When Panic first announced the Playdate in 2019, it became a curious object of speculation. What was this strange new device, and how would we get our hands on it?
First impressions revealed a quirky new toy with equally eccentric retro-flavored games designed for its D-pad controls and signature feature, a foldable hand crank. With its tiny black-and-white screen and “seasonal” games from indie stars like Keita Takahashi (working with Ryan Mohler under the name “uvula”), Bennett Foddy, Dave Hoffman (davemakes), and Serenity Forge, the Playdate felt like a no-brainer purchase for so many reasons: novelty, nostalgia, creative experimentation, and a return to intimate explorations of fun and the sort of general goofballery that you just don’t get on major consoles. (The Playdate also allows sideloaded games, so devs can make games with the Playdate creation tool, Pulp, and sell them on itch.io.)
The first wave of preorders sold out in less than 20 minutes. I, too, was ready to throw fistfuls of cash at Panic, especially after learning that this tiny yellow dream was being manufactured in Malaysia, right next door to me in Singapore. Theoretically, this sounds like it should be a big win for Southeast Asian indie games from both game-making and consumer standpoints. But in truth, it feels like more of a sore spot and an unfortunate case study for the messy, post-imperialistic business of manufacturing and logistics.
When Leeying Foo first heard that the Playdate was being made in her home country, she was pumped. “I was very thrilled and honestly very proud!” said Foo, an award-winning UX/UI designer in Kuala Lumpur. “But it soon became apparent that the console would be a very niche and limited console that not a lot of people would be able to get their hands on.” The Star, a major English-language paper in the country, ran a pointed news story with the headline: “Playdate gaming console: Made in Malaysia, but not available in Malaysia.”
“This is, ironically, the most complicated shipping situation of all.”
Not long after the launch announcement, Playdate put a notice on its shipping page about its availability in Malaysia. “This is, ironically, the most complicated shipping situation of all,” it begins, going on to explain that Panic can’t ship or sell Playdates directly to Malaysian customers for tax reasons. It would make little sense to ship Playdates from Malaysia to California — where Panic’s fulfillment center is located — and then back to Malaysia again.
“We also sell Mac software and publish video games, both digital goods,” explained Panic co-founder Cabel Sasser over email. “The moment we begin directly shipping physical goods to any country, it establishes a potential tax relationship with that country.” Besides a bunch of time-consuming research on tax laws and bureaucratic procedures, Panic’s shipping priorities included figuring out the Playdate DDP (“delivered duties paid”), which basically refers to taxes and custom fees that are calculated up-front so that there aren’t any hidden surprises for the customer, say, if the Playdate gets held hostage at customs.
“The core day-to-day Playdate team is roughly just six people,” Sasser added, another deciding factor in how big they could go with their launch plans. “Playdate was very much a one-day-at-a-time production. It’s possible that if we had really sat down and looked at all of the work it would take to make and sell this thing, we never would have made it in the first place, so it was maybe almost a form of self-preservation.”
Panic decided to go with a Malaysian factory in Kedah — home to the country’s first high-tech industrial park — based on a glowing recommendation from their manufacturing consultant and only found out about the sale restrictions later on in the process. “Shipping and logistics work occurred very late in the project’s lifespan because we were so focused on learning how to make hardware for so long,” Sasser explained, emphasizing the challenges of making a hitherto-unimaginable piece of indie hardware. “We had always hoped that, since our factory was in Malaysia, they could very easily deliver Playdate units to people locally or in bulk to game shops in the area, but we were quickly informed that, in fact, that’s not possible. That was a big disappointment to us.” It makes sense — Panic doesn’t have a lot of presence in Southeast Asia, unlike Sony, which has been here for years.
“Shipping and logistics work occurred very late in the project’s lifespan.”
A year on from Panic’s statement about finding new paths in Malaysia, not much has changed. And while Playdate’s very western list of starter countries get hyped to finally get their preorders, it’s interesting to note that Malaysians aren’t quite on the same page. Sasser explained that the starter countries were decided from a pre-launch survey, and people from the US, Canada, and much of western Europe made up the top 15 respondents. Japan is the only Asian country on the list, which makes sense as Panic already has a small outpost there. It’s a tedious continuation of the very static idea that Japan, while the birthplace of the world’s most famous consoles and arguably the most mature gaming market in the region, sufficiently represents the massive Asian market when it comes to distribution. The shipping page note goes on to say that Panic hasn’t given up and is continuing to explore “new ideas on this front,” with a rather late survey to gauge interest in Malaysia.
