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.
Say Hello to Playdate!!
“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.