Pac-Man man talks Pac-Man to pack of men

GDC 2011: Developer Toru Iwatani reveals how popular pellet-muncher came to be and why he has endured for so long.

Who was there: Toru Iwatani, designer of the original arcade version of Pac-Man.

What they talked about: In an hour-long session Wednesday afternoon, Iwatani discussed the mechanics of Pac-Man, as well as the factors that have contributed to the character's enduring popularity and relevance.

Iwatani (left) with Shigeru Miyamoto in 2003, creators of arguably the two biggest icons in gaming history.

Iwatani began his presentation by showing how far Pac-Man's reach has extended beyond his humble arcade roots. The Pac-Man television series aired from 1982 to 1983 and appeared on 56 percent of television sets in the US. Pac-Man went on to spawn toys, books, and even telephones striking the familiar, open-mouthed pose Pac-Man is known for.

But none of those things would have existed if the original game hadn't connected with players. During development of Pac-Man, Iwatani followed a few guidelines he created, but one in particular rose above the rest, "Cool game players like to have challenges, but I feel fun should be the first point of any game." Achieving a fun experience is easier said than done, however, and Iwatani spent time to ensure Pac-Man would resonate long after release.

Before Iwatani decided on the core mechanics in Pac-Man, he wanted to make sure a few elements were implemented from the very beginning. First of all, the game had to be as simple as possible. Pac-Man is controlled using only a joystick, and that decision was very important, he said. Complex games can be intimidating, so stripping away extra inputs made it much easier for people to jump into the experience and immediately have fun.

Iwatani's second idea was that players should be able to understand the basics at a glance. In Pac-Man, he wanted to make sure players understood which character they controlled, which characters were the enemies, and the ultimate goal without any trouble. Following these two guidelines and ensuring the controls are smooth and responsive go a long way toward drawing prospective players in.

Iwatani also wanted to lure female gamers to his latest creation. In the early '80s, women didn't play games often, he explained. There weren't home consoles during this time, so players had to venture to arcades to experience the latest games. Arcades were populated mostly by boys and were therefore perceived as "dirty and smelly." He wanted to lure female gamers to arcades to make them "cleaner and brighter."

But the question remained: How does a game get the attention of women? Iwatani happened upon the idea that women love to eat, particularly desserts. Though he did chuckle when he delivered this quote, he wanted to build a game around consumption. Not only is eating the core gameplay mechanic Pac-Man is based on, but it's also where its name comes from. Puck-Man (the original name), means "munch" in Japanese, and that's the sound Pac-Man makes when he's chomping ghosts.

Iwatani took a waka-waka down memory lane at GDC.

Once that idea started to simmer in Iwatani's head, he built more concrete concepts around those elements. In addition to making sure things remained simple to pick up and play, Iwatani wanted to use pretty colors to make the game as cute as possible. He also stressed that he wanted to do everything possible to make players feel cool. But most importantly, he wanted the ghosts to have their own characters.

First of all, it was important to have four different colors for the ghosts to contrast with the bright yellow Pac-Man and the blue edges of the maze. He chose red, light blue, pink, and orange as the colors to represent the ghosts. But he took the concept of individuality a step further by making sure each of the specters had its own personality.

The red ghost had the most basic artificial intelligence: chase Pac-Man. This was the relentless enemy who would constantly be right on Pac-Man's heels (figuratively speaking) to make sure players kept moving. The pink ghost was much more complicated. It attempted to position itself 32 pixels in front of Pac-Man's mouth. The blue ghost paid more attention to a mirror point on the map symmetrically opposite Pac-Man. And, finally, the movement of the orange ghost was completely random. Iwatani referred to the ghosts by their colors but didn't mention their names: Blinky, Inky, Pinky, and Clyde.

Iwatani made sure the ghosts all had unique movement patterns for a very specific reason. If they all directly followed Pac-Man, it wouldn't be a fun game because players would only have to be careful about what was behind them. He also added that the animation was important in developing personalities. Iwatani wanted to create a Tom and Jerry-like relationship between Pac-Man and his ghost enemies.

However, Iwatani's work wasn't done. He wanted to implement an offensive attack as well. He said the idea was that when players would eat a big cookie, they would flip the game on its head, changing roles from prey to predator. "It's a good feeling to be chasing, and not be chased."

The final step in the creation of Pac-Man was the difficulty. Games have to strike a balance in how challenging they are, Iwatani noted. If a game is too difficulty, it can turn off potential gamers. But if it's too easy, then it isn't stimulating. Iwatani wanted Pac-Man to increase in speed and difficulty whenever a maze was completed, but if players did end up dying, he wanted the game to go back to being easy. It was this progression that kept players of all skill levels invested, and he said it's one of the reasons Pac-Man is still being played today.

Quote: "I cooked this game with all the love I had for the player."--Iwatani on Pac-Man.

"Cool game players like to have challenges, but I feel fun should be the first point of any game."--Iwatani on his own design philosophy.

