The 8-year process behind Playdate’s glorious crank

Since the introduction of portable gaming, each new handheld has been designed to stand out from the crowd — which has often meant more power, but also unique features that some might consider gimmicks. The Microvision introduced swappable cartridges. The Game & Watch kept track of time. The Game Gear featured color visuals and drained six AA batteries in a matter of hours. And while impressive new features haven’t always resulted in outstanding sales, the world of handheld gaming has continued to leap forward with selling points like touch panels, microphones, and stereoscopic 3D effects. Prior to a few years ago, little did players know one of the strangest was yet to come.

Today Nintendo almost single-handedly controls the dedicated gaming handheld market, while phones and tablets fill the void for the average consumer. Enter Playdate. Panic’s adorable yellow gaming device, originally announced in early 2019, has its feet planted firmly in both the past and the future. Though it has the appearance of a boxy Game Boy Pocket, the quirky handheld is designed to receive digital games weekly via Wi-Fi. With a retro aesthetic and modern innards, Playdate represents an artistic twist on both old and new.

And yet, the aspect that seems to have piqued the interest of most fans and developers is the small crank protruding from Playdate’s right side. With a silver arm and yellow handle, Playdate’s crank looks like a tiny hand waving hello to apprehensive players. Playdate represents a wide array of novel ideas, but none as bizarre and enticing as the crank. Thus we have committed ourselves to understanding the crank. Becoming one with it. Who thought it up? How has it been tested? How are developers using it in their games? All will be answered. All will be cranked.

A photo of the Playdate on a white background Image: Panic

“And the crank. The crank. My God.”

To understand where the crank came from, one first needs a crash course on how Playdate itself came to be. It all began 10 years ago, when Panic co-founder Cabel Sasser reached out to designer Jesper Kouthoofd of Teenage Engineering. A fan of Teenage Engineering’s stylish synthesizers, Sasser wanted to know if the small Stockholm-based electronics design team would be interested in teaming up for Panic’s upcoming 15-year anniversary. The plan was to “manufacture something incredibly special” for Panic’s most loyal customers. The connection was successful, but the product in question was still up for debate.

Sitting quietly in the back of Sasser’s mind for the next few years, the anniversary item was never a focus for the small team at Panic. It wasn’t until Sasser discovered the existence of a super-reflective black-and-white LCD screen that he had an epiphany — why not make a handheld console? This was a big leap for Panic, a company known in tech circles for its intuitive file transfer and web development software, but Sasser and his team began to draw up plans for a simple prototype that could play games with pre-set visuals and limited movement à la the Game & Watch. “But it needed a ‘spark’, something special,” Sasser says. “That’s when we reached [back] out to Teenage Engineering.”

By this point, Panic’s 15-year anniversary was in the rearview mirror, so Sasser decided this new mystery project would have to coincide with the 20th. When Kouthoofd heard of the idea for the product, he was more than happy to offer Teenage Engineering’s expertise, agreeing to meet with the Panic team at the biannual Moogfest, a music and technology festival, then held in Asheville, North Carolina. The two teams, one known for software and the other for hardware, sat down to bounce ideas off one another and hash out a rudimentary plan. It was this meeting that officially transformed the handheld project from a theoretical anniversary gift to a potential commercial product.

Settling on the codename “Asheville,” a nod to their initial meeting spot, the two teams retreated back to their respective sides of the globe to ponder ways to make the handheld a reality.

A mere week after the face-to-face meet up, on Sunday, May 4, 2014, Sasser found an email sitting in his inbox from Kouthoofd. It was labeled “first ideas” and read as follows (typos verbatim):

goals:

• the design should make mass production easy

• avoid metal to improve bluetooth signal.

• mould the case in one color, with the addition of grey for graphics and details. add as much of the graphics to the mould to reduce print costs.

• As the display is a major part of the device, try to match design elements so they are in harmony with the display (and the graphics shown on it) Perhaps using pixel icons on keys…

• make the device feel like some kind of cartridge. Technical but still fun and happy.

• avoid making the device too “gamey”. would be great to define a new category (i love the season 1 thinking…). A digital experience, art object, magic entertainment device.

• Simple and striking design that once you have seen it you will always remember it. (like a floppy disk, you can draw it from memory)

Add at least one creative input methods. Crank, scroll wheel, slider, hidden switch etc..

• figure out some kind of stand or hanger for clock mode.

overall create a design and a device that is not obvious a game device but something more, something new.

Don’t worry about being frank if you don’t like it. If you have other ideas you want to try, just send me references or sketches.

