The first time someone explained to me how Katamari Damacy, the best-selling Japanese PlayStation 2 game, works, I practically fell off my chair. Although unorthodox, it's really quite simple: You, the player, are a tiny bobble-headed prince attempting to rebuild the universe your father, the "King of All Cosmos," has wantonly destroyed during a bender using a sticky, cloudy, clump called a "Katamari." This glob picks up anything that crosses its path—like a snowball—growing in size and strength as it goes. While the game begins in a Japanese house, littered with tiny things to pick up—loose change, ants, and thumbtacks—with skill and persistence, you find yourself the master of a mighty blob of force, rolling up sperm whales, entire cities and office buildings. The object of the game, which is conceptually mind-blowing, is to reconstitute the destroyed stars and planets using the cluttered detritus of everyday life.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Katamari was a sleeper hit when it was released in the U.S. in 2004, breaking sales records, winning prestigious design awards, and earning glowing endorsements from teenagers and neurologists alike, who praised it for its clever hybrid of motor skill and puzzle strategy. In the often repetitive, violent world of first-person video games, Katamari's colorful simplicity was a revelation.
Much of the maverick spirit of the original Katamari—and, to a lesser extent, of its self-referential sequel, We ? Katamari—can be credited to its creator, 31 year-old Keita Takahashi, an artist-cum-game designer who cites Catalan painter Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, and Little Shop of Horrors among his aesthetic influences, and who claims he made Katamari so people "wouldn't fight wars." From the get-go, Takahashi wasn't interested in earning cachet in the gaming industry, nor was he in it for the big bucks: He just wanted people to have fun with the game, and for his vision to be unfettered. So when it came time to license the characters of his beloved game into marketable goods—a standard practice in any medium—he balked.
This, more than any other factor, is why the only people in the world with a license to make Katamari Damacy goods are the 10 employees of a Portland-based Mac software company with minimal experience in the field of, say, making T-shirts.
But make T-shirts they do. Panic Inc.—a Pearl District-based operation that creates useful tools for Web designers—have been working closely with Keita Takahashi to produce a line of offbeat shirts since 2005, when an offhand suggestion from a friend led to a half-serious phone call to video-game moguls Namco, which led Panic's one Japan-based employee to an informal meeting, and, before they knew it, a deal with Takahashi himself.
The Panic office isn't exactly a paragon of industry professionalism: It's a scene somewhat evocative of the golden days of the dot-com era, actually, with toys and magazines littering the shelves and an entire section of the storage closet devoted to unusual snacks and sodas lined up for impromptu taste-tests. It might seem imprudent to hand the keys to the Katamari empire over to such an operation. However, if you consider that Takahashi, in an online interview, once said, "It may look like I'm just messing around, but really, that's what's lacking in games today," the connection between the seemingly disparate worlds of Panic Inc. and Tokyo-based Namco makes some sense.
Panic co-founder Cabel Sasser rationalizes the seemingly unlikely partnership glibly: "Takahashi is an artist that just happens to make video games, and we're a software company that happens to make T-shirts," adding, "I think this really appealed to him."
Of course, it helps that the friendly, nerdy guys of the Panic office were huge Katamari Damacy fans from day one. They first spotted it at E3, a video-game expo in Los Angeles, at a single kiosk tucked away in a neglected corner. "After spending an entire day seeing nothing but brown and guns and flaming demon guns with skulls on the guns and football-playing guns," recalls Sasser, "it was this obvious, incredible breath of fresh game air."
The result of the collaboration—two sets of outsiders firmly working outside of the box, really—has been fruitful, and, of course, far from obvious. Unlike most video-game merchandise, the Katamari shirts aren't emblazoned with silly slogans, nor do they feature the game's characters in mid-leap, about to smash the bad guy's head. Rather, they're soft American Apparel shirts, printed locally by T-shirt shop Latitudes with fuzzy flocking and shiny metallic foil; the designs are subtle and eminently wearable, often so oblique that you would hardly know they were Katamari shirts. After two years of online-only sales, Panic credits about 10 percent of their business to the $24.95 shirts, with a small ("surprisingly small," says Sasser) fixed amount of the proceeds wired directly to Japan in yen. Sasser thinks the bottom line of the merger is all about the freedom of working with a small company: "There are no angry Panic shareholders to show up and punch my face just because we put an ostrich on a shirt, you know?"