2022 was the year of the gaming handhelds. We saw portable PCs and cloud gaming devices make a splash, but none stood out to me more than the Playdate. While other devices were interested in giving players more ways to play high-quality AAA releases portably, the Playdate went a widely different route. It instead stood out because of its limitations, with its small size, one-bit display, and crank.
Earlier this year, I spoke to several indie developers to learn more about what attracted them to the system ahead of its release. Now, eight months after the handheld started rolling out, the odd little device has become my favorite piece of new gaming tech released this year. To get a sense of what’s next for the Playdate, I spoke to Greg Maletic, Director of Special Project at Panic, to see what they’ve learned during the system’s first year on the market as well as what’s in store for it in 2023.
The Playdate wait
Ahead of the launch of Playdate, it was unknown if the oddball handheld would be a success despite the initial developer interest and social media virality. Even Panic’s expectations were somewhat muted at first but grew once the system was actually in players’ hands.
“Initially, our intention was if we sell 10,000 of these, we’ll be fine,” Maletic tells Digital Trends. “But as the project went on and got bigger and bigger and bigger, our hopes got for it as well got bigger. We had no idea what we were going to sell. We had committed to buying 30,000 from our manufacturer, so we knew we wanted to sell at least that many. Fortunately, we did; we have exceeded that number. I think we sold 20,000 In the first 20 minutes or something along those lines, so it sold really well at the beginning, and that relieved us.”
The Playdate immediately strikes you with its unique charm and look. In an industry where the biggest studios compete to make the most realistic-looking games on the most advanced technology, the unique experiences offered by a retro-style handheld with an odd hardware gimmick like a crank stand out. Clearly, many others thought the same and pre-ordered, eagerly waiting for the device. Unfortunately, the rollout wasn’t perfectly smooth.
The PS5 and Xbox Series X are already hard to find, so it’s understandable why a handheld device with unique components like this is taking a long time to ship. I pre-ordered the day those went live from the Playdate and didn’t get it until late June. Some who pre-ordered the device ahead of its April release are still waiting and won’t get theirs until next year. Maletic recognizes that this is the biggest specter hanging over the Playdate since its release but says that Panic should be able to fill all orders in 2023.
“We’ve never tried to ship hardware like this, and by ship, I mean the literal shipping process,” he says. “That was one of the things that were concerning us because we were shipping it worldwide, which was going to be a challenge. Our biggest problem, as probably most of our customers know, is getting enough parts to build all the Playdates that we owe people. We’ve been scrambling to try and find CPUs, etc., that we can assemble into new Playdates. We have filled about half of our backlog right now, and we hope to fit complete the backlog by mid-2023 or so.”
While not everyone interested has gotten their hands on a Playdate in 2022, it’s still been an exciting year for the handheld, thanks to its game lineup and interested developers. And really, those are what make or break a gaming platform’s longevity.
The Playdate’s strengths
Shipping issues aside, the Playdate impresses once it’s in your hands. The build quality is high, with the crank feeling stronger and sturdier than you might expect. It doesn’t have a backlit screen, but its small size makes it easy to take it somewhere where it’s easier to play. From there, you can start playing games. When you first get the system, two new ones are delivered each week as part of Panic’s seasonal game release structure.
It’s also easy to sideload independent games made for the system that are available on websites like itch.io. As a user, the Playdate is an easy-to-understand system that can also deliver a little bit of fun whenever you decide to whip it out. Developers of all sizes seemed pretty excited about the Playdate ahead of its release. Maletic tells Digital Trends that developers’ feedback has been “pleased” with the Playdate since its launch.
While Maletic’s favorite games are the snappy arcade-style ones, there are a surprising amount of diverse experiences on the small system. Some of them take excellent advantage of the crank, like the elevator game Flipper Lifter or the comedic crank-based runner Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure by the creator of Katamari Damacy. Meanwhile, Pick Pack Pup is just an entertaining match-three puzzle game about shipping boxes. The latter doesn’t really use the crank or system’s unique technologies in any mind-blowing way, proving that the system doesn’t just work as a gimmick.