-Jesper

The email came with a picture attached:

A prototype mockup shows an orange console with a removable crank, a slider, and a secret screw.
Teenage Engineering’s initial concepts for Playdate
Image: Panic

Sasser was blown away. After forwarding the email to the rest of the Panic team, he shot off a quick response, now adamant the handheld had to be made.

I have notes and thoughts, of course, but this is immediately exciting.

And the crank. The crank. My God.

-Cabel

Since Asheville, Kouthoofd had been thinking long and hard about what a gaming handheld should and shouldn’t be. He was determined to steer Panic in the right direction, the direction Teenage Engineering had been sailing for years.

“Everything we do is to create kind of an alternative to touch-screen psychosis,” Kouthoofd said years later on an episode of the Panic Podcast. “It’s very effective for, like, a smartphone, but for a gaming device … A gaming device to me is almost the same as a musical instrument. It’s about zero latency, muscle memory, and you need to feel that you are in instant control of everything that happens. That tactility, however you solve it, if it’s pressing a button or turning a knob or a crank, it’s very important for the whole experience and the joy of being in control and using your hands.”

Each of the control dynamics proposed by Kouthoofd and his team had potential, thought Sasser, but the one that especially struck the Panic team was the small, removable crank that could attach to the side of the handheld, allowing for radial input. An outrageous concept for any gaming device that wasn’t a fishing controller.

“The crank was obviously the real — no pun intended — turning point in terms of, ‘Maybe this thing can follow its own path,’” Sasser tells Polygon. “But we did experiment. For a while, the crank idea was that you could plug different things into it. Maybe a hex shaped port that the crank magnetically snaps into and you can plug something else in, like a dial. I love exploring stuff like that and I have a very patient team that also loves exploring stuff like that. But very quickly we got the sense, a gut feeling, that maybe it was too much. We already felt like we were pushing the limits, not only trying to do this season delivery thing, which is pretty unusual, but also having the black and white screen and the crank. At some point, this system is just going to be too much. It’s going to be like Homer’s car in The Simpsons.”

And so, as other details like the handheld’s name and wireless game delivery service were hammered out, a single, non-removable crank was settled on. Now Panic and friends just had to engineer the design, test it thoroughly, tie it into the operating software, and convince game developers to jump on board.

A crank preparation and screwing jig station shows the tools and process Panic used to built Playdate test units
Panic manually built and tested prototype Playdate units
Image: Panic

Gray and black prototype Playdate cranks appear in a plastic tray
Loose Playdate cranks from the testing process
Image: Panic

Cranks a million

After much discussion and debate, the powers that be at Panic and Teenage Engineering discovered that Playdate, in its final form, would need to be made entirely of custom parts. Every tiny Pozidriv screw and springy button cover would need to be crafted from scratch and assembled by hand in a Malaysian factory. And all the parts would need to fit neatly within Playdate’s minuscule 76 × 74 × 9 mm casing.

According to Panic’s mechanical engineering and manufacturing consultant Steven Nersesian, the crank introduced a handful of production and engineering issues. In an email, Nersesian broke down these issues into five distinct sections:

Surface Finish: Getting the surface finish on the axle was critical, inclusive of the diameter and tolerance, and the “roundness.” This was paramount to getting the proper feel of the rotation… not too loose, not too tight.

Bearing: There is an internal plastic bearing that the crank assembly presses into. Similar to the axle challenges, we had to watch the “roundness” of the bearing as injection molded parts tend to shrink at different rates in alternate axes. And the material choice was critical, requiring multiple iterations to test until we got it just right.

Handle Design: To get the color match to the housing color we had to make the handle out of plastic. But that doesn’t make for a good bearing surface against the metal arm, nor give the handle a long life for those doing lots of cranking. Teenage Engineering’s small design in addition to the overall thinness of Playdate meant there was very little room inside to fit all of the details. Initial iterations cracked and had a dissatisfying feel. Ultimately we prototyped a few options and settled on the one that was most manufacturable, most reliable, and had the best feeling.

Flip-out Feeling: There is an internal ball bearing and spring mechanism that gives a satisfying feeling when you pull it out of the pocket. Tuning those parts, and the matching geometry in the axle proved difficult.

Repeatability: Making the assembly the same every time had some hurdles. Different assembly line workers approached it differently which resulted in small variations. We had to work with the production team, the engineering team and an assembly jig manufacturer to come up with a nifty jig that unified the process so that every crank assembly was made the same way. We also have a checker to make sure they meet the specs and are within tolerance.

While the factory production of the crank fell into place, Panic ran headlong into a new problem. The factory had machines that could perform repetitive tasks like pressing buttons ad nauseam and peppering Playdate with controlled electric surges, but there was no such device for testing a crank.

