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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

Playdate's Pulp stirs up creative juices and makes game dev accessible

AlternateHamlet, George Banks, and Ron Lent on making games using the Playdate handheld's friendly browser-based development studio, Pulp


Beyond the crank, beyond its charming yellow design, the Playdate still has one more exciting feature hidden in its depths: a tool built to fulfill dreams, giving people the power to bring their game ideas to life on this unique handheld. It's Playdate's game-making toolkit called Pulp.


With Panic's support, a user-friendly development language, a community excited to help newbies diving into it, and the ability to submit your games directly to the Playdate's store, Pulp drives even more indie power to this funky little handheld.


A screenshot of the web-based Pulp development screen. In the middle of the screen is the game's tilemap. Underneath that are the series of tiles that make up the game's sprites. To the right, you can see the tile editor for the sprites, which uses a basic 8x8 grid. Underneath that you can see a small box for the game's code. On the left end of the screen, a menu shows pages for "Game", "Font", "Room", "Song", "Sound", and "Script". Buttons can be seen for undo, redo, save, and play.

Pulp is an all-in-one web-based game-making toolkit that is built to remove as many barriers as possible from development for newcomers. For your art, your code, and even your audio (music and sound effects), Pulp has you covered.


You can create 8x8 sprites and tiles with a simple click and draw tool, do simple frame-by-frame animation, and place them all on tile-based grids that work within the Playdate's 400x240 screen resolution. Music and sound effects work with simple loops and traditional lane-driven note placement. And the script language is built to be as simple as possible, built around if-then statements and simple modular code blocks that are best suited for the kinds of adventure games from the Game Boy era.


And that's just if you stick to the official documentation. If you dive into the developer forums, you can find folks collaborating to find sneaky solutions to bypass the limitations of the engine and system itself, building minigame collections, art galleries, and puzzle games that feel nothing like the constraints of the engine that built it.


There's heaps to love about Pulp. You can test the game in seconds, right there in your browser. You can output it to your Playdate and start playing the game you just built a few minutes ago on your browser... in your hands. You don't have to learn the kinds of programming that would make most people's brains ache in order to make a game.


It's accessible. Its limits promote creativity. It's far from the greatest game creation toolkit out there, but it is, importantly, a place to get started. Those can be hard to find.


To really understand what Pulp is all about, we decided to dive into the deep end and chat with the folks squeezing all they possibly can out of the engine to hear their fascinating stories.

 

AlternateHamlet's 72-hour journey with Pulp: I am a wizard and my shoulder hurts


A screenshot of the title screen for the game I am a wizard and my shoulder hurts. A wizard sits in a black void, just under the title of the game in olde English script, surrounded by bunnies.

AlternateHamlet is a self-described "gadget lover" who saw herself pulled toward the Playdate for those reasons. If there was any gaming system you could call a gadget, the Playdate fits the bill. But her Pulp development story differs from the pack because of the environment in which she developed her game. AlternateHamlet used Pulp to develop a game in 72 hours for the popular biannual game jam competition Ludum Dare.


"I incidentally didn't know anything about PlayDate dev going in, other than that it was easy to get into," AlternateHamlet told us. "I didn't plan to make a PlayDate game for LD either. I settled on a vague idea for the game, slept on it, browsed a few Pulp-compatible fonts, and finally settled down to start it like 23 hours after the event started."


She found Pulp's limitations to be a fun little puzzle, having to work around the strange structure of the programming language or the fixed 8x8 sprite size, being some of the most obvious issuesparticularly when developing within the time constraints of a game jam environment. But despite her unique predicament, she wasn't alone in navigating these constraints. She introduced us to a place that many Pulp users are likely to frequent to get answers to these kinds of questions, a resource we'd hear about countless times in our interviews with other Pulp game developers.


"There is a Pulp developer's forum where people share ideas like how to handle larger sprites or track map tiles under NPCs or do smooth motion around the map, ways to get around the limitations," she explained. "I love that kind of stuff."


Within just 48 hours, AlternateHamlet developed a fascinating little adventure game called I am a wizard and my shoulder hurts. In IAaWaMSH (I love acronyms), you play as a wizard... whose shoulder hurts. The game constantly reminds you of this with a prominent pain meter tracked on the screen at all times, and the wizard takes every opportunity to mention it in dialogue. The only way to alleviate the pain is to perform an exercise called "The Crank" which sees the player pumping the Playdate's crank to make the wizard crank their arm to stretch it out. But because he's a wizard, magic hijinks ensue. The crank also happens to be an exercise that summons bunnies. Navigate a day in the life of this wizard, feeling shoulder pain and accidentally summoning rooms full of bunnies, and try to get one of the game's nine endings.


