What We Know So Far About Panic’s Playdate

Jul 16 · 15 min read
An exploded diagram of the Playdate, animated
An exploded diagram of the Playdate, animated

Panic, maker of beloved Mac and iOS software (Transmit, Coda, etc.), publisher of Firewatch and the upcoming Untitled Goose Game, announced something peculiar at the end of May: the upcoming release of a handheld gaming system called Playdate. It’s a completely brand new video game platform designed and developed (even the operating system) by Panic, and backed by a coterie of indie game darlings. It’s an outrageous concept, and one I’ve become somewhat obsessed with. To that end I have been scouring every source I can find (Twitter, podcasts, Edge Magazine’s fantastic profile) for any tidbit of information about this strange yellow device. Showing incredible restraint, Panic worked on the project in secret for four years, revealing virtually nothing about it until now. While in some regards that restraint continues in that the company has not officially released much information, for those willing to look (or even just ask!) Panic is obviously excited to talk about Playdate. As this information is scattered, I have put together a round up of all the bits and bobs of information I could find. Just the facts, as it were — with a smattering of editorializing where appropriate.

The article is broken into two sections: the first is really just a list of facts about Playdate I’ve compiled, the second is a more in-depth analysis of the technical side of Playdate based on some SDK notes Panic released. Feel free to skip this if you’re not a developer or are not interested.

Disclaimer: I don’t work for Panic. I’m just really excited about their weird console and want to help out anyone else who feels the same way.


Get to Know Playdate

Form factor

Speeds & Feeds

  • The system runs on an ARM CPU and will have 16 MB of external RAM plus 320 KB of on-board RAM. That’s like eleven floppy disks!
  • Storage amount is unclear, but it will be gigs-worth and solid state. I have been wondering if the OS supports swap memory, but have not found any statements about this one way or the other yet. Edit: Greg Maletic of Panic tells me the storage size is 2 GB.
  • Most games will run at 30 FPS, though in some cases the OS UI will run at 50 FPS.

Inputs & Outputs

  • Other than the crank, controls include a D-pad, A and B buttons, and a Menu button.
  • I’m not entirely sure of this, but this tweet implies USB controllers might be supported eventually.
  • It has a USB-C port, which is how the device will charge.
  • There’s an accelerometer, though I’m not yet clear on where it is. For instance, is it part of the crank as possibly indicated here? Or is it for sensing device rotation? Acceleration scientists please send your thoughts. Edit: the scientists have spoken! Neven Mrgan wrote to tell me that the “accelerometer is much like a smartphone’s…” He also clarified that the accelerometer is not in the crank. Check out this thread for a concise explanation of how it will work.
  • Wifi and bluetooth are built in as well as a speaker and headphone jack.
  • Wifi will be used to deliver the “season” of games as well as over-the-air software updates.
  • The speaker will output mono while the headphone jack will allow for stereo.
  • There is a built-in microphone, but the headphone jack also supports mic input .
  • The system will support “modern sounds capabilities — MP3, WAV…” and they will be using a Cirrus CS42L52 codec. There is currently no USB-C audio.
  • There is no haptic feedback, as it wouldn’t fit. Four words: aftermarket USB-C rumble paks.

The Games

Panic is keeping the lineup a surprise in an effort to make the weekly arrival of each game more special. There is some info available about the designers involved (and the titles of their games) but in keeping with the spirit of what Panic is doing, I’m not going to write about them. Check out the EDGE piece if you really want to know more.

Ordering a Playdate

  • The device will cost $149, which includes the first season of twelve games.
  • If that price makes you balk, consider that it costs around $98 to make each Playdate. That leaves a margin of $51 which in turn will be split between the 12 games being developed for the first season. I don’t see Panic making much profit on these things, but then I don’t think that’s their aim.
  • True, you can buy a brand new Nintendo 3DS for the same price (or even less) but then you need to spend anywhere between $15 to $60 on a single game. And, as Panic has pointed out, large companies like Nintendo have huge buying power that drives down the cost per unit. We’re simply dealing with different economics and a different value system here.
  • They’re looking to have preorders open by winter 2019, with actual units shipping by early 2020.
  • Panic is not sure which countries the device will ship to yet.
  • Preorder as early as you can because supply will be limited and new units might only be made based on demand.