“The force is so tiny that we couldn’t find any equipment accurate enough at an affordable price; we would have had to spend $200K on an automated test machine,” Sasser says. “So instead we relied on literal years of shipping hundreds of units to early developers and gathering feedback through their real-world use.”

The Panic team also had thousands of attendees put the crank to the test at its PAX West booth in 2019. The team even printed out a stack of special cards with the words “Oh, thanks for breaking that!” to hand out to any unwitting tester who managed to crank things too far. Much to everyone’s surprise, the cards sat untouched for the entire four-day convention.

With their PAX experiment a resounding success, and after years of engineering, troubleshooting and testing, the crank was officially ready for the public. The stainless steel axle and arm, magnet, plastic handle, pin, and screw would end up costing Panic $5.20 per unit.

While the physical aspects of the crank were being perfected, Panic was busy building a simple operating system and wooing game creators with Playdate’s distinctive specs. Though the crank was one of the handheld’s standout features, Panic designers made sure it wasn’t too heavily featured in the overall feel of the operating system. By stacking game choices and system settings, Panic gave owners the chance to casually scroll through their options by turning the crank forwards and backwards — simple movements that felt natural.

Game developers were split when it came to the crank. Though there were a fair share of crank enthusiasts, Sasser estimates that roughly half of the developers who showed interest in working on a Playdate title didn’t feel the need to utilize the crank in any way. They were more excited about the one-bit screen or retro feel. When thinking back on the development of the games in Playdate’s introductory season, Sasser says he’s glad each developer “felt free to follow their hearts.”

It seems many developers who witnessed the crank in action all jumped to the same conclusion: fishing. “Almost every developer we showed Playdate to immediately mentioned a fishing game,” Sasser recalls. “And yet, because of this, everybody thought everybody else was making a fishing game. As a result, we have no fishing games. Yet.”

And while a handful of developers had access to Playdate early on, most discovered the handheld alongside the general public in May of 2019. Fortunately, there was still ample time to jump aboard the Playdate train for season one.

Hang ten(sion)

In the summer of 2019, as Vitei CEO Giles Goddard perused the selection of indie games at Kyoto’s yearly BitSummit festival, he couldn’t help but notice a small crowd of onlookers gathered feverishly around a single man. The man was writer, designer, consultant and Panic pal Nick Suttner, and those gawking over his shoulder were all hoping to get their hands on the curious handheld he was so casually flaunting.

Once Goddard got a moment or two with the miniature yellow device, he quickly fell in love. “I had no idea what the crank was all about,” Goddard says. “I thought maybe it had to do with charging or it was just something you fiddle with. I didn’t think it was an actual input. Then I picked it up, actually felt it and played around with it, and everything was just so … tactile. Using the crank is such a nice direct input. I was just enamored by it from day one.”

Goddard has been a part of the gaming industry longer than most. Joining up-and-coming development studio Argonaut Games as a programmer in the late ’80s, Goddard relocated to Japan to help with production of the original Star Fox at the tender age of 18. Goddard soon joined Nintendo EAD as its first Western employee, programming the iconic interactive Mario face at the start of Super Mario 64 and landing the title of lead programmer on the critically acclaimed 1080° Snowboarding.

Eventually stepping out on his own, Goddard began working freelance gigs (many for Nintendo) and decided to start his own development studio, Vitei, Inc. Since its inception in 2002 Vitei has helped with various titles and developed many of their own, even spawning a spin-off studio in Kyoto called Vitei Backroom (now Chuhai Labs).

After his first interaction with Playdate, Goddard knew he wanted to develop a game around the handheld’s miraculous crank. Eventually securing a few prototype units, Goddard devised a friendly Playdate “Pitch Jam” for the team at Chuhai Labs. Twenty unique games were pitched, but in the end it was Goddard’s vision of a simple surfing game that received the most votes.

Goddard’s game, dubbed Whitewater Wipeout, was inspired by the tight controls of Playdate’s crank and the standout mobile game of his childhood: California Games. “My brother had an Atari Lynx, which was way ahead of its time,” Goddard says. “The best game on the Lynx was California Games and the best game in California Games was surfing, because it was such a tight, well-made minigame. We were just hooked on it.”

Thinking back to his time with California Games on the Lynx, Goddard felt the biggest issue was always the lack of precise control when rotating one’s surfboard. “At some point I just thought, ‘The crank is the perfect way to control this,’” Goddard says. “Because you have 360 degrees of whatever rotation you want at any time. You decide the speed by how fast you’re turning it. The fact that you can spin it really quickly and then slow down to get really fine movements is so unique. There’s literally no other control input that lets you do that. As soon as I realized a surfing game would match it perfectly, that was the point I thought, ‘It has to be that.’”

