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Get Started with Playdate SDK on MacOS

Configure VSCode to streamline Playdate game development.

ByAmir Ardalan
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Panic Playdate
Photograph courtesy of Panic, Inc.
Playdate is an upcoming handheld gaming device produced by Panic and designed in collaboration with Teenage Engineering.

In this guide, I'll show you how to get started developing your own Playdate game using VSCode on MacOS. If you're familiar with basic game development concepts and comfortable writing code in C or Lua, skip the primer and disclaimer and jump ahead to the good stuff. Otherwise, read on.


There are two things that are incredibly exciting to me about the upcoming Playdate device. First, I have an affinity for 1bit pixel art, and second, every Playdate works as a development kit out of the box.

Game development and programming in general can feel inaccessible to non software engineers. Panic has set out to create something that while incredibly niche, offers a low barrier to entry to get starting making your own game for the device.

There are two distinct ways of approaching game development on the Playdate; Playdate Pulp and Playdate SDK. Pulp is a browser based game creation tool that requires little to no programming knowledge. With Pulp, you can create simple games and learn about the fundamentals of game development if you are coming in completely fresh to the world of programming. The SDK is a traditional game development environment, you'll use an IDE to code your game, compile the code to a game file, and sideload the game onto a Playdate simulator. The SDK allows you to write your game using either C or Lua programming languages.

In this guide, I will show you how to get going using the SDK and Lua. Lua is a lightweight, high-level programming language with a C API that compiles down to bytecode. If you're proficient in C then go ahead and use that instead.

If you're brand new and curious about trying Pulp, I recommend checking out SquidGodDev on YouTube.

Design Considerations

Before getting started, it is worth noting that the playdate resolution is 400x240px and the display is 2.7in. The pixel density is fairly high for such a small screen. Because of this, traditional sprite and image sizes may appear small. A GameBoy-style 16x16 character sprite would need to be doubled in size (32x32) to appear the same size on the Playdate. Ultimately, this is a stylistic choice, but it is worth noting before you spend hours laboring over hand-crafted 1bit pixel art (don't ask me how I know 😒).


With that primer out of the way, let's get started configuring the development environment! You will be expected to know the basics of game development and it is up to you to write testable Lua code toward the end steps of this guide. If you're just getting started with Lua and game development, but you have familiarity with other programming languages, you should be good to go. Just refer to the documentation (more on that below). If this sounds good, continue reading.

Download Playdate SDK

Open the Playdate Dev page and follow the instructions to download the SDK. Open the .zip you previously downloaded and double-click the PlaydateSDK.pkg file. Step through the installation and install to the default Developer directory in your home folder.

Open the Playdate Documentation

The Playdate API docs are included locally in the root of the PlaydateSDK folder. If you're using Lua, you will want to use Inside Playdate.html.

Install Lua

brew install lua

If you don't have homebrew installed, check out their official installation instructions.

Configure VSCode

Install the following VSCode plugin: Playdate by Orta. Once the extension is installed, while in VSCode, press f1 or shift+command+p. Search > settings.json and select Preferences: Open Settings (JSON). Add the following code to your settings.json file:

1{ 2 "Lua.diagnostics.globals": ["playdate", "import"], 3 "Lua.workspace.library": [ 4 "/Users/yourHomeFolderName/Developer/PlaydateSDK/CoreLibs" 5 ], 6} 7

Make sure to update yourHomeFoldername to your home folder. To find your home folder, open Finder and open your home folder using shift+command+h.

Set Up Automatic Compilation and Sideloading

Inside the Developer directory where you installed the PlaydateSDK, create a new folder for your game (name anything you'd like): YourGameName. Open YourGameName in VSCode and create a new directory called .vscode.

Create two new files inside of the .vscode directory: launch.json and tasks.json.

Paste the following inside launch.json and update YourGameName to include the game name you chose for the game directory earlier.

1// launch.json 2 3{ 4 "version": "0.2.0", 5 "configurations": [ 6 { 7 "request": "launch", 8 "type": "playdate", 9 "name": "Run app in Playdate simulator", 10 "preLaunchTask": "Compile App", 11 "source": "${workspaceFolder}/Source", 12 "output": "${workspaceFolder}/../PlaydateSDK/Disk/Games/YourGameName.pdx", 13 } 14 ] 15} 16

Now open tasks.json and paste the following, edit YourGameName:

1// tasks.json 2 3{ 4 "version": "2.0.0", 5 "tasks": [{ 6 "label": "Compile App", 7 "command": "pdc", 8 "args": ["Source", "../PlaydateSDK/Disk/Games/YourGameName.pdx"], 9 "type": "shell" 10 }] 11} 12

Create a Basic Directory Structure

In the root directory of your game project, create three folders: Source, images, and sounds.

Create Your First Game File

In the Source, make a new file called lua.main. This is the first file that is loaded by the Playdate.

1-- lua.main 2 3import "CoreLibs/object" 4import "CoreLibs/graphics" 5import "CoreLibs/sprites" 6 7 8local function initalize() 9 --your code here 10end 11 12initalize() 13 14function playdate.update() 15 --your code here 16end 17

By this point you are ready to start adding your own code. All that is left now is to test the configuration of our Playdate extension and project file structure.

If you have zero clue what do at this point but are curious to see if everything is set up properly, that is okay! Try just loading a simple background image into the simulator. Create an 400x200px image called background.png, put it in your project's images folder, then add the following to lua.main:

1-- lua.main 2 3import "CoreLibs/graphics" 4import "CoreLibs/sprites" 5 6local gfx <const> = playdate.graphics 7 8local function initalize() 9 playerImage = gfx.image.new("images/player") 10 11 local backgroundImage = gfx.image.new("images/background") 12 gfx.sprite.setBackgroundDrawingCallback( 13 function(x, y, width, height) 14 gfx.setClipRect(x, y, width, height) 15 backgroundImage:draw(0, 0) 16 gfx.clearClipRect() 17 end 18 ) 19end 20 21initalize() 22 23function playdate.update() 24 gfx.sprite.update() 25end 26

Compiling and Loading your Game to the Simulator

Now the moment you've been working toward, with your initial game code in place, press f5 and your .pdx compiled game will automatically compile and the Playdate Simulator will open with your game loaded.

If it doesn't work, there is likely an issue with your directory structure or task.json / launch.json files. Double check you have these configured properly with your project directory name in place of the placeholders I provided.

Best Practices Before Uploading to a Remote Repository

If you plan to upload your project to GitHub or other repository, it's good practice to create a .gitignore and README.md file.

Since we're developing on Mac, you can start with the following. Add anything else as needed:

1// .gitignore 2 3.DS_Store 4

Create README.md and add any relevant info about your project:

1// README.md 2 3# YourGameName 4 5A Playdate game by YourName 6... 7

Final Thoughts

Good luck, and happy hacking! If you make something cool, or have any questions, hit me up on Twitter.

Big thanks to Orta for the excellent VSCode extension.

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© 2024 Amir Ardalan0 views