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GDC 2011: Toru Iwatani - Pac-Man Postmortem

by Devin Monnens - March 3, 2011, 4:34 pm PST
Total comments: 2

Pac-Man's creator talks about the game's design and what makes it fun.

While not many people know the name Toru Iwatani, nearly everyone knows the name of his child, Pac-Man. And it’s a darn shame because Iwatani is one of the coolest guys you’ll get to meet. His GDC panel presenting the history and design of Pac-Man with such grace and humor that it quickly became the best I attended so far at the show, and one of the best I’ve ever seen.  

It is fairly well known that 31 years ago, Iwatani created Pac-Man as a game to help bring women into the arcades. At that time, he stated, arcades were “a playground for boys...dirty and smelly”, and that girls and female players would make these places “clear and brighter”. What is also widely known is that Pac-Man was developed around the concept of eating, and women apparently find eating sweets very enjoyable. Iwatani also referred to those little dots that Pac-Man eats as cookies! Finally, the ghosts were intentionally made cute as well, influenced by Tom and Jerry, because if the ghosts looked angry, “girls probably wouldn’t like that”.  


The ghosts themselves were well defined: not only does each ghost have its own color (and name), but also a separate algorithm reflective of its personality. The red ghost (Blinky) chases directly after Pac-Man, while the pink ghost (Pinky) positions itself at a point 32 pixels in front of Pac-Man’s mouth. The blue ghost (Inky) moves to a mirror point symmetrical to Pac-Man, and the orange ghost (Clyde) moves at random around the maze. Revealed during the Q&A session was the fact that the colors of the four ghosts might have been completely different. His manager at the time had wanted all four ghosts to be the same color - red! It took a poll of 50 votes for the four colors and 0 for all red before the manager finally capitulated.  

Pac-Man's ghosts

The ghosts move at a greater speed whenever they are eaten, but slow down again to give the player a breather if Pac-Man dies. Note the ghosts do not have actual AI; they simply follow an algorithm to give the impression that each has a mind of its own. Mr. Iwatani demonstrated all of this through the original design sketches for Pac-Man (he also was thankful there were no goats around to eat the documents!)

Pac-Man original design documents

To add to the humor of the presentation, we were treated to a video of a chimp that had learned how to play Mrs. Pac-Man. However, this also was to stress the fact that fun is the most important thing in a game, its core. This is also what he stresses to his students. Iwatani left Namco-Bandai to teach game development at Tokyo Polytechnic University. Here, he experiments with a wide range of both software and hardware to get his students to think outside the box, from using brain scan monitors to scientifically analyze cerebral flow during play, a puzzle box of diodes, games using 3D technology, and the winner of the grand-prix contest at the Tokyo Game Show and Microsoft Game Show, Sand Crush. Simple games like Pac-Man that have enough emergent complexity to remain fresh allow us to better understand what makes a game fun, making them excellent objects of study.  

Tokyo Polytechnic Department of Game

Such was the case with Pac-Man Championship Edition for the 30th anniversary of the game where the designer, Tadashi Iguchi, spent an entire year extensively playing Pac-Man to understand its essence, creating the authorized successor to Pac-Man and an authentic growth of the original. Iwatani ended his lecture with a lengthy video of Pac-Man Championship edition, which is available for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.  

Pac-Man cabinets

Where is Pac-Man going from here? Well, Iwatani wants to make a singing Pac-Man game, like the Blues Brothers. During the Q&A session, he even stated that this might be a continuation of the idea presented in Pac-Pix, the Nintendo DS title.  

Toru Iwatani presenting

Afterward, Iwatani opened the floor to questions, and this was where he really revealed his tenacity and friendliness with people. Whereas most famous developers will leave their audience with little time to ask questions, he answered close to a dozen, including some information on what elements he had wanted to add to Pac-Man but couldn’t (such as a shutter that would move up and down through the screen, squashing the ghosts). He also spent an incredible amount of time (over half an hour) answering the questions of everyone who approached him and signing autographs when asked (of course, with the help of a translator, and in fact, he gave the other translators a copy of the speech he was to present to make it easier for them, something that presenters rarely do). I’ve only seen one other developer who was this friendly and took this much time aside to speak with fans, and that is Koji Igarashi, the designer of the Castlevania series. Overall, it has given me a lasting and positive impression of the man who created one of the most famous characters in the game industry and what is one of the true universal classics of videogames.



Wow! That sounded awesome and really interesting to go to. It's really cool that he took that kind of time for the fans. I'm jealous!

BlackNMild2k1March 03, 2011


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