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Sweet Baby co-founder David Bedard explains how the studio worked alongside creators from marginalized communities to build two new games for Panic's groovy Playdate handheld.

Chris Kerr, News Editor

April 5, 2023

8 Min Read
A photograph of Recommendation Dog!!! on the Playdate

Last month, Playdate maker Panic updated the sunny handheld with a curated digital storefront called Catalog that launched alongside two new (free) games for Season One: Recommendation Dog!! (RecDog) and Reel Steal.

Both of those projects were made by teams of up-and-coming developers from marginalized communities, assisted by narrative development company Sweet Baby Inc.–which you might recognize as the studio behind Lost Your Marbles, another Playdate project that was featured in the Season One launch lineup.

In a chat with Game Developer earlier this year, Sweet Baby co-founder David Bédard said both games came about because the team wanted to share what they learned working on Lost Your Marbles to help other budding devs hit the ground running.

"We had a really wonderful experience working with Panic on Lost Your Marbles. They put a lot of trust in us, who at the time were a new studio who hadn’t shipped a game, and we ended up with a game we were really proud of thanks to that opportunity. Not only that, but we learned a ton and perfected a pretty good production process for a Playdate-sized game. We used the budget efficiently, and we made the game over the course of five to six months," said Bédard, explaining how the team's debut Playdate project took shape.

"On top of that, through our outreach work at Sweet Baby, we meet a lot of up-and-coming marginalized developers looking to break into the industry. So when Panic approached us to ask if we had any ideas how they could leverage Playdate to help marginalized communities, it made perfect sense to use our production learnings and apply them to a couple of projects where newcomers to the industry could learn on the job, flanked by established mentors."

Getting cranky

That pitch resulted in Sweet Baby forming two teams of roughly 12 people to create RecDog and Reel Steal, with each of those team being split 50/50 between those in mentorship roles and fledgling devs.

Each game was completed in around six months, but, despite that positive outcome, Bédard suggests it was still "a bit too ambitious" for Sweet Baby to undertake two projects simultaneously. He notes that both titles ended up having "wildly different" production schedules due to some fundamental design differences, which resulted in some mentors bouncing between roles.

"RecDog started with an iron-clad design doc by Xalavier Nelson Jr., and then spent a longer time in proof-of-concept phase, getting a first version to work correctly. But once that was done, we basically jumped straight into content production (in this case, client requests and rolodex cards) and balancing," he explains. "Reel Steal, on the other hand, had a Big Idea to start with (stealth + fishing mechanics) but we spent a lot of time in design phase, figuring out exactly how to get a fun control scheme on the Playdate’s limited set of inputs, and then had a more traditional production calendar with a prototype, a demo, and then a full production that involved making levels and art assets for each."

A screenshot from Recommendation Dog!!! showing players being hit with a request

There were unforeseen technical challenges, too. Reel Steal's control scheme, for instance, relies on a combination of cranking and button presses. That might sounds fairly standard for a Playdate title, but it turned out to be a surprisingly awkward setup.

"We only realized that it’s actually pretty hard to crank and press buttons at the same time due to how your hands hold the device during prototype phase. Having one hand on the crank and the other on the d-pad doing inputs isn’t actually comfortable or stable enough to crank reliably, and this game has a lot of cranking. But we had to have the player move the fishing line vertically (crank) and horizontally in order to move through the levels, which worked fine in our PC prototype," adds Bédard.

"So, because of this physical limitation, we had to find ways for the fishing line to move laterally without the player actually using the d-pad. In the end, our lead engineer Ayla came up with a great idea to have the fishing line sway left-to-right on a rhythm, with only one button press required to change directions, which we could assign to the A button, a more comfortable and stable hand placement for the player. This fundamentally changed the feel of the game from a precise fishing line manipulation game to a more off-kilter, slightly comedic, momentum based action game - and we ended up designing all obstacles, fail states, and extra achievements around this."

