To play Pac-Man:
Q&A: Pac-Man Creator Reflects on 30 Years of Dot-Eating
By Chris Kohler
May 21, 2010
30 years ago, videogames changed forever.
On May 22, 1980, the Japanese gamemaker Namco installed the first Pac-Man machine in a movie theater in the trendy Shibuya section of Tokyo. On Saturday, the company celebrates the 30th anniversary of the little yellow circle that became videogames’ first enduring character.
Besides being the centerpiece of a novel, addictive game, the adorable Pac-Man became a media superstar, appearing on lunchboxes, in cartoons, on the covers of magazines and even in a Top 10 pop hit.
Unlike the vast majority of its contemporaries, Pac-Man’s dot-eating, ghost-chasing gameplay is still fun today. Versions for platforms like iPhone, virtually unchanged from the original, are still a big moneymaker for Namco Bandai. On Friday, Google unveiled its first-ever interactive “doodle,” a version of Pac-Man.
This is all thanks to the genius of Toru Iwatani (pictured), the game designer who set the tone for Japan and the world. By creating a cute cast of characters and a design sensibility that appealed to wider audiences than the shoot-em-up Space Invaders, Iwatani broadened the appeal and marketability of games, creating what some call the first “casual game.”
Wired.com spoke to Iwatani, now a professor at Tokyo Polytechnic University, at Namco Bandai’s Tokyo headquarters.
Wired.com: You’ve said that Pac-Man was aimed at women, which is why you based it around eating — because women enjoy “fun foods” more.
Toru Iwatani: Around the time that we launched Pac-Man, video arcades were filled with games where you shoot aliens. It seemed very dark. It was for men, it wasn’t fashionable at all. When women would go out, they’d go out in a group of friends or with a boyfriend as a couple. And I realized that if women and couples were going to come to game centers, they had to be cheerful places.
When you think about things women like, you think about fashion, or fortune-telling, or food or dating boyfriends. So I decided to theme the game around “eating” — after eating dinner, women like to have dessert.
If you take a pizza and remove one piece, it looks like a mouth. That’s where my idea came from.
Wired.com: Is that story true, that you thought of the shape of Pac-Man after removing one slice from a pizza?
Iwatani: It’s true.
Wired.com: The attractive design really made Pac-Man stand out. What else did you do to differentiate it from other games of the time?
Iwatani: At that time, it was the beginning of all games. Games hadn’t spread very far at all. Characters were more or less non-existent. There were a lot of ideas at the time, a lot of games that you could come up with. A lot of companies had new concepts for games — in Japan, Taito and other companies were producing games like Space Invaders. The space was more or less vacant.
One point of differentiation was to target women gamers. The second point was the design — the character design and the graphic design were very appropriate for women, who thought it was very cute. Even if the character was an enemy, they wouldn’t be able to hate it. The colors of the maze walls are muted, so you can see the character designs. I think there was some recognition that this was the future of videogames, because this was the first character that was introduced at the time.
Wired.com: Did you take inspiration from Japanese animation or manga?
Iwatani: Very much so. Pac-Man is inspired by all the manga and animation that I’d watch as a kid. The ghosts were inspired by Casper, or Obake no Q-Taro.
The game idea — eating a power cookie and powering up to defeat the ghosts — was inspired by Popeye eating spinach and defeating Bluto, turning the tables on him.
Wired.com: What about Pac-Man would you say came from a Japanese aesthetic, specifically?
Iwatani: Japanese youngsters really wanted “ghost” type characters — not necessarily modeled on creatures, but things that don’t really exist in this world. Even within animation, they want characters that are the products of the writer’s imaginations. In North America at the time, the games were about car races or warfare. They wanted games that simulated the real world, whereas Japan wanted otogibanashi (fairy tales).
Also, when you look at Japanese games, the characters may be deformed in such a way that their heads are half of their total height. This was not popular in the U.S., as you know, they wanted real proportional humans. In Japan, dolls like Hello Kitty are deformed into a different shape, into an animal that doesn’t really exist. The dolls in the U.S. would be a real cat.
Wired.com: When you placed that first Pac-Man machine out in public, where did it go?
Iwatani: May 22 wasn’t the launch date, it was the first location test. The game was still under development, and we were gauging the reaction of consumers. Since this was the first time the machine was shown to the general public, we consider May 22 to be Pac-Man’s “birthday.” After that, we made revisions and improvements based on the results of the location test and it was released in July.
The game was taken to a building in Shibuya that no longer exists. It was a thin, chimney-shaped building with seven or eight floors, consisting of several movie theaters. On the top floor, there was a very long, narrow room where the couples, having just seen movies, would go up to have a little enjoyment before they returned home. So they weren’t necessarily gamers.
The women and couples were very happy about the machine, very excited. They came up to it and put their hands on it, so we thought that our target concept had been very much in sync and correct. They played it, and they were more or less satisfied — they figured out how to play it. It’s not a difficult game.
On the other hand, the core gamers, the men, were not necessarily very excited about it. But it was for people who didn’t play games on a daily basis — women, children, the elderly.
It’s not like people sat around and played the machine all day, though. So we didn’t think it would be a major hit. I didn’t think that the U.S. and Europe would take it up, because it’s a rather slow relaxing game. At that time, what was popular overseas were more thrilling games, and I felt that perhaps the rhythm of Pac-Man wasn’t matching the needs of overseas users.
Wired.com: What did you change about the game after the location test?
Iwatani: The design didn’t change very much. There wasn’t a lot of time before the game was to be released in July, so we just tweaked the game balance, the difficulty level. That was pretty much just changing a few numbers in the program code.
Wired.com: And of course, the game was originally called Puck-Man, but the name was changed for America because someone might vandalize the “P” and turn it into an “F.”
Iwatani: Yes, the U.S. subsidiary said that that would be bad. We wondered, what should we do? And decided to change it to “Pac.” Then, after the American version came out with the “Pac” spelling, we used that for the entire world.
Wired.com: You weren’t involved with games like Ms. Pac-Man, which were created in the United States by Midway. In fact, after Pac-Man you created just one more game, Libble Rabble.
Iwatani: Yes, that was based on the concept of “surround.” It was an interesting game, but unpopular because it was so hard to play — you used joysticks on the left- and right-hand sides to control two arrows on the screen, but when they crossed over each other, the right hand was controlling what was going on on the left side of the screen, like a mirror.
But even now, it’s popular among core gamers.
Wired.com: Why did you stop making videogames after that?
Iwatani: After that, I became a producer. Namco was a small company, and because the organization expanded, I was promoted to section chief. Someone had to coordinate the younger developers that we’d hired.
So although I was still capable and wanted to keep developing games, I was told to serve as the supervisor — the manager of the baseball team, instead of a player.