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From Snake to Snak: Indie developer Zach Gage on creating for Playdate

"With a really good game you've invented the rules for a universe that doesn't exist, and then you've found the one tiny corner of that universe that's actually interesting."

April 20, 2022

11 Min Read

Clap eyes on the Playdate and your pupils will dart towards the crank -- that little silver prong nestled to the right of the handheld that whispers "go on, give me a spin." It's one of the most unique things about the ditty console -- to be fair, it's one of the most unique things about any console -- and yet, for indie developer Zach Gage, it melted into the background.

Speaking to Game Developer earlier this year, Gage -- the experimental creator behind titles like Typeshift, SpellTower, Good Sudoku, Tharsis, and Playdate launch title, Snak -- explained it was, perhaps surprisingly, the handheld's two unassuming buttons that set his imagination alight.

Although he's racked up an impressive number of credits throughout his career, Gage rarely makes games with buttons -- so while everyone else was losing their mind over the crank, he became fixated on creating something that could leverage the console's more traditional inputs while still surprising players.

"I started to think about games I played in my past that used buttons and embedded little devices and stuff," recalled Gage. "And I started to think a lot about Snake and playing Snake on my old Nokia. Snake is critically a button game. It's all about button presses, timing, and knowing knowing that you did this thing at the exact right moment."

As you might've guessed from the name and snake-infused header image, Snak aims to build on the core concept of Snake by adding a mysterious new mechanic. At the time of writing, we have no idea what exactly that mechanic is -- no spoilers! -- but Gage suggests it's a twist that'll captivate and delight.

Iterating on a classic

"With Snak, I had an idea for one action that I could add to the game. That's generally my approach to games and game design. I'm heavily focused on iterating and trying a lot of things and doing a lot of prototypes and throwing out a lot of stuff," explains Gage, breaking down his process.

"In general my feeling with games is that -- with a really good game you've invented the rules for a universe that doesn't exist, and then you've found the one tiny corner of that universe that's actually interesting and built a game there."

According to Gage, actually finding the little corner of your sprawling universe that's going to keep players engaged is a "mind-bending" process that can often cause the wheels to come off entirely. It's an exploratory phase that, even with the best will in the world, doesn't guarantee success.

"The biggest danger when you're trying to design a game, especially a game that has new mechanics, is getting to a state where you feel lost and you don't know what direction to take," he continues. "Of course that's going to happen, because you're building a giant universe and then you're trying to find this little tiny corner. So preserving that sense of direction as a designer is really important, and as soon as you lose it -- that's when you throw the project out and move to something new. Finding a sense of direction is just as hard as coming up with a totally new idea"

Usually when Gage makes games, he strives to turn that nebulous idea into a prototype as soon as possible. Then, if that prototype starts speaking to him in some way, he knows a project is worth pursuing. If not -- well, there's always next time.

"Usually the experience I have is I'm playing a game, and one cool thing happens -- or one cool thing almost happens. Then it's like 'oh, is there a way I could've engineered that within the mechanics? Is there a way I could control where the cards are going to land? Is there a way I could have changed my button inputs to do this?' And when I have that experience, that's what I'm looking for in a prototype."

So, what's the "cool thing" that drives Snak? Without giving too much away, Gage told us he "really went hard" on the idea of buttons, and that buffered inputs were really important for the kind of game he was striving to create. He also notes that, this time around, the original idea contained a "very compelling" feature that took a while to really capitalize on.

"When I first started making Snak, it was probably seven years ago. I was a very different kind of developer, and so it was a little bit uncompromising in terms of difficulty. Since then, I've changed some of the philosophies behind how I try and design games. I'm trying to make games that are still tough, but maybe also generous in a different kind of way," he continues.

"One of the things that bothered me with Snak was it was a game that got interesting when players got good at it, and trying to get it to a place where it was interesting when you aren't good was really tough."

To address that issue, Gage says he made tweaks to make Snak more forgiving. He aimed to give players the feeling they're performing well even when they're making small errors. He suggests allowing the game to be more generous makes a "big difference," because Snak is still pretty damn tough when you're on top form.

Gage concedes there was no reason to punish players by being so needlessly strict, and says he was inspired to start dialling back the difficulty curve after chatting with the team behind chaotic slaughterhouse Disc Room -- who chose to slow down time by 10 percent when players are near one of the title's many saw blades. It's a simple adjustment on paper, but Gage notes how it allows people to play at a higher level without compromising the design or moment-to-moment feel of the game.

Still, being kinda-sorta-bad at Snake is also a pretty fundamental part of the experience.

"I think one of the things that's kind of weird about Snake as a game in general, is that it has a very distinct sort of like player culture, which is everybody's played it, almost nobody's good at it," Gage continues. "Very few people have a high score they can even remember. I think my experience playing Snake is one where I probably managed to score 10 a couple times when I was bored."

