Panic Inc. is a company in Portland who started out making nice-looking computer programs, branched out into making nice-looking apps, and in 2016, released a very nice-looking game called Firewatch. Last month, the company announced that it has pivoted to nice-looking hardware and will soon be releasing the Playdate, a handheld gaming device in the style of Nintendo’s beloved Game Boy, which will be available early next year. The gadget is being produced with an eye towards the indie games community, complete with a black-and-white screen, a small set of bespoke debut titles, and quirky hand crank, which sets it apart from the game industry’s decades-long quest to create handhelds with enough processing power and graphics capability to play the latest AAA game on the go. If the design looks odd to you, have some faith; the project is a collaboration with lauded Swedish hardware house Teenage Engineering, known for AV equipment like audio synthesizers and instant cameras. The gaming and tech press seems really, really, enthusiastic about having a Playdate.
Before we can understand the Playdate’s vision, we should first review how we got to a place where an unknown, underpowered device with a limited game library could excite so many players. For a long time, handheld gaming took what worked at home and boiled it down to its very best pieces, giving consumers highly polished concepts and experiences to take with them anywhere they pleased. Nintendo in particular became known for relatively inexpensive, simple, and polished devices that aspired to put the console experience of yesteryear directly into our hands.
By the early 2010’s, smartphones had become a thing, bringing with them a wave of mobile gaming that was cheaper and more accessible than ever before. Today, puzzle games, visual novels, and strategy/simulation titles dominate the App and Play store sales charts. But while that availability has certainly driven a lot of sales, competition has driven nearly every game to the “freemium” model, yielding a surplus of titles that focus on using casino-like tactics to wring money out of players while limiting the quality of the actual playing experience. This booming casual ecosystem has pushed manufacturers to develop chipsets with heretofore unimaginable mobile computing power. A mid-range Android phone can now capably emulate the experience of the Nintendos, Segas, and PlayStations past and gaming-centric devices like the Razer 2 can be paired with a Bluetooth game controller for the consumer who needs their phone to double as Fortnite machine.
Meanwhile, the rise of mobile gaming has coincided with a renaissance in indie game development, with small studios and individuals relying on the internet to distribute low-stakes, often high-concept games less focused on graphics and more on innovative mechanics and telling interesting, new stories. Thanks to digital downloads cutting down physical production costs and the ability to market games via social media as well as through online gaming publications looking to find the next diamond in the rough, they’re cheap to produce and easy to get the word out about. Games such as Stardew Valley, Axiom Verge, Dead Cells, and Undertale spread organically, showcasing timeless graphics and experiences that left people with the sense that they’d just played through a lost classic.
The retro software renaissance has coincided with a similar trend in the world of hardware. It’s become a major trend within “maker” culture to cram the lush, packed libraries of old console platforms into emulators running on affordable, DIY computers like the Raspberry Pi. The internet is littered with tutorials on how to shove these modern, single-board bits of hardware into Game Boy cases or 3D-printed duplicates of the Nintendo 64 or Sega Genesis. Today, you can pick up a polished version of these contraptions in the form of the BittBoy, the LDK, or the Arduboy for under $50 (the Arduboy, in fact, boasts its own flourishing selection of new homebrew games). The major video game companies have commoditized these ideas with their line of “classic” or “mini” consoles featuring highlights from their legacy libraries, like the SNES Mini or the PlayStation Classic (both of which can be easily hacked to include nearly everything released for those consoles in the ’90s).
Which brings us to the Playdate, which attempts to commodify and simplify the experience of indie games and boutique hardware for consumers lacking in the technical prowess and/or time required to venture into the wild-west of ROM hacks and soldering new chips and screens into old Game Boy Advance shells. Upon Playdate’s 2020 release, Panic is promising an initial “season” of twelve brand-new titles developed specifically with the console’s quirks, like the hand crank, in mind. Similar to titles that took took advantage of the Nintendo DS’s unique dual screens and touch capabilities, the games released for the Playdate will always be best experienced on the Playdate. After all, you can’t just pop a hand crank onto your computer monitor and take it with you (for now).
Philosophically, Panic owes it all to Nintendo. When the video game market crashed in the early ’80s, the Nintendo Entertainment System arose as the savior of the market, thanks in part to its dedication to quality control. Taking a lesson from the decline of Atari, which had been flooded with games that barely worked or straight-up weren’t that fun, Nintendo focused on limiting the number of games allowed by outside developers while creating proprietary games which have remained classics to this day, in the process slowly winning back consumer trust in this new, complicated medium. Rather than flood the platform with lots of clone titles or rushed releases, the Playdate promises to focus on releasing one game a week, trickling out new, (presumably) must-have titles built specifically for the device.