“It’s unsurprising that few people know of Playdate in Malaysia, considering most Malaysian consumers barely know there’s a local industry of game developers,” said Foo. “Like even our outsourced work for big overseas AAA titles, most people wouldn’t even know Malaysians have worked on it. I was in a talk recently, and one of the speakers brought up a saying, ‘the chicken at home tastes like lentils,’ basically to say things that are being made in your home country are not as interesting as the ones overseas.”
“Generally, not many know of [the Playdate’s] existence, but their development has been interesting, and some of us have been following their project for some time,” said former game developer I-Van Yee, who now works at the Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation, a state agency that oversees digital content development. “In general, it’s true that most developers won’t flock to the device instantly because of its gimmicky nature and an untested market, but I personally believe if academics or high-school-level students got their hands on it, we [could] see some pretty interesting development.” As a former lecturer, Yee sees the Playdate as a promising creative tool for both students and teachers. “Academics could and should take some risks and experiment with new platforms,” he said.
Making Playdate’s development kit available to Malaysia’s burgeoning indie scene would be a huge win for everyone involved, especially as government arts funding, according to The Star, is still fixed on putting on short-term showcases rather than big-picture cultural development and infrastructure. The Playdate’s failure to launch in Malaysia isn’t just a learning mistake on Panic’s part — the government, too, failed to recognize the potential of the Playdate as a creative educational tool. It’s also unfortunate that, according to Sasser, various potential local partners that Panic reached out to “ghosted” them.
“Seeing Panic’s experience with distribution here has not been great.”
There’s also the issue of vastly different gaming markets. Smartphone gaming supremacy is very real in Southeast Asia. “Seeing Panic’s experience with distribution here has not been great; it really could have been due to the fact that most local studios are more interested in monetization and making financially viable products,” says Foo. “Honestly understandable, ‘cause as a developing country, companies are more focused on accelerating financial standing in the global market, and without proper government funding for the arts and creative work, it’s just not a privilege most folks can afford right now.”
But as the games industry creeps towards a broader, more global understanding of how its own products are made and by whom, the question of Playdate in Malaysia revisits critical issues that define modern manufacturing and logistics, where the nebulous “global south” is a faraway place used for cheap labor, which in turn, feeds into the growing body of critical work on the politics and power of logistics. Today, shipping isn’t just about moving something back and forth around the world but a process that’s part of a complex, flawed entity that exacerbates cultural and economic inequities, not just in games but in all sorts of manufacturing around the world.
For all of Panic’s sincere earnestness to try and fix the problem, the Playdate (and all of its attendant hype) remains another example of this ongoing imbalance. As Sasser reminded me, indie hardware like the Playdate really isn’t a thing — it’s not a homebrewed Raspberry Pi emulator, nor is it anywhere near something like the Nintendo Switch. “Hardware is usually backed by either well-funded startups or well-established multimillion-dollar corporations, and we are neither,” he said. “It means a lot of challenges.”
“It’s possible that we were just a little bit ahead of our time.”
I believe the Playdate will eventually make its way to Malaysia at some point. Sasser mentioned the recent launch of Shopify Markets, which has a host of features for international selling that includes DDP but has yet to support DDP-enabled shipping. But these new tools were too little too late for Panic, and the Playdate’s initial rollout remains a massive wasted opportunity to bolster a burgeoning local industry that, in turn, enriches regional and international (most, if not all, gaming roads still lead back to the west) games. “Hopefully, indie hardware will only get more and more international in the coming years. It’s possible that we were just a little bit ahead of our time,” he added.
UX designer Foo is also cautious. “I personally think it takes both sides to make it happen; the deliberate intent of Panic to distribute here and interest from local devs to develop on the console itself,” she said. “This could be the edge the Malaysian industry could have in regard to Playdate’s technology, and since it’s being manufactured here, it could go hand in hand with giving our industry a voice… at the end of the day, Panic is a business, and Playdate not being available here is a sign of a larger systemic problem: capitalism.”