Developing for Playdate

Ok, time for the technical part. This section is aimed more towards people interested in developing for Playdate and includes a lengthy analysis of some SDK release notes. With that enticement I know it will be hard to stop reading, but I understand completely if you do.

Overview

  • Panic will eventually release a public version of the SDK that is currently available to their Season 1 developers.
  • Games can be written in either LUA or C, with the former being easier to get into while the latter is more performant.
  • There will be a simulator for macOS with potential for other platforms in the future.
  • The simulator will have crank simulation with some useful utilities like continuous cranking.
  • The simulator maps the crank to the scroll wheel of your mouse, or the sticks on popular game controllers like the Xbox, PS4 and Switch Pro controllers (that’s one better than the Apple TV).
  • The SDK is similar to popular Lua-based game development library Löve (Love2D), though Löve itself will not run on the system. I’ll have more to say on this later in this section.
  • Also, no Unity or Unreal support.
  • Users will be able to side-load games from day one. This also means that you can use your own Playdate as a development device (which ostensibly means no dev kit required).
  • There currently isn’t any game store, but they are considering it if people show interest.
  • Games likely won’t have access to outside servers despite the WiFi capability, at least at first. They could potentially open this up for some limited use cases like multiplayer.
  • Here’s my suggestion for free: bust out a USB-C cable with two male ends and you’ve got a link-cable going.
  • No word yet on an IDE, but — and this is me speculating — Panic has stated they have “some interesting ideas on how to make game development even easier.” Apropos of nothing, I’ll just point out that Panic is also currently rebuilding their flagship text editing app Coda.
  • For the Doctors’ Frankenstein out there “the device is super easy to open with no special tools.”
  • One last neat tidbit: limited 3D graphics are technically possible on the device.

SDK Scraps

Panic shared a screenshot of the internal release notes for Playdate SDK 0.6 which I have transcribed below.

Added

  • New CoreLibs/Animator module, and animator.lua single file example
  • Animators can now be added to sprites for automatic animation
  • playdate.graphics.tilemap:drawAt() can now accept a sourceRect argument
  • Added documentation for playdate.graphics.image:drawAnchored()
  • New gridview.lua single file example
  • Button polling functions playdate.buttonIsPressed(), playdate.buttonJustPressed(), and playdate.buttonJustreleased()
  • Added playdate.sound.track and playdate.sound.controlsignal to audio sequencer API
  • It’s now possible to create a playdate.sound.sequence from code, not just MIDI files
  • Added playdate->lua->getArgType() to C API
  • Added playdate->lua->indexMetatable() for classes to use in their __index implementation
  • Added playdate->system-getSecondsSinceEpoch()
  • Added playdate->system->drawFPS() to C API and playdate.drawFPS to Lua
  • Added Inside Playdate with C documenting the C API
  • Added playdate->sprite->getImageFlip() to C API and playdate.graphics.sprite.getImageFlip() to Lua
  • Added Exposure demo to C API Examples
  • Added mouse-drag cranking to the simulator: double-click in the crank view to start, drag the mouse to crank, click again to end

Fixed

  • Truncation issue in playdate.graphics.drawTextInRect()
  • Settings menus don’t respond to holding down up/down button
  • Arguments returned in playdate.cranked() are no longer swapped
  • playdate.graphics.tilemap:setTiles() now sets the last column properly
  • drawTextAligned() now correctly right-aligns strings containing newlines
  • Repeating timers now provide continuous values rather than snapping back to the start value
  • CoreLibs/gridview.lua bugs
  • playdate.graphics.sprites.getAllSprites() now returns an empty table instead of nil when there are no sprites
  • Setting a draw offset now marks all sprites as dirty
  • Bug in some C API graphics functions causing screen to not be marked dirty
  • playdate.sound.lfo can now change values in the middle of an update cycle
  • playdate.sound.synth now uses bandlimited wave tables for higher frequencies to avoid aliasing
  • added rate interpolation to audio render functions so that modulated pitches change smoothly
  • can now talk to device over serial when device is displaying error screen
  • added device reset shortcuts for disk modes: holding d-pad left+lock+menu for four seconds resets to data disk, down+lock+menu resets to boot disk
  • moved LFO type constants from playdate.sound.lfo to playdate.sound
  • replaced “Dave screwed up” error with more descriptive text :)
  • fixed crash on device when too many audio channels are running
  • fixed stack overflow when decoding really deep JSON tables
  • register values in crashlogs.txt are now (usually) accurate
  • Sleep is now much more efficient
  • fixed potential crasher when using pathfinding functions
  • Added workaround for trouble getting into disk mode when bootloader and main firmware is mismatched
  • pd->lua->getArgType() can now tell the difference between ints and floats

