Keita Takahashi, famed Japanese game designer and creator of surreal games like Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy, has signed on to help the co-founder of Flickr create a new sort of massively multiplayer game.
Glitch, in development since 2009, has players inhabiting a world created by the imaginings of 11 god giants. The still-in-beta browser game is meant to be a collaborative simulation, with the community paving the path the game takes and the way the world transforms.
Takahashi and Stewart Butterfield, founder of Glitch developer Tiny Speck, flew to San Francisco this week to tell the team the news. They took a break from their meetings to sit down with Kotaku over a Skype video call to discuss the hiring.
The two met through a mutual friend at studio ThatGameCompany during the Game Developers Conference earlier this year, Butterfield told me. In 2009, Takahashi started talking about leaving game creation. He formed Uvula with his wife and started exploring other sorts of design work including a playground and a non-game that he called Souponuts. (He later told me that he is still working on the yet-to-be revealed Souponuts.)
"I remember a while ago Keita saying he was bored of the games industry," Butterfield said. "I thought there was an opportunity to attract him back. We started talking several months ago and I got him playing Glitch."
That's all it took, Takahashi told me. One play session and he knew that he liked the game and wanted to work for the company. So he, his wife and 6-month-old son moved to Vancouver, arriving late last month to a new city, new job and new home.
"We are very excited to be collaborating with Keita," Butterfield said. "He is a hero for many of us on the team and it will be very exciting to see what happens."
Takahashi's arrival comes after Glitch already seems well formed. I pointed out to the duo that Takahashi seems to me to be a person gifted at coming up with new approaches to gaming. Isn't it too late for that with Glitch, I asked?
"We think 'play' is itself a force of good."
"You're right that it's formed, but we will continue to actively develop it after we launch the game," Butterfield said. "Launching it is just one milestone."
Butterfield added that the company plans to also create mobile games and even toys that will tie back in to the persistent browser game.
"Initially Keita will be working on the game itself," Butterfield said. "It's a crazy mishmash of ideas. He will be bringing some cohesion to the big picture."
What will his title be at the new company, I asked.
After a moments pause the two looked at each other and Butterfield laughed.
"We actually haven't thought about that," he said, more at Takahashi then me. "What would you like your title to be? It could be game... It could be something cute and creative."
"What about King of the Cosmos?" I asked, joking.
Takahashi shook his head, no.
"I think the King of the Cosmos is sort of an asshole," Butterfield said.
In the fiction of Katamari Damacy, the game Takahashi designed as a student at the Namco Digital Hollywood Game Laboratory, the King of All Cosmos is the sort of absentee overlord for the crazy universe in which he exists. When he sends his son to Earth to clean up after himself, he's sort of a jerk to him.
In the reality of creating Glitch, while Takahashi will play the role of world builder, he plans to be a bit more light-hearted about it.
"My role is to make the world unique and more fun and more surprising," he said. "That's my role."
Despite already being alive with its own unique fiction, Glitch seems like a perfect fit for the man behind the surreal worlds of Kamatari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy.
That's because, Butterfield says, Takahashi was very much an inspiration even before he was hired.
"There are a handful of people in the histoy of games that have done something totally original and Keita is certainly one of them," he said.
"He is a hero for many of us on the team and it will be very exciting to see what happens."
Already, just five days into his new job Takahashi is suggesting ideas.
"Keita proposed this idea that you start off in the present time in the game and as more people play it, put more time into it and do more things, their ability to travel back in time gets further," Butterfield said. "Maybe you can go back to 1980 and then eventually you can go all of the way back to 1850."
It's an idea that taps into something that Butterfield wants to incorporate into Glitch, the notion that there is an overarching goal that all of the world's players are working toward collectively. It's an idea that Takahashi worked into Noby Noby Boy. In that game, players' cumulative points were used to allow a character called Girl to stretch her way through the universe, unlocking new levels in her path. As of the beginning of the year, Girl has reached Saturn.
While Butterfield liked Takahashi's idea, he said it wouldn't quite work with what's already in place.
"It doesn't work perfectly with Glitch, but we're super excited about the idea," he said.
There are plenty of other ways Takahashi can apply his unique brand of creativity to the game. I asked Butterfield, for instance, if the game had some sort of underlying morality. It struck me as a game that perhaps is trying to teach a lesson about the good of working together, of creating rather than destroying.
But Butterfield said that the game isn't meant to be a fable or to teach a lesson.
"The game itself is open ended," he said. "It certainly allows you to do things that have dubious morality to them."
For instance, you can use alchemy in the game to create something called "No No Powder." The powder allows its user to get around needing to harvest energy to do things. The character can do anything he wants free of the constraints of energy, until the powder runs out. Then the character needs to find more powder... or he or she dies.
"Some people think we modeled it after coke," Butterfield says. "But it's more modeled after crystal meth."
That being said, Butterfield adds that he thinks that playing video games is good for people.
"We think 'play' is itself a force of good," he said. "Not having to work through platform companies and publishers to get a game to people means that the reach you have is much more unfettered.