Wireframe

Playing with Pulp: Inside Playdate's budding game dev scene

By Shaun Hughes. Posted

Launched in April 2022, the Playdate is a pocket-sized console that, with its tiny crank jutting out of the side of its yellow case, is both striking and unique. Despite a series of production delays brought about by the pandemic, the Playdate enjoyed a positive release, with critics largely won over by its lo-fi charms and library of inventive games.

What makes Playdate such an intriguing proposition for indie developers, though, is that it’s an open system, designed to encourage users to make and share their own games. Key to Playdate’s ease of development is a small team of people at Panic Inc., the Portland, Oregon-based studio that produces the Playdate in tandem with Swedish company Teenage Engineering. Together, programmers Shaun Inman and Kyle Rimkus, along with designer and tester Neven Mrgan, created Pulp, an open-source development kit for Playdate which can be freely accessed via a web browser. “Pretty early on, we knew we wanted to make [Playdate] really developer-friendly, because we want people to make games for it,” says Mrgan.

While the Playdate hardware itself began to take shape, the Pulp team was busily putting together a miniature studio that contained tools for making graphics and music, as well as its own dedicated scripting language, PulpScript.

Says Mrgan: “It became clear that [Pulp] wasn’t just something we’d use internally or for making our own games, but it could also be a tool that other people could use. With it being web-based, it makes it so accessible to so many people out there.”

It helped that, with relatively little development experience himself, Mrgan was able to put himself in the position of the console’s audience, and create an approachable user interface that could be easily picked up by novices. “I don’t know that much about programming, but I’m passionate about making a game,” he says, “so I immediately started working on stuff.”

Mrgan felt it important to establish exactly what Pulp “does and does not do” early on, and recognise the limitations of both the hardware and software. “Performance is something we have to be really aware of, because Pulp doesn’t write native Playdate code,” Mrgan says. “It doesn’t write code at   all; it’s a set of instructions that the engine on Playdate steps through.”

Soon after the public beta release of Pulp in January 2022, Panic announced its Playdate SDK (software development kit). Where Pulp is a more entry-level piece of software, the Playdate SDK offers a more in-depth set of tools for more advanced developers, and supports both Lua and C programming languages. And if creatives thought the potential for Playdate development was strong before, Shaun Inman’s confident that Pulp and the SDK can be used alongside each other to make something truly special. “While the Pulp runtime’s core rendering and update loop don’t have a path forward from Pulp to the SDK,” says Inman, “you can export songs and sounds created in the Pulp editor and download the Pulp Audio Runtime Lua library, which allows you to play Pulp audio in your SDK-based Playdate game. Pulp also allows you to export all or some of a Pulp game’s graphics to PNGs which can be used by the SDK image and imageable functions.”

Still, developing Pulp wasn’t without its challenges, Inman tells us. “One of the harder things was wrestling with Web Audio APIs when trying to match the wave synthesis functions that are part of the SDK,” he says, adding that the “inconsistent implementations of ‘standards’ across browsers, the deprecations of more mature JavaScript APIs, and browser bugs” were all factors.

The intention behind Pulp is clear: if you’ve never made a game before, or you’re looking to try a fun, quirky sandbox for prototyping, Pulp can scale from goofing around to building a full Playdate game. But what does the Playdate community make of Pulp? To find out more, we spoke to David Bédard, chief operating officer and narrative designer at Sweet Baby Inc. The studio’s responsible for Lost Your Marbles, a branching-narrative adventure featured in Playdate’s Season 1 launch line-up. The Playdate is, Bédard says, “open to newcomers; it’s super-easy to make something playable and fun.” This ensured he and the team were “able to make the game in a relatively short amount of time: in four months, in a very sustainable way, [with] everybody working reasonable hours.”

The development of Lost Your Marbles also gave its studio the chance to train its newer employees in the art of game design, Bédard explains. “We pitched to Playdate that we would pair mentors with juniors and put them on the same schedule, and work together to not only teach the juniors how to make a game but also make a real game together,” he says, adding that “everybody got paid, everybody got credits, and everybody shipped a game.”

Crank: High Voltage

Playdate’s unique selling point is, of course, that much-discussed crank, and, although some have voiced scepticism over its practicalities, Bédard argues that it should be an integral part of any game designed for the platform. “We’d be missing something out by not using the crank,” he says. “The opportunity to make a game that uses a crank won’t come from anywhere else.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Chris Makris, the developer behind the early Playdate adventure, Saturday Edition. “It’s a great control mechanism with a lot of potential,” he says, adding: “where the hell have all the cranks and dials been?”

With its monochrome LCD screen, the Playdate has what Makris describes as “obvious presentation limitation”, but still, it’s arguable that those limitations encourage developers to think creatively around the handheld’s diminutive hardware. “It forced me to reduce the design to black and white pixels, which I felt extremely comfortable with,” agrees Makris. “I love that limitation – it’s quite powerful.”

Presentation challenges aside, Makris says that developing for Playdate is relatively easy. “It’s helpful to know that a game will be played with this particular hardware,” he says. “And it’s a dream not to have to think about ‘the build process’ when compiling to [different] platforms.”

British developer Alex Watkinson, founder of Gamebow Ltd, recently crowdfunded the Game Boy platformer Planet Hop, but is also developing his first game for Playdate, Baba Yaga’s Fortress. Watkinson praises Pulp for its user-friendly design – “I was able to pick it up and make a basic concept screen for a potential game in minutes,” he says – and favourably compares its ease of use to GB Studio, a game creator for the Game Boy. “The way individual tiles can be animated is great, and allows developers to implement animated backgrounds with minimum effort,” Watkinson says, adding that the music editor means users “effortlessly make basic ambient music loops and sound effects that sounded great and were easy to add to each scene.”

His thoughts about the Playdate’s crank, meanwhile, echo those of Makris and Bédard. “The crank’s a great little novelty to consider incorporating into a game,” he says, “and adds a unique element of fun that is hard to replicate on other devices.”

Another prominent community member is hobbyist game developer, Atsu Suzuki, known on YouTube as SquidGodDev. He’s been making Pulp tutorials since its release and concurs that Pulp’s an approachable tool for newcomers. “It offers a simplified language that eases you into programming, along with giving you a visual editor to draw tiles and place them,” he says. “[Mrgan and Inman] have done a great job building a great UI that allows you to quickly get to making something that’s playable and feels like your own, with an easy-to-use tile-based editor and fun sound and music editors.”

The developers we spoke to agree Pulp could be made even more simple to use, though, with Watkinson arguing that an entirely script-free solution – akin to Scratch or RichCast, say – would “open up Pulp game development to a much broader user base, as many talented artists are often not technically minded enough to script but have a passion for game development.”

Suzuki alludes to this, too. “There’s a small learning curve when getting into Pulp for the first time,” he says. “If you want to build something more complex than just the most basic narrative game, you need to learn PulpScript, the programming language used for Pulp, along with Pulp’s event system, which takes a bit to wrap your head around.”

Those caveats aside, there’s a purity to the design philosophy of Playdate and its Pulp dev tools, and a sense that this little yellow handheld console could open doors to people who were previously a bit nervous about trying their hand at game design. In short, the future really is bright for Playdate – or bright yellow, at least.

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