He posits that the role of Snake, as a game, is simply to kill a bit of time when you're bored. That was the beauty of the original Nokia title. Nobody was trying to "complete" it -- although there are some God-tier players who did. Instead, they were probably trying to stave off boredom on a commute, or in the my case of my parents, keep your kids entertained for a few precious minutes while you're out shopping.

It's not a title that's meant to be played for hours on end, and that in itself presented another challenge.

Finding the sweet spot

"It's funny to try to make a Snake game, because if the game was too good, it wouldn't fit that culture. Initially I had something like 100 levels and there were different puzzles, but then it doesn't work as Snake, because you're never going to come back to it," notes Gage.

"But if you sit down and you play like five or six rounds, and you're like, 'oh, that was pretty fun, whatever, I'm going to go do something else,' that's ideal, because now you've got a game you're going to come back to the next time you're sitting around with the device and you're bored, because the pick-up time is so quick."

Gage concedes he'll need to wait for people to go hands-on with the Playdate to see if Snak hits the mark in that regard, and explains he might have even approached the project differently had he known it would've taken this long for the console to hit shelves. 

Elaborating on that point, Gage suggests that games flourish when they exist in context, which is provided by the state of the world around us -- be it the industry itself, popular jokes and memes, or whatever else is in vogue. With that in mind, Gage says that had he known just how long Playdate would've been in the oven, he might've taken a more measured approach to his commission. 

"If I'd had a sense of what the sort of length and structure of this project would be, I would have approached it completely differently," he explains. "I don't know if I would have made something different. But I certainly would have been a lot more thoughtful about understanding and making something that was appropriate for the context that existed."

In developing for Playdate, it seems like most creators have existed in a sort of stasis. For them, the project has been and gone, while for the rest of the world, Playdate remains the next big thing. When I ask Gage how he the thinks Panic's barmy slice of hardware will be received, the experimental developer suggests that one of its biggest strengths will be the communities that spring up around it.

Breaking down some of the specs that really turned him onto the console, Gage suggests the hardware itself is really exciting. Like others I spoke with, Gage feels the restraints Playdate imposes -- such as asking devs to work in a fixed resolution with minimal color -- will actually liberate creators.

"I'm so excited about the tools they're building around this for other people to develop, because it is so constrained that it really enables you to do a lot of things very quickly," says Gage.

"The most impressive part me is the software suite and development tools they've built -- they're extremely good. The simulator on the computer is great. The way that it loads to the device is great. Everything is super fast. Writing is really quick. I think, in terms of what you need to have a device that has a thriving developer community, that's actually the most important part, and that part, they absolutely nailed."

Gages describes the overall experience of developing for Playdate as wonderfully "back to basics," a stripped back affair that reminded him of the days when he first started making games for the original iPhone.

"I remember when I was making Bit Pilot (for the iPhone and iPod), which is a game that no one could imagine required optimization, I had to optimize the collision checking with the asteroids, because if I tried to check their collision against every asteroid, it would break. That was really fun. It was a blast to have to solve those kinds of problems on the original iPhone.

"Now everything is in Unity. Everything is scalable in any resolution. [That sort of development] presents challenges aren't fun. They're just problems that you have to solve. So yeah, it was very exciting to get to work on Playdate and to have all these challenges that are actually interesting."

A community effort

Towards the end of our conversation, we begin discussing some of the other incredible work being done on Playdate. Although the titles that comprise Season One have largely been kept under wraps, the brief glimpses we've seen have showcased everything from marble-infused visual novels and noir mysteries to narrative-driven photography sims and time-bending romances. To say it's impressive what developers have squeezed into the miniscule console would be an understatement, but Gage suggests anybody looking to create something of their own for the device shouldn't be overawed.

"I don't think you need to approach anything close to that kind of fidelity to make something that's really cool and great on this device. I'm really excited about the more straightforward coding tools [such as Panic's in-browser dev tool, Pulp] that will allow people to make really simple little adventure games," he continues.

"I'm really excited about the promise of those kind of games and that kind of development environment. I think Panic is so good at building tools and infrastructure, that if they do succeed in getting people to be excited about developing on this device, I think we're going to see a really great infrastructure in terms of players being able to have their games be accessible, it's hard for me not to imagine that we're not going to live in a world where you boot up the device and browse a bunch of games that people have made and download the ones that are free and play them and see what's in store."

Gage describes the potential for a burgeoning, vibrant, and accessible developer community to rally around the Playdate as "the most thrilling part of the device." That's not to say the hardware itself isn't worth raving about, but there are plenty of handhelds on the market at this pint that offer similar retro-infused experiences. The real potential here, lies in the community itself.

"To me, there are so many handheld contests at this point, I don't even care about that stuff. You could make the prettiest console in the world, but that's not going to excite me. The thing that I'm excited for is the potential for a community, and I think they're really there in terms of the capacity to support that community, and grow that community, and build great software for that community. That's what's really exciting for me."

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