A (Play)date with destiny

This week saw Panic and Teenage Engineering’s long awaited Playdate console finally arrive at the doors of critics and a few lucky early adopters. The tiny yellow handheld with a crank controller and a games subscription model is designed to provide a playground for current and aspiring developers to create and share small-scale indie games via direct downloads. It’s niche in the extreme, but the fact that a product like this exists at all – a product Panic say they made “just for fun” – is testament to the diversity, creativity, and the desire for bold new ideas within the games industry.

A little less niche, but still some way from mainstream, is Valve’s Steam Deck. It makes a lot more sense on the surface (take all of your Steam games on the go!), and is a technical powerhouse, but it’s big, a little unwieldy, and it’s a PC in a lot of the bad ways as well as the good. Setup can be complicated, patches and updates are endless (these should level out after the initial launch period, of course, but will never go away), and software compatibility is a technical and logistical nightmare. In some circles it is being hailed as the Switch killer, but it’ll never come close to reaching the kind of audience Nintendo’s all-conquering crowd-pleaser enjoys.

Still, just like Playdate, Steam Deck at least deserves a fair shot at success. But protracted development cycles, delayed releases, and extreme scarcity are endangering both consoles’ prospects before they have even begun.

I placed a Steam Deck pre-order within half an hour of them going live in July 2021 – nine months ago. It officially released in February this year and my current estimated shipping date is “April-June 2022”. I tried to pre-order a Playdate when they went live too (also in July last year), but European payments were broken during the 20 minutes it took for 2021 stock to completely sell out. If you were to stop reading this and place an order for either console right now, you’re looking at “October or later” for a Steam Deck, and simply “2023” for Playdate.

Some of this is outside of Valve and Panic’s control, of course – those who currently own (or still don’t own!) a PS5 or Series X will know all too well that hardware scarcity is nothing new these days – but these handhelds were a risky proposition even before global chip shortages and logistical problems helped make them borderline impossible to get hold of.

Thankfully, the critical consensus for Steam Deck and the critical consensus for Playdate are positive, with most reviews stating that both comfortably achieve what they set out to do. Also, many people (and I’m sure a few reading this) will look at Steam Deck and see a dream machine. A portable powerhouse capable of playing hundreds of games they already own, and one that also seems strangely open to emulating older and current systems. Similarly, many will see Playdate as the gorgeous piece of industrial design it is, and delight at its gradual delivery of weird and wonderful bite-sized games.

But are those audiences big enough to see these consoles escape their respective niche? To prevent them from becoming another abandoned Valve hardware experiment and another unique handheld destined to gather dust in gaming’s collective cupboard? I truly hope so. But I fear for the future of both.

This article is an extract from The Week in Games newsletter.

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