Remember microconsoles? Years before “the streaming era” that Sony now says is upon us, there was a period there where the conventional wisdom was that traditional consoles were dead and lower-priced microconsoles were the wave of the future.
In that time, upstarts like Ouya and established brands like Sony, Nvidia, Mad Catz, Apple, Amazon, and more jumped into the microconsole gaming market in one form or another.
Their bet was that there was an audience who wanted to play games on the TV but didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a full-fledged console that was overkill for the large flood of indie games out there. But then tens of millions of people bought the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (and later the Nintendo Switch) and the bottom largely fell out of the microconsole market (though no one has told Atari, apparently).
Yesterday marked a bit of an inflection point in the short and sordid history of the microconsole. First, Ouya owner Razer announced that it would finally be shutting down the system’s online game platform on June 25. The Ouya brand, and Razer’s “Forge TV” follow-up, have been on the equivalent of corporate life support since 2015, but the shutdown marks a distinct end point to a nearly seven-year saga that started with unprecedented crowdfunding excitement for Ouya’s bold microconsole idea.
Then, yesterday evening, a completely new and unexpected direction for microconsoles emerged seemingly out of nowhere. The portable, black-and-white, crank-controlled Playdate microconsole—aiming for a 2020 launch at $149—is decidedly not going to provide much competition for the kinds of gaming experiences you can get on a full-fledged console, a high-end gaming PC, or even your smartphone. And that’s why it might succeed where other microconsoles have failed.
And now for something completely different
Panic, the company behind the Playdate, is not really known gaming hardware, or hardware of any kind, for that matter. Over two decades, the firm has made a small name for itself writing Mac and iOS productivity software and funding indie games like Firewatch and the upcoming Untitled Goose Game (that’s the game’s official name, not the basis for an Abbot and Costello routine).
But as the company puts it in a Playdate FAQ, “after 20 years of making software, we wanted to grow our skills, push us out of our comfort zone, and take us on an adventure. We love creating things, and it was time for us to level up.”
So why not spend four years developing a black-and-white handheld with a crank controller, right?
Oh yeah, in addition to two face buttons and a d-pad, the Playdate has a fold-out crank controller on the side that Panic hopes we’ll “think of… like an analog stick — but one you can turn endlessly.” Panic’s hardware design partners at Teenage Engineering write that the crank is an attempt to “break people of their touch psychosis,” which is a new, legit medical term we’ll definitely be using in everyday conversation. And no, the crank does not power the device—there’s a rechargeable battery for that.
To jumpstart the game library for this odd little system, Panic is working with indie developers like Keita Takahashi (Katamari Damacy), Bennett Foddy (QWOP), Shaun Inman (Retro Game Crunch), and Zach Gage (Ridiculous Fishing). They’ll be providing a “season” of 12 games that will be included with every Playdate console purchase, delivered via Wi-Fi on a weekly schedule after launch. The first revealed game, Takahashi’s Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, looks a bit like a Game Boy remake of Braid mixed with Takahashi’s own Noby Noby Boy.
It all runs on a Game Boy-esque, 2.7-inch, 400×240 resolution, low-power LCD that Panic says “has no grid lines, no blurring, [and] is extremely sharp and clear…, it’s truly a ‘premium’ black-and-white screen.” Not premium enough to have a backlight, though, so get ready to break out a reading lamp to play at night.
Keeping your ambitions in check
All those details should make it apparent that Playdate is explicitly aiming for “a distinctly different experience than the one you get from your phone or TV.” And that’s key here.
Microconsoles like Ouya have always been marketed, to some extent or another, as lower-cost alternatives to buying a real, “overpowered” console for your TV. The implicit argument was that a relatively cheap, “low-end” system-on-a-chip would be enough to power the vast majority of cool indie games flooding the market.
As it turns out, the vast majority of the console-buying public was willing to spend a few hundred dollars more for a “real” console that could play those indie games and the big-budget, blockbuster exclusives that have always driven hardware sales. As argued for years, microconsoles seemed to be trying to fix a problem the console market didn’t really have.
But Playdate “isn’t trying to compete with the other devices that we already play and love,” as the FAQ puts it. “It’s designed to be complementary… to deliver a jolt of fun in-between the times you spend with your phone and your home console.” Instead of trying to provide an ambitious “fix” for a gaming market that’s not broken, Playdate’s trying to add a little something that can joyfully fill in some gaming holes we didn’t even know were there.
That refreshing lack of ambition is apparent when you dig into the Playdate FAQ. There’s no discussion of specs beyond “real beefy.” There’s no mention of achievements, leaderboards, online matchmaking, cloud saves, or the other costly online ephemera that characterize a “serious” gaming platform these days. While Wi-Fi-enabled multiplayer is possible, the software will “focus on single-player gaming.” Even plans for a basic game store that provides for more than the 12 included titles is still apparently up in the air (“It all depends on interest and sales. But we hope so!” the FAQ states)
There will never be any questions about whether Skyrim or Red Dead Redemption will be ported to Playdate (but have fun playing Portal on Nividia’s Shield TV). No one is going to say that Playdate “remove[s] as many reservations and hurdles as possible… to give the best value proposition,” as Ouya founder Julie Uhrman told Ars in 2012 about her microconsole. There will never be an executive arguing that “fundamentally the specs that we chose allow us to provide a maximum experience at a super reasonable price point,” as Tiffany Spencer said for the Ouya back in 2012.
This is the hipster microbrew of the console world, mixing in weird gaming flavors and unique controller ingredients that the Sony/Budweisers and Nintendo/Millers of the world can’t. Playdate is aiming to be the console you buy more as a statement about your refined and eclectic gaming tastes and less as a workhorse that will be a central point in your gaming life. Fashionable indie darlings like Celeste or Into the Breach might be fine for the gaming masses, Playdate seems to say, but truly experimental gamers play with a crank on a low-res black-and-white screen.
“We think—hope—that there are enough people in the world for whom the spirit and joyousness of this device will resonate clearly and loudly,” Panic says of Playdate.
We hope so, too. But by keeping the device’s ambitions and expectations in check, the quirky device has already succeeded in a way so many other microconsoles failed. The age of the microconsole-as-cheap-console-competitor is over. The age of microconsole-as-electic-boutique-experiment is upon us. It’s about time.