Ahead of E3 2021, video game publisher Panic Inc. revealed new details for its upcoming Playdate console. And, I’ll be the first to admit—I’m surprised.
When it was announced back in May 2019, the Playdate handheld made headlines for a slew of reasons. The investors behind Firewatch and untitled goose game are backing a new console! It’s yellow—bright yellow. And it has a crank.
The whole concept seemed crazy. Not only was the hardware odd, but the software felt equally bizarre. Over a 12-week “season,” the publisher would push a new game to the handheld each week. Players would be continually surprised by the new releases, which would vary in genre and design. It was essentially pitched as a grab bag of micro-games… built around a crank.
Fast forward to June 2021, and while the premise remains as weird as ever, we have a much clearer idea of what to expect. I’ll say this: If the final product is as inventive and refreshing as the below “Playdate Update” suggests, this Little Pikachu That Could™ may well change the game—for makers and players alike.
Why the Playdate Game Console Has Us Excited
Here are five reasons why Panic’s Playdate console could revolutionize the games industry:
1. Playdate Prioritizes Creativity Over Power.
As PC and consoles continue to push the boundaries of technical horsepower and graphical fidelity, handhelds provide something starkly different. They allow creators to step back from the scope and stress of AAA development and focus on, really, what matters most: great ideas.
We saw it with the Nintendo Switch, as indie creators flocked to the underpowered console (but supercharged handheld) in droves. And we could well see it again with Playdate, whose games hark back to the era of ‘90s video games, black-and-white graphics and all.
Axios Gaming’s Stephen Totilo summed it up best:
Without the luxury of 3D engines, developers will have to get scrappy to succeed on Playdate. And that’s a liberating thought. Unconstrained by modern gaming conventions, these creators can run fast and wild with their ideas, providing memorable experiences that may have never seen the light of day otherwise.
2. Season One Reinvents How We Consume Games.
While nearly all of Playdate’s games consist of solo or small-team ventures, these developers won’t have to go it alone.
That’s thanks to Playdate’s unique distribution model. For $179, consumers get the Playdate handheld along with 24 games. As Panic outlined in 2019, these titles will be released piecemeal across 12 weeks—except now we’re getting two titles a week, up from just one.
Panic is dubbing the rollout of these titles “Season One,” and has already hinted at future seasons down the line. While the company remains tight-lipped about the future, this seasonal model ensures we judge the quality of Playdate not by a sole game or developer, but by the entire body of work.
Much like the best video game subscription services, Playdate is providing a platform where smaller developers can shine without fear of “flopping.” And because each season will seemingly be priced independently, consumers have the freedom to buy in for different seasons as they see fit. In a way, Panic is piloting the “Blue Apron” of video games.
3. Panic’s Partnering With Minority-Run Developers.
Playdate boasts an impressive list of developers, but one team in particular deserves special mention.
Sweet Baby Inc. is a Montréal-based narrative development company owned and operated by Black and queer voices. The studio’s credits include Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, Neo Cab, and the upcoming Goodbye Volcano High.
For Playdate Season One, Sweet Baby’s contribution is a title called Lost Your Marbles. True to the studio’s M.O., it’s a narrative-focused game that combines visual novel mechanics with, of all things, pinball.
It’s a wild combination, yet Sweet Baby is only getting started. The team’s also partnering with Panic and BAFTA-nominated developer Xalavier Nelson Jr. on two future titles—Reel Steal and Recommendation Dog!!, respectively. Both titles will be led by veteran talent, and will be staffed by upcoming, underserved developers looking to gain industry experience.
We have a long way to go with diversity and inclusion in video games. That goes both for the characters that appear on the screen, and for the developers that work their magic behind the screen. Change won’t happen overnight, but companies like Sweet Baby are fighting the good fight. It’s refreshing to see them showcased by Playdate in such a meaningful way, and I hope other publishers follow suit.
4. Playdate Pulp Lets You Build Your Own Games With Ease.
After previewing some games for future Playdate seasons, Panic debuted perhaps its most exciting development to date.
Playdate Pulp is an in-browser application that allows consumers to design their own games for the handheld. Inspired by tools like Adam Le Doux’s Bitsy, Pulp lets you create graphics, music, and basic scripts without any prior coding knowledge.
As creation games like Minecraft, Dreams, and Super Mario Maker show, there’s real appetite for easy-to-use development tools. With Playdate Pulp, Panic hopes to inspire young and curious creators to make their dream projects. And thanks to Playdate’s modest graphics and simple input controls, the barrier to entry feels especially accessible.
There’s still a lot to learn about Pulp. Will people be able to share their projects with other Playdate owners? Does Panic plan to moderate and curate these creations, à la Media Molecule? Can two people collaborate on the same game? Is multiplayer functionality a possibility?
Despite the open questions, there’s potential here. In the right environment, Pulp could elevate Playdate from a niche collector’s item to a must-own gaming platform.
