Panic reveals more details about Playdate, its Game Boy-like retro handheld game system

(PlayDate Photo)

The Playdate, a new portable gaming device produced in Portland, Ore., will finally be available for pre-order next month. It will ship with twice as many exclusive games as were previously announced.

Panic, the company behind the Playdate, released the news as part of a pre-recorded broadcast on Tuesday morning, alongside a series of other announcements about the Playdates games library, its suite of developer resources, and the debut of a brand new accessory for the device.

The Playdate was originally announced in 2019 for a planned 2020 debut. Its a deliberately retro device that calls to mind the original 1989 Game Boy, which combines 80s-style graphics with modern content delivery. It runs 2-bit black-and-white games on a 2.7-inch unlit screen, with a special hand-crank controller built into the units side.

Day 1 buyers of the Playdate are automatically signed up for a full season of exclusive games, which will be automatically downloaded onto the device every week for 12 weeks.

Pre-orders for the Playdate are planned to go live in July, with Panic promising to give one weeks warning before the actual date. The unit is currently priced at $179.99, which includes access to the first season of 24 games.

Like almost everything else in the world, Panics plans for the Playdate were derailed by last years lockdowns. The factories in Malaysia that were scheduled to build the first run of Playdates were only able to make a few hundred units before local quarantine measures closed them down. Panic spent the rest of 2020 focused on development, and released a big update back in October that redrew its roadmap.

The broadcast on Tuesday morning, Panics first official news show for the Playdate, was a deliberately informal video hosted by several Panic employees. In addition to announcing the starting date for pre-orders, Panic announced the debut of its first official accessory; plans to create a tool, Pulp, that allows its users to create new Playdate games in a web browser; and a host of new games for the system.

The original plan for the Playdate was for it to come with 12 games at launch, which would be automatically downloaded to each system via WiFi once a week for 12 weeks. That number has now doubled; a new Playdate will now come with 24 games, arriving two at a time across the same 12-week period.

The games are all exclusive to the Playdate, and many were made by established developers. Playdate had already shown off Crankins Time Travel Adventure, by Keita Takahashi (Katamari Damacy), at PAX West 2019, and has shown off short clips from many of the others.

This includes Zipper, a new game by Bennett Foddy, whose strange physics platformer Getting Over It was a viral hit several years ago; Echoic Memory, co-developed by Seattle-based game designer Samantha Kalman (Apex Legends); and Saturday Edition, a mystery adventure game, which features sound design by the Vancouver-based team A Shell in the Pit (Wandersong).

An assortment of the games included in Season One of the Playdates programming schedule. (Panic Image)

Panics video also featured a surprise appearance by Lucas Pope, the award-winning independent developer who created Papers, Please and Return of the Obra Dinn. He showed a brief sample of play from a game hes working on for Playdate, Mars After Midnight. Popes next game being a Playdate exclusive is a pretty big deal in gaming circles, like a small streaming service securing a veteran filmmakers next project, and is arguably the biggest announcement of the day.

Panics CEO and co-founder Cabel Sasser opened the broadcast by announcing the first accessory for the Playdate, a stereo dock that matches the systems design. It functions as a magnetic charger for the system and a Bluetooth speaker, with a companion app, Poolsuite FM, that provides a curated playlist of feel-good music.

It also has a built-in pen holder, for some reason Sasser is either a good actor or hes really hype about the pen holder and will come with a matching ball-point. Panic has not announced a release date for the dock besides coming soon.

Thats not an antenna. Its a pen. (YouTube screenshot)

Whats arguably the most interesting part of the Playdate, however, is how Panics been setting up its homebrew scene. Before last year, the Playdates brand identity was as a weird little curiosity, a throwback device made by a software company for the sheer fun of having done so. Starting with its October update, however, Panic has been positioning the Playdate as a useful entry-level tool for game development.

Kim Belair, CEO of the Montreal-based narrative development company Sweet Baby, appeared on the broadcast to announce a partnership with Panic. In addition to creating the replayable visual novel Lost Your Marbles for Playdate, Sweet Baby has organized an effort to help diversify games development by organizing two new teams.

These teams, which consist of new and marginalized developers under the supervision of veteran game designers, are producing two games for the Playdate. Recommendation Dog is directed by Xalavier Nelson Jr., while Reel Steel is Sweet Babys own project.

Playdate itself also announced a new game development tool, Pulp. Pulp runs in a web browser and lets users create a full game from scratch, then download it wirelessly to their personal Playdate units. While no further details were made available, Panic intends to release Pulp at some point later this year.

Arisa Johnsey, developer relations lead for Playdate, provides an early look at the Pulp game development tool. (YouTube screenshot)

If theres a theme to the whole broadcast, however, it was what Panic intends to do. There are a lot of well-intentioned plans here, but not much firm data, and Panic seems well aware of that.

Given how constrained parts are right now due to COVID, Sasser said, its a really tough time to be building things. It might take a while for you to get your Playdate and well be talking to you every step of the way. And of course, youll be able to cancel your pre-order at any time, for any reason.

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