Takeaway: A developer needs a number of elements to make a game that has long-term impact. Huge target audience, accessibility, depth, and visual appeal are some of the main qualities Iwatani aimed for in designing the original Pac-Man.

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Discussion

41 comments
AndCarlsen
AndCarlsen

Definitely Headline of the Year.

adrianjarca
adrianjarca

The title is brilliant.


Kevin VanOrd give Shaun a raise

pealsoflaughter
pealsoflaughter

You can always tell when something is written by Shaun McInnis even if it's just a headline. He has a unique writing style. (or maybe it's a unique sense of humor? hmmm.)

random515
random515

The headline...it's...it's beautiful.

Polybren
Polybren

@BenderUnit22 I can confirm that @shaunmc is the responsible party for the headline. I think that is literally the entirety of his contribution to this story, but we felt it merited a co-byline.

Kage52124
Kage52124

Have to say it: "Sub dawg, I herd you like Pac-Man, so I put Pac-Man in your Pac-Man so you can Wokka while you Wokka!" This is what I thought when I read the title...

HaloPimp978
HaloPimp978

Pac-Man is a gaming Icon. Championship Edition DX was an awesome game too.

c_rakestraw
c_rakestraw moderator moderator

So that's how one of the greatest games ever was made, eh? Insightful stuff. Especially love the headline.

Ovirew
Ovirew

Sounds like Iwatani had some interesting perspectives in mind when he created Pac-Man. I never quite looked at the game this way before, but now that he's explained the method behind the madness it really does make more sense. The prey/predator aspect of Pac-Man was also a pretty genius invention.

Spahettificator
Spahettificator

@shaunmc I vote an even bigger raise for also having Mr T in your avatar. I pity tha foo' who doesn't respect your talents!

shaunmc
shaunmc moderator staff

@neocrono_x As the person who rode this headline, I fully support this idea!

Holoogamooga_
Holoogamooga_

Oh, and I think whoever wrote the title deserves a little raise or something. Wonderful.

antonio151
antonio151

It would only take a McTastick combination of McShea and McInnis to make such a McTacular headline

DanielL5583
DanielL5583

It's amazing what a pizza can inspire.

muppen
muppen

I clicked this just because of the headline :)

jecht_35
jecht_35

how many of you went to play Pac-Man after reading this even if it was just for the title

BenderUnit22
BenderUnit22

HotSpot clarification: Who wrote that headline?

puffadell
puffadell

i still play from time to time

Holoogamooga_
Holoogamooga_

@TheRealLisaAnn - Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot were both made in the US. More recently, characters like Commander Shepherd (Mass Effect), the characters in Assassin's Creed games, Jak, Daxter, Ratchet, and Clank were all made in the western hemisphere. Sure, none of them are nearly as iconic, but it's better than Runescape.

wikigamer
wikigamer

I have a full blown Pac-Man fever and I need medicine for it!

Goyoshi12
Goyoshi12

@Jedilink109 Try saying it three times fast. :P

pokecharm
pokecharm

every time I see Pac-man it makes me think of that episode of Family Guy where they give a shout-out to him and the ghosts :)

Roo6339
Roo6339

I probably wouldn't have read this article if it wasn't for the title.

TheRealLisaAnn
TheRealLisaAnn

Why is it that Japanese devs can create such great icons but we (the West) create junk like World of Warcraft and Runescape? :(

dennis8
dennis8

wow.. out of all the puns that gamespot puts in its titles, i actually found this one to be quite clever haha..

Wormkid_64
Wormkid_64

I remember my very very first time playing Pac-Man.I was at a resort with my parents,they were on one of those stupid time-share trip things,for the promotional benefits only of course.And the hotel had a small area for the kids to stay and play in,and there was Pac-Man. I had never seen it before,but I dove right in.I never got past level one,because I thought you could eat the ghosts whenever you wanted,and that when Pac-Man died and did that little popping thing,that he was turning into a star or something,like,"YOU DID IT" After awhile my parents came back and I didn't get to go all the way.O well.What fun it was. Pac-Man doesn't need fancy graphics,violence,mature rated content,or all theb ells and whistles they put in some games these days.Pac-Man,like gaming,is about simple good fun.

dagrimmreepa
dagrimmreepa

Oh man, reading this headline while stoned isnt the best option

supermike6
supermike6

What a headline. 12 stars out of 5.

CorruptGamerGX
CorruptGamerGX

So he was responsible for creating the 4 most annoying ******** in gaming. With that said, Pac-Man Championship Edition DX is all kinds of awesome.

James00715
James00715

Pac man is the video game in it's most basic form. When I was younger and people didn't really know what video games were, I would just have them play a few minutes of Pac man. It just captures the essence of what video games are about: fun.

Generic_Dude
Generic_Dude

I really didn't catch the Pac Man Fever back in the day, but with CE and CE DX, I've got it full-blown. Wakkawakkawakkawakkawakkawakkawakka...

dawnofhero
dawnofhero

I'll probably get thumbed down for saying that I'm the first one here :P Whatever. Pac-Man is one of those enduring game characters that everyone remembers next to Mario of course. Like Pac-Man :)