The Playdate is most certainly not for me.
When I first saw the reveal for it I immediately thought of the Pocket Operators that Teenage Engineering (the people responsible for the crank!) make. If you haven’t seen these before, they’re essentially tiny synthesizers/sequencers that acoustically are modeled on 80s synth, aesthetically are inspired by Game & Watch style LCD games, but, in terms of how you actually use one, they work in their own weird completely idiosyncratic way.
Here’s someone using one of the newer ones, the PO-33 K.O., which has a built in sampler.
These things are not at all easy to use! They’re extraordinarily complicated. Holding certain buttons makes other buttons work differently, and as they’re designed to give a level of control that’s at least comparable to professional equipment (at least professional equipment from the 80s), there’s a huge amount to learn. Yet, their whole design exudes an aura of gaminess that makes them incredibly fun, even when you’re a person who (at least initially) has no idea what you’re doing (like me). Once you do learn to use one, they feel like an extension of the self. They’re a wonderful inexpensive way to learn about making music.
So when I saw that crank on the side of the Playdate and learned that Teenage Engineering was involved, I immediately assumed that something crazy was going on. I thought that maybe there would be some on-console creation that uses the crank in an innovative way as an integral part of the creation process. I (very naively) thought that perhaps they had found a way to make powerful game design tools that require only a d-pad, two face buttons, and a crank.
Instead, I quickly realized that it’s just a Gameboy (with a crank!). That’s great and all, but it’s a lot harder for me to be excited about. I suspect that most of the games on there will be completely playable with a standard controller (perhaps rotating the analog stick to simulate the crank). These games could be released on itch (or the Switch if people want to play in their bed or on the bus) and people would be able to pay $5-10 for them instead of $149 for the entire console. The developers would actually be able to make money. It’s not clear to me why new hardware needs to be created just to artificially wall off people from playing certain games.
What I would be excited about is an actual Pocket Operator style console – something with idiosyncratic controls, a whole bunch of weird buttons and knobs, and maybe even a crank, that is designed to make game creation on the go possible for anyone with two hands. Dreams and Mario Maker have already proven that it’s possible to make games with just a controller, without any traditional programming. So what about a handheld that doesn’t use a traditional control scheme, but instead something specifically geared to making games? Or maybe it doesn’t even need to be about making what we would normally think of as a game, but instead just weird interactive experiences.
Obviously computers can make games. Computers can essentially do anything – but they often have to do it in a clumsy and unintuitive way, since we are forced to interface with them using just keyboards, mice, and occasionally a controller. I suspect (of course this is nothing more than a suspicion) that with the right controls and built-in software that it could be possible to make a very gamey, very fun, very flexible extension of the human creative spirit to allow anyone to make 2D black and white Gameboy-esque worlds.
Something like that, something that allows for experiences and levels of intuitiveness that would be difficult to deliver on a computer or traditional console, seems like a much better use of the money, time, and effort that goes into the creation of new hardware than just a Gameboy with a crank. Again, I’m coming from the perspective of the Pocket Operators. That PO-33 shown above has a built in microphone for sampling things. You can go around sampling the sounds the ATM makes when it counts your money, the sound of electric doors opening and closing at the grocery store, or your neighbor’s wind chimes, and turn it all into some weird song while you sit on the subway, going to work. I’d love something like that, but for making games – or at least for making vaguely-game-resembling experiences.
Reading this all now, I realize this has nothing to do with the Playdate, other than me being disappointed that it’s not the thing I naively assumed it would be after looking at it for two seconds. Oh well. I already wrote this all, so I might as well post it.