Creative Computer Science with Game Designer Toru Iwatani

Creative Computer Science with Game Designer Toru Iwatani

Toru Iwatani is a pioneering game designer best known for creating ‘Pac Man’. Pac Man is recognized as one of the most influential games of all time, and it was created by an entirely self-taught game designer, who had absolutely no formal training in programming or visual design. Computer science provides a wide range of utility suited for not only programming but also as a medium for art. Toru was not the first to explore this route, but his approach to the form has influenced many game designers to come.

Toru’s journey started during the second economic oil shock in 1977 and there was a recession in Japan making it very difficult to get a job. He had graduated from Tokai University’s Engineering program but he turned to a jobs and careers magazine to seek work. When he came across a posting with an opportunity saying ‘Creating Play’, Toru was intrigued. He had not received good grades as a student, and a job focused on ‘play’ fitted his personality. At the time Toru was fond of pinball games, so he answered the call and went to Tokyo’s Ota district where Nakamura Amusement Manufacturing Company resided. Toru accepted the job, but to his surprise the company did not make pinball games. NAMCO had acquired the rights to the Japanese division of Atari and were preparing themselves to the very new and rapidly growing video game industry. Inspired by the book his older brother Akira handed him, ‘Man, Play and Games’ by Roger Caillois, Toru went on to work on NAMCO’s first arcade game, ‘Gee Bee’. Gee Bee was a pinball inspired game, much like ‘Breakout’, and it took a year including preparations to create it. Toru thought it was a well-made game, however when it was released to the public he learned that users were frustrated by how difficult the game was. Although, Toru’s first game project was deemed as a failure due to its difficulty and lack of popularity, it gave Toru the determination to make a much better product that the public will enjoy.

In 1979, development for Pac Man started. At the time, arcades were a heavily male dominated market with most successful games being about fighting aliens, racing cars and playing sports. Toru wanted arcades to be a place where women and couples could hangout and had an idea of creating a game about ‘eating’. ‘Eating’ was something he had noticed during the research stage of Pac Man, when observing what young girls typically talked about at restaurants and cafes. Pac Man used bright and colourful graphics and minimal designed characters aimed to be more ‘cute’ than realistic. Pac Man’s character design came after he saw a pizza pie missing a slice. Although more complex designs were suggested, Toru stood his ground on how Pac Man should look. It is now the most recognizable video game character of all time.

‘Later on, I developed a great sense of admiration for Andy Warhol. It inspired me to try and imbue a sense of jest into something that still was able to function as a work of art…I gave characters personalities, which no one did at that time. I wanted to design the game as art. In terms of playfulness, we have Pac Man running from the ghosts but who can eat a power cookie and turn on them. It’s similar to Popeye, where Popeye can eat spinach and essentially flip the switch.’

The ghosts in Pac Man were inspired by ‘Little Ghost Q-Taro’, a manga Toru read as a child, and ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’. Their English names are Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde, with each of them having distinct ‘personalities’, or ‘AI-like algorithms’ to make the game fun and challenging for players. It took months to develop and program the ghosts’ behaviour and Toru and his team went on great lengths to trim the fat on what made the game enjoyable and what made it frustrating. The ghosts, as Toru describes them, are the ‘heart of the game’. They each have particular movement patterns to keep the player on their toes. Blinky, the red ghost, chases the player from behind, while Pinky, the pink ghost, looks to ambush the player to the front. Programming-wise, this means that Blinky is programmed to follow where Pac Man has been, while Pinky is programmed to go where Pac Man is about to go. Can you figure out where a loop-hole to this gameplay might have? As for Inky, the cyan ghost, his movement is to mirror Blinky’s in order to surround and trap the player. Inky is programmed to move ‘ambush’ Pac Man ahead of its step much like Pinky but mirrors Blinky in map position. The last ghost, the orange one, Clyde, is somewhat of a wildcard. His movement pattern is the same as Blinky, and will chase after Pac Man from behind but only up until a certain point. When the threshold distance arrives, Clyde will venture off into his own corner until it’s time to chase the player again.

During the location testing phase of Pac Man, Toru was happy to find that girls enjoyed playing the game. They would shout out excitedly while being chased by the ghosts and seemed to genuinely have fun playing it. It was exactly the response Toru was looking for and in 1980, Pac Man was released in Japan, and in USA the year after.

Pac Man became an international success. The game was praised for its simplicity and easy to understand controls and concept, while still being challenging enough to keep players engaged. For Toru, he learned the importance of adjusting difficulty based on game design and balancing it so it doesn’t stress players beyond the entertainment it provides. He would work on further titles, including Galaga, Rally-X, Time Crisis, Ridge Racer, and Pole Position.

In 2004, as part of NAMCO’s initiative, Toru began teaching game design once a week at schools like Osaka University of Arts, Tokyo University and Tohoku Computer College. Eventually, Toru took an offer at Tokyo Polytechnic University to teach full-time. He believes video games are evolving into a more sophisticated tool and students will be able to develop it to solve problems in society whether it’s in therapy, education or health.

‘You must understand people’s souls 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 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.’ Toru says about success in video game design during an interview with Programmers at Work in 1986. ‘You must enjoy making people happy. That’s the basis of being a good game designer, and leads to great game design.’

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