This Old-School Mobile Game System Is Full of Surprises

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There are very few moments in our days without screens. Computers at work, televisions at home, tablets in the hammock and smartphones everywhere in-between.

If going without screens entirely isn’t possible, or desirable, a Portland software company called Panic is offering up a compromise: A handheld bright-yellow gaming device with a 2.7-inch black and white screen. And sticking out of the device’s tiny side is a tiny crank that can control time (in a game, anyway).

Playdate is a mobile game system with a small screen and surprise games.

Called Playdate, the new device — announced on Wednesday — looks like a square Game Boy with the classic physical A, B and arrow buttons. It does have some more modern technical specs, including Bluetooth and Wifi, which make one of its signature features possible: surprise games.

In fact, all but one of Playdate’s games will stay a secret for now. The company will roll out a new game to users every week for 12 weeks after it is released — what it’s calling a “season of games” — each a mystery until it is downloaded. They are included as part of the system’s $149 price tag.

The company has already made hundreds of prototypes and will do one more manufacturing round before starting mass production. It expects to start taking orders later this year and plans to ship the device in 2020.

The gadget was an instant hit on social media. It seems to be one of those kinds of gadgets that people can’t help but feel immediate affection for, like a puppy. Playdate’s makers think there is an appetite for the features that make it somewhat retro, like the actual buttons and lack of a touchscreen.

“Some people won’t ‘get’ the fact that we aren’t using the newest, blazing-fast graphics hardware, or that we chose a black and white screen. Or that they’ll be buying the device with games sight-unseen,” Greg Maletic, Panic’s Director of Special Projects, told CNN Business. “But we wanted to offer a different experience than what you get from an iPhone, or Nintendo Switch.”

That is where the crank comes in. It isn’t to charge the device, but to interact with games. For example, in the only game the company is sharing any details about, “Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure,” the crank controls the flow of time. Crankin’s was created by well-known game designer Keita Takahashi, who also made the hit Katamari Damacy.

“The tactile sensation of controlling something with physical controls — and, yes, a crank — has value. It’s fun and satisfying, in a way that fingers touching glass isn’t,” said Maletic.

Mono-tasking devices that promise a simplified, nostalgic experience have not all taken off. Runcible was marketed as a phone that was more wood than screen and a promise of fewer distractions. A little over 10 years ago, the $50 Peekwas released as a dedicated e-mail device with a small screen and Blackberry-like keyboard. The more recent Palm is a mini smartphone that acts like a sidekick to your real phone. Of course, the ultimate simple tech products are e-readers such as the Kindle, which is doing just fine.

Games could be an easier sell. If Playdate doesn’t take off, Panic has other sources of income. The company has more than 20 years experience making software for Macs, iPhones and iPads, including games such as Firewatch and Untitled Goose Game. This is its first foray into hardware, but the company thinks there is an audience waiting for it.

“It’s admittedly a leap of faith for the customer, but we think for a lot of people, that’ll be the attraction: that’ll be the fun of it,” said Maletic. “Surprises are fun.”

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