While Panic’s Playdate platform is still in its infancy, its attempts to deliver a polished, curated experience is already showing some drawbacks. Four of the first season’s twelve games have been announced so far, all of which will be created by already successful indie developers like Chuck Jordan (one of the writers of The Curse of Monkey Island, who has since branched out into the indie world), Bennett Foddy (creator of the hilariously frustrating QWOP), and Zach Gage (the developer behind the word game SpellTower). From a business standpoint, this is logical. These creators have high profiles and proven track records, things any new product needs in order to command attention and authority. But the tradeoff for pulling known entities from the gaming universe into the platform’s orbit is the limitation baked into its core idea: The people who have already seen success in the medium are people whose identities and ideas have the lowest barriers to that success. Namely, men — and mostly cisgender, straight, white, American men.
The beauty of supporting titles with simplistic graphics, distributed in the digital age, is that anyone with a copy of RPG Maker or GB Studio can pour time into their dream project on nights and weekends and see their ideas burst through to an audience via stores like Steam or Itch.io. Titles like dad-dating simulator Dream Daddy, the steampunk fighting game Combat Core, the soothing physics of Gravity Ghost, and the highly anticipated Afro-Punk RPG Swordsfall have proven that there is no dearth of diverse talent hustling on the indie scene. Hell, the first indie game developer was a woman named Joyce Weisbecker — and Playdate seemingly couldn’t find one female-identifying creator to announce a partnership with. Though the Playdate will doubtless see some unique and amazing games, in its quest for mainstream success and recognition it’s lost a lot of what makes indie and retro-inspired game development so culturally revolutionary.
This problem goes right down to the device’s name itself. Coincidentally (but very poignantly), the Playdate shares its moniker with an LA-based gaming showcase that caters to “feminist, queer, weird, and wonderfully experimental” developers and gamers. It’s telling that, so as to avoid confusion with the event, Panic co-founder Cabel Sasser reached out to its organizers via email and offered to pay them to stop using the name, a move that many in the indie games community viewed as a thinly veiled intimidation tactic. Rather than collaborating with the sort of creators whose work might be showcased at Playdate (the event), the creators of Playdate (the device) have instead shut out the very developers that indie gaming helps empower. “We are literally the culture that your advertising is supposedly touting,” Nathalie Lawhead, game developer and organizer of the Playdate Pop Up event, said in a statement addressing the issue. She continued, “You come in, take these ideas, mentalities, philosophies, register it, own it, and bully the people that broke that ground for you.” Lawhead drove the point home even further, writing, “Your product is not more important than a small event like Playdate. A small event like Playdate is extremely necessary to breaking ground. Instead of bullying it might be better to actually help, participate, and be open to functioning AS PART OF this space instead of owning things.”
Legally, Panic may be in the right. Despite the event beating them to the punch by eight months, organizers failed to obtain the trademark, which Panic filed for in 2016. In a statement provided to The Outline by Panic, the company wrote, “When we heard about the Playdate indie event, we wanted to get in touch with them — in what we fully intended to be a friendly, approachable manner — to talk about minimizing confusion between our projects.” Even if the company did attempt to engage with Playdate (the event) with the best of intentions, the entire situation has served as an affront to the very creators and consumers in the movement their product is attempting to, at best, participate in — and, at worst, co-opt and corporatize.
To its credit, Panic now acknowledges it “did a bad job” of handling the situation and has pledged to back off. “Instead of [appearing] friendly and approachable [to Playdate’s organizers], our email came across as intimidating. This is, putting it mildly, not what we wanted, and it’s our mistake.” What’s more, Panic is now promising to back off. Their statement continued, “We want [Playdate] to succeed, and we have no problem with them using the name Playdate. We’ve communicated this to them, and will continue to talk with them in the future to make sure our projects can co-exist and thrive.”
The Playdate might yet become a massive success. Its announcement has generated much excitement amongst gaming enthusiasts and consumers hungering for weirder, more unique experiences than what’s currently on offer. But for that success to translate into more than just a more streamlined take on the unfiltered artiness of the indie game scene, Panic will need to offer people something they can’t get anywhere else (and no, I’m not talking about the hand-crank). What an indie gaming device needs to offer in order to fulfill the promise of actual indie gaming itself is a slate of titles from actual independent artists, the types of people whose voices that haven’t quite broken through. Following Panic’s apology, Lawhead of Playdate Pop Up told The Outline over Twitter DM, that the organizers “have invited Cabel [Sasser of Panic] to attend next year’s event,” and that he and the team at Panic were welcome to “scout dev talent from our event as long as we know that are devs are treated with the professionalism they deserve, both financially and emotionally.” Here’s to hoping that Panic follows through on this opportunity, and that its contrition isn’t just another pivot to save face.