Japanese video game designer Toru Iwatani (born 1955) created Pac-Man, a hugely successful game introduced to arcades in 1980 and still considered the most popular video game ever. Iwatani had no formal training in computers or visual arts when he created the game, yet his deceptively simple design remains influential today.
Toru Iwatani's imaginative creation, Pac-Man, marked several firsts for the video-gaming industry: the first gaming mascot, the first game to employ a maze as a structure, the first game based on characters, and the first game to be successfully licensed. Unlike many games of the time, Pac-Man appealed to a wider gaming audience, extending the popularity of gaming beyond the typical teenage boys populating video arcades to girls and even adults. Many top game designers have credited PacMan as an early inspiration, and Iwatani remains an influential figure in the industry.
Born on January 25, 1955, and raised in Tokyo, Japan, Iwatani spent much of his youth drawing his favorite characters from Japanese manga (comics) in the margins of school notebooks. His creative bent did not fade as he completed his higher education, and Iwatani emerged as an artist with an interest in game design, specifically arcade games like pinball. Although he had no computer training and started his career with the intention of designing pinball games, he became fascinated by the potential of computerized games in replacing his traditional mechanized arcade favorites.
In 1977, when the 22-year-old Iwatani was hired by Namco, the company was known for producing projection-based amusement rides such as light gun shooting galleries. Founded in 1955 by Masaya Nakamura and based in Tokyo, Namco now saw the potential in the new video arcade games and started hiring software programmers to develop a product line. Nakamura shrewdly purchased the arcade game division of Atari and thereby gained a market advantage against Namco's primary competitor, Sega.
Iwatani was excited to join Namco as a game designer, anticipating that he would be using his creative talents to produce new pinball games, his favorite. When he was tasked with translating his game-designing skills into producing ideas for hands-off, non-mechanical, screen-based games, his first three designs—Gee Bee, Bomb Bee, and Cutie Q—were pinball-inspired.
Having clocked many hours in video arcades, Iwatani was convinced that these gathering places could be made more appealing and draw a wider range of customers. Typically, arcades were designed as dark-walled mazes where the bright lights from the games and the clangs and pings from the games kept conversations and socializing to a minimum. Also, most video games appealed to teenage boys due to their emphasis on race cars, shooting-based adventures, and sports. Space Invaders was very popular, as were other war-based games. A way to lighten up the atmosphere would be to draw in girls and couples as well.
Puzzling over how to attract girls to video arcades, Iwatani had begun paying attention to the groups of teenaged girls he saw gathering in public. Trying to catch parts of their conversation whenever he could (often at restaurants), he noticed that they talked a lot about food. What about a game based on eating, rather than sports or fighting? Iwatani began playing with the word “Taberu,” which means “to eat” in Japanese.
Meanwhile, Iwatani had named his new wedgemouthed character “PukkMan” because the round shape had made him think of a hockey puck. He took his character sketch to the other members of his team—Shigeo Funaki was the programmer and Toshio Kai created the game sounds—and they began developing the idea into a larger concept. Iwatani now had to figure out how to weave food into a game where players could strategize in order to achieve varied outcomes. When he positioned his PukkMan character in the center of a screen filled with food, there was no focus, but everything changed when he incorporated the food into a maze. Now the player had a structure to engage with: the insatiable PukkMan could be directed from one point to another, meeting animated challenges requiring various levels of skill, to get to the food. It worked.
As his team worked together, they created a picture of little PukkMan gobbling up food with its simple, wedgeshaped mouth, and since the Japanese use the sound “paku-paku” to mimic the sound of a mouth opening and closing, Iwatani's game character was now referred to as Pakku-Man. When the game was released in the United States, it would become Pac-Man.
Iwatani and his team began expanding the interest-level of the game by creating adversaries to play against Pakku-Man. Because the game needed to be easy and accessible to the widest possible audience (including girls), these adversarial figures had to be somewhat cute. When their early attempts at creating cute monsters flickered on the screen, one of the team members remarked that it reminded them of ghosts, so they called them ghost monsters.
