Last night, I bit the bullet and did something impulsive. I pre-ordered Playdate, the upcoming indie handheld gaming device from Panic. (Not to be confused with DatePlay – a God-awful gaming idea from The Apprentice.)
I did this despite the initial £130 price rising steadily with each step of the check-out process as tax and then shipping was added on. According to my banking app, the final total comes to £170.51 – more than the current going rate of a Nintendo Switch Lite console, and undoubtedly more of a gamble.
Indeed, the Playdate is only guaranteed to ever have 24 games, released week by week like a charming Advent calendar of indie gaming delights. The company has plans for more titles, including something from Return of the Obra Dinn creator Lucas Pope, but expanding the library is dependent on the success of the handheld, which is something that even the company’s creators weren’t certain of when pre-orders were opened.
“We’ve gotten a huge response to Playdate, but we have no idea how that enthusiasm will translate into actual orders,” Greg Maletic, director of special projects at Panic, told me when I sent over some questions for another piece last month. “So we barely know what to expect.”
He needn’t have worried: the initial allocation of 20,000 units went in 20 minutes, and while you can still order, you’ll now have to wait until 2022 for the postman to deliver your little yellow bundle of joy.
Mine will be amongst the first out of the factory though, and I’ve no doubt that part of the reason for my order was an unapologetic sense of ‘FOMO’. Orders opened at 6pm, I happened to be at my computer and I didn’t want to be cursing myself for missing out if the initial inventory vanished in seconds.
While I’m sure the ability to cancel for a full refund pushed me over the edge, I’ve been wondering why I’m so keen on Playdate since entering my card details. I think it comes down to two things: one which I’m sure will chime with millions of gamers, and another that’s unique to me.
I’ve written before about the perils of all-you-can-eat games services like Xbox Game Pass. In short, too much choice can be paralysing and it’s a business model that’s almost laboratory made to ensure you don’t give games a fair crack of the whip. Were Game Pass the norm for me over the last decade, I’m pretty sure I’d never have stuck with Spelunky or Hunt Showdown: two of my favourite games of all time.
Despite also offering a selection of games under one fixed cost, Playdate is like the anti Game Pass: it eliminates the tyranny of choice. The fact that games are provided on a weekly basis means you’re not only sharing the same experience with thousands of players worldwide like some sort of book club for games – you’re also ensuring that decision making is taken out of your hands. I can guarantee that each of the 24 titles will get my full attention because I’ve paid for the experience, and that’s genuinely exciting.
Not that I’m expecting every game to be a winner, which brings me to the second reason I’m excited for Playdate. One that I appreciate is far from universal.
Earlier in my career, before writing became my life, I was a games producer. Not the celebrated auteur behind triple-A games, or anything like: I commissioned games for the Adobe Flash games portal Mousebreaker.
All of the games were free to play, supported by advertising on the site, and part of my job was to hunt down talented developers and pay them to make games that would, in my opinion, instantly grab our players and keep them coming back for more. When there’s no cost of entry, games have to grab you quickly, or players will – understandably – go and do something else.
Like Playdate, we operated on a weekly schedule, publishing a new game once a week and, brutally honestly, I never did quite get the science of what makes a winner. My commissions were, from an analytics perspective at least, distinctly hit and miss.
The most ambitious and expensive game I ever produced – something I had to fight hard for extra budget for – died a quiet and disappointing death as the site users tried and, almost immediately, rejected it. Who knows why? Meanwhile, something I commissioned for significantly less was played nearly 100 million times, pushing me to commission a handful of spin-offs and sequels, while various iPhone copycats appeared on the App Store – something both flattering and infuriating in equal measure.
The point is that I can’t help but empathise with Playdate’s creators here. Putting all these games out week by week, knowing that some – probably their favourites, if my experience is anything to go by – will simply bomb.
Gaming is such a subjective medium, and I can’t help but share the excitement that I’m sure all Panic’s staff are feeling right now. Seeing the analytics rise and fall was a real rush and, this time, I’d like to be on the other side of the fence.
When asked, Maletic told me that the originally promised 12 game Season was doubled to 24 because they simply commissioned more titles than they needed as an “insurance policy” – the implication being that some would be better on design documents than in practice. “Turns out we shouldn’t have worried: the games this group delivered were so good — clever, fun, beautiful — it was a fairly easy decision to up the length of the Season to 24 games,” he explained.
I hope he’s right. When you’re close to a game’s design, it’s near impossible to look at it objectively – something I know as much as anybody. The real test is with the players, and the results can be brutal – it’s a referendum on your taste and judgement, after all.
I truly hope that he’s correct, but even if he’s not, I can’t help but admire the pure ambition of Playdate. Sometimes you just want to support something you believe in, and £170 seems like a small price to pay for that. I can’t wait to have Playdate curate my gaming schedule, and to see if their subjective ideas of what constitutes cleverness, fun and beauty match my own.
The Playdate will be out later this year… providing you’ve already preordered one.