Programmers At Work

Toru Iwatani, 1986 PacMan Designer

Toru Iwatani

Toru Iwatani

Toru Iwatani 1987

Game designer Toru Iwatani was born on January 25, 1955 in the Meguro Ward of Tokyo, Japan. He is totally self-taught, without any formal training in computers, visual arts, or graphic design. In 1977, at the age of 22, Iwatani joined NAMCO LIMITED, a computer software company in Tokyo that produces video games. Once within the company, Iwatani eventually found his place designing games. He completed Pac Man with the help of four others, after working on it for a year and five months, taking it from concept to finished product.

The game was first introduced in Japan, where it was very successful. When the game was exported, Pac Man captured the imaginations of Americans and Europeans as well. Iwatani went on to design more games, his favorite being Libble Rabble, which he designed after finishing the Pac Man project. Lately, Iwatani has become more involved in the administration of NAMCO LIMITED.

Geoff Leach, a friend and associate in Tokyo, sent me a lively telex one day, saying he had learned the name of the designer of Pac Man through his boss, Mr. Imaizumi, who happened to be in a study group with the designer. He thought he might be able to arrange an interview for me. I fired back a telex, expressing my delight at the prospect.

In Japan, the individual responsible for creating or designing a product is often not singled out and recognized. The group or company receives the credit, and the individual, although known in certain circles, remains inaccessible and unidentified. In this case, due to the personal nature of the contact, the interview was granted.

Mr. Leach and I took the subway to the outskirts of Tokyo to the offices of NAMCO. After reaching our stop, we wandered down narrow, busy streets in a shop-filled neighborhood until we came upon a striking brown marble building. The success of Pac Man had obviously served the company well.

We pushed through a set of double doors to enter the large white-marble lobby, where we were immediately welcomed by a gesticulating lady robot receptionist. She was decorated in pink and cream colors, with a nice pink helmet-like hat and blue eyes, and she had a shapely feminine figure. There was not another soul around. We paused, looking at her from a distance behind the counter. As we moved further into the lobby, she motioned us up to the counter. A computer terminal on the counter next to her flashed “WELCOME TO NAMCO,” and prompted us to look through a telephone directory and call the person we wished to see. We stood at the counter quite amused and somewhat baffled by all this, when the public relations director came up to greet us and ushered us into a conference room where we were served tea while we waited for Mr. Iwatani to arrive.

He entered the room and we all stood and greeted, bowed, and exchanged business cards. Mr. Iwatani was a tall, striking man with a quiet, yet forceful, manner. He wore a light yellow polo shirt and wide-wale corduroy slacks. It was explained that the interview would be conducted in Japanese, with Mr. Leach acting as the interpreter. Iwatani spoke carefully and thoughtfully in his deep voice, and as he expressed his thoughts, he scribbled notes and sketches in his calendar notebook to illustrate his points.

INTERVIEWER: How did you first become interested in computers?

IWATANI: I must tell you, I don’t have any particular interest in them. I’m interested in creating images that communicate with people. A computer is not the only medium that uses images; I could use the movies or television or any other visual medium. It just so happens I use the computer.

There’s a limit to what you can do with a computer. Hardware limitations become my limitations. They restrict me, and I’m no different from any artist–I don’t like constraints. I’m also limited because the only place the end result appears is on the screen. Turn the computer off, and the images vanish.

INTERVIEWER: How did you choose video games as a way of communicating with people?

IWATANI: I entered this company, NAMCO, in 1977. I hadn’t yet established my own personal vision of what I would do here. My contribution to the company just happened to take the form of video games.

INTERVIEWER: Had you ever studied game design or design in general?

IWATANI: I had no special training at all; I am completely self-taught. I don’t fit the mold of a visual arts designer or a graphic designer. I just had a strong concept about what a game designer is–someone who designs projects to make people happy. That’s his purpose.

It’s important for you to understand that I’m not a programmer. I developed the specs and designed the features, but other people who worked with me wrote the program.

INTERVIEWER: What was the thinking behind the design of Pac Man?

IWATANI: First of all, the kanji word “taberu,” to eat, came to mind. Game design, you see, often begins with words. I started playing with the word, making sketches in my notebook. All the computer games available at the time were of the violent type–war games and space invader types. There were no games that everyone could enjoy, and especially none for women. I wanted to come up with a “comical” game women could enjoy.

The story I like to tell about the origin of Pac Man is that one lunch time I was quite hungry and I ordered a whole pizza. I helped myself to a wedge and what was left was the idea for the Pac Man shape.

