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He Created the Katamari Games, but They’re Rolling On Without Him

Jul 09, 2023


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Twenty years after his quirky project Katamari Damacy delighted the video game industry, Keita Takahashi is an independent designer who receives no royalties for his debut work.

By Zachary Small

Keita Takahashi did not want to say much before an official announcement for his upcoming project except that it would include a boy and his dog. Yet the creations by one of the video game industry’s most eccentric designers are never that straightforward.

One of his games stars a mustachioed green cube on a mission to reunite a group of giggling objects in a circle of friendship. Another asks players to stretch an alien caterpillar across the galaxy.

But neither of those oddball experiments matched the supreme weirdness of his first game, Katamari Damacy, in which players roll the clutter of everyday life — wallets, spoons, televisions — into giant balls called katamaris until even whole mountains and cities adhere to their surfaces.

Surreal characters, simple controls and a catchy soundtrack turned the 2004 PlayStation 2 title into a masterpiece. Last month its sequel, We Love Katamari, which arguably perfected those qualities, was rereleased with improved graphics and new levels.

But Takahashi ended his involvement with the franchise and its publisher, Bandai Namco, long ago. He continues to live in the shadow of the katamari, experiencing the strange conditions of an industry where artistic creations become valuable intellectual property for companies. He says he does not receive any royalties from the sales of Katamari games.

“That is the nature of the business,” Takahashi said. “I am not important. The game is important. But myself? Who cares?”

Takahashi, 48, never intended to become a game designer; he originally trained as a sculptor at Musashino Art University in Tokyo. However, the young artist became disillusioned as classmates disposed of their creations after each assignment. “I realized that making art was not exactly useful,” he said.

That is why when a professor asked him to create a goat sculpture, he decided to turn the animal into a flower pot that drained excess water from its udders.

“I cannot forget that moment when everyone started laughing,” Takahashi recalled from his office in the garage of the San Francisco home where he lives with his wife, Asuka Sakai, a composer, and their two children. “That was when I realized what I should do, and I believed video games could provide joy and fun to people.”

Takahashi joined what was then Namco as an artist in 1999 despite being cut in an interview round with the company’s executives; a colleague from the selection process persuaded the bosses to take a chance. That was how most of his career there went: by the skin of his teeth.

Corporate leaders opted not to develop an early idea from Takahashi, one in which a small prince could hijack humans by connecting a steering wheel to their heads and driving them around like cars. But during a work commute, he thought about something spinning and collecting things, gradually growing bigger.

He later recruited three programmers from Namco’s arcade machine department, three visual designers and nearly a dozen students from the company’s game design academy to build Katamari Damacy.

A demo at the 2003 Game Developers Conference in San Jose caught the attention of industry leaders at a time when the market was mostly focused on multiplayer shooters like Medal of Honor and Halo. Here was something new and unusual for American audiences, invariably described as a “dung beetle” game or a “snowball simulator.”

There was no guaranteed global market for a game with a flamboyant deity known as the King of All Cosmos, who transforms katamaris into stars, replacing the constellations he accidentally hip-checked out of existence during a drunken pirouette across the universe.

“It feels like Katamari Damacy escaped Japan by accident,” said Paul Galloway, a collection specialist at the Museum of Modern Art who helped establish its video game program, which includes Takahashi’s debut. He added that “it presages a lot of aesthetics found during the 2010 indie gamer boom.”

Katamari Damacy sold hundreds of thousands of copies, enough to warrant an immediate sequel for Namco. Despite Takahashi’s reluctance to revisit the concept, he found ways to reconsider what a katamari could be. One stage in We Love Katamari involves rolling a sumo wrestler into food to increase his size, while another has players collect fireflies until the katamari is bright enough to illuminate a student’s textbooks.

But by 2009, Takahashi announced he was leaving video games, saying he would help design a playground in England.

“He is a very singular creator,” said Laura E. Hall, a game designer based in Portland, Ore., who wrote a book about Katamari Damacy. “And that is often at odds with the need to move units in the video game industry.”

Takahashi was coming off the self-described “beautiful failure” of a project called Noby Noby Boy, the one with the alien caterpillar, which received tepid reviews and had lackluster sales. The playground was also doomed; city commissioners were not too keen on the designer’s circular doughnut slide or the giant climbing frame that seemed to extend five stories in the air.

He returned to the gaming industry, but this time wanted more control over the creative process. He had left Bandai Namco because he did not think its other engineers were passionate enough.

“They were making games for the money,” he said. “And if I wanted to make a new project, I would need to hire staff from the company, which was super limiting.”

Instead, Takahashi moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, to help the co-founder of Flickr, Stewart Butterfield, develop a massively multiplayer online game called Glitch. The experiment fizzled out within a year, but the development team he left behind continued working on the internal communications system it had created for the game — a messaging program now called Slack.

By the time Takahashi released Wattam, featuring the green cube, in 2019, Bandai Namco was already remastering his katamari games without his input.

Intellectual property and ownership in the worlds of entertainment and design are notoriously thorny issues, said Galloway, the MoMA collection specialist. In 2015, the designer behind the acclaimed Metal Gear Solid video game series, Hideo Kojima, acrimoniously split with the publisher Konami after nearly 30 years of working together. The company recently announced it would remake one of the franchise’s games without Kojima’s involvement.

Galloway said it was normal in the gaming industry, as in other design fields, that individual creators don’t own their creations. After all, games are a collaborative art form, typically requiring dozens of people to make.

“Someone can take Katamari and do something wildly different,” Galloway said. “But there is something that can be lost. Keita’s unique vision for Katamari was lightning in a bottle, and after a while it becomes a bit diluted when you milk the same formula over and over again.”

Takahashi does not want to repeat himself. “Recently, I realized that I don’t really know what a video game is,” he said, explaining his attempts to shed his preconceptions about what defines a good game.

His new definition is much simpler: Bring joy back into people’s lives.

Last month, the publisher Annapurna Interactive released a preview for Takahashi’s upcoming game, to a T, which features a teenage boy who appears to be stuck in a T-pose, his arms outstretched like a familiar video game glitch. The boy needs the help of a fluffy dog to complete basic tasks such as brushing his teeth while he learns to embrace his mysterious condition.

“I know our lives are not so fun. They are boring. We do the same things over and over,” Takahashi said. “But we should be celebrating the good things in life. Then we can become better people. That’s my thing right now.”

Zachary Small is a reporter who covers the dynamics of power and privilege in the art world. They have written for The Times since 2019. More about Zachary Small