Changed

  • example now uses playdate.graphics.sprite.addWallSprites(), resulting in fewer overall sprites
  • playdate.graphics.nineslice is no longer a subclass of Object
  • Updated and restructured Inside Playdate documentation
  • playdate.simulator.writeToFile() now expands ~ in the image path
  • Improved playdate->lua->regiserClass(): you can now provide a list of constants as well as functions, and isstatic flag avoids creating a metatable for the class.
  • Simulator “Upload Game to Device” now launches game on device after copying it over
  • Device now reboots into a crash screen instead of hanging with a white LED
  • Renamed API folder to C_API
  • Renamed playdate->system->currentTimeMillis() to playdate->system->getCurrentTimeMilliseconds() to match Lua API
  • playdate.graphcs.setPattern() can now take its data as an 8 or 16 arguments [sic], as well as packed in a table
  • Renamed playdate->graphics->getBitmapInfo() to playdate->graphics->getBitmapData()

My Two Cents

I’m more of a hobbyist when it comes to game development so there are better folks than me to comment on the SDK hinted at above. That said, I’ve spent some time with Unity and Löve2D so I’ll give you my amateur’s perspective. Hopefully that will be useful for some other amateurs.

Panic was obviously inspired by Löve, which makes sense as it’s one of the more popular, if not the most popular, ways to develop Lua games from scratch. (Lua itself is also an extremely popular supplement to other languages, but more on that later.) Based on the experiments I’ve done in Löve there are already some similarities — but importantly there are huge improvements. Lua, as a scripting language, is very approachable to newcomers; I listened to an interview with Neven Mrgan (Panic designer and member of the Playdate team) where he described it as not unlike Javascript, which I think is apt. Lua is an interpreted scripting language like JS, and possesses a similar level of forgiveness that a strongly typed language does not. (Which is a double edged sword no doubt, but finding that out over time is the fun part of becoming a developer!) Löve continues down this path by providing a library full of useful utilities that remove a lot of the grunt work of game development. For instance, I am working on a prototype for Playdate in Löve that involves generating bezier curves, and Löve has built-in functions for generating beziers and evaluating them. That’s a lot of high-level math I don’t need to worry about. However, unlike kitchen-sink platforms like Unity, there’s a lot that Löve simply does not provide out of the box. Things like dealing with tilemaps or serializing data so you can save it to disk are not always covered by the core Löve library. There is a robust community that provides excellent solutions to these problems, but it’s up to you, the (potentially new) developer, to find them and use them.

Looking at these release notes for Playdate SDK, my first major takeaway is that Panic is providing first-party solutions for basic game development problems and that is something to be excited about. Animators, sound APIs, sprite & tilemap handling, typography tools, saving to disk, pathfinding!? — it’s only version 0.6 and they are already providing so many utilities to the developer. As I’ve been toying with Löve, and as a beginner, I’ve been somewhat overwhelmed by the idea of needing to seek out solutions to these same problems. This is especially true coming from Unity where so much is provided to you. For instance, Unity has built-in GUIs for building animations, shaders, tile-based maps and so much more. Everything is Löve is based completely in code, with no GUIs to help you along. That said, Unity is overwhelming in different ways: it provides solutions to all these problems (and more), but they demand a familiarity with the Unity paradigm, which is simply not beginner-friendly. Panic might be striking a nice balance here between the flexibility and approachability of Löve and the first-party toolbox nature of a Unity or Unreal.

