Sometime in 2017, the trailer for an odd new video game began making the rounds online.
It wasn't bloody or violent, but it was anarchic. It depicted an unruly waterfowl lightly terrorizing a pastoral English village: stealing sandwiches and dropping them in a pond, playing keepaway with a groundskeeper's hat, setting off sprinklers, and frightening the townspeople with its obnoxious honk.
Animated in soft pastels, with jazzy piano music as a soundtrack, it resembled a cartoon that may have aired on British children's television, almost like Paddington Bear, if he was, well, kind of a jerk. The tagline effectively summed up the premise: "It's a lovely day in the village, and you are a horrible goose."
Cabel Sasser and Steven Frank, co-founders of Portland tech company Panic Inc., aren't sure where they first saw the teaser. What they do remember clearly is how much it made them laugh. And they wanted in.
Sasser immediately sent an email to the game's developer, a small Australian shop called House House.
"It was just, 'Do you need a publisher?'" he recalls. "That was our pitch."
Sasser, 43, and Frank, 45, started Panic in the late '90s with a focus on Mac software. Four years ago, they branched out into game publishing with Firewatch, a game that puts players in control of a national parks employee working in a fire lookout tower in Wyoming.
This goose thing seemed the ideal follow-up.
It did quite a bit better than anyone could have predicted.
On its first day of release for Nintendo Switch, in September 2019, Untitled Goose Game outsold the newest title in the venerable Legend of Zelda series. By early October, it was the top-selling game on the platform. In December, it crossed 1 million total sales.
But the game wasn't just an unexpected commercial success—it became a cultural phenomenon in the way few games ever do.
Memes flooded social media, superimposing the antagonistic goose on corporate logos and setting game footage to Lizzo songs. Supermodel Chrissy Teigen tweeted about it. Blink-182 shouted it out onstage. Comedians Desus and Mero played it on their Showtime show, referring to it as "the Mormon Grand Theft Auto."
"We knew it'd be popular among people who play video games," says Frank, sitting next to Sasser in a conference room inside Panic's fourth-floor headquarters in downtown Portland. "But then it went to a place video games don't go."
It's also an entirely new frontier for Oregon video games in particular.
"It is extremely rare," says Peter Lund, chair of the Oregon Games Organization. "Gone Home, the other really successful Oregon indie game people generally reference, sold 700,000 copies in about four years. So 1 million copies this quickly is significant."
For Sasser and Frank—lifelong Portlanders and friends since high school, when they met through a primordial internet message board and bonded over a shared love of niche Amiga computers—the success of Goose Game represents the culmination of a career spent betting on their own taste, and a payoff for some tough business decisions made along the way.
The world at large may not have heard of Panic before last fall. But in tech circles, the company is hardly an unknown.
Its flagship release, the file-transfer program Transmit, streamlined web-building software in the early days of the internet, and did well enough out the gate for them to hire their first two employees. (They now employ 25, including two in Japan.)
And early on, they even impressed Steve Jobs.
In 1999, Sasser and Frank created Audion, an MP3 player that predated iTunes by two years. Initially, America Online had expressed interest in bringing them onboard to help develop their own music software. When that deal fell through, Apple came calling.
"I got an email from Steve Jobs," Sasser says. "It just said something like, 'Heard the deal with AOL fell through. Any interest in throwing in with us at Apple?' It was easily one of the most surreal, out-of-body experiences of my entire life."
Sometime later, the pair found themselves in a board room on the Apple campus in Cupertino, Calif., staring across at that iconic black turtleneck, his New Balance sneakers thrown up on a table. He praised their work, while also strongly suggesting they were about to get crushed.
"I remember him specifically saying, 'You do a lot with a little,'" Sasser says. "But the subtext was, 'If you're going to try to compete with Apple or iTunes, it's not going to happen.'"
No formal offer to join Apple was made, though it was intimated that one was coming. On the train back to Portland, though, Sasser and Frank decided to pre-emptively turn the tech giant down.
Over the next two decades, Panic continued churning out well-regarded web development tools. In 2016, a former Audion user asked for help publishing a video game. Firewatch, the company's first foray into gaming, was a critical hit, and made back its investment within 24 hours of going on sale.
Looking back, Sasser and Frank have no regrets about rebuffing Apple.
"Would I make the same decision today? I don't know," Sasser says. "But at that time, it was like, 'Let's keep doing our own thing.'"
Nineteen years later, Sasser was the one sending the inquiring email—and having the people on the other end react with giddy excitement.
"Getting our heads around the idea that Panic would be going from publishing Firewatch to our game was a very bizarre, and slightly daunting, prospect," says House House co-founder Stuart Gillespie-Cook. "There was definitely a sense, though, that here were a bunch of very tasteful people who would gel well with us creatively, and help us make something that felt special."
At the time, only one level of Untitled Goose Game had been completed. In exchange for a 25 percent cut of sales, Panic put up the money to help finish it, while also doing the necessary back-end work to prepare for its release: negotiating with consoles, designing the website, running internal tests. They also secured a deal with the Epic Games Store to distribute the title—a major win for a small developer, since the store pays for exclusivity rights up front.
Still, there was little inkling of how widely the game would resonate until it made its public debut at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle last August.
"It was immediately an hour, two-hour line to play Goose Game," Sasser says. "That was the first hint I got that it's not just us who want to play this game."
What was it players responded to?
In an essay for The New Yorker titled "The Joy of Being a Horrible Goose in a Time of Moral Crisis," writer Simon Parkin posited the game as a stress reliever for tense times—a simple, silly means of blowing off steam.
"It's easy to feel helpless in the face of climate catastrophe, political turmoil, and the ostentatiously corrupt people who appear to have led us here," Parkin wrote. "The game offers a chance to punish human vanity—to punch up from a knee-height vantage."
It's also just plain hilarious.
"Games are never funny," Sasser says.
Whatever the reason, within weeks of release, Goose Game was a certified viral sensation. Sasser and Frank won't say how much money it's netted them so far, but they insist it's gone straight back into the company.
"We have a strict 'no sports cars' rule," Sasser says. "No matter what happens, we're not allowed to buy sports cars. We're aggressively not that type of people."
At Panic, though, the pervasive question is always "what's next?"—and their next thing is perhaps even weirder than a game about an ornery goose.
It's a handheld game system called Playdate. It resembles a Game Boy, only smaller, with a side-scrolling black-and-white screen harking back to an even older Nintendo property, the Game & Watch standalone games, which were essentially playable calculators. Its defining feature? An old-timey hand crank affixed to the side that controls movement in certain games.
The design might be retrograde, but its function is unlike anything currently on the market.
The plan is to roll out games on a seasonal basis, one per week for four months—a light will flash to alert players when a new one has been uploaded. Its first "season" includes a slate of games by well-known indie developers like Keita Takahashi, Zach Gage, Bennett Foddy, Shaun Inman and Chuck Jordan.
Sasser and Frank hope to ship Playdate by summer. Even coming off the success of Goose Game, they aren't sure just how big of an audience there is for it. Surely, it won't appeal to so-called core gamers, who mostly just want to shoot things and watch stuff blow up in the highest-resolution graphics available.
But if the past few months have taught them anything, it's that there's a whole demographic of gamers desperate for something different—they just need someone to give it to them.
"There is a group of people who like video games in all respects," Sasser says. "They enjoy video games as a medium, and want to experience new things in that medium. They don't want to play the same Call of Duty game over and over again. I think that's who this speaks to. I just don't know how many people that is."