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  • Interview: Toru Iwatani

    [06.24.11]
    - Brandon Sheffield
  •  In this interview with Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani, the celebrated developer, who has since become an educator, talks about his approach to game creation and to teaching the art of game making across multiple disciplines -- espousing a philosophy gleaned from creating one of the most seminal creations in the medium.

    Since there's been so much discussion of the original Pac-Man, I'd like to ask how you approached deconstructing it for Championship Edition.

    TI: Well, as you know, Pac-Man has two basic gameplay elements: eating things, and chasing or being chased. There were several gameplay bits implemented that made the game a little easier to approach for players. For example, at the start of the game, only two ghosts are in the maze chasing after you -- the third one comes out a little period of time later, and the fourth one after that.

    If all four were out in the maze at the start of play, new players wouldn't have a chance. The ghosts also attack in waves. It wouldn't be fun if they relentlessly chased after you the entire time, so instead the ghosts occasionally give up the chase and return to their designated zone of action before coming after you again.

    There are a lot of features in the game that are there purely to make it more fun for the player, and that sort of user-friendly design is what formed the foundation for Championship Edition as well. Being a new generation of gaming, we wanted to take advantage of high-definition graphics and the wide screen for gameplay. We wanted a competition element, and Xbox Live Arcade allowed us to have players compete together for high scores online.

    That's also where the time element came from, to encourage players to keep going for higher scores before time runs out. You fall into this rhythm of gameplay as you refine your style within the time limit, and it makes for this speedy and sport-like experience. To encourage that rhythm, we developed the current maze that switches out halves as you play and also looks visually exciting.

    Having this sort of very detailed, yet neat and approachable design was one of the main points I wanted to get across at my talk at GDC this year. The reason I want to emphasize this is that starting last year or so, you've had this flood of very simple games on the iPhone and social networks and so forth. They're very "easy" games, and by easy I mean easy to design and to pump out by the dozen. I think more thought needs to go toward how games present themselves to the user, to how they can be made more fun, and so my GDC presentation was a sort of cautionary message for the industry as a whole.

    Do you think there's some way to marry your ideas of how games should be designed with those new platforms or formats, and still make enough money?

    TI: I think there is, yes. They may just be seen as social games or mobile games, but the hardware's going to do nothing but advance, and more and more things are going to be possible. Making games with this well-thought-out approach to design will help them become loved and fondly remembered for a longer time. When you look at games coming out today, it's doubtful that any of us will be talking about them in ten years' time. We have to focus on making games that people will remember a decade from now, or else we'll lose our audience, probably.

    You seem to have a very clear idea within your own sensibility of what makes a game fun or pleasing to user. For example, the way Pac-Man CE was designed trims away a lot of the fat and gets straight to the point of what you're trying to do with the concept of fun. What is your philosophy, or the most important elements of game design to you, with that in mind?

    TI: Well, if you look over the sessions taking place at GDC, you see talks about how to make development more efficient, or how to drum up business or whatnot -- a lot of them inherently have to do with maximizing profit, at the core of it.

    I think that developers need to leave that sort of thing to the management, the specialists in that field, and think more about what games mean to them, and how they can contribute to that. I talked about accessible design, and that's something I bring up because I always think about how players are going to approach the game.

    Developers are creating a work, while publishers are creating a product out of that work. And you can say "Well, games that try to sell themselves as 'works of art' don't make money," but really, both sides of the equation need to be functioning. Making "products" isn't something developers should have to worry about -- they need to concentrate on making good games, on really pouring their souls into them.

    There were 11 speakers invited to speak about classic game postmortems, including myself, and I think all of them really know what it means to come up with a truly good design for a game. That's what I came to GDC for this year, to have people look back and reflect on what that means. I want them to do more research on the older games.

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