, can you talk a little bit about how, how those are made? Like, I loved, like the shivering like world like area.
Greg Maletic: Yeah, the mission map?
Chris Makris: Oh, that stuff is just so wonderful. So I’m kind of wondering if to what degree, if it all, it’s all procedural, or did you pre-process anything? Or how did that go?
Greg Maletic: Yeah, it’s all done live. And that was, all that stuff is pretty recent. I added that stuff maybe two months ago at the latest.
It all just happened. And so I didn’t even necessarily think I could pull that off in Lua. I mean, that’s one of the big challenges I had is trying to get my game to run in a performant way in Lua. I know C but I haven’t done C in a long time and I didn’t know how to really do c on Playdate, so I got started with Lua and just eventually gotta the point where it’s like, gosh, I wish I could rewrite this all on C but it was too late. So I would, I would like to, to have had that performance, but I was surprised I could do those sort of glitchy effects in Lua and have it work.
And it works really well. I mean, it’s just, you know, literally taking an image and chopping it into a bunch of tiny images and then drawing them with random offsets. And that’s all that’s going on there.
Chris Makris: So you’re chopping up bitmaps. Procedurally, you pre-process the chop up and then you’re just like drawing them all, like in a sort of like you’re wiggling them around?
Greg Maletic: Yeah. Like if I have like an image that say it’s 50 pixels tall, the routines will divide it up into say, like 25 images of two pixels each.
Chris Makris: Oh.
Greg Maletic: And then draw them with random x offsets.
Chris Makris: Totally.
Greg Maletic: And that’s how it does. I was actually surprised it looked good. I was trying it just kind of on a whim, but it worked out really well. So I, I like how that stuff turned out.
Chris Makris: Something deep inside of you knew that that’s the way to go and have to convince you like, oh yeah, do it, Greg.
Oh, I’m, it’s amazing. It’s amazing what can come out at the end of a development process, too. It’s like things that don’t seem like important throughout the bulk of the design process , you sort of tend to them later and really with not much expectation, but like, I don’t know.
I love, I love those details. They speak a lot to me. Like, I just like looking at them and sort of like being mesmerized by them and
Greg Maletic: Oh, yeah, but that works for you.
Yeah. The motion, I, that’s what’s so cool, in your game, you have so much like visual texture in these careful ways. Like you have some of the glitch stuff and some of the, you know, varying sort of like styles but then like even the shimmering stars that we talked about like a little bit already, like that kind of is has its own feeling and like, Just those things. They just go a really long way. Like they have such a magical quality. That’s interesting to hear that some of that stuff came at the end.
Chris Makris: Even the line, like I’d been meaning to go to the emulator and play the game and pause it so I could see what’s happening with it.
'Cuz it has a shimmer and I’m not sure if the shimmer is coming just from sort of the screen pixel flickering. Or if you’re doing something to create a shimmer
Greg Maletic: I am what I’m doing. I mean, the line is made of some number of coordinates, say 50 to a hundred, something like that, based on your ship’s path. And then what I do is I for each segment that I’m drawing, I compute either I’m gonna draw the whole thing, I’m gonna draw none of it, I’m gonna draw the first half of it, or the second half of it.
Chris Makris: Ah,
Greg Maletic: and I do that every, every, every segment on the line. And then it makes that kind of shimmery quality.
Chris Makris: Absolutely love it. Those details, I mean they’re, they matter. Those details matter. Like that line simmer is wonderful and it’s such an important part of the game.
So like you give it that extra love, like when you think about how it’s gonna present and it goes such a long way.
Greg Maletic: Good. I’m, I’m glad.
Chris Makris: And on the matter, like, what about some of the language you use in the game too? Like, what informed that and how did you come up with that? Even sort of like the background story and like I love the word lariat. Lariat, where does that come from? What does that mean?
Greg Maletic: It’s a synonym for lasso as far as I know.
Chris Makris: Is it? Okay!
Greg Maletic: Yeah. Yeah. And so I just, I liked how electro lariat sounded, even though I didn’t think people would, you know, use it when just describing the game and what it is. But it just sounded kind of funny to me and sort of cool at the same time. So that’s, yeah, there wasn’t a lot of thought put into the story in a way, in a way I’m surprised I put the story in because part of me was like, I want this to be a game without a story. Like, I don’t want there to be any overhead. I don’t want there to be a lot of text to read you know, any, anything you have to know to play it.
But ultimately it just kind of informed the design of the game. Once I wrote the story, I kind of had a sense of like, Just the barest essentials of who the bad guys were and who I was and what the mission was. And that really kind of made it work a little bit clearer. And so it was useful for me as an exercise.