INTERVIEWER: Is the story about the pizza really true?

IWATANI: Well, it’s half true. In Japanese the character for mouth (kuchi) is a square shape. It’s not circular like the pizza, but I decided to round it out. (See Iwatani’s illustrations at the beginning of this interview.) There was the temptation to make the Pac Man shape less simple. While I was designing this game, someone suggested we add eyes. But we eventually discarded that idea because once we added eyes, we would want to add glasses and maybe a moustache. There would just be no end to it.

Food is the other part of the basic concept. In my initial design I had put the player in the midst of food all over the screen. As I thought about it, I realized the player wouldn’t know exactly what to do; the purpose of the game would be obscure. So I created a maze and put the food in it. Then whoever played the game would have some structure by moving through the maze.

The Japanese have a slang word–paku paku–they use to describe the motion of the mouth opening and closing while one eats. The name Pac Man came from that word.

INTERVIEWER: Once you decided Pac Man would be a game of food and eating, what was the next step?

IWATANI: Well, there’s not much entertainment in a game of eating, so we decided to create enemies to inject a little excitement and tension. The player had to fight the enemies to get the food. And each of the enemies has its own character. The enemies are four little ghost-shaped monsters, each of them a different color–blue, yellow, pink, and red. I used four different colors mostly to please the women who play–I thought they would like the pretty colors.

To give the game some tension, I wanted the monsters to surround Pac Man at some stage of the gang. But I felt it would be too stressful for a human being like Pac Man to be continually surrounded and hunted down. So I created the monsters’ invasions to come in waves. They’d attack and then they’d retreat. As time went by they would regroup, attack, and disperse again. It seemed more natural than having constant attack.

Then there was the design of the spirit (kokoro), or the energy forces of Pac Man. If you’ve played the game, you know that Pac Man had some ammunition of his own. If he eats an energizer at one of the four corners of the screen, he can retaliate by eating the enemy. This gives Pac Man the opportunity to be the hunter as well as the hunted.

INTERVIEWER: What did you intend the character of Pac Man to be like?

IWATANI: Pac Man’s character is difficult to explain even to the Japanese–he is an innocent character. He hasn’t been educated to discern between good and evil. He acts more like a small child than a grown-up person. Think of him as a child learning in the course of his daily activities. If someone tells him guns are evil, he would be the type to rush out and eat guns. But he would most probably eat any gun, even the pistols of policemen who need them. He’s indiscriminate because he’s naive. But he learns from experience that some people, like policemen, should have pistols and that he can’t eat just any pistol in sight.

(Iwatani begins sketching diagrams of curves with points on his calendar notebook. See the illustrations at the beginning of this interview.)

INTERVIEWER: What was the most difficult part of designing the game?

IWATANI: The algorithm for the four ghosts who are the enemies of the Pac Man–getting all the movements lined up correctly. It was tricky because the monster movements are quite complex. This is the heart of the game. I wanted each ghostly enemy to have a specific character and its own particular movements, so they weren’t all just chasing after Pac Man in single file, which would have been tiresome and flat. One of them, the red one called Blinky, did chase directly after Pac Man. The second ghost is positioned at a point a few dots in front of Pac Man’s mouth. That is his position. If Pac Man is in the center then Monster A and Monster B are equidistant from him, but each moves independently, almost “sandwiching” him. The other ghosts move more at random. That way they get closer to Pac Man in a natural way.

When a human being is constantly under attack like this, he becomes discouraged. So we developed the wave-patterned attack–attack then disperse; as time goes by the ghosts regroup and attack again. Gradually the peaks and valleys in the curve of the wave become less pronounced so that the ghosts attack more frequently.

INTERVIEWER: Were there any other people working on the Pac Man design team with you?

IWATANI: There was one hardware engineer, one person who wrote the music, and the package designer–approximately five people actually worked on it, counting the programmer and me.

From the concept to the time the game was on the market was about one year and five months–rather longer than usual. We tried out each feature as we went along. If it wasn’t fun or didn’t add anything to the game’s complexity, we dropped it.

INTERVIEWER: Was Pac Man as popular with women as you had expected him to be?

IWATANI: Yes. Not only was Pac Man successful with women, but all the other versions like Ms. Pac Man were successful, too. And Pac Man was more popular in other parts of the world than I expected. I was confident the game would sell reasonably well in Japan, but I was quite surprised to see how well it sold in the United States and other countries.

