Cabel Sasser avoids little ideas.
As co-founder of Panic, the Portland-based Mac and iOS developer, he's spent the last 15 years overseeing an unusual, widely respected and focused product portfolio.
There's an aesthetic continuity that binds together the company's web editor Coda, its FTP client Transmit (both Apple Design Award winners), the visualization tool Status Board and a limited run of Katamari Damacy t-shirts. Panic, it seems from the outside, defies classification. Panic, it seems, can make whatever it wants to.
But there's at least one kind of product that Panic could have made but hasn't. Sasser, a lifelong fan of video games since he got his first console, an Atari 2600, toyed with the idea of bringing Panic into the video game development ecosystem. He told Polygon recently that some fans of the studio seem to have the same idea and occasionally ask if Panic has any games planned.
The question makes sense, even though Panic earned its reputation creating popular non-gaming apps with styles often copied, often illicitly. Panic even has an iOS game developer on staff: designer Neven Mrgan is behind The Incident and Blackbar.
Until very recently, Sasser's answer to the video game question was always no. It wasn't because of a lack of desire. It was, at least in part, because Cabel Sasser and Panic avoid little ideas.
"The thing that was overwhelming for me was just, like, how do you make that jump from where we are today to games?" Sasser told Polygon. "I mean, we could do little iOS puzzle games or little bits and pieces, but the types of games that I personally like to play are more substantial. They're game where I can sit on my couch or in front of my computer and be told a story.
"That's the kind of game that I love. And we avoided little ideas and little bits and pieces and always wondered, 'How are we ever going to get to make something substantial without too much risk?' Because, you know, I don't want to build this giant game team and then be like, 'Well, it didn't work!' Everybody's fired!"
So when ex-Telltale Games designer and writer Sean Vanaman announced last month that the first game from Campo Santo, his new video game development studio, was "being both backed by and made in collaboration with the stupendous, stupidly-successful Mac utility software-cum-design studio slash app/t-shirt/engineering company Panic Inc. from Portland, Oregon," it wasn't expected, but it wasn't exactly surprising, either. It was, instead, the logical conclusion of years-long friendships and suddenly aligning desires.
The story of Panic's partnership with Campo Santo begins years before the official papers were signed. Oddities like this are written into Panic's DNA.
"There's a weird confluence of things that have crisscrossed," he said. "One is that we're lucky in that Panic is the kind of company that has never been defined by a limited mission statement, or 'We're the network tool guys' or anything like that. I mean, we made a really popular mp3 player. Then we kind of fell into network tools and utilities, but we've always done goofy stuff like our icon changer and these shirts and all that other stuff.
"I kind of love that we can build stuff, and the best reaction that we can get when we do a curveball like this is, 'That's totally weird, but also that totally makes sense for Panic.'"
Among Audion's accouterments was its ability to add "faces" to the player, so that users could skin the player to their individual tastes.
Long before he worked at Telltale or co-founded Campo Santo, Jake Rodkin worked with Panic to create faces for Audion.
"He was one of the best designers of these faces, and he was like a kid in high school," Sasser said with a laugh.
"Maybe this why we know each other. Maybe this is what this is supposed to be."
iTunes ascended, and Audion descended. Panic moved on, and so did Rodkin. But he and Sasser kept in touch over the years, talking through the years, popping up in each other's AIM chat from time to time.
When Rodkin mentioned that he was considering leaving Telltale to form his own studio, Sasser kept that bit of knowledge in the back of his mind.
"Then, suddenly, it just dawned on me," Sasser said. "Maybe this why we know each other. Maybe this is what this is supposed to be. So it all just kind of weirdly fell into place."
Maybe it did fall into place, but it didn't begin falling until Sasser started poking at the pieces. To his credit, Sasser said, Rodkin never came asking for money.
"It was totally from me," Sasser said.
He heard it was happening, he knew of but hadn't met co-founders Sean Vanaman and designer Olly Moss, who's perhaps best known for his Star Wars posters, so he did what he'd done for years with Rodkin: He sent him an IM.
"So I popped onto AIM, and I was just like, 'Hey, Jake. You know, I was thinking about this situation, and it occurred to me that we have a little bit of money saved up over the years, and it's not really doing anything for us, and maybe this is a good use of that.
"I could see that there was a little bit longer of a delay in him replying, so I think he was probably freaking out a little bit," he said with a laugh, "and I think he talked to Sean, he talked to me and he was like 'We've got to talk about this for real.'
That IM conversation happened only a couple months ago, by Sasser's estimation. Things proceeded quickly from there.
"It was just the easiest thing ever."
About a week before the official announcement last month, Campo Santo took the trip up to Portland to make the partnership official. Sitting around Panic's conference room table, they signed the contract that defined their working relationship. Sasser's young son was there, eating his noodles after school, and while nobody was looking and the grownups hashed out the terms, he signed his name to the contract, too.
Campo Santo would produce the game they'd pitched to Panic, and Panic would be there to finance the project, and offer support, creative input about things like UI design and, if necessary, even testing and ports.
"On paper, we're kind of Uncle Moneybags," Sasser said. "But in reality, I think that we're going to find ourselves contributing in many ways.
"They have ultimate control over the creative product, which is exactly the it should be, but I feel like we've got enough brains here that think about - outside of the software world - think about stories and think about characters and all that other stuff, and I'm sure that there will be a lot of back and forth."
Panic, the creative team behind Campo Santo and Panic fans hoping the software developer might one day delve into video games now have exactly what they want. It's a new partnership with a new developer and a new direction for the company. It's unexpected, but not exactly a surprise. It fits with Panic's ethos.
"To me," Sasser said, "when you have actually good people who are more interested in making awesome things than obsessing over the business side of things or trying to squeeze every ounce of everything from everybody, then that stuff just goes easy. It's just fun. The feeling that you're left with is just excitement.
"It's like, 'Let's just get this going! Now that we've got this done, let's make a cool thing!' And that's the best. That's the best case scenario."