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This article was published 24/6/2019 (1101 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The first time Dan Messing saw the curious contraption, it wasn’t much to look at: just a circuit board and some wires, he recalls, along with a black-and-white screen that his coworkers at software company Panic really liked.
It was just a proof-of-concept, really. The device hung on an ambitious idea: could this nimble Portland, Ore., company create a new video game experience, in a handheld system unlike anything else on the market?
Four years later, it has evolved into the Playdate, a quirky game system that’s earning international buzz months before it hits the market. It has a local connection: Winnipeg’s Messing is part of the core five-person team that is bringing Playdate to life.
"I’ve been working on this thing without being able to tell anyone about it so long," he says, chatting over the phone from Portland this month. "It’s been super, super cool to see people being excited about it. When we announced, it was pretty surreal just to see it covered in all these news outlets."
The palm-sized device, which sells for US$149, was unveiled last month in a cover story by U.K.-based Edge magazine. It puts a unique spin on gaming. It’s a little retro, a little nostalgic: a monochrome screen, a bright yellow case, and buttons that are familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a Game Boy.
But the Playdate, which will start taking pre-orders later this year and ship in early 2020, has some imaginative new features. The most notable is the crank that flips out from the side of the device; it’s a curious type of controller, one that allows game designers to add new layers of interaction.
The games come with a twist. For the initial price, users will get a 12-week season of games, with new ones automatically added to the Playdate each week. Most of them will be kept secret, until they arrive: Panic says only that "some are short, some long, some are experimental, some traditional. All are fun."
"There definitely is a bit of nostalgia," Messing says. "These are games you can pick up for a few minutes if you want, and put it down. It’s also not your phone, so if you’re looking at it, you won’t have these other notifications coming in, going, ‘oh I’m going to go check my email.’ It’s just this little tiny thing, and it was purpose-built for joy."
It’s a bold and unusual venture. For more than 20 years, Panic was known for utilitarian iOS software; it had also dipped its toes into gaming, and publishing the critically acclaimed 2016 mystery adventure Firewatch. But it had never tackled hardware, a high-risk endeavour.
Messing, who moved to Portland in 2011, was largely responsible for creating the Playdate’s developer API, which is the platform developers use to build games. That had to be built from scratch, using extensive input from some of the world’s most acclaimed independent game creators.
"A lot of this is exciting because it’s all new stuff for all of us," he says. "I’ve worked on video games a bit in the past, but I don’t have tons and tons of experience with it. It’s definitely been challenging learning what game developers expect from an API, and how they use it."
Messing hopes Winnipeg game developers will get a chance to use it. He himself is a product of the city’s growing new media industry: a University of Manitoba graduate, he built his career here after launching his own company, Stunt Software, which eventually brought him to Panic’s attention.
Winnipeg "does a really good job" of encouraging growth in the sector, he says, through networking groups and organizations such as New Media Manitoba. There’s enough talent in the city, he adds, that there’s no reason the Playdate itself couldn’t have been born here Maybe some of its offerings still can.
"I’d love to see some local people lend some of that talent to making Playdate games," he says. "It’s kind of perfect because the barrier to entry is low, the games can be small in scope, and honestly it’s just kind of fun, especially if you’re used to working on much larger games. I’d love to help out with that in any way that I can."
To young local developers curious about breaking into the wider new media world, he has one key piece of advice: "just get started on something," he says.
That’s what helped him take his career to the next level, he says, just by playing around with different skills, tackling challenges and learning things on his own.
Now, he’s at the heart of one of the most whimsical new ideas in gaming — and he’s ready to show the world.
"I can’t wait for people to actually hold it," he says.
"It looks good in pictures, it looks even better to hold."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.