A screenshot from Reel Steal showing players descending on a fishing line

Although the Playdate has plenty of limitations that require smart workarounds or experimental thinking, Bédard claims that only adds to the appeal of the platform. He suggests those limitations force designers to find creative solutions to problems and really commit to an idea, harking back to an era of design when the Game Boy was in vogue and small teams would take wild swings and sometimes ship "deeply weird games as a result."

"The Game Boy itself is, in my opinion, an overlooked platform that had a staggering amount of innovation in its titles, but that innovation was mostly in design, not in graphics or graphics or anything of the sort. I feel like the Playdate is a great platform to develop for because it recreates those circumstances for today's world," he says, name-dropping Final Fantasy Legend as one of those titles that was perhaps perceived as something of an oddity when it launched. 

Pitch Perfect

Those technical caveats ultimately forced Sweet Baby to drill down and understand what they were trying to create, and crucially, who they were making it for. The Playdate hadn't actually launched when the company started production on RecDog and Reel Steal, but having already developed Lost Your Marbles, the team felt that players would be more engaged by a project that delivered punchy 5 to 15 minute play sessions.

"Specifically for RecDog, Xalavier was adamant about making the game the best 5-to-15 minute session possible, and rebuffed many of the team's (okay, it was mostly me) attempts to pitch a story mode. He knew that investing our time and effort in deepening the game would pay off way more than trying to make a game that would have any sort of campaign. Seeing how the Playdate fanbase interacts with the content now, I can say without a doubt that he was right," continues Bédard.

To help the team remain focused, Nelson Jr. created a two-page design document for RecDog that Bédard describes as "the best pitch for a game I've seen, but also the clearest instruction manual for making a game." Everything Sweet Baby needed was laid out on those two pages, meaning everybody involved knew exactly what was expected of them.

The first logline for Recdog, part of the design spec written by Xalavier Nelson Jr.

As for Reel Steal, Sweet Baby based that project on an old concept it had sent Panic when it was pitching the studio on its first game. "We had a deck of something like seven concepts which included Lost Your Marbles, Reel Steal (then called Hook, Line and Sinker), and a bunch of other stuff that definitely didn’t include an unofficial sequel to the Crank movie franchise," says Bédard.

"We, and everyone who has ever seen the Playdate, had the idea of a fishing game, but we wanted to make something that had a story, and memorable characters, and wasn’t just a fishing game. So we mocked up a picture of Lupin the 3rd holding a fishing rod, and that felt pretty good. Steal from bazillionaires, leave a funny calling card, and that's that."

Slide one of the two-slide concept for Reel Steal, originally titled Hook, Line and Sinker.

Slide two of the two-slide concept for Reel Steal, originally titled Hook, Line and Sinker.

He notes that both concepts were ultimately deemed viable because of their straightforward, clear-cut approach to design. One was a puzzle score-attack title, and the other was a straight-up level-based action game. Those were easy formats to parcel out tasks for, allowing junior members of both teams to ease themselves into the process without becoming overwhelmed.

For Bédard, if you're looking to create a "slam dunk" for Playdate, you'll need a strong hook, good aesthetics, solid design that considers the limitations of the platform, and a core gameplay loop that facilitates shorter play sessions. He also suggests that developers leverage a "modular approach to content production," because it'll help them believe they can make it over the finish line.

"[Modular production] is a gift to your future self. If you look at all three of our games, you can see how more content could be added in tomorrow without breaking the structure at all–this was by design. Try to avoid game pitches with a lot of bespoke content that cannot be reused, and instead focus on finding strong core mechanics that can serve many different purposes."

Playdate owners can download both Recommendation Dog!!! and Reel Steal for free through the Catalog marketplace.

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About the Author(s)

Chris Kerr

News Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Game Developer news editor Chris Kerr is an award-winning journalist and reporter with over a decade of experience in the game industry. His byline has appeared in notable print and digital publications including Edge, Stuff, Wireframe, International Business Times, and PocketGamer.biz. Throughout his career, Chris has covered major industry events including GDC, PAX Australia, Gamescom, Paris Games Week, and Develop Brighton. He has featured on the judging panel at The Develop Star Awards on multiple occasions and appeared on BBC Radio 5 Live to discuss breaking news.

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