Playdate talk from GDC 2024
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Don’t Panic! Playdate’s long journey from wild idea to indie wonder

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Panic! At The ‘Frisco (Convention Center) – Cabel Sasser, co-founder of Panic, spoke at GDC 2024 about the highs and lows of bringing the diminutive Playdate console to market.

Announced with a striking Edge magazine cover in 2019, the Playdate has had a storied journey from conception to release, and was a surprising move from Portland-based Panic.

To many gamers, Panic is famous for publishing hits like Firewatch and Untitled Goose Game, as well as developing Transmit, a popular file transfer app for Mac.

Explaining the decision to move into the cut-throat world of video game hardware, Sasser says that the underlying ethos of Panic’s approach to business played an important part.

“One thing that we see consistently about Panic is that people refer to us as a startup, which is super-weird because we’ve been around for 25 years,” he says. “We’ve spent some time thinking about this, and we think it’s because there’s not really another term in the tech industry for what we are.”

Sasser refers to Panic’s long-game approach as ‘slow biz’. He’s proud that the company has never taken seed money and tries to build long-lasting products that sustainably grow the company over time.

“We gradually level up, year after year. We never had investors. We never had shareholders. When you have shareholders, they’re used as a scapegoat for your bad decisions. We have no one to scapegoat – every decision falls on us,” he says.

Playdate GDC 2024

Although Sasser is committed to Panic’s approach, he says that he started to experience something of a mid-corporate-life crisis around ten years ago.

“It was the classic question I think we all face at some point: Are we doing enough? Are we stagnant? Are we happy? We’re pretty good at making Mac apps. Is there more that we could be doing? Are we wasting our time and our talent? And then I kept digging and digging and trying to get to the core of what these feelings were.”

The answer was a feeling of innate happiness and pride in his work, as well as satisfaction with the course of his life.

“In other words, how do I get an S-tier deathbed?” he says.

Planning and Prototypes

Eventually, this line of thought led to Panic’s decision to build something completely new. What began as an idea for a modest piece of video game hardware became something all-encompassing as the realities of production became clear.

An early decision to reduce complexity was to exclude crowdfunding. The production of a video game system was enough of a challenge, and Sasser was keen to not take an audience of backers on what was likely to be a fraught journey.

“Some people, if you pre-order a product, they want to go on that journey. They want to know what’s happening on a day-to-day basis,” Sasser says. “We thought it would be exhausting for people, and we might look not super-great sometimes at some of these things we encountered. It’s just not what we wanted this product to feel like. So this was an intentional decision.”

Impressed and inspired by Sharp’s Memory LCD technology, early hardware prototypes included a homebrew device and game designed to evoke Nintendo’s range of Game & Watch titles.

“The first thing we did was mock up an idea for a Game & Watch-style game, but based on Transmit,” Sasser explains. “Is there a way to take our FTP client for the Mac and make a video game out of it? So we mocked it up.”

The Transmit game worked well enough, but Sasser quickly realised that a Game & Watch style game wasn’t the right approach.

“They’re cute, and they’re entertaining,” he says. “But they don’t really have longevity. So we thought, what else can we do with this screen? Could you actually make real games for it?”

The Panic team knew they couldn’t fully develop the system on their own. Although the company was skilled in electrical and software engineering, they lacked expertise in mechanical engineering and industrial design. To address the gap, they scheduled a meeting with a local product design firm, but it proved to be challenging.

“I am thankful that we had that meeting because it was really useful,” recalls Sasser, “but I remember the CEO of the firm saying, who would want this? I think he thought we were making a smartwatch, and that’s why he attended the meeting. There was also a guy in the meeting who said it would cost at least a million dollars to develop this idea. And we just laughed!”

Sasser doesn’t confirm Playdate’s overall development cost, but you sense the estimate was not so far from the truth. Eventually, Panic contacted Teenage Engineering, an audio hardware company based in Sweden and a Transmit customer.

Playdate - GDC 2024

Teenage Engineering’s early prototypes included the crank for which the Playdate is now famous. Initially, the crank was detachable, and the system had additional inputs, including a slider.

“Everything started to come together with the crank and what that means,” Sasser says. “There were also a lot of questions about colour. I’m a big Famicom disk system nerd. I love that yellow. I have a little device that you can put on something and it will grab the colour from it. We totally yoinked the Famicom Disk System yellow and found the right plastic sample for that. And we just kept iterating.”

Production and Promotion

Manufacturing Playdate was another production challenge, from materials and assembly location to QA and shipping. Teenage Engineering patiently walked Panic through what was required and supported the team as a new division at Panic was spun up to support the manufacture. It was a long and arduous process, says Sasser, but the end result was worth it.

“I don’t think we fully appreciated in hardware how much it takes a village. It’s really complicated. I think I imagined a factory makes a thing, and raw materials come in one side, and then your product comes out the other. It’s very naive, and if anyone here works in hardware, please don’t laugh at me, but that’s really what I believed,” Sasser admits.

“A factory has any number of sub-contractors that actually make the parts for the device. The crank handle, the buttons, the screen assembly – those are all done by different, smaller factories with their own raw materials coming in. There are so many ways things can go wrong at each of those different places, and then once you actually make the thing, you have to ship it and fulfil it. There are boats and planes and incredible numbers of possibilities of failure along the way.”

The first person to see a Playdate outside of Panic was Jen Simkins, then editor of Edge magazine. A meeting at GDC 2019 led to a cover story reveal for the device.

“I’ve collected Edge magazine for my entire life. In my basement is every issue of Edge. So you have to imagine that something we created being in those back issues is very wild,” Sasser says. “The press really picked up on this. At that time, there was no PR team. There was nothing. We were just emailing people and hoping that they pay attention to this story. It was amazing.”