5. Panic Is Setting Expectations Early.
Clearly, I’m excited. Yet while my article title could be considered hyperbolic, Panic doesn’t seem to consider itself “revolutionary” at all. To the contrary, the company is setting expectations early—from content to rollout. And it’s doing so with a sense of sincerity you don’t see too often in the games industry.
Take, for instance, how Panic’s framing Season One. While most publishers would shy away from any negative perceptions toward their games, Panic’s head of developer relations took the opposite approach:
Can we guarantee you’ll love every single one of [these games]? Probably not. Will you have an amazing time playing and exploring brand new games from amazing creators? Absolutely.Arisa Johnsey, Developer Relations Lead
Candor was a theme throughout Panic’s showcase. When Return of the Obra Dinn creator Lucas Pope revealed his upcoming game, Mars After Midnight, he did so with the caveat that it’s still very, very early in development. When Panic co-founder Cabel Sasser walked through pre-orders, he explained that production will likely be constrained by ongoing supply chain issues.
Obviously, this isn’t the first time a company has decided to be honest with its audience. But, like how Masahiro Sakurai asked Smash Ultimate fans to only pre-purchase the DLC if they felt comfortable, it was a refreshing gesture. Especially in an industry notorious for blowing smoke.
What Is the Playdate Console Price?
Panic’s Playdate portable has an MSRP of $179—up from the $149 outlined back in May 2019. The increased cost may stem from the semiconductor shortage also plaguing PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S production.
What Games Are Included in Playdate Season One?
Despite the price hike, Panic seems to be compensating for the change. The company is including an additional 12 games on top of the initial 12 promised for Season One. That brings the grand total up to 24.
Here’s the list of all 24 titles, along with the developers bringing them to fruition.
Developer: TPM.CO SOFT WORKS
Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure
Notable games: Katamari series, Retro Game Crunch
Notable games: Proteus, Neo Cab, The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us
Notable games: Apex Legends, Exploding Kittens
Executive Golf DX
Notable games: Mixolumia
Developer: Serenity Forge
Notable games: Neversong, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, The Alto Collection
Forrest Byrnes: Up in Smoke
Notable games: Firewatch
Notable games: Super Crush KO, Graceful Explosion Machine
Lost Your Marbles
Developers: Sweet Baby Inc. & Friends
Genre: Visual Novel
Notable games: Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, Neo Cab, Goodbye Volcano High
Developer: Gregory Kogos
Pick Pack Pup
Genre: Role-Playing Chess Simulator
Notable games: Retro Game Crunch
Notable games: The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us
Notable games: untitled goose game, 30XX, Wandersong, Rogue Legacy, Chicory: A Colorful Tale, Ikenfell
Developer: Chuhai Labs
Notable games: Carve Snowboarding
Developer: Zach Gage
Developer: Bennett Foddy
Notable games: QWOP, Getting Over It
When Do Playdate Console Pre-Orders Go Live?
Playdate pre-orders begin in late July 2021, with the company providing a week’s notice ahead of time.
While Panic co-founder Cabel Sasser said he doesn’t expect pre-orders to sell out immediately on day one, he cautions that the ongoing semiconductor shortage will limit the amount of units they produce during the first wave of production.
According to the Playdate website, the initial production order is for 20,000 units.
What Is the Playdate Console Release Date?
As for when you can actually get your hands on the handheld, Panic says units will ship starting in late 2021.
Beyond the initial production wave of 20,000 units, any future Playdate units will ship sometime in 2022.
When Can We Expect Season Two for Playdate Games?
Panic didn’t share specifics for Season Two of its fledgling handheld, but we can do some reasonable guesswork.
Given Season One is projected to last 12 weeks, and the console is shipping in limited quantities starting in late 2021, a Season Two likely wouldn’t launch until mid-2022 at the earliest.
There’s also a possibility the console makers will forgo a second season entirely, and simply opt to release future games as they’re ready. As with most of what Panic has shown, it’s too early to tell.
Playdate Portable Console Accessories
In addition to the Playdate unit itself, Panic also unveiled a pair of related accessories.
In keeping with the trend of pricey smart device cases, Panic has a protective cover to accompany its new handheld. For $29, Playdate owners can attach a purple magnetic cover that’ll keep dust away while adding some pop to the gadget’s color scheme.
Playdate Stereo Dock
The second accessory on offer is the Playdate Stereo Dock. True to its name, the stereo dock serves as both a magnetic charging dock for the Playdate, as well as a bluetooth speaker. Panic’s also creating its own “Playdate app,” Poolsuite FM, which will play proprietary music for your listening pleasure.
Admittedly, this is one announcement Panic probably could have saved for a future Playdate Update. For one, it’s unclear how exactly the speaker function works, or whether Panic’s music will be any good. More importantly, no price was announced, so it’s unclear whether or not the dock will actually be released alongside the handheld.
But, as Sasser was quick to mention, it does function as a pen holder. Talk about utility.
We hope you enjoyed our in-depth Playdate console preview. Excited for the handheld? Share your thoughts in the comments below!