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Thursday, July 29, 2021

What is a Playdate (the handheld gaming system)?

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - And would we want one? (Probably not.)

Apparently, anyone who is anyone (other gaming sites, jerks on Twitter) already knows what a Playdate is. And I don't mean going to a friend's house and playing games and nomming on nachos. It's an upcoming handheld gaming system from Panic, who you may or may not know from publishing games like Firewatch and Untitled Goose Game. Their whole angle with the Playdate is being weird and whimsical. It's like an off-kilter Game Boy (like, the original one—its main controls are a Directional Pad, an A button, and a B button... and the screen colours are black/white only) that has a hand-crank attached to it (which is an additional control method). Its gimmick is that you buy the system and (free and exclusive) games will appear on it every week via Wi-Fi, at least for “Season One” with no concrete details on what comes in the twelve weeks afterwards. It's being sold for $179 plus shipping, which will probably increase the cost to over $200.

This video explains everything Panic wants you to know if any of this sounds interesting to you:

The big other part of this is the game development side. Panic is making game development free and easy for the Playdate, and even web browser-based. In that video there's something about marginalised communities and whatever, but basically fostering an underground and simple development community is probably Panic's strategy on keeping the Playdate going after Season One.

You might be familiar with Texas Instruments graphing calculators, like the TI-89. Those do more than just crunch math—they have programming abilities. As a result, many bored teenagers that don't want to pay attention during high school math either programmed their own games, or downloaded other people's games. There are several websites dedicated to sharing thousands of computer programs that you can download right to your calculator with a cable.

It seems like the Playdate's capabilities are... at least a little more advanced than a TI-89 (and probably even things like Game Builder Garage), and Panic is non-specifically saying that they are “working on cool ways to distribute” games and that “side-loading games directly onto the Playdate is easy.” They haven't figured out any compensation scheme for game developers.

Lost Your Marbles Playdate Spiky Jon tarot cards
Lost Your Marbles got special attention as a charming visual novel with... some kind of marble rolling mechanic.

Still, for now, Panic is marketing the Playdate as you being surprised by the getting to enjoy the mysterious new game(s) of the week that'll be transferred to your device that week—so much so that the line-up of Season One is considered to be a spoiler.

Currently Panic is taking Playdate pre-orders, and they're anticipating an initial shipment of 20,000 units. If companies can sell 2,000 luxury watches in under 24 hours, Playdate can probably clear 20,000 of these. Still—and this is a common theme this month—it's obviously not going to be a videogame console competitor. And I think it's a bit pricey for a small experimental super-indie/hobbyist game player.

Ludwig is a crank, but in a personality kind of way, as opposed to the crank you can use on the Playdate. The only thing he can think about with that crank is to just program a video slot casino game on the Playdate. He doubts anyone will find a better use than that. He didn't know the Playdate existed until the day this article was published.


  1. Why risk spending $200 on a console whose games could turn out to be shovelware when you can play classic games such as Soviet Missile Run on PC for free?

    1. 'cause Soviet Missile Run isn't optimised for its platform right now! (And probably never will be, even if it's probably unironically better than anything you'll get on the Playdate!)

  2. I’ll get it once everyone’s forgotten about it, and it’s cheaper. Games look like fun but will probably be criminally short. Crank is a unique idea, I wonder if they made it mandatory for every game to include it in some way like the Ds touchscreen.

    I hope if it doesn’t sell good that the company ends up alright, I think these things should be encouraged even if they won’t be big market competitors. You should do a sales update when it’s time.

    1. The crank is optional.

      The 20,000 pre-orders were swiftly filled.


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