A Playdate sits on a black wooden surface. On the screen are the words Whitewater Wipeout Photo: Chris Plante/Polygon

Once the basic concept of Whitewater had been fleshed out, Goddard and his team set forth to program the game using Panic’s code editor Nova. As someone who had worked on games for complex and powerful consoles in the past, Goddard was struck by how much he enjoyed the simplicity of developing a game for Playdate. The scope was limited, but it forced him to focus on making the gameplay, and the crank controls, as precise as possible.

Goddard explains that programming the crank was as simple as assigning a range of numbers from zero to 359. Depending on the numerical input, the surfboard on screen would be rotated to a different angle. Panic has given Playdate the ability to run like an emulator on any computer, allowing developers and average players to use an attached console as a controller of sorts. For testing purposes Goddard could use his mouse to manipulate a digital circle representing the crank or he could pick up the real thing and put in a few rotations.

“The entire device is very simple to program with. It’s great.”

As Goddard sat, cranking newer and newer Playdate prototypes to test his game, a small problem presented itself, one that Panic was well aware of: Not every crank is created equal. Some prototype cranks were loose and easy to turn, while others were stiff and needed more effort. “One of the difficult things was figuring out if the final version of the crank was going to be a floppy crank or a stiff crank,” says Goddard. “I know it sounds like a really stupid little issue but … it was quite interesting.”

The team at Chuhai Labs went so far as to take a few prototype units apart and oil the crank, seeing how much tensile attention was needed to make Whitewater handle just so. “I had a little technique where I would grease it just enough for it to feel really good. I don’t know if you’re supposed to do that … but we did,” Goddard laughs. In the end both the Panic and Chuhai Labs teams seem happy with the current state of the crank, a nice middle ground that allows for both speed and accuracy.

When asked how Playdate compares to past gaming devices in terms of control, Goddard is quick to defend the crank, embracing it as both an essential aspect of the system and a gimmick of sorts. “Most gimmicks feel like gimmicks,” Goddard says. “Take the 3D on the 3DS. Most of the time I’d say most people turn it off because it’s distracting, not to mention it takes battery power and can slow things down. The 3D is great as a gimmick, as a way to show off a game, but when you want to play it full-time you probably turn it off because you don’t need it.” Goddard insists the crank does not fall into this category. While the crank is a gimmick of sorts, it’s also highly effective at what it does and seemingly necessary to the success of most Playdate games.

The team at Chuhai Labs is already brainstorming its next Playdate outing, and Giles Goddard says he’s excited to be involved. “It’s kind of my dream job to make games for this thing,” the 50-year-old programmer says, holding up a Playdate. “We have PlayStation 5 dev kits, Oculus dev kits, and all these other dev kits, and by far the most fun … is this one.”

All it’s cranked up to be

Despite delays due to faulty batteries, CPU shortages, and factory closures, Panic’s handheld is finally on its way to the first wave of consumers. As Playdate systems slowly make their way into the wild, the success of the crank (and the handheld as a whole) will soon become apparent. Games like Whitewater Wipeout and Keita Takahashi’s Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, with core gameplay developed around the crank, will be put to the test by thousands of new users.

For many, the magic of the crank may not lie in the games that feature it heavily, but rather the ones that manage to merge its functionality into the tried and true mechanics of classic genres or hide it in subtle on-screen gestures. Indie developer Lucas Pope, known for cult hits like Papers, Please and Return of the Obra Dinn, has already showcased the latter with a quick peek at his game Mars After Midnight during Panic’s Playdate Update this past summer.

Mars After Midnight puts players behind the door of an “off colony community support center” for a wide variety of Martian weirdos. When creatures come a-knocking, players use the Playdate crank to open the hinged flap on the door’s window. This light touch, a motion that only takes the crank half way around its axis, is insignificant but natural. It’s exactly the kind of small detail that will make the Playdate stand out from other handhelds and gaming consoles.

A lot of the excitement surrounding the Playdate is generated from the fact that players don’t know exactly what’s coming each week. Outside of game titles and a few select clips of gameplay, we don’t know how, or even if, the crank will work within most games. Half the fun will be experiencing how and where the crank pops up, not to mention the outrageous radial control schemes that​​ the community of hobbyist developers will no doubt churn out in the coming years.

Is Playdate’s crank a revolutionary new form of gaming input or a silly dash of superfluous nonsense? One could argue it’s a bit of both. But whether you feel the crank is genius or trivial, you’ll be hard pressed to refrain from giving it a few turns should you ever get your hands on the cheery yellow handheld. And after all the thought and love that was poured into the tiny mechanical appendage, who could blame you?