The overall response was enthusiastic, but the reveal was not without missteps. There was criticism of Playdate’s price point for one thing, although Sasser said that being explicit about the manufacturing cost helped to address that. A public wrangle with an indie game event that shared the Playdate name also didn’t paint Panic in a particularly flattering light.

The initial roster of games for the system received some criticism. The plan was to include 20 titles with every Playdate, but the developers chosen were perhaps too familiar and safe. It was a blind spot that Sasser readily admits.

“Our instinct was we’ve got to get well-known names, or nobody is going to take our product seriously. If we show that well-known game developers are developing a season game for this, then maybe we come out of the gate and we feel more real,” he says. “But that message also seems like, I guess it’s for those guys, again. Here’s another product for that same crew of indie game developers that we all know and love.”

For a device that appeared tailor-made to support up-and-coming development and creative talent, it was a tangible miss.

“We should have seen that coming, but we didn’t, and that will happen,” Sasser admits. “So we dramatically shifted focus, and it became a core part of our thing that Playdate should be for everybody. We need to do everything possible to reach out to more people, adjust our tools and do whatever we need to do to make that happen. Sometimes internet criticism can be challenging because it’s hard not to take it personally. You’ve just worked five years on this thing, and you can’t not take it personally. But usually, there’s a nugget of something important in there. If you can filter through the approach, whatever it may be, and really listen, it can be really meaningful.”

Programming and Perception

To make Playdate accessible to more developers, Panic made its software development kit (SDK) available on Windows and Linux, as well as on Mac.

“We’re a Mac software company, right? But not everybody can afford a Mac. Macs can be pretty expensive. So we did something we’d never done before. We made Windows and Linux software. We ported our SDK to Windows and Linux so that truly anybody can download those tools for free and make a game for play.”

The company also took inspiration from Bitsy to create a game development tool called Pulp that can be accessed from any web browser.

Pulp - Playdate GDC 2024

Each initiative was informed by the realisation that entering the hardware space was a complete reputational reset for Panic.

“We had spent 10 to 15 years building up goodwill in an area of the tech world,” says Sasser, “but now we are in a completely new area of the tech world. Nobody knows where Panic is. We were starting back from square one. And, of course, this thing comes out with a splashy edge cover and a lot of press coverage. And, of course, you’re maybe going to assume this is a venture-funded, Halliburton-based startup or whatever.”

Sasser says there are no quick wins when it comes to building goodwill and that Panic has to continue making business decisions that are in the interest of its audience as well as its bottom line.

And the challenges continued. When the first batch of Playdates arrived from the production facility in Malaysia, it was discovered that there was an issue with the battery in every unit. It was necessary to send each unit back to have the battery replaced, a process which was both expensive and time-consuming.

“That was one of the times when we did have to take people on an incredible journey,” says Sasser. “We had to email everyone and say, super sorry, it’s delayed. There was a problem with the battery. You know, and it is what it is, and a lot of people were super-excited because they were excited to get their Playdate. It just felt like the right thing to do.”

Playdate also has the honour of being dropped by its manufacturer to make way for another, more established game console manufacturer.

“I like to think that it was us who was responsible for them getting that business, but I very much doubt it,” laughs Sasser.

Playdate boxed - GDC 2024

Pride and Pope

Despite further issues with shipping and logistics, Playdates finally began to arrive and be sent out to customers in spring 2022, almost three years after its Edge cover reveal.

In 2023, the Playdate’s Catalog online store was released, allowing owners to purchase games on an individual basis.

“It feels really good that we can make Catalog, but you don’t have to use Catalog,” Sasser says. “We allow sideloading on the Playdate. You can download a game from Itch. You can download it from anywhere and just copy it over. We get 0% of that transaction, but we feel way better about it than locking people into a store and a device.”

Despite a journey that has given Sasser and the Panic team its fair share of hurdles to overcome, most Playdate owners would agree that the end result is a delightful piece of hardware. It seems to magically straddle the line between retro enthusiasm and cutting-edge creativity that is absent on more mainstream consoles.

“This year has been great. We’ve shipped over 70,000 Playdates. People bought a ton of games. There was the launch of Mars After Midnight from Lucas Pope, who just amazingly decided to make his next game on the Playdate, which, as you can imagine, we were truly happy about,” Sasser says, “And little interesting things like the Swift team at Apple announcing that you could maybe build Playdate games in Swift, which is a whole other language.”

However, that momentum might have taken a hit with the news that $400,000 worth of Playdates has gone missing during shipping. So far, seven of the missing systems have been registered to users in North Las Vegas. Sasser promises updates as the investigation continues.

For Sasser, the feedback that Panic receives from players and developers has ultimately made the Playdate journey worth taking. He cites one communication from a developer who said that one of their goals since childhood was to create a game for a console, and that Playdate had unlocked that opportunity for them.

“That feels really good,” he says. “If you have an opportunity in your life to play a small part in someone else’s dream coming true. That’s pretty much as good as it gets, right?”

So far, Playdate hasn’t been profitable, but Sasser says it is now making a respectable amount of money and is moving in the right direction.

“We don’t have investors. We don’t have anybody to fall back on. We can only spend the money that comes in the door. So it’s important to us that enough money comes in the door. With the momentum we’ve got going so far this year and the energy about Playdate, we know exactly how many we need to sell a month to be profitable, and I’m feeling really good about it. We just want Playdate as a platform to keep growing. We have no delusions of grandeur. We know it’s not a Switch or an Xbox. It’s its own thing over here, but unquestionably it speaks to a type of person that just loves it and is excited about it and that feels great. So let’s just keep going.”

Playdate with case - GDC 2024
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