Sat. Oct 1st, 2022
Small.  Yellow.  Different.
enlarge Small. Yellow. Different.

Do you remember micro consoles? Years before “the streaming era” that Sony now says is dawning, there was a period when the conventional wisdom was that traditional consoles were dead and cheaper micro-consoles were the wave of the future.

At the time, newcomers like Ouya and established brands like Sony, Nvidia, Mad Catz, Apple, Amazon and more were jumping into the microconsole gaming market in one form or another.

Their guess was that there was an audience that wanted to play games on TV, but didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a full-fledged console that was overkill for the 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 microconsole market largely bottomed out (although apparently no one told Atari).

Yesterday marked a bit of a turning point in the short and sordid history of the micro console. First, Razer, owner of Ouya, announced that it would finally shut down the system’s online gaming platform on June 25. shutdown marks a clear end to a nearly seven-year saga that began with unprecedented crowdfunding excitement for Ouya’s bold microconsole idea.

Then last night, seemingly out of nowhere, an entirely new and unexpected direction for micro consoles appeared. The portable, black-and-white, crank-driven Playdate micro-console — targeting a 2020 launch for $149 — definitely won’t offer much competition for the kind of gaming experiences you can get on a full-fledged console, high-end gaming. PC, or even your smartphone. And that’s why it could succeed where other micro consoles have failed.

And now for something completely different

Panic, the company behind the Playdate, isn’t really known for gaming hardware, or any hardware for that matter. For more than two decades, the company has made a name for itself writing Mac and iOS productivity software and funding indie games such as fire watch and the coming Untitled Goose Game (that’s the official name of the game, isn’t it 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 increase our skills, push ourselves out of our comfort zone and take us on an adventure. We love to create things, and it was time for us to to rise.”

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 flip-out crank controller on the side that Panic hopes we’ll “think of…like an analog stick — but one you can spin endlessly.” Panic’s hardware design partners at Teenage Engineering write that the crank is an attempt to “break people from their touch psychosis,” a new, legitimate medical term that we’ll be sure to use in everyday conversation. And no, the crank doesn’t power the device — there’s a rechargeable battery for that.

To jump-start the game library for this odd little system, Panic has teamed up with indie developers like Keita Takahashi (Katamari Damacy), Bennett Foddy (QWOP), Shaun Inman (Retro Game Crunch), and Zach Gage (ridiculous fishing† They offer a “season” of 12 games that come with every Playdate console purchase, delivered weekly over Wi-Fi after launch. The first revealed game, Takahashi’s Crankin’s Time Travel Adventurelooks 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 gridlines, no blur, [and] is extremely sharp and bright…, it’s really a ‘premium’ black and white screen.” Not premium enough to have a backlight, so get ready to break out a reading lamp to use at night. to play.

Keep your ambitions under control

All those details should make it clear that Playdate is explicitly aiming for “a distinctly different experience than the one you get from your phone or TV”. And that’s the key here.

Micro consoles like Ouya have always been marketed to some degree as cheaper alternatives to buying a genuine, “overwhelmed” console for your TV. The implicit argument was that a relatively inexpensive, “low-end” system-on-a-chip would be enough to power the vast majority of cool indie games flooding the market.

It turned out that 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 boosted hardware sales. As we’ve argued for years, micro consoles seemed to solve a problem that the console market didn’t really have.

The Ouya was trying to save the console market from itself on some level.  The game date is not.
enlarge The Ouya was trying to save the console market from itself on some level. The game date is not.

But Playdate “isn’t trying to compete with the other devices we already play and love,” as the FAQ puts it. “It’s designed to be complementary…to provide a jolt of fun between the time you spend with your phone and your home console.” Rather than trying to provide an ambitious “solution” to a gaming market that isn’t broken, Playdate is trying to add something that can joyfully fill some game gaps we didn’t even know were there.

That refreshing lack of ambition becomes apparent when you dive into the Playdate FAQ. There’s no arguing with specs beyond “really beefy.” There’s no mention of achievements, leaderboards, online matchmaking, cloud saves, or the other expensive online ephemera that characterize a “serious” gaming platform today. While multiplayer with Wi-Fi is possible, the software will “focus on single-player gaming”. Even plans for a base game store offering more than the 12 titles included are apparently still in the air (“It all depends on interest and sales. But we hope so!” says the FAQ)

There will never be questions about whether Skyrim or Red Dead Redemption being ported to Playdate (but have fun playing Portal on Nvidia’s Shield TV). No one is going to say that Playdate is “deleting”[s] as many reservations and hurdles as possible… to give the best value proposition,” Ouya founder Julie Uhrman told Ars about her micro console in 2012. There will never be an executive who claims that “the specs we’ve chosen allow us to to get the maximum experience at a super reasonable price,” as Tiffany Spencer said for the Ouya in 2012.

This is the hipster microbrewer of the console world, with weird gaming flavors and unique controller ingredients that the Sony/Budweisers and Nintendo/Millers of the world can’t. Playdate aims to be the console you buy, more like a statement about your sophisticated and eclectic gaming taste and less like a workhorse that will be a focal point in your gaming life. Fashionable indie cuties like celeste or in the breach might be fine for the gaming masses, Playdate seems to say, but really experimental gamers play with a crank on a black and white screen with a low resolution.

“We think – hope – there are enough people in the world for whom the spirit and joy of this device will resonate clearly and loudly,” Panic says of Playdate.

We hope so too. But by reining in the device’s ambitions and expectations, the quirky device has already succeeded in a way that so many other micro consoles have failed. The era of the micro-console-as-cheap-console competitor is over. The era of the micro-console-as-eclectic-boutique experiment has arrived. It will be time.

By akfire1

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