What really clinches it for me is the references to “classes” in this documentation. I’m not exactly sure how to interpret something like playdate->lua->regiserClass() but I really hope it’s some sort of object oriented programming (OOP) helper method. The thing with Lua and C (the other language you can use) is that they don’t have concepts of classes. If you’re coming from C++ or C# this can be… annoying. You can actually implement OOP in Lua, but it’s up to you to learn how to do that and then maintain it. I’m not saying it’s necessarily hard, it’s just not very friendly. It’s not very… Panic. So I have a hunch they might want to make this side of game development a little easier. You don’t need objects to make a game, but there’s a reason most modern languages include OOP concepts. Edit: Dave Hayden of Panic says that while technically possible, OOP features ended up being too slow on the device.

At the very least that method demonstrates another theme in the notes: good interplay between Lua and C. One of the points of Lua is that it’s supposed to be easy to use with other languages; it’s described as “embeddable.” So you might build your game engine in C++ but handle certain pieces of logic with Lua. (World of Warcraft does this I believe.) Or, in the case of Playdate, you might use Lua for scripting your UI and turn to C for an otherwise system-crushing rendering algorithm. I’ve never personally used Lua like that, so I can’t say what that experience is like — but regardless it’s nice to see that Playdate’s Lua and C APIs talk to each other. I see this as another example of how Panic is thinking through issues you’ll run into as a developer. Edit: Dave Hayden has a little more to say about this here.

I’m astounded that Panic has taken on the burden of developing and producing not only hardware, not only an operating system, but also an SDK for building things in that OS and on that hardware. Not only that, but the SDK is (potentially) going to be available to us in a matter of months? Amazing! Sure, the SDK will probably be rough around the edges when we get out hands on it, but the work is never done. I’m impressed by what I’ve seen so far and I have a lot of faith that Panic is going to do a good job with this.

Getting Started Now

One last thing I want to touch on in this section is what you can do now. I think Löve is the best place for most of us to start. It’s based in Lua and it seems to have a very similar API to what Panic is building. To make the eventual transition easier, I’d suggest abstracting away any Löve-specific code you might be using. In my own prototype work, I’ve set up a library of go-between methods that hide away the Löve methods. For instance:

itw.graphics.circle = function(mode, x, y, radius, segments)   love.graphics.circle(mode, x, y, radius, segments)end

So, let’s say Panic provides their own circle drawing method. Now you only need to change your code in one place instead of one hundred. This sort of assumes the method signature won’t change much, but even if it does you can do the work of translation inside your custom method. I’m not sure if you can implement interfaces in Lua, but that would go a long way towards ensuring code you replace works the way your system expects.

In any case, do as much as you can to make it so it doesn’t matter if you are using love.graphics.foo() or playdate.graphics.foo(). There’s going to be things Panic does drastically differently, and functionality they won’t provide — but don’t let that stop you from getting started now. Use Löve as a jumping off point and just start thinking about what might need to be replaced later on. Of course, if you’re comfortable enough with Lua or C to write the whole game from scratch that would be safest — but then, this part isn’t really for you!

Oh! One last thing: one easy way to contribute right now is to take Panic’s developer survey.


Conclusions

I would like to write more about the viability of Playdate as a platform and what we can do to turn it into a vibrant community — but as I said, this article was (mostly) just about the facts. My base hope is that you find this piece useful in some way, but more than that I hope you get inspired. Sure, there’s no SDK yet, and most of us are unlikely to hold one of these things for months — but why should that stop you?

You have a rare opportunity in front of you: a new frontier. Have you ever regretted not being around to work on the first iPhone apps? Or maybe you’ve fantasized about being on the Atari team, or toiling away on a freeware Mac game that blew up in 1993? Playdate could be that for you. Likewise, it’s literally never been easier to make games, and that has created a vibrant world full of wonderful things to play. But we all know it’s also made things a bit… cramped. When a hundred anime asset store flips are released on Steam every day it can make it difficult for people to see your thing.

So here is a new place, run by people with taste who genuinely seem interested in supporting people less heard-from (check out their developer survey to see what I mean). I think that’s exciting. I think that’s worth looking into. Maybe I’m a crank for saying so, or for writing this piece at all, but you know what? Maybe you shouldn’t write off a crank.

Josh McGrath

Written by

I’m a partner at Voronoi LLC, a Maine based app development company. I co-host a podcast called Memory Protection: Apple news set 20 years ago.

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