INTERVIEWER: Are there any aspects of Pac Man you now wish that you could change?

IWATANI: Pac Man was something I accomplished a long time ago. When I was designing it, I felt I’d taken myself to the limits of my own skill and what others were doing. I was satisfied then. But it doesn’t really have very much to do with who I am or what I am doing today.

There was another game I developed after Pac Man, called Libble Rabble. The game concepts make it quite an interesting game–even better than Pac Man. But it didn’t do as well as I expected.

INTERVIEWER: How has your life changed since you designed Pac Man ?

IWATANI: My life hasn’t changed in any big way, although my ideas about what I want to achieve have. Recently I’ve felt I would like to make the people who enjoy playing games cry–give them an emotion different from the ones they’re used to when they play video games. I’d like to come up with some kind of very dramatic game. I want them to have the opportunity to experience other emotions, like sadness. They’re not going to cry because they are hurt. They will cry when they play my game for the same reasons people cry when they see a movie like E.T., because it touches them. They go to sad movies of their own free will because they like to be moved, even though it’s a sad feeling. I’d like to create a game that would affect people that way.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think it’s more difficult to make people sad than it is to make them happy?

IWATANI: Much more difficult. It’s possible to induce laughter in a short time with jokes, but getting people to cry requires creating a special situation, and that takes more time. A film such as E.T. where one laughs and cries is quite difficult.

INTERVIEWER: Do you ever tire of developing games?

IWATANI: Right now, I’m getting away from the design process and am more involved in administration. That’s nice, because I can have my staff do things I don’t like to do very much and avoid the frustrations I had before. Also I’m able to do the things I want to do–no one tells me not to, and that’s very comfortable.

INTERVIEWER: Do you design other things besides games?

IWATANI: One’s actions are all designs, I feel. For example, if you are seeing a won, you think of ways to please her. Should you give her a present? What kind of present? When should you give it to her? You come up with some kind of strategy or game plan. Just as in game design, you must derive pleasure from seeing the expression of happiness on another’s face.

I belong to a study group of about 40 people, in which we talk about new media, including educational software and the problems of education it can address. It’s an area we have to work on because it is an embarrassing fact that the Japanese educational system is the worst. Frankly, I think that unless education is fun and entertaining, people won’t learn.

My specialty, of course, is entertaining people. If there is a learning objective that can be expressed in a fun way, it could be the basis for a good game. I’m also interested in educational software and computer-assisted instruction (CAI) for reasons of economic survival. Companies concentrating only on game design do not have a secure future. And there are many people with enough interest to pay good money for educational software.

INTERVIEWER: What kind of skills or philosophy must a game designer have to be successful?

IWATANI: You must understand people’s souls (kokoro) and be creative enough to imagine things that can’t be thought or imagined by others. You must be compelled to do something a little bit different than the rest of the crowd and enjoy being different. You must also be able to visualize the images that will make up the game, and you shouldn’t compromise with the first easy idea that comes to mind. In the last analysis, you must enjoy making people happy. That’s the basis of being a good game designer, and leads to great game design.

INTERVIEWER: Which game do you think is the best?

IWATANI: Well, not to toot my own horn, but Libble Rabble is number one. Among other companies’ products though, Atari’s games also seem good.

INTERVIEWER: What do you think game design will be like in ten years?

IWATANI: It will be closer to the movies–that’s happening even now as we see the development of large-scale games. Also, there will be an increase in multi-player, network games like Mega War–the fascination of fighting the unknown. It’s intriguing to think of playing not only with another person, but with someone you don’t know and can’t see.
During the course of the interview Iwatani drew these sketches and diagrams in his calendar notebook. They illustrate how the shape of Pac Man evolved and how the ghosts move in relation to Pac Man.

2 Comments »

  1. [...] “When a human being is constantly under attack like this, he becomes discouraged. So we developed the wave-patterned attack–attack then disperse; as time goes by the ghosts regroup and attack again. Gradually the peaks and valleys in the curve of the wave become less pronounced so that the ghosts attack more frequently.” — on attack pattern of Pacman ghosts Read the whole interview. [...]

    Pingback by one’s actions are all designs | Go East, Young Woman — December 5, 2010 @ 3:16 pm | Reply

  2. inspiring . i like “you shouldn’t compromise with the first easy idea that comes to mind.”

    Comment by chintanpbhatt — December 10, 2011 @ 12:16 pm | Reply


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