On the sideloading front, Bloom remains one of Playdate’s most ambitious titles because of how it plays out in real time. The seasonal structure is clever because of that, constantly making you hover over the platform like a good subscription service. And once players complete that first season, they can check out itch.io for games that can continue to entertain them. Maletic explained why Panic was so eager about this approach to game releases on Playdate.
“We love the idea of revealing the season to you slowly over time instead of just dumping a bunch of games in the device on day one,” he says. “We were pretty unsure of how that was going to be received, but as far as we can tell, it hit. We’ve had a lot of comments from people saying that they appreciate getting the games over time and getting some breathing room to appreciate each game. It lets them delve into games that they might have ignored otherwise, that maybe weren’t games they knew they would like.”
I agree with that sentiment. The Playdate may never surpass the PS5, Xbox Series X, or Nintendo Switch as your primary gaming platform. Still, throughout the year, it provided me with a nice, cozy library of games I could check on and return to whenever I wanted to play something short, snappy, novel, and simple. Still, there’s a lot of room for this platform and library to grow. Lucas Pope, the developer behind Papers Please and Return to Obra Dinn, is currently working on a Playdate game called Mars After Midnight. Maletic says, “after taking some time off on it, he has picked it up again recently.” He also said that “there is some interest” from more notable game developers and that he hopes that “interest expands even further once we get more units out there.”
Thankfully, Panic has some solid plans for the future of the Playdate that should help maintain the momentum Panci’s platform gathered in 2023
The Playdate’s future
Since its announcement in April, the Catalog has been one of my most anticipated additions to the Playdate. While the seasonal model is enjoyable, the Catalog will be a curated game storefront right on the Playdate itself, which should help get more Playdate games in players’ hands and expand the library for those who don’t want to go through the process of sideloading an itch.io game. Intended for release in early 2023, Maletic tells Digital Trends that it’s coming along very well.
“People have been clamoring for ways to get even more games for Playdate, and Catalog will make it easier than ever to get those games,” he says. “Things like itch.io and other distribution mechanisms will continue to work and exist, but to make it as simple as possible for users Catalog will be a great way to go. That’s been our big software initiative for the past many months.”
While shipping out units has been the big hardware hurdle, Catalog has proven to be the big software challenge for Playdate. Maletic explained how adding a working storefront onto a system like the Playdate is way more complicated than you might think.
“There’s, of course, the basic e-commerce details that you have to figure out, and the fact that we’re working in multiple countries at once is a complication,” he explains. “The Playdate also has minimal battery life and slower Wi-Fi capacity, but we want to make sure the store feels snappy and responsive. That’s been a trick to try and make the store browseable with things like video clips of games. Making all that function on Playdate has been a challenge, but we think we’re almost there on that.”
The Catalog is not the only thing Panic has in the works for the Playdate, either. Maletic says the Playdate Stereo Dock “is coming along and turning out really nice,” teasing that they will reveal more information about it soon. And while he didn’t want to confirm any specific plans, when it comes to seasonal games, he said that Panic “definitely do want to do more seasons in the future” and that the Playdate team is planning for the near and medium term of the system’s lifespan currently.
“We’re focusing on the near to medium term right now, the big things being Catalog, the Stereo Dock, and working off this backlog of playdates,” Maletic said. “Those will be three big milestones we’ll be hitting in 2023 … once we work that off, we’ll be doing some special activities as it will be a new day for Playdate once you can get them immediately. So that’ll be a big focus of the latter half of 2023.”
While shipment issues plagued the Playdate throughout 2022, Panic’s handheld has still made a great first impression. Once I finally got my handheld system, I enjoyed checking in on it and playing games on it periodically throughout the back half of 2023. It’s still a pretty niche and novelty piece of hardware, but thankfully it has passionate developers supporting it, and Panic stayed adamant about supporting it throughout 2022 and 2023.