To make the game's cute adversaries more appealing to girls, Iwatani made each of his ghost monsters unique by assigning them a color, a unique way of moving, and a name: Red would be Oikake (“Chaser”), Pink would be Machibuse (“Ambusher”), Blue would be Kimagure (“Fickle”), and Orange would be Otoboke (“Feigned Ignorance”). A less sophisticated naming system was employed in the game's English-language version: the ghosts became Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde.
In its final design, the goal of Iwatani's game was to guide Pac-Man through a maze where he could eat as many dots (“energizer pellets”) lining his path as possible while avoiding encounters with ghosts, all four which are determined to do him in. When Pac-Man eats a dot, he gains power and he must be energized with enough power to overcome the ghosts that cross his path. While dodging ghosts, the player must guide Pac-Man through the maze to the bottom of the screen, where he can then eat fruit icons that award the player points. When a ghost kills Pac-Man, he loses one of several lives; when he eats a ghost, it is temporarily disabled and moves to the edge of the screen until it regains its strength. If Pac-Man loses all his lives, the game is over. As the game moves through an unlimited number of levels, players encounter increasing levels of difficulty and occasional bonus rewards.
As Iwatani and his team continued to refine Pac-Man, they had as their goal maximum fun and interest. Rather than making his game scary, he hoped to infuse his new character with a kokoro, or spirit, of innocence and naiveté as it gathered up food and dodged cute ghost monsters. The team was reasonably sure the game would do well in Japan, but it had no idea how popular it would be internationally.
In the wake of Pac-Man's success, awards and accolades followed, along with spinoffs and licensing deals. However, the game's impact on the gaming industry was far more significant due to its then-unique features. Mascots, the use of mazes, and designing a game with multiple levels that feature increased difficulty: these unique aspects would soon become standard features. During its greatest popularity during the 1970s and 1980s, Pac-Man also inspired a hit pop song as well as cartoons and licensed merchandise.
Following Pac-Man, Iwatani and his teammates continued their work at Namco, isolated from the fanfare surrounding their creation. No material rewards resulted from his triumph: no salary increase, award, or commendation followed. “I was just an employee,” he later commented. Although he continued to produce other games from Namco, including several he considered to be better than Pac-Man, none achieved the same runaway success.
As the gaming industry grew in the ensuing decades, Iwatani became a sought-after speaker at conferences and trade events, where new generations of game designers viewed him as a living legend. In 2004, he gave the first of several lectures on game planning during a conference cosponsored by Namco and Tokyo Polytechnic University (TPU). As invitations to speak at other universities appeared, he realized that he enjoyed the creative energy created in a room full of enthusiastic and talented students. In 2005 he visited Osaka University of Arts as a guest instructor, sharing his knowledge of character design with young creatives.
After years overseeing game development at Namco, Iwatani left the company in March of 2007, and became a full-time professor at TPU's newly formed Department of Game Creation. This new career allowed him to help shape the path of the gaming industry. Although Iwatani recognized the highly developed graphic capabilities of increasingly photorealistic games, he also hoped to encourage students to develop games tapping the range of emotions existing outside the scope of war games. The psychological components of video games include powerful motivators, and game applications exist in medicine, as a healing tool, and in other ways beneficial to society at large. As the burgeoning industry continued to experience growing pains, Iwatani's challenge was to design programs of study that could keep pace with advances in technology and also encourage coherence among gaming platforms. His experience in teamwork proved invaluable, as did his interest in the social value inherent in games themselves.
Washington Post, June 22, 2005, José Antonio Vargas, “Still Love at First Bite.”
PacMan Museum, http://pacmanmuseum.com/history/Toru-Iwatani.php (September 29, 2017), “Pac-Man Creator Toru Iwatani.”
Programmers at Work blog, https://programmersatwork.wordpress.com/toru-iwatani-1986-pacman-designer/ (September 29, 2017), “Toru Iwatani, 1986 Pac-Man Designer.”
VH1 Game Break blog, http://vh1.blogs.com/vh1_games//2007/06/exclusive_pacma.html (June 6, 2007), Helen Pfeffer, “Pac-Man Creator Speaks!”□