And I think it works. Okay. I put it down, it’s like the fourth item on the list of things to do on the main menu. So nobody has to look at it, but it’s there if somebody wants it.
Chris Makris: Yeah. It was funny. I, Part of me was wondering like, oh, should it start with the story? Since it’s so like small, it’s just introducing you. I think like in the end, it doesn’t matter.
It does describe a little bit of the situation in a really broad terms, and then some of the terms, like the words are just, just suggestive in the right way. Like they carry a vibe that somehow like, operates really well with the visuals and with the sound and it is just amazing to me how that stuff can work together sometimes. It creates like a feeling.
And “Star Sled.” even the star Sled I feel like there’s like kind of evocative words that like have to sort of like inspire, sort of something magical.
Greg Maletic: Yeah, “sled” just felt sort of slidey to me. And there’s sort of a power slide feeling a bit to the way the ship flies around. And so that’s, that’s where that came from. I realized that after the fact, that was just an, that was an accident that actually does look like a star. And I was I’m leery of making the ship more complicated 'cuz again, performance reasons. And so I’m trying to sort of make it more than a triangle. But, but not too much more so it doesn’t take away from doing other cool stuff in the game. And so that shape sort of seemed to meet that threshold, but, and I was like, oh, it is actually kind of a squashed star.
Chris Makris: That’s funny. I like reflected on that shape and I liked the shape and I thought it worked really well. Has quite a bit of character for pretty common shape because it’s distorted in the end. It’s like a distorted star, but yeah, that’s like, it seems so obvious now. Yes, the star.
Christa Mrgan: Yes. I totally thought the star shape was intentional all along. but this is where the conversation kind of naturally wound down. So I asked if either Chris or Greg had any more questions for each other.
Greg Maletic: I don’t, I mean, Chris, it was really nice to see you again. It’s been several years now.
Chris Makris: Absolutely. It was great to see you too, again, Greg and I love that I got to play your game. And does this mean-- is my game paired with yours? Like they’ll come out together?
Greg Maletic: Yes. They’ll come out the same week.
Chris Makris: That’s awesome.
Greg Maletic: In the season, we’re like week nine also. Something like that.
Christa Mrgan: ah, week eight. But it might have gotten switched around at some point,
Chris Makris: Okay, cool. That’s good to know. Yeah, I think our games pair extremely well together.
Greg Maletic: Yeah. We tried to pick kinda opposites that go, so, so if somebody wasn’t in, in tune with one of the games, they might be in tune with the other one.
Chris Makris: Yeah, who wants to r ead the story? Someone might absolutely like.
Let’s get some, let’s get our actual gaming on.
Greg Maletic: Yeah, yeah. Or vice versa. So, but yeah. Yeah. I think they, I think they pair pretty well.
Chris Makris: Totally. Oh my God. Yeah. It was great to see you and, it’s an honor to play your game and I, I really enjoyed it. I don’t play many games, so this has been like, actually even over just like three days, it’s been like very like touching game experience.
I feel like I’ve had like a really nice time with your game.
Greg Maletic: Oh, that’s great. Yeah, I, I’ve really enjoyed picking up Saturday Edition again and I’m really looking forward to finishing it.
Chris Makris: Awesome. Yeah, let me know what, think. It’s cool.
Greg Maletic: It’s, it’s fantastic. It’s definitely one of the best games we have, there’s no doubt. So yeah, I’m, I think people will really like it.
Chris Makris: Awesome. Thanks Greg.
Christa Mrgan: And thanks so much to both Greg and Chris for interviewing each other. This was a fun conversation. I hope you enjoy exploring the story of John Kornfield in Saturday Edition and encircling sparks and avoiding evil Trion Sentries in Star Sled. You can find more information about Chris Makris and Greg Meletic via the links in the show notes. Thanks so much for listening. Stay tuned for more episodes coming soon to the Playdate Podcast feed. See you next time.
Greg Maletic: We’ll see you.
Chris Makris: Bye guys.
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 Chris Makris, Aaron Bell, and Jesus Diaz, and come from Saturday Edition and Star Sled. Sound effects from Saturday edition were created by Gord McGladdery and Alfonso Salinas, and sound Effects from Star Sled were created by Greg Meletic
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.
Chris Makris: What if we gave this power to like artists 2000 years ago or something like that?
Greg Maletic: Right.
Chris Makris: What? What would they make, I wonder?
Greg Maletic: Yeah, it’s a good question.
Chris Makris: I often think of that for whatever reason, like you think of like a Leonardo DaVinci type of wild person who just like explored so much invention, like you think like, oh, that guy would’ve been on the computer.