An in game screenshot of the Playdate game I am a wizard and my shoulder hurts. A text bubble floats above the scene that reads: "Your shoulder hurts too much to open the door." A pain meter is at 60% and visible in the upper right of the screen. A small 8x8 pixel wizard can be seen standing just outside of a door tile.

AlternateHamlet's bite-sized adventure was inadvertently inspired by classic flash games like Don't Shit Your Pants, and that charm and humor is so clear and present. It's a tiny adventure but, like many Playdate games, it makes an immediate and powerful impact. And it had a similar impact on the developer as it did the player.


"I know I say this every LD and never do, but this time, for real, I'm going to go back and polish this game up and finish it. But seriously though, I really liked this experience and I really like the platform, and I will probably mess around with it more."


AlternateHamlet's story tells us one key thing. Considering someone could feasibly learn the engine, develop a game with nine endings, and troubleshoot issues on a unique system all within the span of 72 hours, Pulp has got to be one of the most approachable game dev tools out there to tinker with today.


If three days of dedicated focus can produce that kind of result, what can a year's time do?


The accessibility of Pulp offers George Banks dream fulfillment - The Crank Gym/Along Came a Spider


An in-game screenshot for the Playdate game The Crank Gym. The player stands in the middle of a busy gym. Various machines are in use by its members: a treadmill, a lifting bench, a rowing machine, and a yoga mat.

George Banks is an actor, a father of two very young children, and one-half of Fatnose Games, a Pulp development studio that released two full games in a year's time. Considering the quality of his games — the Pulp Game of the Year nominee Along Came a Spider and the crank minigame collection The Crank Gym — you'd be surprised to hear that he started totally green.


"I had zero experience before this," Banks said. "I'm kind of just too old to have done coding in school. It'd always been a dream of mine to make computer games, so when I saw that [the Playdate] had a simple to use open dev kit, I was interested in it from day one."


Banks grew up as a fan of the "deep but simple" games from the Game Boy era and found that the Playdate, and Pulp itself, was perfectly suited for those kinds of experiences. He had an idea about a spider climbing a web using the crank and decided to follow where it led.


"I started to look at the script and found that I could get my head around the basic stuff: making sounds, programming basics," recalled Banks. "But then I got really stuck. So, I spoke to my cousin, Johnny, who does coding. He was really interested in what could be done with the engine, so I just said, 'Shall we make a game together?' After that, we formed Fatnose Games."


Fatnose Games put out two games in 2022 and found themselves immediately embedded in the Pulp community. The Crank Gym was our first introduction to the team, a surprising little minigame collection with fun small narrative bits that evoked some favorite Game Boy sports RPGs. You use the crank to try and break records on the rowing machine, on the treadmill, and in the stamina-building weightlifting world. Using the Playdate's accelerometer, you can even get a nice stretch in with the yoga expert at the gym. It's a charming little adventure that showcased some of that Pulp ingenuity, too, breaking through the 8x8 pixel limitation by stacking multiple sprite blocks to make one character, thereby creating more detailed sprite work.


An in-game screenshot of the Playdate game Along Came a Spider. A smiling spider descends down a spider web, dodging flies that are zooming left and right. They're all in a room that you can see in the background with a chair, a giant crate, and a window that lets light into the space. The game's user interface shows a series of hearts and a crank guide.

That's the kind of thing AlternateHamlet was talking about in terms of what goes on in the Pulp developer forums — crews of people come together to figure out creative solutions, like Banks's multi-block sprite work, to make Pulp games even better.


"I think that's a massive credit to Panic that they've made it accessible to so many people and encouraged that creativity. That's fostered a really nice community as well. Anybody that you meet that's involved in the Pulp scene is more than happy to talk, to share their stories about it, and to share what they've been up to. It's a fantastic system for that," said Banks.


In fact, that community's so important to Banks that he created a project to showcase the incredible music that Pulp developers have made in their games with "Now That's What I Call Pulp," a music app that features over 60 tracks from Pulp games all across the map. That kind of showcase of artistry and collaboration for an engine that's only two years old is a testament to what this community can do. And Banks only wants to see it grow.


"I just hope that people are keen to share their Playdate with others and let people in on the experience, because I think it's a really fascinating little pocket of the games industry. One that's well worth having as many people involved as possible."


While Banks was able to realize a long-term dream of game creation with Pulp, Ron Lent's journey to development followed a more inadvertent path, starting with an artist's background and a chance purchase in 2020.


Ron Lent's whirlwind journey to game dev changed the way he looked at art - EYELAND


The key art for the game EYELAND. A small ghostly blob character looks off to the side. A yellow to white gradient colors his body and the game's title can be seen underneath.

EYELAND was one of the first games I played on the Playdate — in part because I knew it had won awards as one of the best Pulp-developed games. I was deeply curious to see what that engine was capable of. What I was treated with was an extraordinary adventure game with a confident pixel art style and full of fun flourishes that spoke to a level of polish I never expected from a "user-friendly" game engine. I'm used to "cookie cutter" experiences that feel a little bland or same-y from engines like Pulp, and instead I was indulged with a wholeheartedly original adventure with incredible ideas. Surely this came from a developer with years of experience and an innate knowledge of game design.


Enter Ron Lent, a New York artist and musician with over 30 years of experience as the creative lead of an advertising agency... who had only really started playing video games in 2020.


"Right at the beginning of COVID, just after a big freelance gig, I went to the store for an SD card for my camera. And I saw a Nintendo Switch and thought 'Wow, that's a pretty device,'" reminisced Lent. "I thought 'It's too bad I'm not a gamer.' But then I just decided to buy it. And the guy at the register said I needed to play Breath of the Wild, but I wasn't so sure because I'm not into the dragons and crystals kinds of stories.

"It completely changed me."


Lent proceeded to play the entire Zelda series, started dabbling in other games recommended to him by friends (like Metroid), and found that it entirely changed the way he approached his art moving forward. "I started thinking about my art as not just a single thing to look at, but maybe something more like an adventure for your eye."


Lent was already familiar with Teenage Engineering, Panic's partner on the hardware side of things, because of his work as a musician. He'd done a lot of work with their OP-1 synthesizer and had a buddy introduce him to the Playdate soon after. Lent, like many others, had to wait for his Playdate due to limited stock. But he'd already caught word about Pulp and started to tinker with it while he waited for his little yellow square to arrive.


An animated GIF of the game EYELAND. It showcases a series of scenes that highlight EYELAND's gameplay. It starts with a small blobby character waking up in a small dome-shaped house and getting out of bed and leaving the house. It then shows the blob leaving from a giant skyscraper with an eye on it. From there it shows the blob from the side-on perspective in some kind of factory-like setting, before ending on the blob navigating dark tunnels in the same side-on view.

"I really thought I was just going to use Pulp to create artwork," explained Lent. "I was going to play around with patterns and things and get screen grabs of what I created. But then, as soon as I ran the game, I hit play, and I was able to move my character around a little environment... it blew my mind."


Lent was excited by it. He found Pulp easy to work with and its community helpful as he grew his understanding of things. He kept tinkering, and suddenly he was working on a game.


"The thing about Pulp is it felt like I could grasp it," said Lent. "It felt like I could manage to make something. It didn't matter to me that I didn't have millions of colors. Or that it was tile based. Or that the system didn't have many buttons. Because you can make a story engaging no matter what. Those limitations didn't matter to me.


"I love simple tools. Tools that allow people to just dive right into the making and the expressing."

 

And that's what Pulp is: a simple tool that removes the barriers of entry and allows people of all experience levels to dive right into the deep end. A tool that allows young fathers who dreamed of making games an opportunity to do just that. A tool that someone with no prior knowledge of the engine's capabilities could hop into and make a game with in a 72-hour game jam.


I've called the Playdate a beacon of creativity, and Pulp is the amplifier that helps that bad boy shine bright. A box inside a box, each with their own limitations, that together help spawn amazing kinds of creativity. Talking to these developers, hearing their stories, and learning about the cooperative community surrounding Pulp, it'll give anyone the bug to make a game of their own. Myself included.


Whether you're leaning into the idea of developing with Pulp or just want to play the superstar indies it builds, it's amazing to know that the next time you pick up your Playdate, you could be playing a game crafted by someone who themselves just got into gaming or game development a few years, months or weeks ago.

1 comentariu


Joel Bacon
Joel Bacon
01 mai

The feminine/masculine/nonbinary urge to buy a playdate only rises.

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